A Walk Through — Really Through — Central Park (NYC Part 3/4)

Jazz and Colors was an afternoon-long festival held throughout Central Park on Nov. 10, 2012. Thirty jazz groups performed simultaneously, playing the same 18 standards from stations scattered all over the park, mostly out of earshot from one another.

It’s an inspired idea. Think about it: You’re walking through the park, and you encounter jazz at almost every turn. Visitors were handed maps and left to their own devices. No two people would experience the same concert, so the literature said.

It was the first time it had been done, and I had trouble finding out exactly where and who the idea came from. Jason Kao Hwang, for example, told me he’d simply received a call from a local promoter he knew, asking if he could participate.

This is the great thing about a week in New York. It’s not that hard to catch a lucky break and have something special happening during your stay. After seeing a mention in Time Out New York, I knew I had to plan my Saturday around this.

I scouted the schedule for interesting artists and found several, none of them in the same sector of the park. Joel Harrison was playing on the West Side, about in the middle; Marika Hughes was up in the northeast corner, Klezmatics in the northwestern corner. I tried to craft a plan where I wouldn’t end up walking the length of the park, but … well, I ended up walking almost the length of the park. Diagonally.

Approaching from the south, I arbitrarily headed for 6th Avenue and the José Julian Marti Statue, where the Kimberly Thompson Quartet was playing.

They dealt out the music in front of an appreciative crowd. This stop also had a Jazz and Colors information table, where I got a hardcopy map.

I would later learn that some bands got luckier than others in terms of location. Playing essentially at the corner of 59th and 6th, Thompson’s band had lots of foot traffic to build an audience from, especially families with kids. “See that? He’s playing the big bass,” one father said to his little boy. “Why?” the boy asked.

The crowd was delighted with the group’s crisp, straightahead sound. Passers-by could afford some tip-jar generosity, too, in this area unblemished by superstorm Sandy.

Thompson led the band from the drums, and I found myself liking the bass player, which was sensible of me, because he turned out to be Essiet Essiet. Didn’t catch the saxophonist’s name, but he took “Take the A Train” off the rails a bit, casually adding some crazy changes and buzzy sounds. Certainly not plain jazz fare. This was a good start.

After one number, it was obvious I wasn’t going to be able to see more than one or two songs from each band. It was already nearly 12:30, with the festival ending at 4:00. I was going to have to move, and take advantage of the subway.

Figuring I should head to the park’s uppermost corner, at 110th Street, I ducked back into the Columbus Circle station and waited. And waited. Lesson No. 2: I wasn’t going to have time for subways.

Jazz and Colors had wisely included street numbers on their map, so, feeling like I had lost too much time already, I jumped off the subway at 81st Street and worked my way east, inland, towards Joel Harrison‘s spot. To my left, I could hear the sounds of a bright, fast trumpet, really going at it. Sounded exciting. I think this might have been the Mike Mo Quartet. But sticking doggedly to the “keep moving” mantra, I headed to the grounds of Delacorte Theater, where Harrison’s quintet was in the middle of “Autumn Serenade.”

The weather was cold, and clots of snow still dotted some streets. Harrison’s band, like Thompson’s and all the others, was well bundled up but still played solidly. The song ended, and Harrison took time to introduce the band. The trumpeter I liked so much, who had a lot of stage presence as well as trumpet chops, turned out to be Steven Bernstein.  Well, okay then! The drummer turned out to be George Schuller. Awesome! The caliber of the band reflects the level of music that Harrison, a former Bay Area resident, is continuing to produce in NYC.

Sometime around this point, a jogger ran past. Bernstein yelled out a surprised “Hey — Trey!” and the jogger waved back as he ran past. “Hey, wanna sit in?” Harrison yelled after him. And I looked at the long hair bobbing against the back of the jogger’s head, and thought “Trey? Wait, is that –?” … and indeed, it was Trey Anastasio of Phish, getting a workout. Harrison confirmed that a second later: “That was the lead singer from Phish! He apparently doesn’t like jazz,” he joked.

I think the next number was “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” which was dealt out in a choppy, funky style. Harrison had mumbled something about getting his Will Bernard on, which was apt: This was a snappy, bluesy music worth relishing.

“Pork Pie Hat” was the seventh of nine songs in the first set, so I was running out of time before the bands’ lunch break. Jason Kao Hwang, who I hadn’t noticed on the schedule earlier, was playing a stone’s throw away, at Seneca Village, so I headed out quickly.

I got there for the last solo of “Blue Trane,” with Hwang on violin enhanced with guitar pedals, creating aggressive melodies and a growly sound that wouldn’t be out of place in a rock band. His trio included an electric piano, completing the fusion-y setting. It’s not a context I’ve heard Hwang in before, and it was an appropriately fun touch. (They apparently took one of the earlier songs “way out,” as Hwang was telling the crowd. Wish I’d seen that, too!)

That ended the set and started a one-hour lunch break, where solo artists stepped in to give each band a breather.

So, I got to talk to Hwang for a few minutes. This was where I found out he didn’t know how Jazz and Colors got organized, either — and that the violin pedals were his compromise in place of an electric violin, because he doesn’t like that electric-violin sound.

Superstorm Sandy did have some collateral effects on the festival. Hwang told me they’d hoped for a full PA system at each station, but that would have required generators, a scarce commodity that particular week. They settled for battery-powered amps instead. I didn’t notice any effect on the sound (but Nate Chinen did.)

Lunch break. Now what?

I had to backtrack southward, to Harrison’s spot, because it was the only restroom within reach. I weaved my way through Summit Rock, to see if Mike Mo’s band was still playing. (Nope, and no solo artist had stepped in yet, either.) Back at the Delacourte, I watched the solo saxophonist who was spelling Harrison’s band.

Indecisive, I waffled. Of the choices on my list, I really didn’t want to miss Marika Hughes, in the northeast quadrant. I could also catch Roy Campbell, farther down the east side, and make an east-side afternoon of it.

But that meant getting to the upper-upper east side in 30 to 45 minutes. I didn’t want to chance the subway. The park was full of walkers and joggers. Surely I wouldn’t be the only person walking several dozen blocks through the park?

I bought a cheap hot dog and an expensive bottle of water, doing my best Kobayashi impression as I started the long trek north and east, around the reservoir. From my left came the sounds of a grand piano, stationed at 90th and 8th for Eric Lewis, now known as ELEW. That would have made quite a picture, but I didn’t have time to stop.

And as I made my way around the enormous reservoir, the character of the park changed. It wasn’t bad, just quiet. The southwest quadrant was dominated by families and little kids. Now I was seeing more joggers, solitary and in isolated duos. A few others were walking, but not in the gawking touristy manner. It was as if I’d found the park’s inner core, the oasis for the natives.

This was doubly enforced when I reached the Conservatory Garden. The near-silence there provides a respite from the New York streets — but I like the New York streets, and the high-society air of the conservatory was just too over-the-top. I exited eastward and finished my walk on 5th Ave. proper, gladly tasting the diesel fumes.

At the conservatory’s north gate, Marika Hughes‘ band, Bottom Heavy, had already finished their first number of the second set. I didn’t know what to expect here, as I mostly know Hughes from experimental/world/song circles (2 Foot Yard, Charming Hostess). Bottom Heavy turned out to be a straight jazz band built of strings: violin, guitar, bass, and Hughes’ cello. The drummer played only cymbal and snare, but he got a lot out of those two implements, especially when it came time for trading fours.

Hughes herself proved to be an adept jazz soloist on cello, and the ensemble overall had a perky sound, like a modernized Hot Club. I wanted to stay, but the rest of the park was calling. Ornette Coleman’s “Peace” was coming up in the setlist, and I decided I wanted to see Roy Campbell play it. Weary of tree-lined serenity, I headed back to 5th Ave. and was lucky enough to catch a bus immediately.

I disembarked at 90th Street to see Marc Cary at Engineers’ Gate. He was playing an ocarina — a keyboard small enough to hold in one hand, powered by a breathing tube — accompanied by electric bass and flute. There was something almost primitive about its oboe-like sound, as if we were hearing someone play an exotic reed, infusing it with a sinewy swing.

Remember what I said earlier about good locations? Cary didn’t get one. He and the flautist did a fine job and tried hard to engage the audience. But Engineer’s Gate offered no obvious place for spectators. Most stood on the opposite side of the wide sidewalk, and the division drowned any intimacy. Contrast that with Joel Harrison’s setup: People were just as far away, sitting on nearby rocks, but it felt like one big living room.

Still, Cary’s band kept playing and smiling and having a good time. They made the best of the situation.

Roy Campbell was at the intersection of walkways next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, so his was a crowded set. “Peace” came out in bluesy, standard-sounding tones, a more polished rendition than I was expecting but still very lovely. It was a hit.

Campbell himself seemed to be having trouble with the embouchure on the flugelhorn, but his playing was still warm and spirited. The big highlight for me came during Mingus’s “Nostalgia in Times Square” where Campbell’s keyboardist, playing a digital piano, went absolutely nuts with his solo.

It was tempting to seek out one more band, maybe the Mingus Big Band, to hear the finale, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind.” But I’d walked a lot, and the sun was setting, and I still had to get myself through Times Square and down to Brooklyn with enough energy for even more music that evening. I opted to pack it in and take a bus ride down 5th Ave.

In retrospect, I didn’t hear as much jazz as I thought, and maybe I worked too hard to rech the music I did. Doesn’t matter. I came away feeling happy and fulfilled, feeling like I’d done Jazz and Colors. It was a big experience.

And then I went to Brooklyn.

(Bigger photos follow. Apologies if the formatting goes all wonky on your browser. Click for the big versions.)

Columbus Circle. My starting point.
A gathering for Kris Thompson’s quartet. You can’t see Thompson herself.
There she is! Kris Thompson on drums. Photographer at left; every musical ensemble was photographed continually.
Joel Harrison Quintet. Steven Bernstein at extreme right.
Joel Harrison’s audience. The nearest place to comfortably sit was on a group of rocks. Despite the distance, the audience seemed engaged.
Jazz and Colors had these information tables set up throughout the park. Some weren’t near any of the music spots; this table had a solo trumpeter providing its music.
Joel Harrison’s band’s lunch break.
Marika Hughes & Bottom Heavy.
This trombonist, at right, was one of the lunchtime performers. He won his crowd over with some playful antics, then reminded them to go support live music after today.
A young fan makes friends with Marika Hughes’ drummer — and dances. She was really into it, too. The propensity of little kids to dance to any music is a wonderful thing.
Marc Cary at Engineers’ Gate.
Marc Cary’s group was possibly best enjoyed from above.
Roy Campbell belts it out, just behind the Met.
Two little fans tried to slow-dance as Roy Campbell played Ornette Coleman’s “Peace.” They didn’t quite get it right. It was awesome.
A musician *not* involved with Jazz and Colors packs up after a day’s work. I passed him on my walk to the bus stop. A nice reminder that in a city like New York, you’re always surrounded by music, if you’re just willing to go find it.

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