Lincoln Center Jazz – Vibes of Stefon Harris and NYYS Jazz Orchestra

New York Youth Symphony Jazz Orchestra Swinging
with guest artist Stefon Harris

The Appel Room, Lincoln Center’s site for large Jazz concerts, is actually housed inside Time Warner Center, overlooking Columbus Circle. And when I say overlooking, the performers stand before a steep amphitheater, with an enormous wall of framed glass at their back. As the sun sets on 59th Street and Central Park, the city lights provide a ceaseless kaleidoscope of color and motion.

But those exquisite surroundings were upstaged yet again by the red blooded Jazz brought to life before our eyes by the superb musicianship in the New York Youth Symphony’s Jazz Orchestra, with Director Matt Holman conducting. Featuring a richly textured new work by composer Nate Kimball and a spellbinding performance by special guest, vibraphonist Stefon Harris.

Stefon Harris Jazz at Lincoln Center
Master of Mallets, Stefon Harris      (photos: M. Krupit)

The theme for this season’s final Jazz concert was “Feelin’ the Vibes”, featuring well-loved music popularized by the great vibraphonists like Lionel Hampton, Cal Tjader, Terry Gibbs, and Milt Jackson. And four compositions by Mr. Harris.

The night kicked off with Benny Goodman’s Don’t Be That Way from 1935, a big band extravaganza with popping horns that lit a fire under every seat in the place. Matt Holman’s arrangement of Joao Donato’s Sabor from 1962 added some Latin spice to the mix, and then Milt Jackson’s Bag’s Groove from 1958 stirred things into a smooth concoction with an inner city edge, that went down easy and then shook things up until the whole room was jumping, before cooling way down at the end, leaving a tingling, revitalized spirit.

That was quite a three tune warm up, which set the bar rather high for Mr. Kimball’s Karma, the commissioned piece of music performed with the composer sitting in the front row, near the piano.

A graduate of the Downbeat Award-winning Jazz program at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, Kimball continues his postgraduate studies as a composer, while performing with his own modern-day big band. And Karma was indeed modern, fresh and inventive.

Starting out with layers of syncopation in the reeds and percussion, punctuated by brassy swells, it evolved into a complex and witty piece. With a feint towards Gil Evans, it sailed off into new territory, continuing to surprise throughout, as crescendos melted away into a solo from a lonesome sax or sprightly guitar. And time and again the horns joined forces to weave a rich and textured tapestry, as a backdrop to whatever strain was rising to the forefront. His work utterly satisfying, Mr. Kimball stood for an extended and much deserved ovation.

After this modern gem, we were returned to Jazz’s heyday, with a version of Moonglow, from 1933, one of those timeless tunes I never grow tired of hearing. But this was not the floating dreamboat of guitarist George Barnes or the original foxtrot by his pal, fiddler Joe Venuti. Conductor Holman chose instead hornman Al Cohn’s arrangement as a springboard to something right out of a 1930s burlesque hall. The drive of muted speakeasy trumpets and an evocative bump and grind rhythm section set the saucy mood. But it was the slinky trombones that got so low down and dirty I thought they’d summon the ghost of Gypsy Rose Lee right then and there.

Part way through Moonglow I noticed an unusual tightness in the corners of my cheekbones. I then realized I had been grinning to such a wide extent it was becoming painful, but I just couldn’t stop it.

It was a terrific first half, and ended on an even higher note thanks to Hamp’s Boogie Woogie, an uptown jitterbug from 1944, with Lionel Hampton’s vibes conjured up on Billy Ruegger’s guitar.

One of the most interesting aspects of the evening was the fact the first half was dedicated to vibraphonists, while the lead parts intended for vibes were transferred to other instruments. Ruegger and his 1955 Gibson ES-175 were called upon time and again for solos across the evening, and rose above and beyond the occasion each and every time.

But then, solos were offered up all around, with pianist Jacob Gelber and drummer Fred Griggs standing out when they weren’t providing the backbone for everyone else to stand upon, and special mention goes out to the phenom on bass, Nick Dunston.

Each and every member of the horns had solos, which varied wonderfully, and they all made the most of them. From the highest cutting edge of the trumpets and flugelhorns blown by Joe Gullace, Krystopher Williams, Dustin Beardsley and Andrew Digrius, to the wonderful wallow from Lauren Wood’s baritone sax, the muscled altos hoisted by Adrian Condis, and Ryan Park-Chan who was presented with this year’s Director’s Award for Commitment and Achievement, to the wailing tenors taken to task by Sam Torres and Luca Provenzano, and those gliding, barking bones punched out into the audience by Chris Misch, Dan Simms, Spencer Randle and Jack Noble, the entire ensemble was excellent, and the solos of each rose like flares off the roiling surface of the musical sun that lit up the Appel room from start to finish.

And that was only up to the intermission.

Stefon Harris Jazz at Lincoln Center (photo: T. Oduyoye)
Stefon Harris: You look happy, and that makes me happy (photo: T. Oduyoye)

The second half opened with the introduction of Stefon Harris, an award winning composer and front man for his own ensemble, Blackout, who have earned four Grammy nominations.

The first number was a warm and buoyant rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s The Nearness of You followed by four Stefon Harris compositions. Harris said he choose the name Blues for Denial for the work commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center in tribute to Milt Jackson and Lionel Hampton, because it’s hard to play.

He then proceeded to ask the audience for a starting note. Settling on two that were hummed, he began to improvise, at times accompanied by his own voice, sometimes laughing, sometimes scatting along with the notes ringing off the vibes. Rising in tempo and complexity, he came to an abrupt halt, letting the chimes of the last exhilarating run sustain out into the ether before the band joined in for a bopping hothouse of mile-a-minute Jazz.

Part acrobat, part magician, Harris enveloped himself in the round and ringing tones from his vibraphone, only to switch to the woody plunk and rolls of a marimba. But whether his mallets were hammering away at metal or rosewood, or stretching wide to play both at once, he coaxed out melody and raised cacophony like a shaman communing with his spirit guides.

The second Harris composition was a joyful excerpt from a 2007 concert-length suit he calls Dancing Moon, Laughing Stars, commissioned for the 150th anniversary of the Unitarian Church, beautifully arranged for the orchestra by Matt Holman.

Harris confided that it happened to be his 14th wedding anniversary, but then assured the audience that he and his wife had already been celebrating for two weeks, one day for each year, so we wouldn’t worry about him getting in trouble for being truant. And then the orchestra joined him for Let’s Take a Trip to the Sky, written for his wife in 2012. This expansive composition proved transportive. I cannot tell you where my mind traveled to with the soundtrack provided by Harris’ mallets and Holman’s young musicians, but it was a mellow, unhurried place of sweet breezes and cool waters. I was loathe to leave it, until I heard the next tune.

I think my favorite piece was the last. The Velvet Couch has an infectious funky 70s groove punctuated by big, brassy phrasing, pulsing bass runs, and a hip-swinging melody that could have been the theme from some mod caper movie with a cast including James Coburn, Sidney Poitier, and Raquel Welch.

And then, they chose to end the evening as it started, with Benny Goodman, as Harris, Holman, and the orchestra returned for an encore and lit up the Appel room one final time with a jet-fueled rendition of Flyin’ Home.

As Stefon Harris put it, supporting an organization such as the New York Youth Symphony Jazz Orchestra is vitally important, “celebrating creativity, celebrating diversity, celebrating tolerance, all these incredible values we hope to instill in our society. It is not just about making great musicians. It is about providing opportunities for people to dream really big.”

And while it is a good and important thing to provide opportunity for our youth to learn, and grow and enrich our culture and society, this is also wonderful entertainment. I mean, come on! World-class big band Jazz, at Lincoln Center, for $20? This is an extraordinary value, and spectacular music, performed spectacularly. So keep on the lookout for their next concert.

It is a wonderful way to spend an evening. Or for that matter an afternoon.

And this coming Sunday afternoon, is the New York Youth Symphony Spring Concert at Carnegie Hall, at 2 PM. And the tickets are also only $20!

So bring the kids, as you will rarely get a chance to take them to Carnegie Hall at those prices for the thrilling experience of a full classical orchestra, live and in person. And if you don’t have kids, borrow some. Or at least bring a friend. They will be impressed.

And that is one man’s word on…

Lincoln Center Jazz with Stefon Harris and the New York Youth Symphony Jazz Orchestra

NYYS Jazz at Lincoln Center
(photo: NYYS)

Related Links:

NYYS Jazz Orchestra

Stefon Harris

Matt Holman

Other posts of interest:

Review of the McCrindle Concert at Carnegie Hall

Laurence Juber and Martin Guitars at the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Distinguished Writers Gather for Punk Reunion

D.B.S reunites for the first time in 24 years

Friday night, May 23, a group of veteran professional writers will gather in Brooklyn, where they will be rocking out at Freddy’s bar, on 5th Avenue in the South Slope. The occasion is the reunion gig of a most unusual band from 1980s New York, Dondi’s Bloody Sputum, a send up of all things Punk, in parody, in satire, but also in homage, and always with suitable irreverence.

Ten years after the Sex Pistols sucker punched the queen, and the Dead Boys had spit on, well just about everyone, the music world was still reeling from the smack down that Punk had provided. When who should appear but Dondi’s Bloody Sputum, the band that chose a nice little orphan for their namesake, and then beat the snot out of him. Their name refers to the newspaper comic strip about the kind of goody-two-shoes that would have suffered habitual schoolyard beatings in real life, even after surrendering his lunch money.

D.B.S.  rocks reunion

The same year that Spinal Tap took the mickey out of hard rock, D.B.S. put a skewer through the heart of Punk. Here were not pimply toughs from a city ghetto, vomiting songs about throwing bricks in Brixton. The members of D.B.S met at university in sleepy Athens, Ohio, and after graduation, they reconvened in Queens. There, they wrote songs, mostly thrashing head-bangers about the tribulations facing middle-class white kids from comfortable homes, with titles like “I’m Thinking of Trying a Croissan’wich,” “Martin Sheen Sweats Well,” and “Dogs Like Cheese.”

They were not your everyday safety pin pierced Punk songs. Others include the eerie ode to food poisoning, Sushi is My Krytonite.

Be suspicious of rolled up fishes
Avoid places that don’t use dishes
Sushi is my Kryptonite
Sushi is my crypt tonight

And then there’s the rocker Rodeo Clown.

I’ve got a friend
His name is Bim
He works down at the Square Gar-den
He only works about three weeks a year
Heardin’ them steers when the rodeo’s here
He’s got the dumbest fuckin’ job in town
He’s a rodeo clown

Many of the songs are indeed quite funny, but they are also clever in the way they captured the blistering essence of Punk music, often mixing the raw edge of the Stooges with the finesse of the Minute Men. This is not surprising, considering the artistic background of every member of D.B.S., all of whom went on to critical acclaim as a writer of weightier material.

Then and Now

 Silent “Phil” NoirPhil Noir rocks reunion gig

 Mark DropNoir Reunion

 Hugh BryssHugh Bryss rocks reunion

 Henry TenneyBryss reunion

 Patty MeltKitty Head rocks reunion

 Jane YoungHead reunion

 Steve ShapeSteve Shape rocks reunion

 Steve SpiegelShape reunion

Back in the day, Mark Drop and Steve Spiegel (aka guitarist Silent “Phil” Noir and drummer Steve Shape) were sharing a house in Astoria, earnestly trying to sell scripts to popular sitcoms like Moonlightening. Their big break came with the Arsenio Hall Show, which took them to L.A. in 1989. Both men live there today with their respective families, after long careers spent writing popular shows for television, as well as for Disney theme parks and cruise ships.

Under that same roof was found acting student Henry Tenney (singer Hugh Bryss), who went on to appear in plays and on TV. He also spent some years as head writer for VH-1’s Pop-up Video, and today he writes mainly for foodie television, featuring celebs like Bobby Flay and Mo Rocca.

The acting work of Jane Young (bassist Kitty Head) was seen on stage, TV and film, and she had several of her own plays produced in New York City. Young later received her post grad degree in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence, and has since shifted her focus to screenplays and short stories.

And Trey Kay (guitarist Big Mike) performed with NYC improv troupes before becoming a long-time contributor to Public Radio. A Spencer fellow, and Peabody award-winning journalist, Kay recently produced the documentary The Long Game: Texas’ Ongoing Battle for the Direction of the Classroom, and is now developing a new show, This is the Thing, with host Alec Baldwin.

Kay was unable to attend rehearsals for the reunion, due to his busy schedule. But it is rumored he will return to New York to witness the gig.

 D.B.S. punk rock reunion  debs reunion rehearsal

With only two rehearsals after 24 years apart, the edges may be even rougher for their first reunion gig than they were at their actual first gig in a Brooklyn loft 30 years ago.  None the less, those fortunate to have seen D.B.S. performing at rock spots like the Gas Station in the East Village, will be happily meeting up at Freddy’s backroom, this Friday, to relive those haymaking nights under halogen lights.

Those who have never heard D.B.S. will be in for a rare treat.

Matt Wickline rocks reunionThe band recorded no albums. However, some rehearsal studio bootlegs have surfaced from time to time, and they include cuts featuring the saxophone of Matt Wickline, an old friend of the band.

No stranger to satire and parody, Wickline won his first Emmys writing for David Letterman, before heading west to develop popular shows like In Living Color and Martin, as well as his own critically acclaimed cult hit The Clinic, co-written by Wickline, D.B.S. guitarist Mark Drop, and the late Sandy Frank. It also featured D.B.S. front man Henry Tenney as the troubled son of the stodgy doctor played by Adam West.

Inquiries as to whether Wickline might attend the D.B.S reunion received the following reply: “Piss off, you stupid git, before I clobber til you slobber.”

And you too can curl your lip into a sneer, don a torn t-shirt, and get your Punk on, with D.B.S. this Friday night at 9 PM.

Freddy’s is found at 627 5th Ave, Brooklyn, between 17th and 18th street, R train to Prospect Ave, walk one block up the slope.

— Len Berger, Berlin

The Cheese Beads circa 1991 D.B.S. punk rock reunion

Guest writer Len Berger (foreground) was lead guitarist for the Cheese Beads, a 1990s speed lounge act that included three former members of Dondi’s Bloody Sputum.

Seamus Heaney Celebration

Last night, at the Cornelia Street Café, there was a reading with music, celebrating the works of the late Seamus Heaney, who died last August, at age 74.

This is but one of many similar poetry readings organized by veteran New York actor Paul Hecht, which at times feature original music by Ellen Mandel, former composer in residence at the Jean Cocteau Rep during its glory years.

Among the most important poets of the twentieth century, Seamus Heaney was a professor at Harvard and Oxford, simultaneously, and included among his ample accomplishments is the most compelling modern translation of Beowulf, published in 2001 after decades of work. Yet, Heaney’s own poetry ignores the grandeur of epic saga in favor of the intimacy observed among everyday lives, conjured in a voice that recognizes the irony found in how the smallest moments prove to be the most transformative.

Many of the poems are set among the peat bogs and turf lodge farms of his childhood in 1940s Northern Ireland, while some relive the bomb-strewn Troubles of the 1970s. But like other great Irish writers, the poetry reaches beyond the expression of what it is to be Irish, to reveal universal facets about what it means to be human. And like his predecessors, Yates, Shaw, and Beckett, Heaney’s efforts were awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1995.

Paul Hecht reading Seamus Heaney Cornelia St. Cafe

Paul Hecht reading Seamus Heaney
(photos: L. Flanagan)

Living Language

Which poems and excerpts to include from such a career, in a scant 90 minutes, was no easy feat. But Hecht provided a judicious balance between the weighty and the whimsical, and he and his fellow readers, Elizabeth Mackay and Kim Sykes, made their interpretations seem effortless with ease, so that their own enjoyment of the language proved infectious. The timbre of the women’s voices added highlights and brightness to the evening, set off by the sonorous shadows in the voice of Hecht, rich with resonance, and wide and deep in range, with just enough gravel to mark the boundaries.

The proceedings opened and closed with passages from Heaney’s Nobel acceptance speech, filled with its own poetic imagery. But none quite so distilled and served up like the actual poems read aloud. These included Casualty with its wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time death suffered by the pub crawler who was “…blown to bits/Out drinking in a curfew/Others obeyed…”

And the awkward romance of Twice Shy.

Our Juvenilia
Had taught us both to wait,
Not to publish feeling
And regret it all too late –
Mushroom loves already
Had puffed and burst in hate.

There was The Skunk, a lighthearted piece from the poet’s brief period at Cal Berkley, and Death of a Naturalist, which tells of a young boy’s interest in nature being cut short when he finds out his beloved tadpoles grow up to be “gross-bellied frogs … Some sat poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.”

A whole section was dedicated to the Glanmore Sonnets, written after moving back to the country in the 1980s, this time south of Dublin, where

We have our burnished bay tree at the gate,
Classical, hung with the reek of silage
From the next farm, tart-leafed as inwit

Eleanor Taylor sings Seamus Heany w Ellen MandelAnd on four occasions a poem would be read by Hecht, Mackay, or Sykes, and then it would be sung beautifully by soprano Eleanor Taylor, accompanied on the piano by Ellen Mandel, who has made her own art form of setting great poems to music.

In fact, Mandel and a collection of singers will be performing her compositions this coming Saturday, May 17, at The Wild Project, 195 East 3rd St., to signify the release of her latest CD, There Was a World, featuring the words of Seamus Heaney, William Shakespeare, E.E. Cummings, and others.

Last night, one of the Heaney poems set to music was When All the Others Were Away at Mass. Written upon the death the poet’s mother, it is specific and deeply personal, while also universal in its scope.

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.


Upcoming readings in this series at the Cornelia Street Café include:

Bloomsday – Monday June 16 – James Joyce w/ Paul Hecht and others

Monday August 18 – Annual Ogden Nash Bash – w/ Paul Hecht and featuring Ellen Mandel

Monday September 29th – TS Elliot


Kent State – It CAN happen here

May 4 seems so long ago. May 4 seems like it’s barely passed….

Forty-four years ago, on May 4th 1970, Walter Cronkite interrupted thousands of family dinners to inform us that soldiers in the Ohio State National Guard had opened fire on anti-war protesters on the campus of Kent State University, killing four students and wounding nine others.

While hardly the first time time government forces had fired upon unarmed citizens in America, it was the first time such a thing had happened in the era of modern mass media. Along with Watergate, it forever changed the public’s perception of, and trust in, their government.

One of my favorite songwriters, Neil Young penned the protest anthem Ohio, and within days Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had recorded it and released it across the country. It became a best-seller and the anthem for  anti-goverment sentiment.

This is a rather different song from one of my other favorite songwriters, Don Rauf of Life in a Blender, that presents one of his famously quirky fictional characters on a personal errand sometime after the tragic events of May 4, 1970. And it is entitled simply Kent.