This past weekend I traveled in New York City to visit family. Even though it was just a 3-day visit, I managed to sneak in what was undoubtedly the best live jazz performance that I've ever seen!
I've always known that New York has the best jazz scene in the world, but until this trip I had no idea how awesome it really is. While planning my trip, I learned that on any Friday/Saturday, there are at least half a dozen clubs featuring extremely well known, if not legendary, jazz musicians. Within a couple weeks of my trip, for instance, I could have seen Dave Liebman, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Hank Jones, and George Coleman (each were playing somewhere in town). And that's just the beginning. There are still twenty or more clubs featuring top players like Chris Potter, Nicholas Payton, Roy Hargrove, Jason Moran. And that’s just counting clubs in Manhattan...
For my trip, I chose one of the smaller clubs, Smoke, where I saw Eric Alexander (tenor sax), Jeremy Pelt (trumpet), Jim Rotondi (trumpet), Harold Mabern (piano), Joe Farnsworth (drums), and John Webber (bass). For those who don't know, these guys are all in their 30's (or close enough) and they're considered some of the top players of their generation. The one exception is Harold Mabern. Even if you haven't heard of him by name, you've probably heard one or more of his 100+ recordings as a sideman. He's a legend in his own right and has recorded with dozens of other legendary jazz musicians including Lee Morgan, Wes Montgomery, Art Farmer, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Hank Mobley, Jimmy Heath, Jackie McLean, and Freddie Hubbard. Hearing Harold Mabern play live was an incredible treat, and well worth the trip in itself.
As a jazz trumpet player, my attention was naturally drawn to Jeremy Pelt and Jim Rotondi (both were incredible), but I have to say, I probably spent most of my time watching the drummer, Joe Farnsworth. His playing was so energizing and tuned-in to the band that I couldn't wait to hear what he'd do next. Thanks to his playing and the rest of the outstanding performances, I was literally on the edge of my seat from the very first note.
When researching venues, I read that Smoke is a small club, but I had no idea how small it is until I walked inside. There's a picture of the club on their website, but it appears to be shot with a wide angle lens and it's hard to tell exactly what portion of the club is shown in the photo. Turns out, that's the entire club (viewed from the bandstand). It's tiny! So, not only did I hear some fantastic jazz, but my wife and I were seated just 8 feet from all of the horn players. I couldn't have asked for anything more.
PLAYING BY EAR - MORE EVIDENCE
If I had any doubt at all as to whether or not great jazz musicians can play by ear, those doubts would certainly have been put to rest during this concert. As with most jazz concerts, there were multiple instances where one person finished a solo and the next person began with the same phrase. Of course, that requires the ability to hear something and then play it back effortlessly by ear. Believe me, they had no time to think about notes. But that wasn't all… throughout the night, the horn players would play background phrases while somebody else took a solo. Typically, Eric Alexander would be the first to play the phrase and then Jim Rotondi and Jeremy Pelt would perfectly mimic what they heard, by ear, adding embellishments and harmonizing the melody. All of that happened in a matter of seconds and was truly awe-inspiring for somebody still learning to play by ear.
WE ALL MAKE MISTAKES
During the beginning of one of the tunes, "Little Sunflower," there was a point where some members of the band repeated the head while others thought it was time for solos. So, with half the band pulling back and the other half continuing with the head, there was definitely a "whoops" moment. When I listen to the local university combos, this sort of thing happens at least once during every concert. Somebody forgets to repeat the head, the person(s) still playing the head start to panic, they hesitantly continue, missing a few notes as they look around for cues from the rhythm section, and things either fall apart completely or they hobble along unconvincingly. Well, let it be known… even fantastically talented players make mistakes! But, it's all about the recovery. Instead of panicking, instead of backing off, the lone player at Smoke confidently continued playing and the others rejoined. By the beginning of the first solo, I doubt any of the audience even remembered what happened. Heck, I would have forgotten all about it myself except that I wanted to share it with all of you!