Jazz & Colors at the Met

Marika Hughes and Friends played in front of Washington Crossing the Delaware during Jazz & Colors at the Met.

Marika Hughes and Friends performed in front of Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware during Jazz & Colors at the Met.

Jazz & Colors is the kind of thing that makes New York City worth it. And it’s also the kind of thing that makes absolutely no sense to someone who doesn’t love New York City.

Jazz & Colors is an event that places multiple jazz bands in various locations and has them play the same set. Sounds simple, right? Or perhaps confusing? The best way to explain it is in the execution.

Saxophonist JD Allen and his band performed among the Met's modern art collection.

Saxophonist JD Allen and his band performed among the Met’s Modern Art collection.

It originated in Central Park, to showcase the fall foliage (the “colors”). A dozen of the park’s most scenic spots were selected. An assortment of jazz bands were recruited, each being assigned a particular spot. And they were handed a set list, the same set list, and a timetable. In effect, they were all performing the same concert but in different locations. So people could experience the same songs performed by different bands in different settings, surrounded by the mix of colors of the fall foliage.

And that’s really what jazz is all about, isn’t it? Individuality and collaboration, novelty and familiarity. A jazz musician works in concert with others to offer his own interpretation. And no jazz band, let alone jazz musician, plays the same song the same way. As such, the audience becomes part of the experience – a one-off that they share with the musicians performing. And the natural beauty of autumn in Central Park makes it all the more special.

Despite the success of the first two Jazz & Colors events in Central Park, the third one never materialized. I’m not sure who is to blame – the organizers (it was never well promoted) or the Parks Department (or Central Park Conservancy), which seems to have an affinity for more mainstream (as in corporate-sponsored) events. But it was a shame. Criminal.

Jazz & Colors: The Full Spectrum Edition
Then this happened. Jazz & Colors failed to materialize this past fall, but suddenly it was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this spring. And instead of fall foliage as the backdrop, the jazz would have world-class artworks – including a few masterpieces – as the “colors.” Brilliant.

The Jovan Alexandre Trio dazzled visitors in the Met's Arms & Armor collection.

The Jovan Alexandre Trio dazzled visitors in the Met’s Arms & Armor collection.

And it was. There was still the logistical challenge of getting from one spot to the next, from one band to the other, without missing that much of a song. The gallery locations were a lot closer than the locations in the park were. However, you could hear the music between the spots in the park, while the galleries made that more difficult. It’s also a little easier to sit down on the grass than the floor of a museum as stuffy as the Met (though many did plop themselves down without a care).

As always, some of the acts were better than others. But many of them – like JD Allen, Kimberly Thompson, and the Jovan Alexandre Trio – were quite good. In fact, my friend said she’d be interested in seeing a few of them play in a club, which I imagine is part of the attraction for the bands.

Drummer Kimberly Thompson and her band performed in front of Indonesian ancestral carvings in the Met's Melanesia gallery.

Drummer Kimberly Thompson and her band performed in front of Indonesian ancestral carvings in the Met’s Melanesia gallery.

Hopefully there was enough of an attraction for the Met as well. I have been undertaking a disturbingly well-planned tour of the museum since becoming a member at the end of last year. It’s taken me months, but I’ve seen nearly every gallery (at around 2 million square feet, it’s the largest museum in the United States). So I had no problem zipping past masterpieces to catch the next number. But I imagine others, newcomers to the museum, were a little more attentive to the artwork and hopefully opted to at least come back for another visit or even become a member.

If so, then we might see more of Jazz & Colors at the Met. Perhaps it will even become a regular occurrence. Though I’d still love to see it back in Central Park for the fall. And if that fails, what about the High Line? Prospect Park? Or even Randall’s Island?

Jazz & Colors is such a beautiful concept that I can’t imagine it going away. But that’s the nature of jazz, isn’t it? Sure, there are recordings – delightful ones, at that. But you really have to be there. It’s in the moment. And Jazz & Colors is one of those quintessential New York moments.

JD Allen and his band best captured the spirit of Jazz & Colors with their performance in the Met's Modern Art mezzanine.

JD Allen and his band best captured the spirit of Jazz & Colors with their performance in the Met’s Modern Art mezzanine.

Additional images of Jazz & Colors at the Met can be seen here.

Jazz and Colors 2013

The Kahlil Kwame Bell Trio play by the Pool in Central Park as part of Jazz & Colors 2013 (left-right: Chris Hemingway on alto sax, Kahlil Kwame Bell on drums, and Lonnie Plaxico on bass).

Saturday was indeed the perfect day in Central Park. I went to the 2013 Jazz & Colors Festival, which featured 30 bands in 30 locations around the park playing one incredible set list.

The Outer Bridge Ensemble took the high ground at the Mount St. Vincent Landscape in Central Park (left-right: Javier Diaz on the congas, David Freeman on drums, Mike Noordzy on bass, Mark DeJong on saxophone, and Steve Hudson on keyboards).

I started by the East Meadow with the Gregg August Quartet, who were slow to start and somewhat uninspired. And then I moved on to the Outer Bridge Ensemble, up by the Mount St. Vincent Landscape, and this quartet completely blew me away. There were a lot of people playing instruments in the park that day, but these cats were playing music. And like any true jazz artists, they took the standards and made them their own.

The following is a clip from the Outer Bridge Ensemble’s launch of Maiden Voyage, in which they got us all on board before setting sail:

As tempted as I was to park myself in front of these guys for the rest of the day, I wanted to move on and see a few other bands. After all, that’s kind of the whole point have having 30 bands in 30 locations playing the same set.

Chris Hemingway working the alto sax by the Pool for Kahlil Kwame Bell.

So I slipped over to the Pool, one of the most picturesque places in the park, to catch Kahlil Kwame Bell. It was indeed a lovely, but the music wasn’t moving me. And the crowd was more transient.

Looking for inspiration, I boogied up the hill to check out Lakecia Benjamin & Soul Squad atop the Great Hill. If it was funk night, that might have worked for me. But covering the standards, they reminded me more of Murph & the Magic Tones from The Blues Brothers movie.

So I decided to follow my heart and head back to the Outer Bridge Ensemble at the Mount St. Vincent Landscape. I hiked down through the Ravine, which is among the most densely wooded and rustic trails in the park, with the fall foliage in full swing, and arrived just in time to catch them bringing Take the A Train into the station:

I’m wondering if there’s something about that spot, the Mount St. Vincent Landscape. Last year, at Jazz & Colors 2012, the Kevin Hays Trio held that very same ground, and they were by far the best band that day as well.

Lakecia Benjamin & Soul Squad play atop the Great Hill during Jazz & Colors 2013 (left-right: Joe Blaxx on drums, Lakecia Benjamin on sax, and Jonathon Powell on trumpet).

What I don’t understand is how people can walk through the park and not stop to listen to music. Free music. Even if it’s just for a song. It’s not like anyone is rushing to an appointment in the park, on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Though I suppose I should be careful what I wish for. Like those young ladies who decided to sit down and, instead of actually listening to jazz, talk incessantly about how they don’t understand it.

As with last year’s event, the attendance seemed sparse, as if most people just stumbled upon it. If I hadn’t been on an email list for local music, even I – despite being mad with joy over last year’s event – wouldn’t have heard about this year’s Jazz & Colors. And that’s a shame.

Looking back, this is why I love New York. On a brisk but bright autumn afternoon, I can wander into the park and be entertained by a number of talented musicians with a backdrop that would make Renoir horny. I wish they did this sort of thing more often, but then maybe it wouldn’t be as special if they did.

Many thanks to the organizers of Jazz & Colors. And to the folks at the Central Park Conservancy. And, above all, to the musicians – especially the Outer Bridge Ensemble: Steve Hudson on keyboards, Mark DeJong on saxophone, Mike Noordzy on bass, David Freeman on drums, and Javier Diaz on the congas.

The Outer Bridge Ensemble at the Mount St. Vincent Landscape were the highlight of Jazz & Colors 2013 (left-right: Javier Diaz on the congas, David Freeman on drums, Mark DeJong on saxophone, Mike Noordzy on bass, and Steve Hudson on keyboards).

Jazz in Central Park

Jazz&Colors2012ALast weekend I wandered around Central Park for a bit. The fall colors were in full glory. I thought it was one of those perfect park moments. I was wrong. Well, sort of.

This Saturday, Nov. 9th, Central Park will serve as the showcase for Jazz & Colors – 30 bands in 30 locations simultaneously playing one exceptional set list. I attended this last year (see the clip below) and it was as if I took the subway to amazing but missed my stop (i.e., it was beyond amazing). It’s one of those events that reminds you why you want to live in New York City.

Jazz&Colors2012BThe concert kicks off at noon (fortunately jazz musicians tend to keep the same hours that I do), with the first set running from 12:00-1:30. There will then be a 30-minute intermission, which should allow you sufficient time to move to a different location, with the second set running from 2:00-3:00. That will be followed by another intermission and then an encore from 3:30-4:00, which should give each band a chance to do its own thing.

The First Set: 12:00-1:30
Caravan – Juan Tizol
Bemsha Swing – Thelonious Monk
Cherokee – Ray Noble
A Night in Tunisia – Dizzy Gillespie
So What – Miles Davis
Footprints – Wayne Shorter
Maiden Voyage – Herbie Hancock
Take 5 – Paul Desmond
Tenor Madness – Sonny Rollins

The Second Set: 2:00-3:00
Take The A Train – Billy Strayhorn
Harlem Nocturne – Earl Hagen
Stompin’ at the Savoy – Chick Webb
Grand Central – John Coltrane
Central Park North – Thad Jones and Mel Lewis
New York City – Gil Scott Heron/Brian Jackson
A Foggy Day in London Town – George Gershwin
Las Vegas Tango – Gil Evans
We Live in Brooklyn Baby – Harry Whitaker

Visit the Jazz & Colors Central Park site to get all the details. You can simply wander into the park on Saturday and listen for the music. But I recommend downloading this map and doing a little research – matching the prettiest settings with the most interesting bands. Like the park itself, you’ll find a tremendous variety of artists performing – and no two groups will tackle the set list in the same way.

The Lucky Chops Brass Band Hits Harlem

I have yet to make it up to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, but I did meet them halfway the other night when they hosted an outdoor concert at El Sito Feliz Garden on West 104th Street in Spanish Harlem. It was the band that drew me there: The Lucky Chops Brass Band.

LCBBI had never heard these boys play. And boys they were, in their early 20s. But I have a soft spot for brass bands and, while there is an abundance in places like New Orleans, you don’t seem to get a whole lot of them up here in New York City. And Lucky Chops did not disappoint. In fact, I was beyond surprised by how good, authentic, inventive, and entertaining these musicians were.

First of all, how many brass bands do you know with a baritone sax? They’ve got a kid who can play the shit out of that thing, and manage to dance while doing it. The trombone player seems to be that band’s leader, as well as an extremely likable fellow who offers up the occasional vocal accompaniment. Add to that equally strong sax and trumpet players, a classically understated drummer, and a tuba player that’s even shorter than I am. It’s a magical mix of talent, energy, and passion.

The Lucky Chops Brass Band at El Sito Feliz Garden in Spanish Harlem.

The Lucky Chops Brass Band at El Sito Feliz Garden in Spanish Harlem.

I don’t know if this is the regular line-up, as it’s the only time I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them perform (so far!). But what I did gather is they are a collective from the tri-state area with the core emerging from a Bronx high school – all too recently for my gray-haired head.

Rather than being a bunch of wannabes, this quintet offered its own take on classics like Joe Avery and Let’s Do It Again. They reached heavenly heights with gospel favorites like I’ll Fly Away and This Little Light of Mine. And they pioneered brilliant interpretations of R&B hits like I Want You Back and My Girl. Mix in some blues, a little ska, and a touch of klezmer and you’ve got the winning repertoire of the Luck Chops Brass Band.

The Lucky Chops Brass Band at El Sito Feliz Garden in Spanish Harlem.

The Lucky Chops Brass Band at El Sito Feliz Garden in Spanish Harlem.

Second only to the sounds they make is the performance they give. Traditional New Orleans brass bands are known for adding a little theater to their stage performance, and these kids certainly don’t lose sight of that – as many northern imitators do. Not only do they deliver musically, but they also put on a lively show. Even the deaf will be entertained!

The gig I saw was the last of the National Jazz Museum’s summer garden concert series for the 2013 season (and the light was fading, so please forgive the quality of these photos and videos). But you can catch the boys at Battery Harris in Williamsburg, where they appear to be regulars, or visit the band’s Web site for upcoming shows. I know I’ll find my way over there this fall to get another fix, and thank my lucky stars for discovering the Lucky Chops Brass Band!