Helping Ourselves

Helping Ourselves

Last night, Le Poisson Rouge in New York City’s Greenwich Village staged a benefit concert-revue, Jazz for Hurricane Sandy Relief, to aid musicians in the New York area who lost everything, or nearly everything, during the hurricane’s assault.

Written By

Ratzo B Harris

It was just ten days after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast leaving a legacy of devastated urban infrastructure and natural habitats. Just as New Yorkers were snapping out of their initial shock and beginning to deal with an aftermath that included no electricity or hot water for millions and homelessness for thousands, Winter Storm Athena arrived, bringing freezing rains and a projected six inches of snow to the area. Part of Sandy’s catastrophic impact on New York’s music community was documented by NewMusicBox columnist Rob Deemer last week. His heart-wrenching and thought-provoking post amplified to eleven my post from the previous week about how damage to musicians’ gear can initiate shock and feelings of despair. But now we come to the saga’s third installment.

Last night, Le Poisson Rouge in New York City’s Greenwich Village staged a benefit concert-revue, Jazz for Hurricane Sandy Relief, to aid musicians in the New York area who lost everything, or nearly everything, during the hurricane’s assault. The concert was a result of the combined efforts of Truth Revolution Records, Revive Music Group, Motéma Music, and DL Media, whose rosters contain many artists who were directly affected by the calamity, and was underwritten by the Jazz Foundation of America, an organization “committed to providing jazz and blues musicians with financial, medical, housing, and legal assistance … in crisis due to illness, age and/or circumstance” (from the JFA Mission Statement).

I received word of the event through a general emailing shortly after 9 pm on the night before the concert and decided to attend, and to make it the subject of this week’s post. I began contacting the organizers to find out whom I should talk to when I arrived and began making lists to keep track of band personnel and the pieces they would play. Noticing that there was a “TBA” in their lineup, I mentioned that I could probably put together a group to fill the gap. Just before 2 am, I received an email informing me that, if I wanted to, I could perform with one of the artists, vocalist Marianne Solivan. I had heard her sing at several venues around the city and we had discussed the possibility of getting together to see what would come out of it. This was clearly a perfect opportunity to make that happen, so I agreed.

After four hours sleep, I got up around 10:30 am to take care of as many time-sensitive issues as possible and learned around 1:30 pm that the venue wanted artists to arrive at 4 pm for their sound checks. I managed to arrive in the vicinity of Le Poisson Rouge by 4:30, but didn’t find a parking spot until almost 6:00! Fortunately, everything and everyone was running late. Still, after setting up, rehearsing with Solivan, meeting with the representatives of three of the four organizations, and getting my things settled in the band room, I still had time to get a cup of coffee from the deli down the street, return to the club and “relax” while being introduced to saxophonist Dan Blake, who would complement Solivan’s act.

Each group was scheduled to perform for 20 minutes and we were the first to go on. Marianne picked three tunes: “Love Isn’t Everything,” a relatively obscure song from the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical I Do, I Do (the show’s hit number is “My Cup Runeth Over”), performed in a medium tempo swinging style inspired by vocalist Jeannie Lee and pianist Ran Blake’s version from The Newest Sound; Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away”; and the Jules Styne-Betty Comden-Adolph Green standard “Just in Time.”

We were followed by Bossa Avenue, a group led by Linus Wyrsh (clarinet) which also features Caco Oliviera (tan-tan, pandeiro), Victor Gutierrez (piano), and Renaldo Lobo (guitar). The group played three numbers by the legendary Antonio-Carlos Jobim: “Favela,” “Samba de Ofeo,” and “Agua Beber.” The group played extremely well, as a unit and as individuals. I briefly spoke with the group’s leader, who is from Switzerland (Lobo and Oliviera are from Brazil, Gutierrez is from Spain), but mostly about my bass. It turns out that his father, Urs, is a bassist who is something of a Red Mitchell-phile (Mitchell and I both play notes that are lower than the “normal” bass). It turns out that Wyrsh hosts an internet radio show, The Jazz Hole, which is “broadcast” every other Sunday on Breakthru

Next, the Natalie Fernandez Project took the stage. Fernandez is a powerfully striking and dramatic chanteuse who was first accompanied by pianist Jarrett Cherner on Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” and then adding percussionist Renaldo de Jesus on the cajón for two originals: “A Simples Cosas” and “Song For You.” Their performance, while not jazz in the traditional sense, was effective and touched us all deeply.

Natalie Fernandez and Renaldo de Jesus

Natalie Fernandez and Renaldo de Jesus

Dan Blake took the stage again with bassist Jorge Roeder and guitarist Julian Lage. Their performance was virtuosic and tight-knit. The opening number, “233 Butler,” was an original by Lage and explored the use of rapid-fire eighth notes in various 6/8 meterings. After a short intro by Lage, the trio played with ultra-fast pianissimo scalar effects, eventually breaking into a country-ish ballad also by Lage, “Woodside Waltz.” Their closer, “Move” by Denzil Best, was taken at break-neck speed and rocked the room.

Trumpeter David Weiss brought his jazz-fusion group, Point of Departure, to the stage next. Featuring saxophonist Mark Shim, guitarist Ben Eusen, bassist Devon Starks, and drummer Cush Abadey, the group segued from Herbie Hancock’s “I Have A Dream” through Tony Williams’ “Black Comedy” to Charles Moore’s “#4.” While paying homage to Miles Davis, Weiss’s approach goes beyond being derivative. The level of interactivity between the members of the group (who, Weiss told me were all subs) was as stunning as their virtuosity.

David Weiss and Point of Departure

David Weiss and Point of Departure

Vocalist Mavis Swan Poole co-leads the group, Soul Understated, with drummer Jeremy “Beans” Clemons. For her performance at Jazz for Hurricane Sandy Relief, though, she was accompanied by the guitarist and bassist from the Point of Departure set. After almost three hours (all of the groups played longer than 20 minutes) I needed a cup of coffee and Le Poisson Rouge doesn’t serve coffee, so I missed most of Poole’s performance of the group’s first number, Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood.” But I was mesmerized by how she moved from a chest-voice alto into coloratura falsetto with ease in her performance of Guy Wood and Robert Mellin’s “My One and Only Love,” which started as a funky even-eighth note groove and dovetailed into a swinging eighth-note one after the initial statement of the song. Unfortunately, I also missed the second half of that song also, returning in time to find her joined by soprano saxophonist Arnold Lee and tap dancer Michela Marino, who leads a tap dance jam session at Small’s Jazz Club on Wednesday afternoons. Poole and Marino were furiously trading four-measure improvs with each other and brought the house down!

This was followed by a film Rockaway Needs Our Help detailing some of the extent of the devastation Hurricane Sandy bestowed on the peninsula. It was a powerful reminder of why we came to Le Poisson Rouge. After the film finished, Jazz Foundation staff member Joe Petrucelli spoke to the audience about the work the organization has been engaged in since the day after the hurricane blew through the area. He gave a number of $100,000 as the damage to only one of the rehearsal-recording facilities in the basement of Westbeth, the artist-in-residency complex mentioned in Rob Deemer’s column and where the Merce Cunningham Dance Company housed its props. He also mentioned a musician’s home in Staten Island that no longer exists, along with everything in it. Afterward, I spoke with him in the waiting area in front of Le Poisson Rouge’s main stage while DJ Raydar Ellis supplied music. (Ellis did this excellently between sets and during breaks over the entire seven hours of the event.) He told me that the Foundation’s original efforts were to reach old musicians in the Lower East Side who they knew needed medicine, or had just come out of the hospital for major surgery and make sure they were alright. These efforts are also described at the Foundation’s website along with links to make donations. It was a moving conversation as we both realized that we were talking about a situation that was not going to be made better anytime soon. Indeed, if the example of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is any measure, it’s possible that some parts of the city, and the lives of their residents, will never be the same. But the event’s audience, which had started out with very few members, had swelled to capacity by this time, and a feeling of hope seemed to infect everyone there. Petrucelli promised to let me know how much was raised when the final accounting was done. Fortunately, and to the credit of Le Poisson Rouge’s management, the production costs for the event were held to a bare minimum.

To get things into higher spirits, tenor saxophonist and flutist Jay Rodriguez and his Soul System Orchestra played a set that opened with a dance groove jam called “Dead Center.” In real time, Rodriguez, who is a founding member of The Groove Collective, showed each of the members of the group—Kendall Haywood (trumpet, flugelhorn), Barney McAll (piano), Dylan Meek (synth bass), Ben Strapp (tuba), Curtis Fowlkes (trombone), Jenny Axelson, Frederika Krier, Majid Khaliq (violins), and Swiss Chris (drums)—what to play next. When they finished the dance number, vocalist Judy Bady joined the group to sing John Coltrane’s “Dear Lord,” and Pharoah Sanders’ “The Creator Has A Master Plan.” There is no easy way to describe Bady’s artistry. She sings everything she hears and hears everything she sings. She not only improvises lyrics in note perfect improvised melodies that keep up with the band, she can access almost any vocal effect: such as yodeling, multiphonics, and “James Brown” screams. Her voice sits well within the jazz singer’s alto-contralto range, but her control and power, and the way she seems to effortlessly deliver her lyrics, as if she’s talking to a baby, is awe-inspiring.

Jay Rodriguez and the Soul System Orchestra

Jay Rodriguez and the Soul System Orchestra

They were followed by the Marcus Strickland Trio with Strickland on saxophones, Ben Williams on bass, and E. J. Strickland (Marcus’s brother) on drums. They played two pieces: a haunting and powerful version of Bjork’s “Scatterheart” and an angular and meditative original, “Cuspy’s Delight,” that became a tour de force of pianoless hard-bop trio improvising. Williams’s soloing was the talk of the green room as well!

The group, Manner Effect—featuring vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles, saxophonist Caleb Curtis, pianist Logan Evan Thomas, bassist P. J. Roberts, and drummer Josh Davis—is one I first heard three years ago when they were just the Sarah Charles band playing Friday nights at the Dervish restaurant in Manhattan’s midtown. The establishment changed their music policy, though, and now hires pop-oriented cover bands; only Roberts and Davis still work there (with a different singer and pianist). But two years ago, the five turned into a collective and they play better than ever. Charles, who just recently graduated from the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, has always shown promise, but now has a polish to her craft that demands your attention. The group opened their set with a Thomas original, “Speak Now,” that demonstrates the pianist’s command of songwriting. It was followed by a very special reharmonization and arrangement of Jobim’s “Corcovado,” which was in turn followed by a version of “Earth Song” that brings Michael Jackson’s hit down to terra firma.

The last band, bassist Ryan Berg’s Retrospective (made up of pianist George Burton, drummer Wayne Smith, and saxophonist Tivon Pennicott) played a strikingly original set that opened with “Vaka,” by Sigur Ros that bore little resemblance to the original. The song’s cyclical elements were given a “jazz-over” that is undeniably the work of a master. The same goes for the group’s reharmonizaton and remetering of Frank Loesser’s “If I Were a Bell.” This arrangement includes an interlude that jumped out of the 7/4 of the rest of the arrangement and served as an anchor for the listener. Berg tried to turn the stage over to the Jazz for Hurricane Sandy Benefit Jam Session jam session, but had to return for an encore, playing a lovely original composition with a working title of “See-Sea.”

The jam session was hosted by bassist Ben Williams. All I can say is that it opened with “Nardis” and I had to quit taking notes! Because the session started over an hour late, four tunes were played before the club tossed everyone out at 2am. The last piece included a harpist, Brandee Younger, who was to perform in the original lineup, before the first of the scheduling changes occurred that moved the concert’s date from November 3 to last night.

While this is not the first or the last of musical benefit concerts for Hurricane Sandy victims—a major one is planned for December 12 in Madison Square Garden (subtitled 12-12-12), and a jazz concert at the Sugar Loaf Performing Arts Center in Hudson Valley is planned for November 15—last night’s event is the only one I’ve seen dedicated to assisting musicians. One of the things that people tend to forget when they go to a big concert is that the vast majority of musicians, especially those playing jazz and blues, aren’t in a position to be made whole by disaster relief. Most are freelancers and do not earn yearly salaries, but rather are paid per service and often rather poorly. As Joe Petrucelli explained “these are individuals, in a lot of cases, who are living and working under difficult circumstances to begin with, and the storm really exacerbated that” When these musicians lose a day of work during a calamity like a hurricane, that income is gone. A makeup date will not cover the loss. And the cost of some vintage instruments can be more than the average musician might earn over several years, meaning that the artist will probably have to settle for an instrument of lesser quality than the one used to build his or her career. So events like the one last night are vital to the upkeep of music in America. I hope that those who are into a giving way of being will find it in themselves to give generously to organizations like the Jazz Foundation of America. Please fill the comments section at the bottom of the page with the names of similar organizations.

The Jazz Foundation of American
322 West 48th Street, 6th Floor
New York, NY 10036
[email protected]

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