July 15,1999
CitySearch Music!

Knicks vs. Jazz

The Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival's chief audience-drawing rival has always been the JVC Jazz Festival. When a custody agreement was struck last year, giving Bell Atlantic (then still known as the "What Is Jazz?" Festival in the days before corporate name-tagging) the first two weeks of June and JVC the last two, it seemed that all conflicts were finally concluded and no scheduling problems would keep asses out of their seats. But, like the Heat, the Hawks, the Pacers, and so many others, the Bell Atlantic Festival underestimated the Knicks. Even their harshest detractors had to admit that the Knicks' battle against the odds was the best drama on television, the best story in the newspapers, and the most popular topic of conversation in town. You couldn't tear yourself away—unless, of course, you had to jump in a cab and get to the Knitting Factory.

There were no conflicts with the first gig of the Festival, since it was an afternoon show in Bryant Park—well, no basketball problems, anyway, though my work duties kept me from catching the ubiquitous Jason Moran's set. I had admired his fine work on the Hammond B3 at a recent Greg Osby gig in the Knit's Old Office and, while I missed his band, he was sitting in with Stefon Harris. Harris put out some nice vibes, but the real treat was the Danilo Perez Trio, whose "Central Avenue" album kept me company through much hot weather. The trio raised a real ruckus for a three-piece, thundering throughout the park and spilling onto the streets. Perez's two-fisted piano attack is equal parts Latin and be-bop (he played in Dizzy Gillespie's last band)—something he demonstrated by improvising Latin versions around jazz classics ("if we put a little rice and beans on it, it sounds like this...").

The next evening offered the intriguing Renegade Way, also known as Steve Coleman, Ravi Coltrane, Greg Osby, and Gary Thomas—yep, four saxophone players. But, like many all-star jam sessions, it proved that it is indeed possible to have a little too much talent in one place. Not that they were bad, or anything, but they kept jumping all over each other. Then Coltrane's lyrical tone or Osby's heavy-thinking virtuosity would shine through, but then they'd all start up with some other big idea. With a little more rehearsal, it could work but, as it was, things tended to get blurry and a bit overwhelming.

At least there was nothing to keep me from Game 3 against the Pacers, so I didn't miss Larry Johnson's four-point miracle play. And miracle it was: With about 50 seconds to go in the game, I literally began trying to cut a deal with God, giving specific arguments as to how a victory would benefit each of the individual Knicks, as well as the entire city of New York, as well as giving me a reason to go on living. And there it was: the magical three-pointer we thought couldn't possibly fall, but did. And the foul they never call, but did (the call also had the added benefit of really, really pissing off Reggie Miller). And after the Big L came off the court, all he could say to the NBC talking head was "Praise Allah."
Literally: "So, Larry, were you just in the zone?"
"No, no. No zone. Allah Akbar."
"Uh, that's a prayer..."
Larry Johnson
, who found Allah, went vegetarian, lost 20 pounds, and somehow found a three-point shot in the off-season—well, Larry clearly beheld some greater power when he made that play. (Between this and Iraq beating the U.S. in the World Cup, I'm thinking Allah is the one to see if you want to win a game.)

But back to the music. One show I had been eagerly awaiting was John Zorn's Masada because a) I'd heard from three different people and the New Yorker how great they were, and b) they were playing at the Angel Orensanz Arts Foundation (a.k.a. the old synagogue on Norfolk Street), one of the most festive settings for anything in the city—three-story ceilings, stained glass, Christmas lights, and a band where the altar used to be. (I once go-go danced at a Popsmear party here—badly, I might add, as I only made $7 in tips and all that from women. I also had to dress up as Bettie Page for a short film that was shot here. But I digress.) The crumbling synagogue was the perfect setting for Masada's exotic, Far Eastern/Northern African sound and had perfect acoustics. Somehow even the 100-degree heat only emphasized the mysterious, desert-like atmospherics. Zorn often led by bringing out the best in his sidemen—sitting aside for one entire number as Dave Douglas's trumpet soared through a number reminiscent of "Sketches of Spain." Two things I've never been able to abide (well, there's more than two, butů) are jazz improvisation and Klezmer music, but Masada's reconstruction of these and other musical influences is enough to make me reconsider my position. But the Orensanz Foundation was packed and even after an hour-plus set, the crowd wasn't ready to let the band go, as they stood, clapped, cheered, and stomped their feet until the band came back out for a brief, bombastic encore.

Even on nights when I had no Bell Atlantic duties, there were still conflicts: Wednesday was the only day both Andrew Clevenger, one of our ersthwhile contributors, and I could make it to the Joe Lovano/Greg Osby gig at the Vanguard—the same night as Game 5. We met at the Riviera beforehand, since it provided the maximum number of televisions and the most minimal distance from the club. I had trouble eating my cheeseburger and wondered if I should've just ordered a few shots instead as the first quarter ended with the Knicks 14 points down. Still, Camby was in unstoppable mode, and our faith was rewarded as the warriors of Madison Square Garden rallied, kept the Pacers at bay, and tied the game at halftime. We finally dragged ourselves away sometime during the third quarter—relieved that it seemed that the two-headed scoring monster of Spree and Houston had been awakened, but sorry we were going to miss the carnage. Despite persistent insistence that these two kids couldn't play together and one would have to be disposed of for that point guard everyone's always talking about getting, I always felt that this was a perfect combination waiting to happen. And Sprewell's bursts of flashy, passionate play have proved to be an excellent complement to Houston's graceful, clinic-like execution.

But we left for the less-volatile, though just as complementary combination, of Joe Lovano and Greg Osby, supporting their new "Friendly Fire" disc. The band came out rather late—my friend Steve, who works the door, did acknowledge that there was a battered black-and-white TV in the back somewhere, and the fact that the band finally appeared right about when the third quarter would've ended made me suspicious as to what kept them (not that I'd blame them). The rhythm section was augmented with the surprise addition of Greg Osby's good buddy, the ubiquitous Jason Moran. The two sax men worked the alto, tenor, and soprano combinations, including one double-soprano number with a flute solo from Joe. And the fire was indeed friendly—no cutting contest, but a series of duets and swapped solos, with the non-soloing fellow stepping offstage. Still, it was an elegant gig, with two polished players showing off their formidable chops.

Not part of the Bell Atlantic was Booker T. and the M.G.s at MetroTech, the opener for their always-impressive Rhythm & Blues Festival. Booker T. and company are still a formidable outfit after over three decades in the business, rocking all the golden-age Stax hits. The MetroTech festival is a great one—not only because the lineup is consistently stellar, featuring artists like Irma Thomas and Solomon Burke for free, but the crowd is fantastic, giving the artists a lotta love and a lotta soul and getting it right back. Booker T. praised the day-camp kids who attend all the Festival shows for their good behavior—"you've got some beautiful children here"—and it's probably nice to see all those shining young faces down front instead of your usual grizzled oldies crowd.

I made my first pilgrimage to this year's new venue, the South Street Seaport Atrium for Tropical Night, mostly because I wanted to see the legendary Skatalites and I always enjoy Marc Ribot y los Cubanos Postizos. Brenda K. Starr was rounding out the Tropical Night/Puerto Rican Pride weekend kickoff outside on the pier, and you had to fight your way through packs of mamis gripping each others hands, dragging each other through the crowd, and guys in baggy shorts hanging around the outdoor bars, all of them waving Puerto Rican flags, and every so often a pallid little creature in a black T-shirt mumbling, "Are you going to the jazz festival?"

Now, the Seaport Atrium venue has a few problems, chief among them being that it's a FOOD COURT. Yes, some of the finest artists in jazz today, play amid daiquiri and hot dog stands, with just a curtain separating them and their audience from hundreds, indeed thousands of tourists munching on potato skins and perusing the clearance racks at the Limited. Sure, you could step outside onto the third-floor balconies, sit in one of the Titanic-style deck chairs and gaze out over the Hudson, but the atmosphere sucked and the acoustics were not quite all they could've been. (Apparently the Seaport people offered Michael Dorf a real sweet deal on the space, thinking it would lure hipsters down to the Seaport—and it did, but we all swore we'd NEVER come back.)

But, how was the show? Well, it was supposed to start at 8pm, I arrived at 9:30pm, and the first band started 10:45pm, accompanied by the booming voice of...Darth Vader? I wondered if Star Wars branding had actually gone that far for a moment before I realized it was just plain old James Earl Jones, welcoming us on behalf of the mothership. No apology for the space or the time, though. Conrad Herwig's Latin versions of the music of Coltrane and Miles Davis were festive and bouncing, but I would've enjoyed it more an hour earlier. The set's highlight was an appearance by pianist Eddie Palmieri, who skidded some nice figures around a Coltrane composition and inspired some of the bored, ska-loving college kids to break into their version of the Ricky Martin.

Marc Ribot and his band never fail to put on a good, festive show, pointing out that they'd gone on "Right on time: 9:20." Despite the persistent pacing of some impatient rude boys, the crowd seemed to be picking up a second wind—and, thanks to a trip to the bulk candy store next to Gap Kids, so was I. But, like most sugar rushes, it didn't last long, and even the infectious rhythms and upbeat call-and-response of the Postizos couldn't perk me up from slumping against the disconnected ATM machine. I finally gave up on the Skatalites and began the long trek home.

I had been looking forward to the Abbey Lincoln/Teri Thornton show, and our own Lee Jeske swore that, since Ms. Lincoln is the closest thing to Billie Holiday we have and I'd never seen her (well, I'd never seen either of them, but...), I couldn't afford to miss her. But could I afford to miss Game 6 against the Pacers? And if I missed the end to rush down there, would I just wind up waiting two hours anyway? Still, despite all my best-laid plans to tear myself away in the fourth quarter, it just didn't happen. How could I leave, once the Big L hit the ground in pain and was carried back to the locker room? And Allan Houston rose to the occasion—picking up the slack really seems to be Allan's forte—with 32 giant points? Once things looked secure (which they didn't until the last half-minute, knowing how fate has been unkind to our Knicks in the past), how could I leave then? And miss the redemption of Latrell Sprewell, as he proved to himself and to the world that the long road back was a trip well worth taking? Miss lil' Marcus Camby leaping around in undisguised, unabashed joy, finally coming into his own as a player with not only skills but heart? Miss these guys who I love so well having one of the happiest moments of their entire lives, miss the payoff of all the times I attacked (sometimes physically) those who said the Knicks suck? But most of all, how could I miss Reggie "Well, I Used to Have Game" Miller hanging his head and walking back to the locker room in shame?

Well, I missed none of this, but after about 10 minutes of postgame excitement, I jumped in a cab downtown, and I must admit the lights of Brooklyn have never looked so pretty. By the time I got to the Seaport, the box office was closed and I was directed through a back entrance. Apparently Abbey Lincoln had performed the old Miles Davis switch-up and decided to go on first. Not that I would've dragged myself away from Spree and Camby's victory or even their victory laps. And I did get to see Teri Thornton, who was a more than acceptable substitute. As good jazz singers become an increasingly rare breed, thank God someone resurrected her. Ms. Thorton's semi-Cinderella is as follows: a brief rise to fame in the early '60s, followed by several decades of cab-driving, family-raising obscurity. She was battling back from cancer when she won the Thelonious Monk Competition and, voila, a star was reborn. In her late set, Ms. Thornton showed off her honey-smooth, but gravel-edged voice and true diva presence (not to mention diva-worthy couture—a black, beaded vaguely Victorian number). Eschewing the piano, she stood front and center, offering up a few standards, but mostly original material, including her Latin-flavored setting of the Lord's Prayer. Another standout was a number she described as "35 years of blues," which blurred a little roadhouse on the edges of the food court, culminating with a gutbucket invitation for the audience to "check out the limbs on me," as she raised her flounced skirt to mid-thigh and propped a gam up on the monitor.

The next day was the final show back at the Angel Orensanz Foundation, the dueling organ summit between Reuben Wilson and Big John Patton, which had a little more fire than the Lovano/Osby pairing—it wasn't as flashy and polished, but it had more spontaneity and was a bit more of a cutting contest. Patton's five-piece band held the stage behind the two esteemed gentlemen, occasionally exchanging "Where should we come in now?" glances whenever the organists got too involved in volleying riffs back and forth or locked onto one and drove it to the ground. And everyone in the place was grooving, jiggling in their seats, with one particularly volatile woman emitting intermittent shrieks. And, of course, when Wilson and Patton got up to take their bows, the diminutive Wilson looked like Mini-Me next to the six-and-a-half foot Patton.

So, since I'm sure los Knicks are going to make the playoffs next year (Vegas is giving us 6-1 odds for the championship), I say Michael Dorf sets up a giant television screen in the food court one night and has a Knicks jam session. Really: Get a bunch of musicians, and let them improvise accompaniment to the game. Give each player a theme, make funny little sax noises every time the opposition misses a free throw. Sure, it sounds weird, but it'll save us all having to decide between the Knicks and the jazz, at least for one night.


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