It's an oft-repeated trope that you can tell the best ethnic restaurants by the make-up of their clientele. Walk into a Chinese restaurant on Canal St. and see tables full of the coach-bus-to-Broadway crowd, and you can safely turn around and walk out. Hop to the place next-door and do a double-take to make sure you're not in Fujian, and you've probably hit the jackpot.
I've always thought of the Jazz Gallery as the music's New York hole-in-the-wall for people in the know. It's the club in which I consistently see the most musicians in the audience, and the club that's most single-mindedly dedicated to the music. They're non-profit; they don't have a liquor license (and discontinued long ago their offering of a suggested-donation jug of wine); and they won't charge you for a second set just because" (like the often onerous Jazz Standard). So when none other than the great Henry Threadgill walked into the club last night (with his latest album coincidentally playing over the speakers), I took it as both the norm and yet another confirmation of the Gallery's understated cool.
The set was the first of Tony Malaby's two-night run recording a live album that he told me is tentatively titled Hibiscus. For the gig, he'd enlisted the avant-garde greats William Parker (bass) and Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet) and the man I called jazz's most dexterous drummer" in my NYMag listings, Nasheet Waits. (That's not to take anything away from drummers like Brian Blade, Billy Hart, and Jeff Ballard, who could certainly forward their own competing claims to the dexterity mantle.)
The set began with Malaby's Hibiscus," a diffuse tune that left me adrift. Malaby (on sax) and Smith had the kind of one-beat-apart split voices interplay that recalled Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, but it sounded loose, almost sloppily, calling for a good screw-tightening.
Hibiscus" turned out to be an aberration—a tentative warm-up. On that number, the rhythm section had stayed in the background, but as the set continued, Waits and Parker took on more prominent roles.Part of my love for Waits stems from his impeccable taste. Most drummers are hams, quick to whip up the crowd with self-serving displays of volume and speed. Waits is understated but still ferocious.
On the third number of the night, called simply No. 2," I started to hear the music picking up steam, rushing forward, a locomotive on a straight-away. The first thing to hit me was the sensation of surging energy; it wasn't until I listened more closely that I realized Waits was the motorman. Parker, too, became more prominent, quickening his fingers to make the music both busier and fuller. Malaby and Smith are excellent hornmen, but in music so heavily improvised, it fell to beat-keepers to give the music the shape of composition and the drive of reckless, beautiful freedom.
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