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.
Unfortunately bassist Steve Beskrone seemed quite overwhelmed when challenged to construct anything more than a walking bass line outside the context of the blues. During bluesy numbers, he slithered up and down the fingerboard with apparent easebut during the rest of the set he often fixated on the root and basic triadic harmony. Portions of freeform group improvisation were somewhat soiled by his inability to assimilate into context. Much of his playing during unplanned moments relied upon a weak slide, where he simply moved his left hand up the fingerboard to the note which specified the proper harmony. (In other words, he appeared not to "hear" things enough in advance to leap in and join Caine, let alone propel the group or offer inventive counterpoint.) And Beskrone also had an unfortunately dull sense of rhythm. In my experience, a lot of the spice in a piano trio comes from the relationship of the bassist not just with the piano but also with the drums. There was a shortage of the former and a downright drought of the latter.
But that didn't stop drummer Ben Perowsky from exploring his entire repertoire, from straight-up minimalist funk to ching-a-ching swing and crashing free splashes, as well as everything in between. In fact, the real excitement of the show came from his dynamic work at the drum kit. Perowsky is mostly a pattern drummer: he assembles rhythmic units, repeating them as necessary, and switching them around just as rapidly and smoothly as he desires. Not a busy drummer, he avoids the pitfall of many of his colleagues and plays only the notes that are necessary to make his point. (During funk episodes, for example, he limited himself to regular hi-hat timekeeping with bass-and-snare interplay. Meanwhile, he restlessly pounded his heel against the floor and danced around in his chair.)
To keep up the variety, Caine employed a number of approaches to a collection of different types of tunes. (I'm sorry to say I can't offer any song titlesnot that Caine made much use of his microphone anywaybut they ranged from standards to a jazzed-up patriotic hymn to blues- and spiritual-inspired numbers.) His introductions and codas offered undiluted evidence of his improvisational prowess. But while a given tune was in progress, he mostly stuck to the straight and narrow, offering a personal yet simplified style of play. (Perhaps to keep the bassist in the action?)
A lot of the time Caine sounded like Ahmad Jamal, with regular interplay between almost-"out" melodies and a well-grounded rhythmic foundation. At others he recalled the introspective harmonic richness of Maiden Voyage-era Herbie Hancock. And during the bluesier, funkier numbers his playing bore a distant resemblance to the punchy play of John Medeski. But the danger of making these comparisons, of course, is to deny Caine his own signature sonic palette. Caine's personal conception of rhythm and harmony, in particular, bears close attention.
The real excitement during the show came from Caine's interaction with Perowsky. Reminiscent of the give-and-take of Mengelberg with Bennink, but funked up a notch and somewhat less indulgent, the two players constantly competed for the leading edge. When Caine's solos reached an apparent peak of intensity, Perowsky would throw in a couple punches to the tom and crash forward on the cymbals, compelling the pianist to take yet one more step up. But at other times, when Caine reached a meaningful conclusion to his melodic statements, Perowsky would immediately lie back and play a relaxed swing.
The two players traded fours in a creatively subversive manner toward the end of the show. Perowsky often used his time to assert threes and fives and convert a simple straight-ahead rhythm into an entirely different species. Just as you were beginning to accept the new rhythmic reality, the other two players would leap back in and return to normalcy, right on time. And Perowsky would play along.
Caine also played the game in reverse, trying to out-do the drummer in a friendly but subversive way. He played blocky rhythmic chords to establish his own patterns, which at the point of exchange might be accepted or denied by Perowsky, as he saw fit. Since Perowsky is, as I mentioned above, mostly a pattern drummer, he thrives on building and juggling blocks of time. The give-and-take between him and the pianist had both players concentrating on their precious common ground while deviously playing tricks to redefine it. (Unfortunately the bassist had little to contribute to these exchanges, but he just as well stayed out of the action while they were going on.)
After an hour or so of what essentially amounted to a creative, dynamic jam session, the three musicians retired from the stage. The enthusiastic response of the crowd was not enough to convince them to return for an encore, so the audience capitulated and quieted down. The young people in the room engaged in quiet conversation and gradually appreciated the depth of the interaction that had just taken place. One had the sense that Caine's trio could be one crucial notch more high-flying and brilliant if he just chose another bassist. But as it was, the performance provoked plenty of interest and enthusiasm from an eager audience. And most importantly, the musicians definitely had fun on stage, which can be thoroughly infectious in an intimate context like Tonic.
Twenty minutes later, somewhat spent and thoroughly satiated, we stepped back out of the shelter of the club into the blistering night air. At this point we decided to give up on public transportation, and took a quick cab ride back to the garage where our trip home was parked. Our Saturday in the City provided just enough adventure, discovery, and artistic indulgence to keep us awake until our 3am return home on the morning of Christmas eve. We slept soundly once we arrived at the warmth and safety of home.
Please check out the AAJ artist profile and interview for more information about pianist Uri Caine. Also see this page: Uri Caine @ AAJ.
Visit Uri Caine, Steve Beskrone and Ben Perowsky on the web.