Saturday, December 24, 2011

New York Jazz Club Reviews - Part 4

Birdland –  On our last  day in New York, Friday December 9, it seemed that our chances of catching the late show at Village Vanguard to see and hear Bill Frisell was not going to work out. It was far away from where we were, and the guy taking our reservation couldn’t spell Sedensky to save his life. Since Birdland was close to where I was going to be and the thought was that Mrs. S would get out of her concert early enough to make time to get to the jazz venue, that’s what we reserved. Dinner was far more of a challenge. With the concert and musical to break up the evening, we didn’t really want to do a heavy dinner late, so we were leaning toward a light dinner early. Unfortunately, 3:30 on Friday afternoon is not the best time to be making reservations for 5:00 on that Friday evening. Faced with no choice and a long walk to the theater, I convinced Mrs. S to just walk down the street and see what we could find. We found a decent sushi place and ate sushi then headed to the concert/musical. Mine was a lot farther away and I had to navigate Times Square, and, stupid, I went looking for where Birdland was before I realized, I needed to get to the theater. I made it with enough time to go to the restroom and find my seat just as the lights were going down. It was great seeing Brooke Shields in The Addams Family musical, even with the drunk lady in the front row ruining the show. (Amazing that a house filled with families of small children was besieged and disturbed by a 50-year old drunk woman. Mercifully, they kicked her out at intermission.) After the musical ended, I headed straight out, made my way the two blocks over and one block down, and arrived at Birdland to find, they didn’t have my reservation. Fortunately, there were plenty of tables and I was quite early, plus it wasn’t that crowded, so I got a prime rail-side table overlooking the front row tables, right behind the piano. Mrs. S showed up after I was halfway through my first beer, and we ordered up beer and wine and sliders: 
That's Brooklyn Lager, the best beer I had in NYC, and don't those sliders look scrumptious!
We then settled in to hear the Frank Wess Quintet play one set. I’d never heard of this guy, but they played mostly originals and everything was good. I would say, however, that the show was too expensive ($20 to see Frank Wess, which would have been $40 if we didn't get half price for having a Broadway show ticket stub - Bill Frisell, by comparison, was just $25 at the Village Vanguard) and they only played one short (hour and ten minutes) set. 

The Frank Wess Quintet lights up Birdland.
‘Course old Frank turned 90 years old that week, so, we didn’t complain. At least he didn’t die on stage. Unlike the Blue Note, Birdland I would do again, as long as the performer was somebody I wanted to see.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

New York Jazz Club Reviews - Part 3

Cleopatra’s Needle – This club was recommended to us by my contact at McGraw-Hill, where I review business books for them. (You can check out my blog at She sent me three possibilities, and while Mrs. S was at her concert on Thursday, only staying for the Joshua Bell portion, she told me to pick a restaurant/Jazz club and make the reservations. The plan was for me to meet her at intermission and we would then go to the club for dinner and music. While any of the clubs would probably have been fine, I went for the one that was most convenient to the subway where we’d be and that looked casual and relaxing. (Seriously, who would go to a jazz club that makes you wear a jacket?) It turned out to be an inspired choice. First of all, Mrs. S and I had been talking about getting Greek food while we were in NY. Of course, we don’t have any ideas about where any Greek restaurants are, much less whether they are any good or not. But when we sat down at our comfortable, window-side corner table, the first thing Mrs. S noticed was the menu said “Mediterranean Cuisine”. Jackpot! Turns out the place is authentic and run by an Egyptian who’d been there a number of years and is a jazz fanatic. They had a full bar, intimate but not overcrowded tables, and a piano trio playing there.  We ordered up Moussaka and Kofta Kebab and Tambouleh, with a bottle of decent red wine and the best damned baklava on this continent. Here's me and the food:

Clockwise from closest dish to me: Kofta Kebab, Tambouleh, Moussaka (kind of cut off).
 The music was great, very vibrant and close. The pianist was an older guy and the drummer and bassist were two younger guys, and I assume Burt Eckoff is the piano player, as that was the name of the trio. They kept it swinging. 

The Burt Eckoff Trio at Cleopatra's Needle.
The food was wonderful, probably as good a Mediterranean as you could get anywhere in New York. In many ways, our time at Cleo’s was one of the best, and the meal was one of the best, making this a sure highlight of our trip. It helped that we had good weather that day but regardless, we would definitely go back there any time.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

New York Jazz Club Reviews - Interlude

Interlude: Bella Hristova and Anna Polonsky – October 20, 2011

On our second night in New York, we attended the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance featuring Joshua Bell as soloist on a Tchaikovsky concerto, along with a short piece about Fireworks and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. The Stravinsky was definitely the highlight for me, but in any event, I’ve written enough about Joshua Bell’s concerts that for the second entry in the New York series, I’m going to write about a recital we attended in Birmingham in October instead.

It featured a young Bulgarian (since naturalized, I believe) violinist named Bella Hristova. She’s something like 23, but she had really good command of her violin (even though it did slip a string on her, causing the recital to pause briefly while she adjusted it). Her accompanist, Anna Polonsky, is Russian and a quite capable, dynamic pianist. The program was unremarkable, but I remember that I really enjoyed the piece Bella played solo, which was commissioned specifically for her. It was quite captivating. I’d never really been to a recital where I wasn’t playing, other than one jazz trumpet recital I attended at UAH, so this was quite a good, and new, experience for me.

Though both the young ladies looked quite statuesque on stage from our front row seats, at the meet and greet afterwards, they turned out to be rather petite. During the meet and greet, Bella was kept quite busy, but Anna and her page turner were by themselves at the fruit bowl, so I went over there and talked to them for about ten minutes. Anna’s English is strained in places, but she was quite patient with me as we talked about the value of page turners, practice time, and repertoire. She was also nice enough to let an old creepy guy, me, take a picture with her.
Eric and Anna Polonsky
I finally noticed that Mrs. S had gotten Bella to sign her CD for us, which was a natural, as we were the only ones who bothered to bring her (only published) CD. We chatted a little bit and then she let me take a picture with her, too.
Eric and Bella Hristova
New York was much more exciting, I admit. The Stravinsky was really a revelation for my now well-tuned jazz ears, plus the orchestra was really on top of that one. It was a great experience to hear such a famous and world class orchestra perform, but from there on out, it would be jazz on our last two nights in the Big Apple.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

New York Jazz Club Reviews - Part 2

Blue Note – Prior to arriving in New York, we toyed with the idea of visiting the Blue Note by attending a concert featuring Manhattan Transfer. Neither Mrs. S nor I, however, are huge MT fans, and the $65 price tag seemed prohibitive. Not to mention, the Blue Note website makes it sound like seating is pretty haphazard, and we didn’t really want our first jazz club experience to be something that we had to leave to chance even while paying through the nose for, so we decided we would just drop in to the club on our first night, time and energy levels allowing, and listen to whatever they had going on that night. Arriving in New York on a Tuesday and with rain coming down steady, we played it conservative and had dinner at a hole in the wall Japanese place first (not really being thrilled with the burger-and-fry fare on the Blue Note menu on their website). Hagi (name of the Japanese place) was tasty and expensive. From there, we managed to figure out how to ride the subway (computers were down, so buying a Metro Card was tricky), but we sorted that out and got to the Blue Note about fifteen minutes before the 8:00 show time.

There was already a pretty good crowd inside, but there were still plenty of seats. Problem was they were spread around and we didn’t have any way of judging which would be good or bad seats. When in doubt, the best seats are usually right in front, so that’s where we went. Mrs. S was right on the main aisle, I ended up across the table from her under the guitar player’s music stand, next to a Russian tourist drinking a nice bottle of red wine by himself (more about that later). I literally had to climb to get to my seat. The picture below shows approximately the kind of view I had, which is to say, the picture shows that I could hardly see much of anything despite sitting in the front row.

$5 minimum?!?! So one martini and I'm good for the night, right? Screw it! Get Chris Botti out here. NOW!
The show was a Christmas gala with a bunch of competent, not-famous musicians. They played some fancy arrangements of familiar tunes, nothing too exciting. We drank wine and enjoyed the show. Funny thing was, one-fourth of the Manhattan Transfer, Janis Siegel, sang one song, so we really made out good getting to see her and not paying $65 for the privilege. (She's the one with big funky glasses if you Google or YouTube "Manhattan Transfer Jeannine". Awesome!)

Ms. Janis Siegel, center, performing "Deck The Halls"
When our wine ran out and the show was winding down, the Russian tourist shared his bottle of wine with us. He was drinking the good stuff: a bottle of something Sicilian, very scintillating on the tongue, smooth on the palate, that left a faint grapey currant wash on the gums. Really stunning and all the more unfortunate that I can't remember what it was called. And more unfortunately, his English was completely non-existent, and my Russian from my college days was only a little better, so we couldn't really chat with the guy. (We did try.) Once we got outside, Mrs. S wanted to take my picture, which is generally a bad idea most of the time, and a terrible idea late at night after I've been drinking. No surprise then we ended up with this "deer in the headlights" shot with the Blue Note as background.

No. I mean, yes. What was the question? Leave me alone!
My conclusion after visiting the club is the Blue Note is the Mount Fuji of jazz clubs: Everyone should definitely visit once, but unless you are a local or there is a real headliner playing there, it’s probably not worth a second trip.

Monday, December 19, 2011

New York Jazz Club Reviews - Part 1

Our recent trip to New York (December 6-10) was specifically for Mrs. S to (yet again) see violinist Joshua Bell in concert. While she would attend the concert three of the four nights we were to spend there, I was only to attend one concert, being left to my own devices to visit jazz clubs, hang out in bars, or otherwise kill two hours each night while Mrs. S enjoyed the concert. After discussing and planning, however, and considering that one of the highlights of any New York trip will certainly involve food, we decided to move things around a bit, cut short her attendance at one of the concerts, and keep our activities centralized so that we could enjoy the bulk of the activities together. This resulted in us being able to visit three jazz clubs (two of which we also dined at) together, and me being able to see Brooke Shields perform from the second row of a cozy theater (hubba-hubba). To sort of replicate the feel of that week, I will be posting reviews of the clubs over the next four days, in the order and two weeks after the fact of each visit. It should be good. Anyway, here’s Mrs. S and me in front of Macy’s. 

We hope you like this photo, because if you’re getting a photo Christmas card from us, this is the shot. (If you’re getting a plain card from us, this is what you’re missing.)