Saturday night in New York. I'm with my longtime pal Dan on a day trip with a mission. It's Christmas weekend, and a horde of last minute shoppers are out collecting their obligatory remaining gifts. But we're not out for commerce, we're in the business of experience and adventure.
It's also bitterly cold, with an impressive north wind, and the street hawkers are out in full force selling hats and gloves to unprepared tourists. (Dan of course has armed us for this eventuality, so we came shielded against the nipple-raising frigidity.)
After watching a matinee performance of a Broadway play entitled "Proof," we found ourselves somewhat overwhelmed with heavy questions. What is proof, and does it exist? Where does one draw the line between sanity and insanity? It was time for a time out, lest we prove our own insanity and abandon any hope of proceeding further.
We made a couple of stops to absorb Times Square and the hubbub at Rockefeller Center. Then, after a quick trip on the subway, we recharged in a subterranean Chinese restaurant with crispy duck and squid in black bean sauce. Drawing upon our vast worldly experience, we chose a soup from off the menu. (I don't remember seeing any other white people in the whole place.)
Dan and I considered our options for music that evening. Unfortunately, at a time like this, most Christians are busy with family and the Lord. That means young people like us out with a sense of adventure are hopelessly vulnerable to city-wide klezmer festivals. (You'll have to excuse me when I admit klezmer is my least-favorite musical genre; it's a prejudice I acquired through overexposure in my youth. A ten minute dose and I yearn deeply for silence.)
Uri Caine at Tonic: now that seemed like a promising alternative. So we set forth on foot, asking directions first of a bored NYPD street patrolman (who kindly offered that it was located in the ninth precinct)and then, more strategically, of a Domino's pizza delivery man (who pinpointed the location with utmost accuracy). Maps and guides, of course, are completely out of the question if one wants to retain any semblance of coolness in the City.
The 8 o'clock (klezmer) show was still going when we finally got to Tonic, so we decided to take a walk around the block and have a smoke. When we returned, the place was finally emptying out. The audience from the first show reminded me of the lap swimmers from my high school days at the Jewish Community Centerquiet, soft-spoken couples, looking like parents, dressed in dark colors, and generally advanced in age. We stepped forward to the front of the line and entered the room with a completely different crowd. Young people, alone or in pairs, mean age about 30, aloof-looking hipstersin a word, just like us.
As many listeners have reflected, Tonic is an ideal spot to hear adventurous jazz. It's just small enough that the one can share intimacy with the performers, but just hip enough to attract the major talent that is driving improvised music forward today.
We honestly didn't know what to expect, but we had a sense we were in for something good. Pianist Uri Caine has done a variety of projects reworking classical and American song traditions, generally in larger groups. Tonight he's playing in a trio with drummer Ben Perowsky and bassist Steve Beskrone. Caine looks the role of the tousled intellectual; Perowsky appears sharp and focused; and Beskrone hestitantly glances at the sheet music to his right.
Caine began the show, as he generally did with any new piece, with a freeform introduction. During these open-ended solo improvisations, he drew as much from the tradition of Cecil Taylor as he did from Monk. While he did not shy away from explicit statements of harmony and balanced ambidextrous counterpoint, he also broke up the rhythm with some well-placed clusters and idiosyncratic runs. At a certain point in the first piece, the other two members of the trio recognized their time to leap into the action. The first number relied upon a one-two rhythmic punch to signify the start of the tune proper.