Another Night Out In New York

One of the reasons I live in New York is so that I can always hear quality music. The weekly listings of musical events in The Village Voice would, in any other city in the world, be called a major music festival.

Wednesday was the birthday of Betty Carter, one of the best American musicians of the 20th century, whom I had the honor of working for in the late ’70s. My wife and I celebrated by going to hear two fantastic singers: Fay Victor (with guitarist Anders Nilsson and bassist Ken Filiano) at Barbés in Brooklyn and Teri Roiger (with pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist John Menegon, and drummer Steve Williams) at Kitano in Manhattan. While the two vocalists are superficially, in terms of style, as diametrically opposed as the venues they performed in, they both delivered command performances that expressed the profound influence of Carter, although neither were commemorating her birthday.

Teri Roiger was, in fact, celebrating the music of one of Betty Carter’s close associates and colleagues, Abbey Lincoln. Roiger and the above mentioned group (along with saxophonist Greg Osby and guitarist Mark Dziuba) recently recorded a CD, The Music of Abbey Lincoln, which is in the process of being produced through an indiegogo campaign. Roiger and her husband, bassist John Menegon, live and teach in the New Paltz area, so hearing her perform in New York City is rare and worth the trip. Although a student of Jay Clayton and Sheila Jordan, Roiger’s interpretation is more strongly attached to the melody of her material than her mentors. However, like her mentors, she accesses a total understanding of the structure of the songs she performs as well as the extemporizations of her accompanists. Roiger’s natural phrasing is similar to Lincoln’s, but smoother, without Lincoln’s trademark edge. Also, her voice is suppler and expresses itself through a subtle and stunning use of register and syllabic manipulation.

The Kitano jazz club is rapidly becoming one of my favorite rooms to hear music in. They moved from the second floor to the first floor of the Kitano Hotel, which is a welcome change. The room is better lit, has a bigger stage that is easier to take in from the audience’s vantage, and sounds better than the upstairs room. Unfortunately, being on the first floor attracts some of the less musically inclined clientele who come to the Kitano to stay in the rooms, which meant that Ms. Roiger, her band, and the audience had to put up with a table of yakety drinking buddies. My (as well as others’) best efforts to politely request conversational restraint were, of course, only respected until the next bass solo. Hopefully, a quiet policy can be negotiated between the club’s and hotel’s management, which would go a long way to packing the place. Also, Kitano is not a cheap music venue. The only reason I didn’t spend more than $100 is that I don’t drink alcohol. But the food is almost as good as the music presented there, so I recommend it.

My wife and I missed Roiger’s first set because Barbés in Brooklyn is one of those back-room performance spaces that book two or more bands a night and Fay Victor only had one set. The trade off was that the small room is set up as a concert venue and there were no distractions from listening by the entitled jet-set elite. Their music room is clean, well-lit and someone came by only two times to ask if we wanted drinks from the front bar. I find it a little upsetting to have my attention jolted away from live music that I’m involved in listening to. I understand that rooms like these have to make money to stay in business (I do, too), but it seems that there should be some kind of training that could be offered to their wait-staffs so that they’re not making the audience miss the music they’ve paid a cover charge to hear. For instance, The Mrs. and I went to the Cornelia Street Café on Tuesday to hear Mark Dresser’s group play their first set (I had to work the late set at the Garage with saxophonist Danny Walsh, guitarist Joe Cohn, and drummer Marcello Pellitteri) and we were interrupted no less than six times to have orders taken, be served, and then presented with a bill. Fortunately, I love this group and will put up even with the mildew and mold that permeates this basement venue, and the clientele there is as serious about listening as I am (the antithesis of the situation at The Garage). But I really hope that management at Cornelia Street addresses the mold issue.

If you haven’t guessed that I’m driving at opposites saying pretty much the same thing and are wondering why I brought up Tuesday’s outing, I’ll explain:

Mark Dresser and Ken Filiano are two of my favorite bassists (along with William Parker, Mark Helias, Ron Carter, Jon Burr, Hilly Greene, Mary Ann McSweeny, and a host of others). But Dresser and Filiano are both deeply dedicated to using extended techniques and playing music that, while steeped in improvisation, challenges the definition of jazz suggested by documentarian Ken Burns. Both perform extensively with jazz musicians (such as Jane Ira Bloom and Connie Crothers) and both use electronic equipment to enhance their acoustic basses. They even are both German bowers, yet their approaches to playing are diametrical opposites. While Dresser is an inventor of elaborate and soulful grooves in modulating meters, Filiano espouses what he calls a “no control” approach to playing. He uses multiple delays to set up random short-lived loops that he must interact with on the spot. And, while Fay Victor’s music (like Dresser’s) uses free improvisation to frame through-composed pieces, Filiano will go beyond the traditional role of the bass as laying the harmonic ground that is improvised over. Actually Dresser does this also, but in a very different way, such as his trio playing with pianist Denman Maroney and drummer Tom Rainey.

The comparison of these two bassists suggests a similarity in comparing the two singers, Teri Roiger and Fay Victor. While Roiger gives a performance that holds very close to the Great American Songbook approach to jazz singing, Victor gives the illusion of almost losing the connection to the genre. Her songs (which she composes with her husband, Jochem Van Dijk) are angular, filled with complex, but motoric, rhythms that access the intensity of alternative rock. She acknowledges that one of her tunes, “Absinthe and Vermouth,” quotes Frank Zappa (“Chunga’s Revenge”?). The diametric opposition of the two singers, though, is in approach, not in spirit. Listening to the two singers reveals a common core based on Lincoln and Carter that is much like Dresser and Filiano’s core of Charles Mingus and Bertram Turetzky.

Although she was referred to as a jazz singer during her 50+ year career, Betty Carter was also a composer, arranger, and bandleader. Her music (whether it was something she wrote or if she was performing the work of someone else) always had her stamp, a stamp that often forced the listener to rethink what music is in the most basic sense. Listen to her performance of Kurt Weill’s “Lonely House” and try not to judge her intonation, yet it’s clear that she meant the pitches she sang. Then compare her performance to the original and it all makes sense. In the eight months I played in her band, my 23-year-old sensibilities were challenged to the breaking point. I quit twice. (I know I was fired according to William R. Bauer’s Open the Door: The Life and Music of Betty Carter, but that’s not the case.) I just wasn’t ready for Ms. B. To be blunt, Betty Carter was blunt and her music was just as blunt. Maybe direct conveys a better sense of it. When I think of Charles Mingus, I think of Debut Records, the label he and Max Roach formed to keep their work honest. Carter did the same thing, forming Bet-Car Records in 1969. Part of her honesty was an insistence on not resting on one’s laurels. She always listened to what was going on and to what her sidemen were into. She would listen to me practicing multiple harmonics and remind me that saxophone players had been doing that for years. She was blunt, but she never said anything that wasn’t true. She also believed that improvisation was key to making music. As controlled as her music could be, very little of it was written out and she wanted her sidemen to create their parts. Her scat-singing was never contrived, either. I remember on our last performance together in Oslo, she and I modulated through different meters on “My Favorite Things,” including 5/4. She also insisted that her musicians never just “called it in.” She wanted us to give 100% to the performance of each tune and to treat each tune as if it were the last time we’d ever play.

So it was very nice indeed to hear these two singers, Fay Victor and Teri Roiger, carrying Betty Carter’s flame in their very different ways on her birthday. It was as much an honor to hear them as it was to work with Ms. B., although I’m a lot more ready to hear it now! While I know that the struggle I went through to understand her music is nothing compared to the struggle she went through to play it, I know that I’m a better listener because of that struggle. It’s why I truly believe that the most important thing in making music isn’t necessarily to have fun, but rather the reward of making good music. Betty Carter said it well—and I include this for anyone who feels discouraged about music—when I was complaining about how difficult it was for me to work on her music and my own and still keep my sense of identity (which wasn’t yet formed!). After hearing me out, she looked me in the eye, smiled, and growled, “who the f—k told you this was gonna be easy!”

Thank you for that, Betty.

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