New York Tenor Central

Even as hypergentrification runs rampant, enriching financial opportunities for some and crushing small-business dreams for others, New York City remains ground zero for jazz and for the small clubs it thrives in. The New York Times may not cover jazz unless someone of the stature of Wynton Marsalis is on the bill, but the music moves ahead undeterred, taking up residence at such iconic venues as the Blue Note, Cornelia Street Café, Fat Cat, 55 Bar, Jazz Gallery, Mezzrow, Smalls, Smoke, the Village Vanguard, and Zinc Bar.

America's only original music—along with the blues (from which it sprang), rock'n'roll, and bluegrass—may suffer indifference, but amid a crisis of personality and popularity, jazz continues to survive and thrive in the Naked City. And while no single popular American musician now exemplifies jazz, if you look closely, you'll find jazz talent not beholden to trends, but still in thrall to jazz's past and future possibilities.

As always, you can judge the quality, temperature, and flavor of New York City jazz by its saxophonists. Tenor player John Coltrane lived on Long Island, altoists Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman in the East Village and Soho, respectively. Today's tenor players, too, dwell in and around the city. Melissa Aldana, Eric Alexander, Seamus Blake, Ravi Coltrane, Joe Lovano, Donny McCaslin, Chris Potter, Marcus Strickland—all absorb energy from New York City's churning momentum, inspired by the city while navigating its glittering streets.

New York City is still the inarguable center of the jazz universe, and its jazz fractures and stems into myriad subgenres, four of them represented by the tenor virtuosos J.D. Allen, María Grand, Jeff Lederer, and Noah Preminger.

J.D. Allen
"'Put On a Happy Face' is the greatest song in the world!"

J.D. Allen's 12th album as a leader, Love Stone (2018), is a quartet outing, Allen's long-term compadres bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston joined by guitarist Liberty Ellman, putting an exultant face on such chestnuts as "Put On a Happy Face" and "Stranger in Paradise." Following the hard-bop blowing of Victory! and the dark swing of Americana: Musings on Jazz and Blues, Love Stone is as retro, some would say as corny, as Michael Bublé singing "Que Será, Será."

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"This record is not for musicians," the 45-year-old Allen explained from Jersey City, New Jersey. "I don't know any musicians who would play 'Stranger in Paradise' or 'Why Was I Born.' Even in the studio with my crew, they gave me the side eye! But 'Put On a Happy Face' is the greatest song in the world! The lyrics are so against our time. Despite what's going on, put on a happy face—that's the hardest thing in the world to do. On its own it's syrupy, but against the times, it feels avant-garde."

You won't hear any jazz musicians singing hosannas to those dusty standards, but as traditional as Allen can sound—his tenor recalls 'Trane, Sonny Rollins, and Dexter Gordon—he's a savvy conjurer who stays one step ahead of jazz convention.

"This music is a whole 'nother frequency than what we are on today," Allen said. "It seems like the idea now is to outdo the other guy in terms of composition. Interpreting a melody that isn't yours and making it sound like you own it, that . . . felt original. Older musicians, like Jimmy Heath, said, 'You should learn the lyrics.' And when I did, it felt like a butterfly in my stomach when I played the songs. 'Wow, I'm actually playing the word love.' It's like that bubbly feeling you get when you drink champagne. Every musician should feel that."

Frequently topping year-end best-of polls, Allen is well situated to comment on the state of jazz, in particular New York City jazz. "Everyone comes to New York thinking, 'I'm going to change the world.' When you meet 50 people like that, it's very inspiring. Before coming here, you have to prepare yourself to jump into this pool of sharks. You gotta be crazy to do it, basically. [laughs] It puts an edge on you. And New York intensifies that edge because living here is insane."

Allen's plan for his next album is an electronic collaboration with guitarist Ellman and keyboardist Marc Cary. In J.D. Allen's world, jazz is open to all comers. "I think the jazz scene in the US is healthy," he said. "You have universities giving jazz degrees, jazz camps, so something is going on. You have to be able to afford these things—that leaves a lot of urban kids out of the mix, which is a shame. [The music] may not be on my car radio, but how many people have actually seen the Mona Lisa? Jazz is not going anywhere. It's healthy. Now, trying to make a living at it—that's the trick."

María Grand
"Every day I seek to change the stereotype that creative, virtuosic, and strong artistic endeavors are typically created by cisgendered men."

On her magical first full-length album, Magdalena, 26-year-old tenor saxophonist María Grand uses the work of family therapist Virginia Satir to create stirring compositions that alter perceptions—her own.

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"Specifically," Swiss-born Grand wrote to me via e-mail, "the whole album is about family dynamics: the three 'T' songs ('TI,' 'TII,' and 'TIII') are about mythological triads and the relationship they each had with each other. In 'Where Is E,' we broaden the idea of what a family looks like to include every possible combination of intervals in music; there are many valid structures that make up a family, more than the typical and heteronormative Father-Mother-Child triad we typically know. 'Demonium/Workshop' is about what happens during a Satir workshop, where the tension builds as the person who is working on an issue is going through different feelings while undoing misunderstandings, until they finally see the light."

If that seems off-putting, consider that Magdalena is nothing like the stultifying math-jazz composed by some grant-seeking instrumentalists. Grand is a regular in Steve Coleman's heady groups, and her music is playful, spirited, and deeply engrossing. Her approach to the tenor sax is as unique as her compositions, constantly flowing, searching out corners to illuminate, weaving in and out of changes like a butterfly. On Magdalena she's accompanied by electric guitarist Mary Halvorson, pianists David Bryant and Fabian Almazan, double bassist Rashaan Carter, drummer Jeremy Dutton, and spoken-word artists Amani Fela and Jasmine Wilson.

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"Being a musician is a wonderful thing because through music we have to look at ourselves," Grand wrote. "John Coltrane said that 'you have to clean the mirror,' and it's true, because every piece of dirt on your mirror comes out when you improvise. For example, reading through a book by Miyamoto Musashi, I realized that being able to sing what you play is like karate: fighting with empty hands. If one can't fight with empty hands, there is little chance to be able to fight with a sword. Similarly, playing music with just the body is important before one gets to an external instrument."

Grand navigates her career the way she crosses New York City intersections: by will and determination. "New York is not really a place that welcomes creativity anymore, at least not in the way I understand it did in the past," Grand wrote. "It still does encourage the freedom of being original. No one really flinches at individuality here, and there are so many wonderful artists and people who live here who [inspire me]. The inspiration is what keeps me here, even though the cost of living is very high and the quality of life is generally low. New York is a difficult place to live in because it's slowly becoming a city designed for wealthy people only. It's unfortunate, because the strength of the city has always been its great creative arts scene."

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COMMENTS
Steve Dollar's picture

Hi Ken -- Nice piece highlighting some worthy musicians. As someone who has written about jazz for WSJ, Newsday, all the jazz rags and, yes, even Stereophile, I have often been critical of The New York Times and its approach to the music. And once Ben Ratliff went off the radar and Nate Chinen left the roost, I was really disappointed that they seemed to be abandoning jazz. But Giovanni Russonello, the paper's current point man on the beat, has done an incredible and ever-more expansive and inclusive job writing about musicians who are far, far from the Marsalis orbit. True, they don't do much with live reviews anymore, but the feature/spotlight coverage has really been a step up, as far as I;m concerned. If you haven't read the paper in awhile, I'd strongly suggest looking for Giovanni's byline. He's my favorite jazz writer for the paper since the legendary Robert Palmer. Cheers!

JimAustin's picture

Great article Ken.

ok's picture

..great musicians too.

Severius's picture

And everything about it - except this. And, only for this would I ever entertain the idea of going there.

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