Summer in the city: the jazz trifecta in NYC

Don't worry, Ottawa photographer Dan Nawrocki knows that New York City is nowhere near the North Country. After all, he drives through our neck of the woods to get to Manhattan. But with the sheer number of jazz legends he got to see a couple of weeks ago, we're waiving our "it's not local enough" rule so we can share his fantastic photos and loving review of three different performances. -Joel Hurd

After an action-packed two months of covering the festival circuit here in Ottawa, what does a self proclaimed "live music junkie" do for vacation? That's right, take a drive to the big city to uncover some great jazz happening in the clubs to share with folks in the North Country!

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Sax legends Jimmy Heath and Benny Golson backstage at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. July 2017. Photo: Dan Nawocki.

Despite this time of year traditionally being earmarked for all the outdoor festivals, not to mention road construction and general maintenance shut-downs across the country, there is a surprising amount of great music scheduled at popular venues, even as many opt to flee the heat in the city during the summer months.  Those of us still sweating it out in the urban jungle can find solace in the fact that we are among the lucky few who have stayed behind to witness the world's greatest artists staying cool and keeping time in the clubs between festival dates while the kids are away at camp.

On this particular week, in what  I have coined "the Jazz trifecta", there was certainly no shortage of phenomenal dates to choose from, including three once-in-a-lifetime sets I couldn't resist. To quote Clark W. Griswold's famous last words from the classic 1983 film National Lampoon's Vacation, "Nothing worth doing comes easy…"  and so after a much longer-than-average drive across the state, hindered by countless roadwork detours and lane closures we are assured are for the greater good, we finally reach Manhattan late on a Sunday afternoon just in time to settle in and relax before heading out to catch the first set of what promises to make the journey all worthwhile.

Drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath and his band at the  Village Vanguard in New York City. July 2017. Photo: Dan Nawrocki.
Drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath and his band at the Village Vanguard in New York City. July 2017. Photo: Dan Nawrocki.

First up, we head to one of the world's greatest and most historic jazz clubs, the Village Vanguard. Located at Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village, the club was opened on February 22, 1935 by the late Max Gordon in the basement of a tri-corner lot, once home to an old speakeasy.  Over the decades, this unique and unassuming venue has played host to a bevy of music and culture throughout its 82 year history, making the switch to an all-Jazz format in 1957 and becoming famous for its catalogue of live recordings by the world's greatest artists, who use the standard week-long residencies as a rite of passage and often develop their repertoire, experimenting with new material.  More often than not, you will also witness impromptu jam sessions as other musicians, often equally famous, will drop by the club to catch a set or two, and even be brought up on stage to perform.

This evening happened to be the last night of a week-long run for The Heath Brothers, Jimmy  & Albert "Tootie" Heath at the Vanguard. Unfortunately Jimmy was a bit under the weather and couldn't make it for the last night, but his brother "Tootie" held court on drums along with Jeb Patton on piano, and David Wong on bass. The 90 minute set was comprised of some great straight ahead jazz mixed with outstanding improvised solo's by the entire ensemble, definitely worth the every minute sitting in traffic.

Jazz piano legend McCoy Tyner at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in New York City. July 2017. Photo: Dan Nawrocki.
Jazz piano legend McCoy Tyner at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in New York City. July 2017. Photo: Dan Nawrocki.

A few days later we find ourselves at the Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, located in the beautiful Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, for another jazz icon and one of the most influential jazz pianists of the 20th century, NAC Jazz Master McCoy Tyner.

The 78-year old living legend was making a rare live performance in celebration of his recent induction to the 2017 Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame. In a specially curated series of performances, Tyner celebrated the work of this year's inductees, including Tito Puente and Don Redman, on three consecutive nights, in recognition of their singular dedication and outstanding contributions to jazz.

McCoy Tyner and his band at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at Lincoln Center in New York. July 2017. Photo: Dan Nawrocki.
McCoy Tyner and his band at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at Lincoln Center in New York. July 2017. Photo: Dan Nawrocki.

With Columbus Circle,  Central Park and the East side skyline as the stage backdrop, the concert began with a heartfelt introduction by Todd Stoll, Vice President of Education at Jazz at Lincoln Center before Sherman Irby (sax) Gerald Cannon (bass) and Francisco Mela (drums) took the bandstand to kick things off with a few standards before the man of the hour sat down at the piano. Then out of the corner of the room, out walks McCoy as if to say it's my turn now, are you ready ? From the moment his fingers hit the keys he was on the attack, displaying his trademark power in a 40 minute whirlwind set of sheer improvised bliss. Such musical emotion could not be duplicated by words or photos at this point, and was marvelled by those in attendance for its unsurpassed brilliance.

Benny Golson and Jimmy Heath at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. July 2017. Photo: Dan Nawrocki.
Benny Golson and Jimmy Heath at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. July 2017. Photo: Dan Nawrocki.

Finally, our musical odyssey reached its pinnacle with a stop at yet another historic venue, The Kaufmann Concert Hall.  A beautiful  904-seat walnut clad theatre within The 92nd Street Y. For the better part of the last 140 years, this performance space been a catalyst of inspirational programming for performing and visual arts, literature and culture in the community. One feels instantly welcomed like family into this warm unassuming venue.

Benny Golson & Jimmy Heath with their band at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. July 2017. Photo: Dan Nawrocki.
Jimmy Heath & Benny Golson with their band at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. July 2017. Photo: Dan Nawrocki.

The evening is hosted by artistic director and renowned Jazz pianist Bill Charlap, who for the eighth year in a row has brought together the world's finest jazz artists for a series of once-in-a-lifetime performances as part of the 92nd Steet Y's annual 'Jazz In July' festival.  Tonight was no exception, as two tenor saxophone legends and fellow NAE Jazz Masters Benny Golson & Jimmy Heath take the stage to a packed house for a program aptly billed as "Meeting of the Maestros"

Beyond the sheer magnitude of having these two jazz titans share the stage,  they were supported with a who's who of today's jazz notables including the fiery young trumpeter Jeremy Pelt  and the world-class rhythm section of Bill Charlap on piano, David Wong on bass and Kenny Washington on drums, to truly put this one over the top.

Jimmy Heath & Benny Golson at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. July 2017. Photo: Dan Nawrocki.
Jimmy Heath & Benny Golson at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. July 2017. Photo: Dan Nawrocki.

The concert itself was presented in two acts, and featured a repertoire filled with noteworthy compositions by the 88 year old Golson and 90 year old Heath, both still at the top of their game. This was followed by a series of timeless jazz standards commencing with both tenors performing together once again with the rest of the line-up. They kicked things off together on "All The Things You Are", then followed up with a series of layouts between the two elder statesmen while each tenor was showcased on their trademark compositions, before they would reassemble together once again on stage at the end of each amazing  set, in what was a truly historic event.

Pianist Bill Charlap playing with Jimmy Heath and Benny Golson at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. July 2017. Photo: Dan Nawrocki.
Pianist Bill Charlap playing with Jimmy Heath and Benny Golson at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. July 2017. Photo: Dan Nawrocki.

After all is said and done, summer is definitely what you make it, and made for the road trip. Personally, it has long been a dream of mine to see these artists perform, but never had I imagined it would have all occurred in the same week, and in some cases on the same stage. They say it's about the journey not the destination, and I'll take a journey like this one over the beach any day!

Special thanks to the following for their assistance and accommodations:
The Village Vanguard:  Mrs. Lorraine Gordon and "Tootie" Heath.
Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Jazz at Lincoln Center's Frederick P. Rose Hall: Rebecca Kim for all the support.
92nd Steet Y: Dr. Benny Golson & Jimmy Heath (for inviting us to sound check and allowing us to photograph), Gisela Klose, Joel Strote, and Meryl Wheeler.

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