Sunday, January 11, 2009

Jazz Lessons

Last night I finally got around to checking out the music at the the Lenox Lounge in Harlem at 288 Lenox Avenue. I found great music, good food, and a memorable lesson in showmanship from the Benny Powell Group.

My wife Clara and me are no longer night owls, so we reserved seats for the early set at 8:30 pm. We arrived around eight, saw only one person in the back room with the band, and settled down to drinks at the bar. A half hour later, when we moved into the back room, the crowd hadn't grown.

But that didn't make a difference to the Benny Powell Group. In what amounted to a private concert, they delivered a beautiful hour of originals and standards for the two of us. Powell, a trombonist who played with Count Basie, among others, was a gracious host. He welcomed us and genially led his band through a memorable set. Powell teaches at the New School; his students are lucky.

Powell was accompanied last night by TK Blue on alto and soprano sax and flute, Sayuri Goto on piano, Essiet O. Essiet on bass, and McClenty Hunter on drums. The same personnel, with the substitution of Billy Hart on drums, have a new album out: "Nextep," for Origin Records. Check it out--it is very good.

No only was the music great, but the food was tasty and the setting memorable. The Lenox Lounge, at Lenox and 125th Street, is a restored art deco beauty with tile floors, light-toned wood walls ornamented with mirrors and metal, and leather banquette seating. The Zebra Room in back is decorated, as you might expect, with zebra hide patterns and photos of jazz greats.

After the set, we had a short conversation with Powell. I asked him what the shift to conservatory training has meant for jazz. "It hasn't done much for the spontaneity," he replied. In jazz, and in society around it, he sees much more technology and self-absorption and less personal communication. He likens it to the difference between making a phone call and just sending an e-mail.

He's onto something. At the same time, the human touch still matters very much to Powell. You could feel it in the welcome that he extended to his audience of two and in the playing of his quintet. And as we left, the Zebra Room was filling up with people who had come to hear the Benny Powell Group's second set.

1 comment:

Peter Eisenstadt said...

Sounds like a nice evening of jazz. Benny Powell is one of the greats, a scion of New Orleans, who is best known for his decade long stint with Count Basie, from 1951 to 1961. Basie’s big band is divided into two periods, the so-called “Old Testament” band from 1936 to 1950, a Kansas City style swing band featuring soloists like Lester Young. The “New Testament” band, starting in 1951, and under various ghostly leaders still ongoing, emphasized a smoother, more ensemble-based approach, and Powell was on all of the Basie’s bands great hits in the 1950s, including a solo in their most famous record, the 1954, “April in Paris,” and was on albums such as “The Atomic Basie” and “The Chairman of the Board.” Since leaving Basie he has gigged variously, often as a sideman, sometimes as a soloist. On another jazz WKCR, the Columbia University radio station, is spending the next two weeks playing all of the recordings of drummer Roy Haynes, who is still active. Roy Haynes has played with everyone—right now they are playing some 1949 recordings with Charlie Parker, and don’t let Phil Schaap’s logorrhea get in the way of listening for a while.