Saturday, May 10, 2014

I was young, and I needed the money.

 It's not unusual for a jazz musician to play a shit job for good money. We all do it. In fact the only cats I can imagine having the integrity to turn down a lucrative corporate gig are those with healthy trust funds. Personally I follow the Blues Brothers' lead and play anywhere, anytime, for anybody. (I also hold all business meetings in the steam room, which may explain my current level of employment.) But the sad fact is I don't get called for these jobs very often. The last time I did a corporate, the after-dinner speaker was OJ Simpson. Guests were doing the Macarena. Dessert was a cheese log. It's been a long time, I tell you. So when I got a call for one last week, I was quite looking forward to it.
 I'd never heard of the Francois Hotel, but let me tell you, these are some swanky digs. Right on Central Park, their cheapest rooms go for $750 a night (I checked). Obviously I felt right at home. I presented myself to the concierge, who caught the whiff of Jazz and Desperation (Yves Saint Laurent I think), and bundled me unceremoniously into the nearest freight elevator. I tried unsuccessfully to strike up a conversation with a janitor on the ride up, forgetting that in the hotel social order, musicians are placed somewhere below soft furnishings. Like I said, it's been a while. 
 Often I've found that folks organizing these kind of knees-ups can be rather stingy when it comes to food and bev, so it's important to stock up before they realize who you are. I dumped my horn, met the band, then made my way to the bar. Doing my best impression of a man who belongs in the Francois Hotel, I got stuck into their impressive selection without being sprung. The evening was off to a fine start. (It turned out they were actually quite generous with us, but it doesn't hurt to be on the safe side.) Nicely lubricated, I strapped on the bow tie, grabbed my horn, and got settled on stage. 
 The bash was in honour of the departing CEO of a multinational investment firm. These were some cashed-up bean-counters. The venue was spectacular; the catering was lavish; the decorations were magnificent; and the band was hilarious. Clearly a last-minute addition to proceedings, they'd spent no expense on entertainment. Now I should say the musicians were a lovely bunch, and I'll happily work with them any time, but you can't fake this level of shonkiness. No bass player, so the keyboard player handled the synth-bass with his left hand, while channeling the Boston Pops with his right. The horn section was half the size imagined by the arranger, and the parts we had were naturally the ones without the melodies, the important harmonies, or the bits everyone knows. But what makes it almost worse, was that the singer was really quite good. He was a Tom Jones impersonator, and possibly the best one I've ever heard. And I've heard plenty. I was so impressed that on my way out, I shook his hand and respectfully handed him my underwear.

 But the thing is, they didn't care. Those cloth-eared philistines loved every bungled bar, every cack-handed chorus. They got drunk and danced deliriously around their handbags as we crashed blindly through Big Tom's back-catalogue, making sure to dismember Delilah and mow down the Green Green Grass of Home. And to finish, we were treated to a video montage of pictures of the departing honcho, set to the song "Time of your Life", by American punk band Green Day. Organisers were presumably ignorant of the fact that the song's real title is "Good Riddance" , which to me improved the presentation no end. 
 A couple more sneaky cocktails and I grabbed my cheque and was off. Musicians complain about "society" gigs, and if you do them regularly, I quite understand; but I had fun that night. To paraphrase someone or other: good showbiz can disappoint, but bad showbiz never does. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

If music be the feud of love...

 This week I tried to start a jazz feud. It may seem like a fairly mindless endeavor, but it's April- one has to do something. It's a great tradition in jazz: hyper-sensitive musicians getting into fuming, drawn-out disputes over perceived snubs and imagined slights- and one that, revived, could really warm up these cold, gigless months. Besides, the jazz world today is so polite and fearful of feather-rustling, a good, old-fashioned fracas might be just the ticket.
 The best known feud in relatively recent times was that of Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis in the '80s. It was sparked by an on-stage disagreement, then continued to burn, fueled by insults and put-downs by both parties in the press. It was a masterfully performed conflict played out by two indomitable egos, with the whole jazz world siding with either the crotchety old master or the brazen young upstart; and should serve as a blueprint for aspiring combatants.
 (Wynton is someone to watch if you're an emotional-storm chaser- his brand of opinionated cockiness is liable to set off someone's ire at almost any time. Aside from Miles, he's had public run-ins with Lester Bowie, Keith Jarrett, Stanley Clarke, Quincy Jones… Of course he's out of feuding range for a mere mortal like me; my puny Twitter stones would fall well short of his colossal and respected noggin.)
 More recently, young New York saxophonist Alex Hoffman wrote a series of Facebook updates calling into question the abilities of many of the music's most respected practitioners, leading to a barrage of hate from almost everyone. This was most entertaining for a few weeks, the Hoff holding his position under a shower of shit; but as a model for one's own potential disputes, too messy and time-consuming to consider.
 Over the years, Jelly Roll Morton locked horns with WC Handy over who invented the blues; Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie squabbled over the validity of their respective styles; the Dorsey Brothers were constantly at each others throats; Pat Metheny has repeatedly taken down Kenny G (although not really a jazz feud because I don't think the G-dog ever responded, nor is he a jazz musician. How about a Smooth-Jazz Feud? A Battle of the Blands: two combatants trading meaningful looks until both slip into unconsciousness.) 
 Today's jazz scene is jam-packed with arrogant, entitled blowhards- somebody needs to step up and get bickerin'!  

 I tried to start something last year with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, by regularly insisting, online and in-person to friends and bystanders, that he didn't exist. Then he retweeted me, and rendered me powerless. (I'm still not actually convinced. It could have been an Am-bot. Have you ever seen him in person? Are you sure it wasn't a hologram?) This time I made a fairly weak pun about pianist (and inventor of #RockJazz…) ELEW. Now, ELEW's professional persona is profoundly absurd, and well worthy of ridicule, but unfortunately he's a great musician, and I've nothing against him. I think I just don't have the combative personality for this. Besides, swiping at others does rather leave one's own life open to scrutiny, and if you've seen any of my attempts at self-promotion, you'll understand I can't really point the finger of ridicule.
 Perhaps the only way for me to get involved is if someone else took a poke at me. If a fellow musician were to start kicking verbal sand in my face, I could jump into the melee quite happily, secure in my position as the unjustly attacked. There should be no shortage of ammunition- surely the very existence of this blog would be enough to get you started. Of course, my assailant would have to be of equal or lower standing in the jazz community, so that does rather limit the contenders. But if you're out there, and you're feelin' like a-feudin', then COME AND GET ME!! (Let me know when you're coming around, and I'll put the kettle on…)


Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Manor To Which I'd Become Accustomed

Previously, the subject of this post has been referred to as "The Manor", and I'll continue using this nom de barre, although a glance at the attached Times article will have the mystery solved.

  On Sunday a gang of us said goodbye to a bar. The closing of a New York City bar has become a depressingly familiar occurrence, and not one that would warrant more than a passing, if dispirited, mention from me. But this bar was different: this was my bar.
 The Manor was a SoHo fixture; the last authentic dive bar in a wasteland of pretentious, overpriced swank. While we're not talking New Jersey prices here, you could still get a beer for 5 bucks, and some reliably greasy bar food for under 10. The beer lines may never have been flushed, the counter doled out splinters indiscriminately, the bartenders tended towards surliness (unless they didn't like you), and after midnight it was a good idea to keep your feet off the floor so the mice didn't run up your strides. The pool table was too close to the walls to allow a decent shot (always good for an excuse, though), the jukebox played Guns 'n' Roses continually, and the bathrooms were as bad as you think they were. Actually this place sounds shit. And it kind of was- I'm sure plenty of people never made a second visit. But in a city of unchecked affectation, it was completely genuine, and for me, immensely reassuring.

The clientele was varied and the spirit egalitarian. Over the years I chatted with workmen, waiters, artsy types, businessmen, coke-dealing hipsters; and considering my contempt for most of humanity, that's saying something. And credit for this easy atmosphere has to go to the bartenders. All female, all thoroughly capable and professional, the Manor Maids (not their official title) always knew when to chat, when to leave a customer alone, when to step into a dispute, when to cut a guy off because he was trying to prove he could gargle Gilbert & Sullivan's "Modern Major General" through a mouthful of his fourth Martini. Tough as nails when they had to be, it was kind of an honor to get a welcoming smile from one of the girls, and feel like part of the family. I'm now proud to count two former Manor Maids among my small circle of actual friends.
 Over the 10 years I called myself a regular, I went to the Manor to mourn breakups, celebrate hookups, forget bad gigs, plan good gigs, avoid social obligations, to get worse at pool, to quit smoking (every Sunday for a year), and countless other reasons. But it was usually just to say hi. I honestly don't know where I'd go now to mark a moment, significant or otherwise. Maybe something will show up.
 The closing of the Manor is also another nail in the coffin of old New York, a reminder of the giant strip-mall we're slowly becoming. But that's a massive whinge for another post. So for now, I'm off to remember the Manor with four Martinis and a Pirates of Penzance songbook. Righto.

 Scenes from the final night
Closing night in the NYTimes

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

You may recall that the Underside went into hiatus so I could put my limited creative energies into a thing called the Smithfield Sunday Session podcast. Marvelous fun it was, too, but we decided to wrap it up before our audience lost interest and moved on. My parents can be so fickle. So rather than deprive the internet of my inane ramblings, I thought I'd fire up the old blog again to have a bit of a natter about a little tour I recently underwent. I'll be drawing this story out into far more installments than it warrants...
Following the release of a new album, an old fashioned road trip seemed like just the ticket. I decided on the West Coast quite arbitrarily, but it turned out to be an excellent choice- warm weather, friendly people, and without a driver's license between us, an interstate bus service that allowed us to live like transients for a few days (you really must try it). My traveling companion would be the drummer and good mate referred to elsewhere in this blog as "The Attorney".
Our little adventure starts at LA international airport. It's one of the world's largest, which we discovered when our local contact kept us waiting long enough to explore all of it. What I don't know about Californian baggage carousels isn't worth knowing! (What I do know isn't of any great value either, actually.) Our man eventually turned up and took us on an historic tour of the city. It was like seeing into the past! Forget your Roman ruins and Ancient Greek what-have-yous, the streets of LA are steeped in rich history, and I know all of it- like where the Ding Dong club used to be, and where that guy who was in that movie died. What I didn't realize was that an hour spent living in the past was perfect preparation for our destination: the El Patio Inn.
I'm well aware that calling it "THE El Patio Inn" can't be right, but I find it somehow satisfying, so I'm sticking with it. The El Patio is a classic. A brown and tan fantasy. The management are to be commended for recreating 1975 with such startling accuracy. It reminded me slightly of the depressing motels from childhood road trips, combined with the setting for a low-budget murder mystery. In fact, scenes from David Lynch's "Lost Highway" (about a jazz saxophonist…) were shot there. We had some time before soundcheck, so I had some drugs delivered and murdered a prostitute. Just seemed like the thing to do.
The setting for the LA gig was the estimable Vitello's. A nondescript two-level affair, it hides on a leafy suburban street, far away from the prying eyes of potential jazz audiences. Downstairs, a comfortable Italian restaurant; upstairs, a comfortable and well-appointed jazz club. We had managed to assemble a killer group of musicians, so the gig was a gas; audience was welcoming and enthusiastic, and we hung with some lovely local folk.
Duties done, the Attorney and I were directed to a local bar to see out the evening. Called the Peppermint Club, or the Starlight Lounge, or something similarly unlikely, it was a textbook LA dive: indescribably dingy, with broken pool table, hot/surly bartender, old scrubbers in miniskirts, several possible Bukowskis... In short- heaven. We drank cheap American beer until the mists descended, then apparently made our way back to the El Patio.
Our flight the following day wasn't until evening, so we spent the day confounding the skeptics- by walking and taking public transportation! The mile walk to the nearest cafe felt like crossing the desert to some breakfast burrito-serving oasis; and when we told of our bus and train route to the airport, locals looked at us like we'd discovered some abandoned tunnel built by escaping prisoners-of-war. Eventually we escaped from LA , but not before receiving some reviews of the previous night's performance. They were uniformly glowing, although that turned out to be due to LA's record levels of Japanese radiation. Next, exciting Portland!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Excuses, excuses.

Clearly the pressure of coming up with something interesting about Switzerland was too much for me... (I'm joking, Swiss- I love your place. Relax, will you?) The Underside is taking a breather while I concentrate on the new Podcast. Hopefully I'll eventually get organised enough to do both, but for now, why not head over and check out my inane ramblings in the exciting new "audio" format: Smithfield Sunday Session Podcast!
More soon! Cheers, N

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A nice change this time: instead of writing my nonsense in a dark, airless hovel, I'm sitting before one of the most amazing views imaginable. I've just arrived in Switzerland for the Ascona Jazz Festival, and am one Swiss beer down on the hotel terrace overlooking Lake Maggiore. I hope I can figure out a way to post pictures, so you can get some idea. I did nothing to deserve this. But first, Milan...
I believe we left off last week with me in a crummy hotel room, wearing a plastic Centurion costume. I eventually discovered that this was not, in fact, the casual attire favoured by the locals, but formal wear reserved for weddings, bar Mitzvahs, etc. So on our last day, I changed back into the usual leather pants and string singlet, met our mate Pache, and boarded a train for Milan.
It's an enormous and bustling city, but without the reputation for architectural beauty of its sandal-wearing sibling, due largely to the fact that most of it was blown up in WWII. From the ruins have sprung up an industrious fashion capital, although a little behind when it comes to leather and string, if you ask me. I was there to play three gigs, and to pack an unfeasable amount of food into my gob.
First up was the Nord Est Caffe. The joint really doesn't have much to recommend it, but of all the Nord caffes I've visited, this truly was the Nordest. We were introduced to the "crowd" with the most elaborate announcement in showbiz. Pure voice-over magic, and like most of the gig, enthusiastically ignored by all in attendance. To be fair, we were competing with an excellent buffet. But speaking of introductions, the upside of the evening was meeting our rhythm section for the Milanese leg, bassist Alex Orchiari, and pianist Simone Daclon- fine musicians and top blokes. I also became aquainted with a beverage known as a Campari Spritz, which would keep me company 'most every night.
After upping stumps at Nord Est, we headed to a local pub for their weekly jam session- got to play a few tunes with the locals,and rub shoulders with a saxophonist who was a spitting image of "actor" Paulie Shore. I actually had a sneaking suspicion it was Paulie Shore, so I kept my distance.
Next up, a musician-owned, member-supported club called Sunomi. The word is Milanese dialect, and according to everyone I asked, it means "I don't know." Or else they just didn't know. A great little room, with an in-house recording studio, it was, for mine, the highlight of the Italian bit. Attentive enthusiastic audience, supportive and generous management, and even a backstage for pre-show pacing and muttering. Usually have to find a dark alley for that...
The last Italian show was on the outskirts of a town called Cremona, about 90 minutes drive out of Milan. The venue was a restaurant inside an ancient, dilapidated village church. All the action was taking place in the spacious backyard, and we were essentially supplying background music. That was fine with me, as the location was stunning, and the food and drinks top-notch and abundant. It would have been the perfect Arriverderci, had the owner not ended the evening by getting smashed, shorting us on the money, and abusing our Italian bandmates in a fervid and flamboyant manner. In fact, the swear words are the only Italian I know, and I think I caught all of it. A bit of a downer, but didn't really mar the trip too much...
Other Milanese highlights: bucatini with sardines, a glass of wine with a bloke who looked just like Uncle Leo from Seinfeld (good trip for lookalikes, so far), and a night on cheap, Chinese-made Negronis that has disappeared in the mists...
Next: something interesting about Switzerland! Righto.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

So we're four days in to our little European jaunt, and finally getting fingers in action. In my defense it's been a hectic few days, and jetlag has me feeling like a cranky, over-medicated pensioner. Some cute Italian kiddies very nearly copped it in the vegetable aisle this afternoon- and I'm sure you know how painful that can be. Anyways, here's what's unfolded so far...
 I don't want to tell tales here, but if you wanted to enter the EU undetected, Rome may be your best bet. My friendly immigration officer glanced at my passport with all the interest Berlusconi would show a bottle of sunscreen. Cursory would be an overstatement.Then a derisive wave and I was through. It was at this point that I realised that my preparedness for my Italian adventure consisted of a barely functioning, downloaded map of Rome, and a dozen or so words of restaurant Spanish. But I'd come this far, so I hoisted my horns and set off to meet some new amigos.
 I had a day and a half before the first gig, so after settling in to my charmingly drab hotel room, I went sight-seeing. Now, I'm a shitty tourist, but I knew I'd be interrogated by friends and strangers alike upon my return, so I made an effort. And to be fair, it is Rome, and they've got fascinating and historically significant gear up the gooner. First up was the Imperial Forum where I marveled at two-thousand-year-old ruins, and was attacked by a seagull. Seems unreasonable, but I have been accused of resembling a french fry before, so fair enough, I say. I was also hungry and may have been trying to steal its eggs. From there it was off to the Colosseum. Don't think I can shed any new light on that particular edifice, but I can tell you that I entertained tourists and locals alike with what I'm hoping will soon be the joint's new themesong. It's pretty much just the Addams' Family with Colosseum instead of museum, and Addams replaced by Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus. Check back next week for the ringtone.
 Other Roman highlights: seeing a lumpy American teenager in a humourous T shirt smiling uncertainly for a photo, while slouching dutifully beside a statue of Julius Caesar in all his regal and commanding glory, illustrating in an instant the inexorable decline of the human race; eating a delicious meal in a restaurant with a picture of former Australian Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone on the wall, and keeping it all down; resisting the cheap, tacky souvenirs for sale on every corner (I went off the beaten track to find this genuine plastic Centurian outfit... Not real comfy, actually- don't know why the locals wear them) ; and throwing a tourist into the Trevi Fountain, which has brought me nothing but good luck ever since.
 The gig (really the reason I was there), was terrific- swinging support from Canadian bassist Ron Seguin, and my mate Adam Pache on the drums, in a groovy little club called Gregory's (named after the little-known emporor Greg Caesar). The folks seemed to enjoy the music, and my laboured patter was met with baffled silence, so it felt just like home.
 That's it for now. Next up, Milan and Paulie Shore! Righto...