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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 with whom.

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 voice.