Magically Haunting Creative Jazz on the Lower East Side
Over the past couple of months, there’s been an intriguing series of concerts, simply called Art in Gardens., featuring some of New York’s best creative jazz artists rotating through three community gardens on the Lower East Side. Saturday afternoon’s concluding concert at the Children’s Magical Garden, a leafy little Stanton Street oasis, was rapturously fun. Although guitarist Ava Mendoza seemed to be the ringleader, this was definitely a democratic performance, bassist Shayna Dulberger, tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis and Daniel Carter, who began the set on trumpet but then switched to tenor as well, exchanged ideas and musical banter and frequently sizzling riffage with a remarkably singleminded commitment to keeping a garden full of jazz fans entertained.
Free jazz gets a bad rap for being self-indulgent because it so often is: this was anything but. How did this crew keep it so focused? By sticking close to a central note, maintaining a lot of resonant, sustained lines rather than disembodied, herky-jerky notes, and keeping solos terse and thoughtful.
When she wasn’t punching out catchy, looping basslines, including one deviously extended interlude that finally veered away from 7/8 time, Dulberger used her bow for pitchblende washes that drew the music into deep, dark terrain. And the one time she hit a bubbly phrase and the rest of the crew resisted, she backed away, letting the music find its own natural flow.
Carter alternated between airy, sustained notes, methodical rises and falls and one particularly sage, saturnine, deep blues interlude where the band pulled back to let that majesty stand out. Lewis played what might have been the afternoon’s most gorgeous solo – such that there there were any solos at all – with a biting, Middle Eastern-tinged poignancy. Alternating between trebly distortion and lingering, sunbaked, bluesy minimalism, Mendoza managed to make her menacing chromatics and macabre tritones work seamlessly within this unsettled but less overtly dark context.
Finally, she cut loose with a nonchalantly savage series of tremolo-picked upper-register chords, then looped them with a pedal and added even more ominous low harmonies. That was the signal to the rest of the band to cut loose, but even there, the steady lattice of notes between the saxes along with Dulberger’s snaky, circular phrasing didn’t go completely nuts: this storm was headed in a very specific direction, straight to the endorphin center of the brain.
The Art in Gardens series may be over, but the organizers are still booking shows all over town, including an excellent “un-Columbus Day” three-day festival opening on Oct 11 at El Taller Latinoamericano at 215 E 99th St.