Mike Stern and Esperanza Spalding, Gil Scott-Heron, Wayne Krantz: NY Press reviews with photos

UPDATE: New York Press overhauled their website, breaking links to older stories. Below are copies of reviews I wrote of three favorite shows: Mike Stern with Esperanza Spalding, Gil Scott-Heron, Wayne Krantz.


photo by Eliot Caroom

Jazz cats shred underground as the world burns for Bieber

When Esperanza Spalding took Best New Artist at the Grammy’s, Justin Bieber fans shrieked and fans of jazz, our country’s best and most-ignored music, were thrilled.

In between those poles, there’s a vast crowd of people who probably don’t deliberately listen to either jazz or Bieber. To everyone in between who’s reading this, get down to the Iridium in Midtown this week to see Esperanza Spalding with guitarist Mike Stern.

You’ll see a Grammy-winning phenom in a tiny room, the sound will be excellent, and if you’re a passive or accidental jazz listener you’ll be shocked by how good the music is. Today’s best jazz is as amazing as the canonized Miles and Coltrane, and it sounds like 2011.

Simply put, go to the Iridium, and be blown away.

If you don’t normally listen to jazz, Stern is basically an archduke. He’s not king, but he is royalty: he played with Miles, has had a great career, and a loyal contingent of hardcore fans in the tiny but diehard world of jazz.

Plus the guy can shred (this will come up again).

Stern is currently in the midst of a weeklong, two-set-per-night summer stand at the Iridium, and last night, the second-set crowd of about 75 people wasn’t a sellout, but it was crowded and buzzing.

The crowd included some of the best bass players in the world.

“Will Lee is here somewhere, Vic Wooten too,” said the devoted Stern fan sitting next to me, also named Mike. The guy across the table points out Julius Pastorius in the crowd, son of bass icon Jaco Pastorius.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to credit Esperanza Spalding for the rarefied audience.

She’s a true jazz talent: magnetic, with great material as a leader, but an impact backing player as well. On upright bass, she’s all joy, ferocious intent and studied technique (some of that honed at the Berklee College of Music, where Stern studied more than a decade before Spalding was born).

Spalding scatted on a Stern tune, “Avenue B,” and soloed a little, but otherwise was a bedrock of the quartet alongside the insanely brutal and precise force of drummer Lionel Cordew.

Let this be said: Mike Stern is the star of his own show. As masterly in his craft as Scorsese, Stern strolls the stage with the excited, lanky vibe of Mick Jagger, crying out for bandmates solos when he’s not ripping out his own.

As sax player Bob Malach blew, Stern pretended to be blown of the stage by the solo, before popping back up to shred, widening Malach’s eyes. Esperanza stared on happily in disbelief, looking cartoonishly excited.

Ultimately, what does the triumph of Spalding over Bieber mean? Jazz fans rejoice and go to see her in a small New York club, while Bieber keeps selling out arenas.

Well, in the final accounting, that is the meaning: Spalding is a beacon to let you know that great jazz is alive.

No matter how bad the economics of it, jazz is still badass. It’s waiting for you, in a small club in Midtown.

An incredibly talented band with killing veterans and the rookie of the year is setting up their gear.

Your move.

Gil Scott-Heron at the Blue Note


photo by Mischa Richter

In most reviews of Gil Scott-Heron, recurring stock themes pop up.  He’s a legend who laid the groundwork for rap and hip-hop.  A thinking musician who challenged racists, militarists, homophobes, and poseur black power activists alike.  A troubled soul whose golden years have been haunted by drug addiction.

At the Blue Note Tuesday night, Scott-Heron defied anyone looking for the heavy hype and also passed over introspective  material from his just-released album, “I’m New Here.”

Instead the set was mostly funny and joyful, including small talk, stand-up comedy and rousing soul.

On his long absence from studio recording, some years of it spent in prison:

“I read one of the reviews that said I had disappeared. Wouldn’t it be good if I could add it to my act? Just come up here and fucking–‘poof!'”

“See, if you do records, then you get critics…see you all in 15 years, now.”

“Nobody comes out of jail angry… (complete quiet as the audience waits) They come out of jail happy!”

The laughter would’ve put a canned track to shame.  The jokes weren’t all inwardly directed, though.  Just as prevalent was a smattering of Seinfeld-esque bits ripping on CNN and the month of February, as well as Windows outages and cell phones that don’t charge:  “None of this is working for me. I’m back to dialing shit up and seeing people in person.”

It wasn’t all laughs.  The icebreakers gave way to classics adeptly played by a performer at peace with his current abilities.

With a Fender Rhodes and an age-deepened voice, he ran through Blue Collar,” “Show Bizness,” “Winter in America,” and “Pieces of a Man.”

Scott-Heron thought out loud about his place in music, joking about having work sampled: “It’s not all bad…hell, they give you money.  ” That gave way to more heartfelt recognition of Tupac and Common.

Blue Collar,” “Show Bizness,” “Winter in America,” and “Pieces of a Man.”

Scott-Heron thought out loud about his place in music, joking about having work sampled: “It’s not all bad…hell, they give you money.” That gave way to more heartfelt recognition of Tupac and Common.

The show closed with “Is that jazz?” and “Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate,” full band numbers with old friends on grand piano, congas and harmonica.  Scott-Heron had the audience clapping, screaming lustily, and shouting their love.

And he gave it right back through show’s end, scatting, throwing his arms out, smiling forth from his white beard.

“Enjoy yourself,” he told the crowd before they left. “Because until you do, and unless you do, no one else can enjoy you.”

Wayne Krantz at the 55


photo by Eliot Caroom

Seeing Wayne Krantz at the 55 Bar on Christopher Street is one station of the jazz lover’s hajj in New York.  That’s why some foreigners and plenty of music students waited outside in freezing January winds for the better part of an hour this week.

The line is necessary because of the restricted quarters of the 55 Bar, where Krantz and his classic trio—drummer Keith Carlock and bassist Tim Lefebvre—have played and recorded for over a decade. Over orders of tequila, Stella, cocoa, the crowd talks polyrhythmic metronomes and Brazilian 7-string guitar.

Then comes a heavy lurching bass line from Lefebvre, who purses his lips and sticks out his tongue. The nodding in the crowd is abbreviated head-banging. The trio is tight, aggressive and unrelenting.

The group centers on Krantz’s distinctive shredding guitar. Like other great instrumentalists, Krantz’s axe has a voice, shouting, singing or talking.

Although the most recent album from Krantz, Carlock and Lefebvre has actual vocals (unusual for the band), that hasn’t happened in recent shows.  Instead, they’ve played scorching music that defies the jazz label: rapid-fire drum bursts, insistent bass ostinato, and screaming guitar.  It could be some weird sub genre of prog rock. At other times the trio employs the timbral vocabulary of electronic music.

For lack of a better term, it is the sound of one of New York’s most original, and up til now, most esoteric jazz guitarists.  But for the curious, Krantz is more accessible than ever.  The new self-titled album is on iTunes (check out ‘Left it On the Playground’), and while the band is now heading to Asia and Europe, Krantz will remain a jazz mainstay in New York.