My Night at Birdland. Matt Lavelle.
Back in the early 90's I was playing at a jam session at Smalls in NYC at like 5am and I was out of gas,.falling asleep between songs.I recall waking up to Nicholas Payton playing Giant Steps with no pianist,.and then later playing Bass,.and then even drums.His virtuosity even then was stellar.Now 2010,about 18 years later,.I went down those stairs,.to lose those cares,.down in Birdland,.to see the Nicholas Payton seXXXtet,.and it left me tWiStEd inside.This is as close as I will ever come to a review.
OK,.first of all,.there are no stairs anymore,.you just walk right into the reception area.Birdland 2010 is really part of the Times Square NYC tourist area,.and tourists are at least half of the audience.Jazz tourists most often don't care who's playing,.they just want to hear some Jazz,.and walk in with a general sense of hoping to be entertained,.or hoping to be turned out with swing madness.The staff at Birdland is cool,.and their food kicks ass.I've only been there twice,.but for food,.I would go back.For music?
Not so much.
Man,.what I saw was a FAR CRY from what I've heard on records,.especially Trane live at Birdland.What I found missing was the WRINKLE.The THING,.you know,.play like it's the last day of your life,.or the day of your transition..(what I listen to as pontificate)
Nicholas Payton has been blessed with a career playing Jazz.Is there a cost or price to pay for having that today? I'm not hating on his music or him,.so much as what I experienced and how that relates to the big picture,.being Jazz in 2010.Nicholas has style for sure,.way more than me.(More suits than me to,.I have none) To be fair to NYC,.the IRIDIUM still books aggressively,.Blue Note opens up a little on some Mondays,.and the Vangaurd sometimes has folks that can push boundaries and might get close to the real thing,..or at least what I consider to be the real thing,.(self-righteousness alert).Birdland,.like every club in town,.books Joe Lovano,.who I know is aware of what I'm talking about.It's a trip how the same group of guys keep getting the same gigs at these places over and over.RISK is frowned upon in this scene."
Back at Birdland,.the set starts off great,..with a slightly open vamp,..out of time,.that almost has a Trane vibe.It's a welcoming into their musical world,.and also lets you know your entering a special place..I was impressed and thought this might really take off.
BUT,.they could not have gone further away from where they started.A singer joined Nicholas and they sang a lite,happy,simple thing with lyrics about Love in some fashion.Felt like Roberta Flack with a different sound,.and missing that Roberta Flack thing.Long solos then came,.and the environment,.(the musical one),.didn't really give them inspiration to really do it.This was the SAFETY ZONE.Nicholas himself took the microphone and sang as well,...smooth.Then,.Nicholas and the singer left and went backstage.
This is where I felt like I was falling down a hill out of control.Like I wrote in my last post,.Growing Pains,.I want to like music.Nicholas band,.the sexxxtet had a moment of,."what's happening next,."and then we got a LONG PERCUSSION SOLO.
Started like a ballad on percussion,.lots of space and brushes.I thought I was going to lose it.Don't get me wrong,.I witnessed Sonny Rollins force a percussionist to trade with him on a ballad outside in front of Lincoln center under an incredible post storm sky,.with like a thousand people watching.I love percussion,.and know people that are masters,.and could play a whole solo show.
That's not what was happening here.Time and time again,.Nicholas would leave the stage and give his band long solos.I can dig that,.the being generous to your band part,..but these guys just were not carrying the load.The audience was nervous,distracted,.and basically just waiting for Nicholas to light the place up,.he's a fantastic trumpet player.
He made them wait however,.experimenting with really slow,quiet grooves that took a long time to take off,..like waiting for your food too long at a restaurant.He even got into a sound thing and just blew air through the horn into the mic at one point,.an almost avant act,.and how I sometimes end a ballad that transcended.He came out a did a circular breathing thing,.almost like an exercise,.because he didn't do anything with it.Unless it's RRK,.or David S. Ware,.or HARRY CARNEY,.I'm done with circular breathing myself.
Nicholas finally let it go on a standard.What I have written previously about Freddie Hubbard was proven as what went down just would never be possible without Freddie opening the door to this way of playing years ago,..kicking the trumpets ass.As a trumpet player,.yeah,.I can say he has conquered the horn,.no doubt.What's difficult he makes easy.Where many trumpet players get weak,.he's strong.
They came back to the vocal groove thing,.but Nicholas seemed more and more restless,.like he just wanted to blow.The THING was coming on,.'but they kept the heat turned down,.even though he ended on a literal high note.Satisfactory applause,.no encore,.and the announcement that you can stay for the second set at 11:30 if you want,.otherwise,..have a safe trip home,.and we hope nobody made you feel UNSAFE during your stay here at Birdland.The price tag for this kind of night was too high.I didn't have any bread for the t-shirt or the mug! (sob).(Hypocrisy alert:I want to play all the NYC Jazz clubs,.my OWN way.)
What I heard takes me back to the old question,.is virtuosity enough? For some people,.it is.For tourists,.yes.But I cant help but think about what you do with it.What about the IDEAS? Those choices.Everybody has choices to make,.there's no avoiding it.
The whole thing also had me drug on the same old tired issue,.is JAZZ itself done.I know it's not done,.not even close,.but what I saw made me see once again how far we have fallen.I read recently someone suggesting that with no JAZZ GOD to come and save us by moving the music forward,.were trapped and have repertoire as our only option.Half the concerts,.more than half these days,.are tributes.We have elevated our history as being MORE IMPORTANT AND VALID THAN US.
That's what I feel is missing these days more than anything.OUR OWN MUSIC.Pleasing the live audience has always been an issue going way back.Miles playing the same tunes over and over,.Duke playing his special requests" over and over,(well,.hey,.if you write classic after classic).I saw Dizzy play TUNISIA at the Blue Note right in front of me.How many times did he play it?
Anyway,..there's my rant,.every now and then I end up going there.I know we're going to get out of this rut.I personally know musicians who still play like it was their last night on Earth every night.I personally know musicians that work hard on their own music.I know musicians who have developed such an exciting,original thing,.that they could play solo concerts.I know musicians who still deal with the spiritual evolution created by John Coltrane.I know musicians who come up with new stuff every night.All of this is happening in NYC right.now.
Just not down in Birdland.