Jazz at the Chocolate Factory

I’ve just found out about a new, and unlikely, place to go hear jazz in New York City: the Cacao Bar at the Chocolate Factory, a.k.a. MarieBelle. Most of the time, it’s a chi-chi caf—on the 2nd floor of 762 Madison Avenue, between E. 65th and 66th Streets—that serves hyper-rich chocolates, exotic drinks, and (so I’m told) killer short ribs. But on Wednesday nights, from 7:30 to 10, jazz musicians—a pianist and usually just one or two others (there’s no room for more)—come in and play.

Last night, the players were Frank Kimbrough on piano and Ted Nash alternating between flute and tenor sax. Kimbrough (about whom I’ve written several times in this space) plays in Maria Schneider’s jazz orchestra. Nash is a member of the Jazz At Lincoln Center big band. Both of them also lead, or gamely serve as sideman in, several other bands. More to the point, they’ve been playing together, in one forum or another, for nearly 20 years—first in a Nash-led quartet, then in ensembles led by Kimbrough and bassist Ben Allison—and so last night’s pairing, in so informal a setting, felt like (because it was) two longtime pals getting together and just playing, casually (“What should we play now?” Nash asked after every tune) but also experimentally, each trying out new ideas and novel intervals or rhythms, knowing the other would catch a stumble.

Piano-sax duets can be tricky affairs: there’s no bassist or drummer to anchor the rhythm, no other horns to step in once the ideas have run dry. When the juices are flowing, though, it’s a satisfying combo. There are many terrific piano-sax duet albums, and most of them are terrific, at least in part, because the players know each other well: Mal Waldron & Steve Lacy’s Sempre Amore, Abdullah Ibrahim & Carlos Ward’s Live at Sweet Basil, Vol. 1, David Murray & John Hicks’ Sketches of Tokyo, Art Pepper & George Cables’ Goin’ Home, Dave Brubeck & Paul Desmond’s The Duets, Ran Blake & Houston Person’s Suffield Gothic (as well as the duet tracks on Blake & Clifford Jordan’s Masters from Different Worlds, a disc that, I should confess, I co-produced), to name a few.

Kimbrough and Nash dwell in this same territory. Nash has a ripe, rich tone and a knack for extended harmonies and staggered rhythms. Kimbrough is protg of both Paul Bley and Shirley Horn, and thus knows his way around ballads, avant-garde, and connections in between. As a musician who went with me last night said afterwards, they seem to take a bit from the interplay of Warne Marsh and Lennie Tristano (another piano-sax duo, overtly outward bound), though not quite as intricate, a bit more mellow (in a good way). For a sample of Nash, pick up his albums Still Evolved and Sidewalk Meeting. For Kimbrough at his best, listen to his latest solo CD, Air.

And next Wednesday, check out who’s playing at the Chocolate Factory.