A Tale of Two Jazzes
New Orleans is justly famous as the birthplace of jazz in America, but New York City remains the last mecca of jazz in the country. True, there are fine clubs scattered about the country in various cities, but there can be no serious question that, while diminished severely from its heyday, jazz in all its forms is thoroughly alive in the Big Apple.
A multitude of small venues are dispersed throughout the city from Greenwich Village north to Harlem. The principal clubs with major jazz figures playing seven nights a week include at least the Village Vanguard, Jazz Standard, Birdland, Smoke, Blue Note, Dizzy’s Club, Minton’s, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Fat Cat and Mezzrow. Many other spots have less robust calendars but still produce great music. Iridium, for example, still has some jazz but has morphed into rock and what passes for country music in some places.
Having said that, I must also disclose that I am not a big fan of vocal music other than what is called “pure New Orleans” (not Dixieland). I grew up in the age of the big band and club crooners like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. and, I guess, had my fill of it from watching them on early television. I have seen a few modern jazz vocalists and did not much enjoy them, while acknowledging their exceptional talent.
HOWEVER, that was before last Friday night when we were privileged not only to visit a new club, the Green Room 42 in the Yotel (yes, the Yotel) on 10th Avenue at 42nd Street, but to see the extraordinary Charlie Romo singing the American Songbook backed by an exceptional quartet that included the guitarist who, in a much earlier day, played with the Chairman of the Board himself, Frank Sinatra. Not only does Romo have amazing vocal chops, he infused his singing with a maturity and style that sounded like he had actually lived in the era when the content of most of that Songbook was created.
We know that he didn’t because Charlie Romo is only TWENTY-TWO YEARS OLD!! Truly. Romo has everything one could ask for in an exponent of the American Songbook, belting out standards like Mack the Knife, On the Street Where You Live, What Kind of Fool Am I, Unforgettable, My Funny Valentine, If I Ruled the World, among many others. Though it was a long show, his voice seemed to get stronger as the time passed. If that weren’t enough, he easily transitioned to more modern fare, like a medley in honor of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, sandwiched between segments of American Pie. And on and on to a standing ovation at the end.
This young man is a true prodigy and will almost certainly become a national musical figure. He seems genuinely to love singing, flirting with ladies and shaking hands with men in the audience and moved with grace and style as he navigated through the audience on at least two occasions. If I sound a bit overwhelmed, that is probably accurate, rare though it may be.
Speaking of prodigies, the very next night we went to Dizzy’s Club in the Columbus Circle building that houses Jazz at Lincoln Center to see Renee Rosnes (piano) in quartet with jazz veterans Steve Nelson (vibes), Peter Washington (bass), Lewis Nash (drums) for a very different experience than the night with Charlie Romo. Pure traditional but modern jazz in the best way imaginable.
The highlight of the evening for me was Galapagos, the named song in a suite composed by Rosnes. I lack the musical knowledge to speak to the technical elements of improvisation and complex rhythms that inhabit the jazz genre, but there is no question that these four were at the top of their game last night, ending with the packed house clamoring for more. Rosnes is brilliant on the piano, mixing jazz standards with her own compositions in a well thought out mix. She seems to favor the center of the keyboard but is never trite or repetitive. Lewis Nash’s drumming, in particular, played the perfect supporting role, avoiding, as many drummers do not, the tendency to overwhelm the other players. He is “musical” on the drums in the same way as Eric Harland and a delight to hear and watch. Nash seems to be having fun all the while he is playing and that translates to the listening experience for the audience.
These two musical experiences were as different as they could be, yet were joined by a common bond of musical identity that was unmistakable. Now some twenty-four hours later, I can still see Charlie Romo reaching out to his audience through his voice and feel the polyrhythms of the Rosnes quartet fully engaged with each other in a mystifying multi-party improvisation. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
Charlie Romo in the Green Room 42:
View from Dizzy’s Club window:
The image at the top of this post is the bandstand at Dizzy’s Club.