Alex Webb's NYC Roundup

Cécile Mclorin Salvant

Alex Webb writes about his recent visit to New York City...

In 2005 Stuart Nicholson created something of a stir with his book ‘Is Jazz Dead? Or Has It Moved to a New Address’ which asserted that jazz’s creative centre of gravity had moved from the US, and New York in particular, to Europe. Europe’s historical role in cherishing and supporting the music – and providing its economic base – is a subject in its own right, and one recognized by many American jazz commentators. But the idea of Europe being home to the artistic leading edge is much harder for Americans to take.

This all came up when I talked to Howard Mandel during a flying visit to New York last week. Mandel, chair of the US Jazz Journalists Association [jazzjournalists.org/], said, “People seem to think that the US scene is all about Wynton Marsalis. Well it’s not. There’s so much else happening.”
After all, New York alone supports two free monthly jazz newspapers – Hot House and the New York Jazz Record. The listings of jazz gigs in the latter cover six Berliner format pages, and on Fridays and Saturdays include 30-40 gigs per night. There is, to put it mildly, a lot of jazz in NYC. Which is not to say it’s any easier for the musicians. One recent émigré puts it succinctly: “The difference between New York and London is that New York pays less!”



One of the newer venues is Smoke, uptown at 106th St. Almost straight from JFK airport I sat myself down there to see the Captain Black Big Band led by pianist Orrin Evans, 14 pieces crammed on to a tiny stage. The band included the Strickland brothers, EJ on drums and Marcus on reeds. It was ragged, but right away there’s that something. I’m one of the world’s biggest advocates of British jazz, but there’s a sound I hear all the time in New York which I don’t hear so often in London. It’s not about ability, and it’s not about saying something new. It’s often about saying the same old thing – but revitalising it through sheer intensity. Whatever it is, these guys had it, a kind of ferocious swagger.



The next night I took in Dee Dee Bridgewater and the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village. Christian McBride (bass), Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), Lewis Nash (drums), Benny Green (piano) and Chris Potter (tenor sax) - now these guys can swagger. Almost to a fault, one might say, as most of the solos seemed to be about who could play higher, faster and bluesier, although personally I loved hearing Potter digging in, in this decidedly unstudious way. Dee Dee herself was in imperious form, clad in tight leathers and dominating the stage like a rock star. She actually seems to be getting younger – might she have a picture hidden in her attic?

At the other end of the spectrum was the Aaron Diehl Quartet at the Jazz Standard. This MJQ-influenced band, with Warren Wolf on vibes, in certainly not innovative in the sense that Stuart Nicholson would recognise, but when music is played at this level, does it matter? The dynamics, the interplay, the sensitivity and precision were spellbinding. And guest vocalist Cecile Mclorin Salvant proved effortlessly why she’s one of the top young vocalists to emerge recently – look out for her coming debut on Mack Avenue Records.

Coming up behind her is Brianna Thomas, playing at Smoke later that night and evoking a young Sarah Vaughan. She was being checked out by another young vocal tyro, Jazzmeia Horn, who won the Rising Star Award at the 2012 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition.

All this music was still going round my head when I met Howard Mandel and pianist Edsel Gomez for a drink in a bar over the way from Jazz at Lincoln Center. Both accepted that jazz had become something much bigger than what happened in New York, or even in the US. Both had heard about good things happening on the London scene. But neither would accept that jazz has left home yet. And on the evidence of a few days in New York, neither would I. But there’s a good news story here. Perhaps jazz hasn’t, after all, moved to a new address. Perhaps it’s just widening its property portfolio.

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