Brad Shepik Trio & the Mike Mainieri Quartet
Cornelia Street Caf' is a jazz treasure, one of lower Manhattan's best kept secrets. Upstairs it's a classy restaurant; downstairs it's a modest but comfortable performance space where excellent straight-ahead and avant-garde players do their thing almost every night of the week. And no, you don't have to drop $50 a head: The cover can sometimes climb to $10 but is often less, and there's a one-drink minimum. Proprietor/bartender Barbara Droubay is one of the few club managers defying the 'ber-expensive norm when it comes to live jazz in New York. And she's making it work. The Caf' has become a hub for some of the best jazz talent in town. Last week I was there on two consecutive nights to hear groups led by guitarist Brad Shepik and vibraphonist Mike Mainieri.
In addition to leading his own group, The Commuters, Shepik has done wonderful work with a variety of downtown ensembles, most notably Matt Darriau's Paradox Trio. Here at Cornelia Street, Shepik is joined by Ben Street on bass and Tom Rainey on drums. The sound is stripped down and spare. Shepik's guitar choices are colorful, however: He plays a narrow Gretsch hollow-body and makes much use of its Bigsby tremolo arm, as well as fuzztone, delay, and volume effects. For a few tunes he switches to an old archtop with no cutaways, from which he gets a fabulously warm tone.
The group begins with a traditional Sudanese folk song, followed by a meditative ballad called "One Hundred Years." Shepik frames the piece with a pretty fingerpicked riff and some interesting wide-interval double-stops. Street's solo on the folkish tune brings Charlie Haden to mind. "Forgotten Island" is next, with a simple, tonal melody, a driving vamp, and nice diminished cadences. Rainey abandons sticks for his solo, playing with only his hands. The next song, titled "Might Could" if I hear Shepik correctly, is built around a 5/4 groove. Shepik strums vigorously with his volume shut off behind Street's bass solo, in the manner of Jim Hall. Rainey raises the temperature with a hypnotic, forceful solo. Now the band is getting warmed up - and it shows especially during Shepik's solo on the next number, "No S' S'." He hits multiple moments of true inspiration, and you can almost see the pleasure register on his face and in his body. Having achieved the set's high point, the trio wraps up with "Dirt Floor," at a medium swing tempo.
A lot of jazz guitar players make scant use of the instrument's unique capabilities. Often you hear tenor sax and piano concepts translated to the guitar, for instance. That approach has its rewards, to be sure, but what I find refreshing about Shepik's music is that it's guitar music. Shepik uses the instrument to shape his compositions, via fingerpicked passages, double-stops, strumming, and other devices that are unmistakably guitaristic in nature. His music gains a personal, individual quality in the process.
Cornelia Street Caf', New York City Mike Mainieri Quartet, January 7, 2000
Mike Mainieri's bag is much more straight-ahead than Shepik's. The vibraphonist, who launched Steps Ahead in the late 70s, has been receiving critical accolades for his latest record, An American Diary: The Dreamings. For his Cornelia Street gig he's brought along Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar, Mike Formanek on bass, and Ben Perowsky on drums.
The set begins with "D Minor," a hardboppish medium swing tune with a modal feel. Solos by Mainieri and Rosenwinkel set a tone of daunting harmonic sophistication. "Los Dos Lorettas" begins with free, ethereal atmospherics and works its way into a slow minor-key groove, with Perowsky on mallets. Mainieri's vibes and Rosenwinkel's echo-heavy guitar combine to create a washy, dreamy sound. Next is the set's centerpiece, a hard bop adaptation of an Aaron Copland piano sonata. After the near-impossible melody is played flawlessly in unison by vibes, guitar, and bass, Rosenwinkel starts right in on his solo over a burning swing tempo. Mainieri's solo follows, full of clever hints of half-time. When the difficult tune ends Mainieri jokes, "Well, I better introduce the band before I have a heart attack."
To calm things down he chooses "Come Rain or Come Shine," which he sets up with a beautiful unaccompained introduction. When the band enters, Mainieri states the melody in blues-drenched tones, plays Red Garland-style block chords during his solo, and ends with a dramatic cadenza. On the challenging blues head that closes the program, Rosenwinkel sounds a bit like he's coasting, but Formanek brings down the house with his only solo of the set. Mainieri and Perowsky also take turns tearing it up.
Mainieri could probably make a vibes lover out of anyone who's agnostic about the instrument. A player of unusual depth, he stands over the large device with his small, somewhat frail-looking frame, carefully surveying his options and bringing them to life with his mallets. His articulation is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. I remember when I was younger and just getting into jazz; Mainieri's solo on the Don Grolnick composition "Pools," from the first Steps Ahead record (Elektra, 1982), made a huge impression on me. It's a thrill to see him now, in the intimate setting of Cornelia Street Caf', playing with younger musicians and sounding as inspiring as ever.