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It is a very, very low key and grassroots kind of thing run by musicians for musicians.
Lukas Ligeti, Booker, Free Zone Series
There can never be enough venues for creative, improvised music. And there aren't any clubs on the upper west side serving this music and catering to the potential interest of Columbia students and the resurgence of Harlem.
Enter the Free Zone Series: a weekly concert program curated by drummer/composer Lukas Ligeti and guitarist/promoter/designer Ty Cumbie. It happens each Thursday in the unlikely confines of the Jazz on the Park hostel, at 36 West 106th Street and Central Park West - an uptown location that fosters the downtown spirit.
Since last September, Free Zone has quietly emerged as one of the most adventurous and musician-friendly programs around. It was something that Ligeti and Cumbie discussed, but did not become reality until the guitarist wandered into the hostel and found the hardly used performance space. The format is wide open and encourages any kind of creative music. Free Zone can be a place to present finished works or test new material, which Ligeti believes is important for musicians to do in front of an audience.
"It is a very, very low key and grassroots kind of thing," Ligeti says, "run by musicians for musicians." They treat performers the way they would like to be treated, without the typical pressures of how many people a band brings, how much beer is sold, and whether the programmer likes the music.
So far it has been an attractive combination for performers. What began as two sets of music per night, including one by Cumbie's and Ligeti's Color Now Collective, soon expanded to three sets because of musician demand. And the two have begun programming up to three months in advance to accommodate the interest. "Finding musicians has never been a problem," Ligeti jokes.
The list of past performers is a veritable who's who of veterans of the creative improvised music scene and includes multi-reedists Daniel Carter and Ned Rothenberg, drummer William Hooker, trombonist Steve Swell, and saxophonist Avram Fefer. The series has also presented an impressive blend of less familiar names and emergent talents, such as trumpeter Kelly Pratt, trombonist Reut Regev and accordionist Will Holshouser. From traditional jazz instrumentation and ethnic percussion to electronic instruments and the balloon playing of Ricardo Arias, the series is living up to its name.
"It's amazing," Cumbie says of the unwavering musician support, "because we don't have the audience yet." The curators knew from the start that to succeed they would need to appeal to both hostel guests and local music enthusiasts more familiar with downtown settings. Each week brings a different blend of the two audiences. Some nights, musicians have played for each other in the basement space that could comfortably hold up to 45 people.
There are about 10 to 12 metal tables with chairs and an area in the back with plush easy chairs and a couch. Only one support column obstructs the stage view from the back. The combination of the convex mirrored surfaces, the exposed ducts and brick, the orange, blue and green overhead lights and the pool table make the room feel like a psychedelic industrial disco rec room. But décor is not what matters - sound is, and it carries through the room without the use of a P.A., although one is available. The one-foot-high stage can accommodate a drum set, baby grand and upright piano and still leave room for additional players. And despite all the exposed surfaces in the room, the sound on stage is quite good, according to Ligeti and bassist Francois Grillot, who recently performed there. Unfortunately, some ambient noise from the main floor lounge filters down and can be distracting during quieter moments.
Free Zone inspires a laid back atmosphere that is enhanced by the low $8 cover charge, which goes straight to the musicians, and the BYOB policy. Without the typical overhead and commercial interests of a regular club, they can maintain their open approach. But that doesn't mean they're not interested in building an audience.
On nights when the place is empty and the music not quite happening, Cumbie wonders if all the work is worth it. But the high points, and there have been many for both Ligeti and Cumbie, when the place is full, the music is great, and everyone is having a good time, remind them why they started: to support the music and the people who play it. "If it were like that every week," Cumbie muses, "Oh, man, I would just be delirious, I would be so happy I wouldn't even know what to do with myself."
With an upcoming schedule that shows no signs of slowing down or diluting that spirit, the Free Zone Series might be the perfect reason to explore the city above 14th Street. Though the surroundings might be unfamiliar, the musicianship and camaraderie will make you feel right at home.