One of the primo advantages of living near New York Cityï"aside from having a front seat at the Rudy and Hillary showï"is the infinite range of jazz venues. I've climbed up to the boxes in Carnegie Hall and the nosebleed seats at the Y, and down the vertical steps to the underground Village Vanguard. I've been knee-to-knee with stone-faced tourists in the Blue Note (aka the C Note, in honor of its cover charges), where they arguably serve the worst food at the tiniest tables during the best acts in jazz. I've encountered superb music in diners, on the streets and in the subways, and lackluster sounds in trenderies where the watery wine is 10 bucks a glass.
I once enjoyed a stunning, anonymous tenor solo wafting through a fog in Washington Square Park at two o'clock in the morning. I've even been lucky enough to make some jazz myself, sharing the incomparable delight of a group that's been stirring the pot and finally begins to cook. But I'd never been to a jazz love-in before.
It wasn't billed that way: officially, it was called a "CD release/performance party" to commemorate Oh, What a Thrill, Barbara Sfraga's first CD for Naxos Jazz, even though it was actually released in November and had already sold nearly 4000 copies by then. [The title is from a lyric in "Great Balls of Fire," the opening track in which Sfraga takes the frenetic Jerry Lee Lewis signature and puts it on a slow, sexy burn.]
Whatever the timing, I've never seen a CD release gig with such copious amounts of hugging and kissing. The coziness was partly due to all the family members who took planes to be there, but the good feeling was larger than kin: many in the audience were also singers, come to support one of their own.
One singer who couldn't make it was Mark Murphy, who contributed a tune, a duet and the liner notes to the CD; teaching in Switzerland, he sent floral greetings from Graz. Those in corporeal attendance included Tom Lellis, Mary Pearson, Kendra Shank, Rosanna Vitro, Andrea Wolper, Mary Foster Conklin, Roz Corral, Leslie Gwin (who also runs jazzsingers.com), Tessa Souter, Diane Hubka, Bonnie Goodman, Catherine Dupuis, Dori Levine, Carla White, Linda Ciofalo, and Iva Ambush (who drove up from D.C.).
There were also musicians (Drew Gress, Mark Josefsberg, Vana Gierig, Sue Williams, Drory Montlach, Mark Lambert, Leslie Pintchik, and Scott Hardy) and writers, including Will Friedwald, author of "Jazz Singing: America's Great Voices from Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond," Michael Colby, vocal critic of 52ndstreet.com, David Farneth, author of a recent Kurt Weill biography, and Terry Teachout, whose sage observations about jazz appear regularly in the New York Times.
Fred Hersch, who appears thrice on Barbara's CD and played six tunes at the party, told Teachout that he'd "lost it" reading Terry's comments in Time Magazine about Michael Bolton's album of operatic arias. Noting Bolton's claim that he sings them in the shower, Teachout had asked, "Where is Norman Bates when we really need him?"
The celebration sold out both sets on March 14 at Caviarteria, an increasingly hip jazz-and-smoked-fish venue that's attached to the Soho Grand Hotel, a lower Manhattan habitat decorated in Bladerunner Chic (industrial-grid staircase, subway columns, hubcaps on the walls). While the club offers such upscale eats as a three-caviar "layer cake" and black truffle soup for $45, it's just a half block away from the sidewalk tables on Canal Street, which offer trays of Rolex knock-offs and plastic sunglasses and "a tatoo in any catagory! (sic)" But like so many jazz warrens, the dark and gleaming club was its own worldï"especially when the music began.
And terrific music it was, with Sfraga and her band (Bruce Saunders, guitar, Eric Halverson, drums, and John Hebert, bass) putting their patented spin on such treats as Angel Eyes, Prelude to a Kiss, Invitation, and Freedomï"the Lee Morgan tune sung with Sfraga's lyrics. She dedicated her own "Song for My Mother" to her mother (with her father kidding, "what about me?"); a duet with Fred's incomparably tender accompaniment; it was followed by another sigh-worthy pairing on "Lush Life." Her deep readings of "Insensatez" and "Small Day Tomorrow" gleamed in an evening full of gems, including when Sfraga blended "You Must Believe in Spring" with "It Might As Well be Spring," and then blew the roof off the place with "Doxy."
But back to what made the ambience so unusual. Everyone knows that a jazz musician's life is not an easy one, and that they frequently play under combat conditions. The struggle du jour may be with bad equipment, drunken patrons, and sly employers who, after the gig, decide to hold back a chunk of the agreed-upon fee. There's an upscale place nearby which hosts Sweet Sixteen parties and jazz trios simultaneously; their badly-insulated "private" party room leaks DJ thumpa-thumpa all over the jazz. And of course, there are always the singular risks of trying to make a living by marketing one's soul. We normalize all this by calling it "dues," when it's often nothing more or less than simple disrespect.
That's part of why this night was so special: it was Sfraga's veteran band, a great sound system, and a classy, hospitable place filled with friends (the woman who booked the gig couldn't get a table). Sfraga has a heart the approximate size of Nebraskaï"with an ego that's exactly the oppositeï"and the warmth emanating from the audience made her glow. The support was also tangible: after a few tunes, a note was scribbled on a napkin and passed it up to the bandstand: "We want more volume on the singer!"
Lately, as more jazz musicians scramble for a bigger piece of a shrinking pie, things are becoming tense and sometimes get ugly (that's another story altogether). But for this one night, at least, the harmony was everywhereï"in fact, the scribbled note was from another singer. Those other stories are legion, and all too familiar. This one is rare. Brava, Sfraga.
*Wordplay courtesy of George Ziskind.