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The downtown jazz scene has enjoyed a growing popularity among college students over the past few years. Smalls, the Village Vanguard, and Fat Cat Billiards can be seen teeming with NYU and Columbia students on the weekends. Detour, a small bar on 13th street between 1st and 2nd avenues, offered a welcomed change of pace, a friendly hangout for late twenty-somethings. This tiny venue offers some of the best music around, with no cover and cheap drinks. Ben Waltzer, the resident jazz piano instructor here at Columbia, brought his trio to Detour this past Saturday for four sets. Gerald Cleaver (the drummer for Mark Helias and Marty Ehrlich) teamed up with bassist Giulia Valle to interpret Waltzer’s solid compositions as well as standards. The trio swung with a hard groove for the entire night, and played with lots of energy- it takes a special kind of piano trio to be able to overpower an entire bar of noisy patrons. Waltzer’s piano has a certain kind of bluesey dirtiness to it, like the power of Duke Ellington, while at the same time retaining the polish and lyricism of the late great Tommy Flanagan or Hank Jones. Waltzer comments on this observation, “My playing is deeply rooted in the tradition, but the edges are always frayed. One of my favorite albums is [Duke Ellington’s] Money Jungle because he’s playing old concepts with a new kind of uncertainty to them.” Drummer Gerald Cleaver, a player noted for his work with more progressive musicians, also cannot deny the basics, “People like Max Roach, Joe Jones, and Philly Joe Jones are really where it’s at for me, because that is where the roots are. Even if I’m playing freer music, that old blues stuff is where everything comes from.” Those roots certainly made themselves apparent throughout the sets; his flawless time-keeping kept complicated arrangements tight, and the tone he coaxed out of the instrument made the bar’s old drum-kit sound like state-of-the-art equipment. Giulia Valle playing, a cross between Jimmy Garrison’s unwavering strength and Larry Grenadier’s penchant the unexpected hemiola, definitely laid the foundation for the group’s sound. Her solos were often played unaccompanied, ripe with logical motivic development and a loose feeling of stretching the time.
I was impressed that the group was able to swing so hard and with such concentration is such a cramped, noisy space. No one could have asked more from a rhythm section, and Waltzer’s own playing was flawless as usual. Waltzer seems to have found the perfect mix of Monk’s dissonant bluesiness with Wynton Kelly’s polish; however, I am surprised at how conservative he plays at times, considering he was once a student of Geri Allen, the pianist to Ornette Coleman. I suppose it all goes back to the roots, as Waltzer and Cleaver mentioned. Besides, even Bill Evans himself, the father of modern piano and chord voicings, was accused of being too conservative.
Good music, a fun crowd, and cheap drinks are a winning combination for this old-time bar. Detour wins five stars.
As a kid, my mom told me I'd like jazz. I thought she was nuts. Then I went to hear Cannonball Adderley (with Nat Adderley, George Duke, Walter Booker, Roy McCurdy and Airto) and everything changed. Yeah, mom knows best.