Friday, August 12, 2011

Jazz in LIC

The other night, I ran into a friend of mine on the street near my apartment in Long Island City. As so often happens (particularly with this particular friend), the subject turned to music. We started discussing shows we had seen since seeing each other last, which led to complaining about ticket prices. This led to some serious bitching about all aspects about music and the music business before we brought it all back home by talking about our own neighborhood. “There aren’t really any good places to hear live music here,” he complained.

I understood where he was coming from. While there was more going on in LIC than there was when I moved in over a decade ago, it was not nearly enough for a place that has been hyped as “the next Williamsburg” since before I knew where Williamsburg was. However, many recent transplants to the neighborhood have been artists and musicians, hungry to create a local scene. Not only that, but a number of them have been jazz musicians (and some very talented ones at that) who have been determined to make their new home a haven for jazz music. While they have had some success in finding places to play, I could still see my friend’s point about the dearth of good venues.

Yes, there are a handful of places to hear live music, but I would argue that most of them are not very good as places to really listen to it, particularly when it comes to jazz. I have heard some great music played in a couple of cafés and wine bars in the neighborhood, and while they provided a pleasant atmosphere for the music, I got the feeling that the musicians were there to complete the scene, to add some kind of bohemian authenticity. I suppose that’s all well and good, until you end up sitting next to a couple on their first date who are more interested in small talk and their bottle of rosé than the music.

And then there is the LIC Bar. More bustle than atmosphere, my major issue with that place is that it tries to be all things to all people. Whereas it used to be a lovely, chill spot without distractions like televisions, juke-boxes, and pool tables, now they boost their revenue by alternating sports nights with trivia night and, yes, music nights, all while offer cheap beer specials advertised on huge, tacky posters pinned up everywhere. Not a place that comes to mind when one mentions jazz. Perhaps I am being a bit cynical, but it is hard for me not to think that the main idea behind replacing the old photo booth with a small stage was less: “Hey, let’s create a performance space for neighborhood musicians,” than: “Hey, if we bring in musicians on nights when there’s no soccer match, their friends will come in and drink beer.” Anything to get people in the door, and, to be fair, they do get people in the door. So many people, in fact, that these days I find myself there less and less. So it seemed odd to me when a new friend of mine, a talented bass player named Diallo House, told me that his quartet would be playing there.

The night that Diallo was playing was one of those showcase nights with several bands playing with no stylistic theme unifying them. However, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the music that the other groups presented defied my expectations. On the other hand, the audience, largely, did not. Friends of the band would pay respectful, if somewhat exaggerated attention, as if dutifully making up for the rest of the people who were simply there to take advantage of three dollar Miller High Lifes and using all of their energy to make sure that their conversations were not hindered by the loud music.

It was a far cry from the last time I had seen him, playing a late-night set at Iridium, the prestigious midtown jazz club. On that night he played a solid, low-key set with a pianist and drummer, respectfully, maybe too respectfully, recreating the classic trio format for a small, but dedicated audience of uptight jazz buffs who went to heard music with the same mentality as going to Metropolitan Museum. Still, I thought that the LIC Bar seemed to misrepresent him and would not do him justice. In short, he seemed as if he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

However, it took seconds before they turned the wrong place into their place, challenging the volume of the restless patrons and playing with a blistering intensity that belittled their petty drinking activities. It was clear that here they could play the music that they wanted to play and not have to blend into the atmosphere or appease jazz traditionalists.

Drummer Ismail Lawal laid down a groove of unrelenting intensity in which one could hear hints of drummers such as Billy Cobham and Alphonse Mouzon, but also the influence of funk and hip-hop break beats. However, whereas the break beat serves to create a foundation for other layers and colors, Lawal eschewed the solid, unyielding rhythmic base, creating instead a space to be inhabited. Tight and driving enough to make a physical response from the listener an inevitability, but loose enough and with enough room for his fellow instrumentalists to play inside and not simply on top.

Feeding that groove and upping the stakes, Diallo pulled percussive, funky lines and phrasing out of his upright bass which seemed impossible or even incompatible with the staid, dignified instrument. He hunched over it, vibrating in time with the music with the kind of violence that a concerned onlooker would be inclined to call an ambulance if he didn’t have an instrument in his hands. A little lower and his chin would have been pounding out 64th notes on the belly of the instrument.

Against this, guitarist Michael Louis-Smith provided a striking counterpoint. Far less relentless than his band-mates, he played with a clean, understated tone, with his sound seeming to come straight off of jazz records of the sixties. His softer touch both balanced the commanding rhythm section while also seeming to represent the more traditional type of jazz which was only one of the many sounds that the band was using to its own ends.

Stacy Dillard on saxophone was a revelation, playing within the space with intensity and imagination. At first I thought I heard Wayne Shorter in his playing. At another time, I could swear I heard the influence of Steve Grossman. Before long, I simply felt bad about making any comparisons at all.

In short, these guys cooked. Playing the wrong room at the wrong time, clearly they had something to prove. While they played with respect for their influences, they had enough confidence in their own voices to avoid the stifling reverence to tradition which too often stagnates jazz and relegates it to background music for Sunday brunch on the Upper East Side. So what if the girl next to me would rather send texts than applaud at the end of a solo? Let her drink her cosmo and hang out with her vapid friends. I found it funny that the best place for jazz in LIC, at least for that one night, ended up being the place that seemed to have the least respect for it, leaving the musicians to play what they wanted: Music that was vital and dynamic, music that’s intelligence was only matched by its drive, music that acknowledged tradition while flouting it. This was not jazz as a museum piece. It was not new or old, it was simply and aggressively here.

So while I had to agree with my friend on the street that there were no really good music venues in long Island City, I had to assert that at least there was good music to be found in the wrong places. “And maybe one day the venues will follow,” I added, with a somewhat pessimistic tone in my voice. Before we parted, I told him that Diallo’s quartet would be playing at LIC bar again this month, and that he would do himself a favor by checking them out.

The Diallo House Quartet will be playing August 17th at the LIC Bar on Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City.

Photo by Jeremy Gordon