Scrapbook from the Apple

After decades admiring its music from afar, Derek Ansell makes a long-anticipated trip to New York and seeks out the old bebop haunts

"I like New York in June" sang Frank Sinatra and although it took me many years to get there, I finally did, in June and I liked it.

First impressions were pretty much what I would have expected if perhaps not quite so sharply defined in reality. The skyscrapers stretching up to and seemingly reaching the sky. The way those huge buildings appear to dwarf you in every sense and the noise of traffic, car horns blowing freely and people in hordes, on the move. At all hours, day and night and into the small hours.

I’ve always wanted to stroll through Central Park and I’m particularly glad that I chose a Saturday morning because when my daughter and I were half way round we came across brassman Ryo Sasaki’s quintet - Rob Block on guitar, Chris Bacas on tenor sax, Jim Green on bass and Daisuk Konmo on drums - playing up a storm of bop in front of about a dozen people.

According to the card he gave me, Ryo usually plays in a trio he leads at Sage in Brooklyn at weekends and at the J House in Greenwich CT every Thursday night. However, we gratefully settled for the stirring morning and afternoon sets in the park which, incidentally, didn’t require a cover charge although there was no booze on sale!

Ryo’s flugelhorn sent a mellow stream of hard bop floating out across the park with Bacas offering post-Coltrane tenor sax and the band swinging merrily. You can catch him on Google Play, iTunes and Spotify, if you’re into that stuff, playing in a trio featuring his flugel, Bill Crow’s bass and Greg Ruggierro’s guitar.

Back at the hotel I met Ori and Ziv Damari, joint managers and, as you might guess, brothers, who manage Eli Degibri, an Israeli tenor saxophonist who has been making quite an impression on the NYC jazz scene although he has now returned to Israel.

Eli's latest CD, which they gave me, (Cliff Hangin’ - Degibri Records 1007) has just received a five-star rating in Downbeat magazine and his next album will be a set of classic Hank Mobley compositions. The connection was my book about Mobley, Workout, which they had read. They requested I write the sleevenotes for the CD which I shall be pleased to do.

One place I certainly didn’t want to miss was Minton’s club, still going strong and heartily recommended by my eldest daughter - not for the music but for the exotic food served there! It was, in fact, as good as she suggested but the music we listened to while eating it was, to put it mildly, a bit of a surprise. Shades of Thelonious Monk, Charlie Christian and Charlie Parker experimenting with fresh sounds and giving birth to early bop? Not on your Nellie.

Today’s Minton jazz band features trumpeter Dandy Wellington (pictured above right by Steven Acres) and his combo playing 1930s and 40s swing-era music. I chatted to him between sets and he told me that there is still a big demand for the older jazz in the city and regular gigs there attract good sized audiences. Well, it’s all jazz and as Ellington once famously said there are only two kinds of music - good and bad. This was good music and as most of the barriers are now, thankfully, broken down, we can enjoy all styles no matter how long in the tooth they may be.

Next it was off to 17 W 126th street in Harlem, for my girls to photograph me outside the brownstone house where, in 1958, virtually every famous name in jazz including Gillespie, Monk and Young were photographed in a group photoshoot. You’ll know the picture if you go to jazz clubs - most of them have a copy displayed these days. Only Coltrane, Ellington and Davis among the big names were missing - Trane perhaps renegotiating his contract with Miles?

Then it was off to Birdland, an essential visit to hear the Interplay Jazz Orchestra (pictured above left), a swinging unit of musicians from Long Island playing to a packed house. Proving once again, perhaps, that the demise of the big band is greatly exaggerated, this orchestra played a sterling set of standards including Caravan, I’ll Close My Eyes, Sunny Side Of The Street and a notable ballad version of Body And Soul. Michael Farrell’s alto on Body and John Martin’s tenor on Sunny Side were standouts in a series of first-class solos set into a swinging ensemble. Co-directed by Joey Devassy and Gary Henderson this able unit continues the NYC tradition of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band and the Jazz Orchestra that followed it.

As to Birdland, established in 1949 and still going strong, their programme looks as enticing to jazz enthusiasts as ever with recent gigs by Freddy Cole’s Quintet, the Saxophone Summit of Greg Osby, Joe Lovano and Dave Liebman, Stacey Kent, Ravi Coltrane, Louis Hayes and his Quintet, Karrin Allyson (pictured right by Ingrid Hertfelder) and David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Eternity Band.

And Birdland does have its own resident big band conducted by Glenn Drewes and playing "an original mix of jazz, funk, Brazilian, Latin and world music for sold out audiences".

The club itself suggested to me a much bigger version of Ronnie Scott’s in London with its small, lamp-lit tables and jazz musicians' photos all around the room. If I could also sense the shadows of Art Tatum, Lester Young, Parker, Bud Powell, Art Blakey, Hank Mobley and Clifford Brown to name just a few, well, they all played there at one time or another.

Lesser known, upcoming names such as Troy Roberts, Donald Vega and Barbra Lica were also on the Birdland programme for the month we were there so the jazz centre of the world is set for the next 70-years plus.

Jazz is more than alive and well in New York City - it is positively pulsating. I could have done with weeks there rather than the jam-packed few days we had.

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