Friday, May 4, 2007

Get Jazzed at Bar Next Door

It's actually downstairs from the restaurant La Lanterna di Vittorio, though perhaps it is technically next door. You can practically fall into it if you happen to hit a slick spot on the sidewalk at just the right place. An almost literal hole in the wall at 129 Macdougal Street in the West Village, the "Bar Next Door" is one of the coolest jazz spots I've found in a city that does not exactly lack for cool jazz spots. They say that the house was built by Aaron Burr, I guess while he was taking time off from target practice. It definitely has that old, authentic look, with all sorts of funny little doors and closets. Owl and I were wondering what the long horizontal closet near the door might contain. Whatever it contains now, my bet for the original use is firearms. Why do bad things happen to decent folks like Alexander Hamilton and other rich brats get to fulfill their Presidential ambitions? History is so cruel...

Anyhow, this hobbit space below the restaurant was big enough for one rather tall and stout fellow who blew a mean tenor sax. Joel Frahm has apparently been around the NY jazz scene for a long time, and has just recorded a CD with members of Stan Getz's old band. But Tuesday nights he performs here with his own trio, which included Joel Martin on bass and Pete Zimmer on drums this week. These guys cooked up a concert that handed us, over the course of two sets, a wide variety of classics and originals - there was some Monk, some Bird (the Parrot is loving it so far!), some standards, some originals, probably some Getz though I didn't recognize it. (Frahm offered an original which I thought he called "Jobimiana", or something like that, but I can't say it set of the bossa nova bells in my head. Nice tune though.) This was relatively conservative material, but Frahm's treatment of it was exquisite. He is equally at home hanging on a slow bluesey tune with lots of breathy bends or doing lightning runs that make you wonder where he found all those notes. No technique for its own sake here. Free jazz is not his bag and you won't hear him pushing a reed hard enough to make it screech. But he has an original style that is hard to characterize and easy to admire; his lines are unpredictable even if the basic material is pretty well known.

Zimmer and Martin are no mere rhythm section but a couple of extremely talented musicians in their own right. It takes a lot to get me to really listen to a stand-up bass solo, but I was digging every note that Martin played when he took his breaks. ("Digging" here means "liking", for any overly web-savvy cranks out there. One "digs" in a hole in the ground, and "diggs" in a Web 2.0 media site. I was in a hole.) Zimmer is one of those jazz drummers who insists on being as much a part of the music as anyone else, and his contribution to the overall sound was immense. This is a group of musicians who it is almost insulting to call "professional", as that sounds a little like "competent". The fairly conservative tonality of the music at times makes you think of these words, but I would rather say that whatever can still be milked out of post-bop mainstream jazz, these guys are doing. Those who can't take anything less challenging than an Ornette Coleman concert should stay away. I'll be back though; this is serious music done with consummate taste and style.

Did I say the space was intimate? It is small enough that you might find yourself trying to get a seat where you are not staring down the horn of a sax or clinking your glass against a snare drum. Small but not uncomfortable, even at my table right next to the door. The cover is only $8; a 10" thin crust pizza is a bit more than that, but worth it. You can order from the full La Lanterna menu, but Owl and I stuck with pizza, salad, beer and desert, which came out to about $70 with the cover, tax and tip. Not too bad for dinner and a concert for two. My only complaint was that there was no beer on tap; but the waiter brought my Sam Adams in a tall glass so I never saw the bottle. I guess that is the next best thing to being on tap!

There may be some sort of folk music renaissance going on in New York, but there is no jazz renaissance. To my knowledge, the jazz scene never died in order to be reborn. It was great to find it so richly alive in a cave below Macdougal Street, a place I have passed many times without realizing there was life, music, beer and (perhaps most importantly) blueberry pie within. You want the "real New York"? So go to the Empire State Building! Or get hijacked into some underground hole at the Parrot's Lampost. Squawck!

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