A Hot Night in the Old Town

Dan Morgenstern By

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What might well be the most spartan jazz club anywhere (if you didn't know it was there, you'd walk right past it) is The Stone, way down at Avenue C and East 2nd Street in Manhattan. Founded by John Zorn, the avant-garde composer, arranger and record producer, as a venue for intrepid music, it's a new kind of jazz club where no refreshments or merchandise is sold, only music, and all nightly revenues go to the musicians. The door charge is usually $10 per set, half price for teenage students, and no advance ticket sales.

This was the scene, on a recent hot Thursday night, of a performance by an unprecedented quartet—the brainchild of Scott Robinson, a multi-instrumentalist whose talent and imagination know no bounds. I am talking about three bass saxophones plus percussion. Scott himself, of course, is on one of the huge horns, joined by J.D. Parran and Vinny Golia, and master percussionist Warren Smith.

Quite a sight, quite a sound. Though dwarfed by the contrabass sax Scott has in his vast instrumentarium, the three tubular monsters were not exactly lookalikes. The leader's was the shiniest, Golia's the most venerable looking. When we chatted afterwards, Vinny told me the horn was a rental, since it would have cost a bundle to bring his own on the flight from California. Warren, whom I hadn't seen in too long, presided over an array of instruments, drum kit among them. He did the opening honors, setting the stage evocatively for the first of two compositions by Scott.

There were scored passages but plenty room for improvisation, and each of the three proved himself an accomplished handler of a horn with a surprising range— aside from overblowing, of which there was just enough—and producing sounds of great warmth. (Remember Adrian Rollini and, on occasion, Ernie Caceres?). The two pieces were consistently interesting, not least thanks to Smith's underpinnings. The music was recorded live and will be released on Scott's own label, as will be the evening's second set, not attended by your correspondent, which featured the reedmen on alto clarinets. If you're a Joe Lovano fan, you'll have heard the dark and reedy sound of this rare horn.

From The Stone we went across town to 183 West 10th Street and the comparatively elegant dungeon Smalls, to catch our man Vince Gardner, last heard soon after his return from an extended tour abroad with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. We had caught him at Birdland with David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Centennial Band. But here was Vince at the helm of his own group, with his younger brother Derrick on trumpet, Sherman Irby on alto, Aaron Goldberg, piano, Carlos Henriquez, bass, and Ali Jackson, drums. A really tight front line and a fine rhythm section scored on an up-tempo romp, "Up From Down," from Vincent's Jesse B. Semple Suite, composed last year for Jazz at Lincoln Center.

A contrasting mood was established by the trombonist on a ballad feature, "For Heaven's Sake." J. J. Johnson did that one, and us old timers recall that it was put on the map by singer Fran Warren, with Claude Thornhill's band. Vincent is one of the best young trombones around, convincingly handling any musical situation. With the Ostwald band he also does some engaging singing, a-la Trummy Young. Vince was about to announce a prominent visitor, who waved him off—but a spy had told me it was Wynton Marsalis. How nice to see him hanging out here. A good hot jazz summer night in Manhattan.

Another such night, a few weeks later, saw us at a new Friday night venue for jazz. At the Palio Bar in the upscale restaurant Piano Due, l51 West 51st Street, there is no piano, but Sandro Chia's extravagant mural of a centuries-old horse race, said to have cost millions, is lyrical in its own way. And Chef Michael Cetrullo serenades guests with his Italian delicacies.

We caught those estimable tenor saxophone partners, Harry Allen and Joe Cohn, ably supported by Joel Forbes, a bassist who eschews solos. Harry and Joe have developed an almost sixth sense for interplay; both are masters of changes and of their instruments, and they swing at any tempo, including some downright daring ones. They recently did a South Pacific CD for Arbors, so "People Will Say We're in Love" was no surprise, though the tempo was. From the Ellington-Strayhorn book came "I'm Checkin' Out, Goombye"—a happy tune handled with appropriate touches of humor. Good acoustics and a friendly audience.

We'll be back, but we had another new midtown spot to check out, a boisterous bistro with Thursday as music night. Rue 57, at 60 West 57th, is a Parisian brasserie with a sushi bar booked by the same agency, and thus it also spots Harry Allen and Joe Cohn, along with a pair of other good tenormen, Grant Stewart and Jerry Weldon, and a singer named Sarah Hayes, still new to us.

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