|Real Village Voice #33
Corny holiday music is inescapable in mid-winter in America, even
in sophisticated New York City. The same old, old songs reappear every
Christmas, although it has been a long time since anyone actually
spent an evening with "chestnuts roasting on an open fire", to quote
the late singer Mel Torme, or hearing jingle bells when riding in
a one-horse open sleigh. Maybe sweet young couples still go walking
in a winter wonderland, as Nat King Cole suggests, but probably not
in any North American population center. A sprinkling of snow is nice,
but few people who drive are dreaming of a white Christmas.
These songs seem to blare from every radio and television, and assault
us when we go shopping, whether for the week's groceries or for the
family's gifts. They lodge themselves in one's mind, so I imagine
I hear Freddie Fender singing "Feliz Navidad ('I want to wish you
a Merry Christmas, from the bottom of my heart')" even when he isn't.
There are a couple of these songs I can stand: "Jingle Bell Rock"
is one, and "Baby It's Cold Outside", especially the version sung
by Ray Charles and Betty Carter, is the other. Of course, Charlie
Parker and Dizzy Gillespie bopping "White Christmas" is acceptable,
and the Count Basie band bluesing "Jingle Bells". Also, Charles Brown's
smooth-as-gravy "Merry Christmas, Baby". But those are not so widely
broadcast. As for Christmas carols—Bah! Humbug! as Dickens'
miser Scrooge would say. They are welcome only when your chestnuts
are roasting on the open fire.
Yet we crave music when there is so little sunlight. Jazz, and the
blues, too, brighten and warm up life. All the New York clubs consider
Christmas and New Year's to be boom times. Families spend so much
time together that someone is bound to get restless and seek relief
from another silent night. They strive to book exciting acts. The
Village Vanguard scheduled alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, and when
he hurt his back shoveling snow, substituted trumpeter Roy Hargrove.
Iridium had two weeks of the Jaco Pastorious Memorial Big Band, with
different virtuoso electric bassists every few days, and followed
that with McCoy Tyner's Big Band, featuring guests such as tenor saxist
Joe Lovano and vibist Bobby Hutcherson. The Blue Note booked pianist
Herbie Hancock with aggressive young sidemen.
These clubs were crowded, so I went for smaller, out-of-the-way places.
Cornelia Street Café has a narrow, cozy basement room, and flutist Jeremy Steig led
a quartet comprising guitarist Vic Juris, bassist Cameron Brown and drummer
Billy Drummond. Steig was one of the pioneers of jazz-rock-fusion in the '60s,
favoring a hyper-energetic style with the extra mouth buzzes, hollers and hums
that Rahsaan Roland Kirk introduced. He still blows that way, and still uses
the melodies of standard tunes like "Autumn Leaves" to launch himself into
far-flung tangents. Juris played atmospheric parts behind Steig, rather like Jim
Hall to Sonny Rollins. Brown is a solid, seldom showy bassist, and Drummond
was interestingly busy without being loud. The cover charge was cheap ($6), the
food tasty though less of a bargain, and the red wines were full of flavor.
After this, it didn't seem so cold outside.
A couple of nights later I sat at the bar of the Jazz Standard to hear
guitarists Larry Coryell, John Abercrombie and Badi Assad, a Brazilian woman who
also sings and claps intricate percussion. Some guitarist trios are awfully
competitive. These three players were pleasantly collaborative, exchanging lead and
accompaniment responsibilities and evidently enjoying each other. But they
played so many notes I couldn't follow all the lines. They have recorded a CD,
and no doubt guitar fanatics will delight in figuring out who is doing what
The late show at Tonic delivered what I wanted: funk and daring. The
Darkskinned Grandmas are a black rock jam band, loose and experimental
but hinged on a dynamic tension. Guitarist Vernon Reid was virtuosic,
but also ironic about it. Electric bassist Melvin Gibbs planted deep,
dark pivot points, and occasionally processed an emphatic figure into
a loop. Meanwhile, DJ Logic and DJ Val spun and sampled spacey sounds,
and a drummer who had driven in from St. Louis, 2500 miles away, just
for this one gig, kept steady beats at unwaving tempos.
Tonic wasn't especially crowded, and that was fine. It was a refuge
for the hard core who needed to escape the holiday's cloying joys
with another dose of down and dirty, sometimes dissonant and often
unresolved grooves. Such music is rich and uplifting, too. Down and
dirty, dissonant and unresolved, spacey and ironic, virtuosic and
pulsating—these are undeniable attributes of the real village