Barbès at Last

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Monder setting up. Vexingly, I don’t seem to have taken any other pictures of the show.

For a couple of years, I’ve eyed the Barbès calendar jealously. Tucked into the toney Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, the little bar hosts rock, world, and avant-jazz music, but I’ve never managed to have the proper night free in New York to go check out the jazz part.

That finally changed. On this recent trip, the one that included the Stone and Story Collider shows, I took an extra day for myself to explore Brooklyn, ending it with Barbès and Tony Malaby‘s Trio Paloma, a sax-guitar-drums subset of the quartet on his album, Paloma.

Barbès is quite a bit smaller than I’d expected, a cozy neighborhood bar with a dark back room that can’t hold more than a few dozen. The place filled up quickly, and I actually got squeezed over to a seat in the front corner, where I would get the full blast of Ben Monder’s guitar and Malaby’s sax (but no view of Nasheet Waits on drums).

Rather than draw from Paloma, they improvised — two half-hour pieces, intentionally stretched. Frequently, especially during the first piece, Monder and Malaby would settle on a resolution point, but then one would start up something new, nudging the group into the next phase.

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Crowd shot, revealing the coziness of Barbès’ back room. The place must be a furnace in August.

Subtlety was checked at the door; these guys went for a big sound. Malaby led the first piece with slow and grand melodies, elephantine fireworks. Often, the music grew into a bright blur, like a song-ending fanfare stretched out. (I started thinking of Neil Young’s Arc, the collage of feedback and song-ending fanfares. I’ve never heard it, but the descriptions I’ve read matched the feeling I was getting here.)

The second piece started with bumpy melodies from the sax, a more quirky sound aided by a steady eighth-note babble from Monder. The sound was big but more defused, a more relaxed vibe. Toward the end, Waits started playing a light drum roll that felt like it lasted about five minutes, a constant hum that flickered over each of the drum heads without losing that hummingbird buzz. It was like a bass pedal tone underneath the guitar and sax, a damn impressive touch that stayed subtle and ran like an undercurrent through the music.

When Malaby’s set was over, the Mandingo Ambassadors stepped in for their regular Wednesday late-night set.

They’re an African pop/jazz band led by Mamady Kouyate, who grew up in Guinea learning a musical mix of Guinean tradition and electric jazz. His was one of three electric guitars filling the space with that happy, clickety sound I associate with African music. The rest of the band was rounded out by horns, percussion, drums, electric bass, and a vocalist. This didn’t seem like a jam session; they were clearly a band.

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The Mandingo Ambassadors settle in.

The first few songs were like light grooves, mildly funky music that sort of lingered pleasantly. Closer to midnight, the bar really started filling up, with more of the crowd filtering back into the music room, and that’s when the bass got turned up and the horns put more of a punch into their unison themes. What I’d been hearing was a warm-up; the band smartly saved the top-shelf stuff for a crowd. Only a few people danced, with most of the audience content to loiter around the back wall just tapping feet and nodding heads, but the band had their full attention.

When I left, the bar was crowded, the music room was even more crowded, and Malaby’s trio was still hanging around. It was a good time.

Interlude: Story Time

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Ben Lillie and Erin Barker, Story Collider hosts.

Dumb luck is sometimes on my side. My friend Erin is a producer with The Story Collider, a nonprofit group that organizes storytelling performances — creative non-fiction — about how science has changed people’s personal lives. Story Collider is based in New York, so I always thought it was a shame I would never get to see one of their shows.

And then I got assigned to a one-day trip to New York, and what should be happening that very evening but the Story Collider’s third-anniversary show. It was idiot-proof! I blocked out that evening’s calendar and bought a ticket a couple of weeks in advance.

The event was at a theater called The Bell House, which features a generous stage room with a bar to one side — a great place for an indie-rock show. This particular night, it was filled with a couple hundred folding chairs, and the place did fill up. Story Collider has a following strong enough that Erin and Story Collider founder Ben are being invited to take the concept to universities and conferences on the east coast and even in London.

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The irrepressible John Rennie.

A usual Story Collider event consists of five or six speakers, each delivering a 10- or 15-minute story around a particular theme. This being a birthday bash, there was no theme; Ben and Erin instead went out and got some real heavy hitters — a former child actor, a Macarthur fellow, a couple of prominent psychologists.

And they were great. The funny stories were damn funny — John Rennie sticking his arm into liquid nitrogen, on purpose, with effects that weren’t as bad as you’d imagine, but still weren’t good. Others swam into deeper waters. Amy Cuddy finished the show with the story of her own brain injury leading to a career studying the effects of brain trauma — and coping with losing the person she’d been before the accident.

You can hear for yourself: Stories from that evening have begun appearing on the Story Collider podcast, with Mara Wilson and Esther Perel leading it off.

I know Beth Lisick and Arline Klatte organized monthly storytelling shows in San Francisco several years ago, and I would guess someone else in the Bay Area has since picked up the torch. It’s a fine experience, if you happen to stumble upon one. Story Collider travels around, so keep an eye out for them.