~ Andrey Henkin
Minton's Playhouse, one of the most storied locales in the history of jazz but shuttered since 1974, recently reopened in its original Harlem space on West 118th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. While today's innovators may not yet be holding court there like their bebop forebears did, the venue is a welcome addition to the upper Manhattan jazz scene. Tenor saxophonist Patience Higgins has a regular Wednesday night gig at the re-born club and recently played for a small crowd of locals and tourists (Jun. 14th). Higgins and his Sugar Hill Jazz Quartet - Marcus Persiani (keyboard), Andy McCloud III (bass) and Billy Kilson (drums) - took the stage in front of Minton's historic mural of a woman in a red dress (rumored to be Billie Holiday) lying on a hotel bed next to four jazz musicians mid-jam. The group gave a spirited samba feel to Barry Harris' "Nascimento , with Higgins and Persiani stretching out for lengthy solos and Kilson letting loose. Introducing Monk's "Bemsha Swing , Higgins delivered a mini history lesson on Monk's residence in San Juan Hill before it was Lincoln Center, then launched into a solo with a perfectly clean and robust tone. The quartet breathed life into the warhorse "Satin Doll by playing in alternating 6/8 and 4/4 time. Guest vocalist Ulysses Slaughter brought some Sunday church to Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone , during which Higgins displayed an adept ear for imitating Slaughter's falsetto scat phrasing note for note.
If there were an award for most intriguing title of an ongoing performance series in New York City, "Harlem in the Himalayas would definitely be a contender. The all-acoustic concerts are co-presented by the Jazz Museum in Harlem and the Rubin Museum of Art and held in its acoustically magnificent basement theater. On Jun. 9th, Gene Bertoncini performed two sets of solo nylon-string acoustic guitar. An initial crop of Strayhorn and Ellington tunes gave a glimpse of Bertoncini's command - thick, strong hands moving effortlessly and producing colors that almost couldn't have come from just six strings. He played a Chopin prelude, chastely, followed by a driving "How Insensitive , showing how Jobim based his bossa on Chopin's melody and chords. One of the night's peaks came when Bertoncini had the house play an excerpt from a chant by the otherworldly Tibetan singer Yungchen Llamo, then delivered his own improvisation built on the chant's pentatonic tune. Dropping his guitar's E string down a step to D, he hit the low pitch repeatedly like a monk's deep, monotonous drone and built toward agitated dark minor chords. If Robert Schumann had been at the Rubin for Bertoncini's sublime rendition of "Traumerei , he would've wished to be reincarnated in the age of jazz harmonies and rhythms. Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Edelweiss , evoking the Alps, slightly west of the Himalayas, was a peaceful and perfect close to the evening.
~ Brian Lonergan