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No New Abnormal

Tag: concert review

Saturday in the Park: Not the Fourth of July, But We’re Getting There

Late Saturday afternoon, the faint smell of honeysuckle filtered down across the elevation inside Central Park at around 82nd St. on the west side. There wasn’t a huge crowd there, but on low-hanging tree limbs, rock ledges, an outer ring of a bench and across the lawn, a silent and rapt audience had gathered to see tenor saxophonist Mark Turner leading a trio with Vicente Archer on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. For free.

There was a gig bag for tips parked conspicuously in front of the band. This is what live music has come down to in New York in 2021: desperate times, desperate measures.

Before the lockdown, Turner would routinely sell out a weeklong stand at the Vanguard, and this crowd would have filled the joint. Until the Vanguard and whatever’s left of this city’s imperiled venues can legally reopen at capacity, we are at least blessed to have this weekend series which has been keeping hope alive…and keeping some of the world’s foremost jazz musicians at least somewhat employed.

Photographer Jimmy Katz’s Giant Step Arts not only sponsor the shows: they’re recording live albums here now. Genius move. People who missed this will be able to enjoy a series of defiantly strong performances made in the face of one kind of adversity after another. And future generations will hopefully take inspiration from the kind of heroism ordinary citizens displayed, staring down the absurdity of a global surveillance-state coup d’etat.

Sirens, helicopters and random chitchat notwithstanding, Katz, Turner and his band got a pleasantly and expertly conversational record out of this one. The saxophonist sussed out the scene: balmy atmosphere, gentle breeze, chill crowd and a set delayed about 45 minutes by a few droplets from an imposing but otherwise merciful bank of thunderclouds. He and the trio then explored a similar sense of calm, spiced with steady, lively, purposeful interplay.

Turner didn’t reach for the highs until about half an hour into the show, seemingly weighed evenly between canonic postbop hits and originals. But he did thrill the crowd with a real stunner of a downwardly spiraling, chromatically withering glissando in the first number. Archer followed shortly afterward with an undulating solo that grew grittier as Blake egged him on.

The second number established a pattern: Turner playing with a matter-of-fact lyricism, all subtle shades and understated optimism as Archer bubbled and grew slinkier while Blake added his usual blend of counterintuitive color and adrenaline. If you want to hear Johnathan Blake at his most mysterious – he’s done far more explosive shows as part of this series – this will be the record to get. Although his carnaval-esque groove on the third number eventually spilled over into exuberance, taking the whole band with him.

Giant Step Arts’ next concert in the park, this May 21 at 5 PM is an especially adventurous one, with cellist Marika Hughes‘ New String Quartet featuring Charlie Burnham on violin, Marvin Sewell on guitar and Rashaan Carter on bass. The show may be on the hill to the immediate north of the the 81st St. entrance, or in the space under the trees about a block north and east. Just follow the sound and you’ll find it.

Slinky Lynchian Hustles in Central Park

The Dark Sky Hustlers got the short end of the stick here, competing for sonic space with an amazing jazz quartet who earned a rave review for their show in Central Park a few weeks back. But the Hustlers hustle for their space: they’re an excellent band, and you should see them if you’re in the park anytime soon.

They’re a duo: a ponytailed guitarist with a bottomless bag of classic funk riffs, and a drummer. Their webpage doesn’t identify either by name. They like to play the mall, south of the 72nd St. entrance on the west side. Thursday evening they were at the statue at the southernmost end where the mall deadends into an east-west roadway.

You should have heard the applause springing up from pretty much everywhere within earshot after they’d finished a haunting, practically 25-minute long, often outright Lynchian jam, the high point of who knows how many sets they’d played that day. Their shtick is loopmusic. The guitarist will lay down a rhythm track over the drummer’s steady beat, then he’ll play a long, crescendoing series of leads over it. Sometimes there will be more than one rhythm track, or lead track. This particular one was built around a a bunch of minor seventh chords, more complex than the hypnotic two-chord jams the two often fall back on. And it was a lot slinkier, and more unexpectedly low-key and sometimes sinister, than anything else they played during about an hour worth of music. Who knew they had it in them? Maybe everybody who’d seen them before here.

The other instrumentals were good too. They ventured from pretty straight-up, strutting hard funk to more undulating, soul-infused, Booker T-inspired vamps and then back. They will probably be back there the next time you’re in the area, Saturday afternoon is pretty much a guarantee unless it’s raining. .

Who knew that in the spring of 2021, Central Park would turn into the Village Vanguard, Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall combined? Such is the state of live music in this city at the moment. The arts, and the economy in general are booming in states from Florida to Idaho and many points in between, but here in what used to be the intellectual capitol of North America, they’re on life support. We will need an impeachment of Andrew Cuomo, or some other end to his regime of terror and dictatorial whim, in order to find a way back to this city’s former glory as a magical musical melting pot. Thanks to the bravery of bands like this, and the passersby who support them, live music is still theoretically alive here.

Saxophonist Ralph Williams: A Familiar, Heartwarming Presence in Central Park

Who would have thought that the biggest memes in live performance in New York in 2021 so far would be chamber music, singer-songwriters and buskers? Almost fifty percent of the United States has been liberated and is back to normal, but some of the biggest names stuck in the other half of the country have been reduced to busking to make ends meet.

Not that there’s any shame in a performer doing that. Robin Aigner‘s hapless Mediocre Busker aside, there’s no better way to sharpen your skills than playing public spaces for hours on end, day after day. Now that spring is here, New Yorkers who’ve been starved for live music since the beginning of the lockdown need only look as far as the nearest park.

One of the most familiar sights in Central Park is saxophonist Ralph Williams, whose favorite spot is the edge of the benches just south of the Naumburg Bandshell. He’s been playing solo there for years. As you would expect from someone who’s put in thousands of hours on his instrument in frequently sub-optimal conditions, his chops are formidable.

But he’s not a showoff: his postbop style is very lyrical. Sonny Rollins seems to be an obvious influence, but where Rollins will self-combust, Williams likes subtle shades and ornamentation, and keeps his tempos, such as they are, on the slow side. He adds some gravel to his tone when he wants to drive a point home. Even though he’s playing solo, his approach is uncluttered, with lots of space. Any note in a particular phrase could be the springboard for a flurry or a melisma or a playful curlicue. While most of what he plays seems completely improvised, he’s anything but self-indulgent. And there’s a warmth and optimism, if not full-blown exuberance, in his music: this isn’t a guy who seems to want to exorcise demons with mournful wails or crazed extended technique.

He’s almost always at his usual spot on Sunday afternoons; he was there early Tuesday evening, after the clouds had passed. Too often we run across buskers when we’re enroute and in a hurry. This guy is a New York institution and will lift your spirits if you’re in the mood to hang, listen and recharge for the rest of the day.

Jazz on a Chilly Spring Day

.About ten minutes into the first number at his Saturday show, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter took advantage of a spring-loaded Joe Martin bass solo for a chance to pull on a windbreaker. That made sense: it was a raw, chilly, overcast afternoon.

It’s a little early in the year for outdoor jazz festivals. Was the air conditioning at the Village Vanguard working overtime? Before the lockdown, Potter would routinely sell out a weeklong stand there.

Nope. Potter was playing Central Park.

The chance to see him leading a chordless trio, featuring some breathtakingly masterful drumming from Nasheet Waits – for free! – was every bit the thrill it promised to be. Musicians are typically nocturnal creatures, but none of the acts in the ongoing weekend series that Giant Step Arts are booking in the park have phoned in their shows. Until we get back to normal – which is inevitable, if we are going to survive at all, let alone as a society – what photographer Jimmy Katz’s organization is doing is genuinely heroic.

At the series’ installment couple of weeks ago, the crowd was transient, many people lured away (or driven away) by a loud electric band up the block. This time, everyone had come to stick around and listen. The audience gathered around the rise at Central Park West close to 82nd Street wasn’t a mass sea of bodies, but they would have sold out the Vanguard.

The show was everything that everyone had come out for, maybe a little on the judicious, spare side. In over an hour onstage (or on bedrock, maybe), the group seldom hit a straight-ahead swing, shifting artfully and slyly between themes, JD Allen style, rather than playing anything all the way through. Potter was very generous with solos. Martin’s approach was a spring-wound intensity, sometimes very spaciously, echoing the bandleader at times.

Waits’ game plan was symphonic, starting with sticks, then moving to mallets, brushes and finally sticks again. While Potter waited til the closing number to swing hard, Waits was fueling a turbulent forward drive with hypnotically churning helicopter-wing rumbles, teasing out a very subtle clave at doublespeed on the rims of his snare, and taking charge of the suspense factor.

Potter didn’t waste time dispensing adrenaline: after the band had edged and shimmied themselves into the opening theme, he chose his spots to rise to trills, and slithery glissandos, and chilling microtones. The first number – if you count thirty-three minutes as a number – had a jaunty but spacious latin flair. About two thirds of the way in Potter, shifted to ominous modalities to match the encroaching grey clouds overhead.

Waits’ rolling thunder syncopation and Potter’s tantalizing, spacious cheer fueled an expansive, dynamically vast romp through I’m In the Mood For Love, the bandleader finally going for fullscale lyrical suaveness but also some wildfire spiraling as the trio wound it out. They went back to endless variations on a latin groove for the closing number, Potter’s crisply chopped blues phrasing, flurries and glissandos matched by Waits’ insistence and flourishes on his hardware as Martin chose his own subtle spots for victorious ricochets.

Giant Step Arts’ next Central Park show is on April 24 at around 1 PM (start time has been a work in progress here) with trumpeter Marquis Hill and his band on the little hill north of the 81st St. entrance on the west side. There will probably be Mister Softee and people with boomboxes within earshot in the quieter moments. What there won’t be is Bill Gates’ spyware, or a temperature gun, or a list of attendees which goes straight to Bloomberg’s trace-and-track gestapo to single out anyone who might be a threat to permanent lockdown surveillance. We’re going to win this war: this concert series is a small but enormously important step toward victory.

Ensemble Fanaa Bring Their Magical, Mysterious Middle Eastern Grooves to Prospect Park

It was a pleasantly cool Wednesday night in the late summer of 2016. The evening had gotten off to a disappointing start with an album release event in the dingy basement room at the Rockwood, where a talented tunesmith’s pickup band pretty much phoned in what could have been an electrifying set. As it turned out, the electricity that night would happen a little later in another basement room, at Rye Bar on the south side of Williamsburg, where Ensemble Fanaa played two rapt, mysterious, genuinely transcendent sets of Middle Eastern-flavored jazz.

This blog had given a big thumbs-up to their debut performance at Barbes earlier that year. This show was arguably even better. Tenor saxophonist Daro Behroozi spun a web of otherworldly microtones, slithery chromatic melody, hypnotic resonance and the occasional ferocious burst as drummer Dan Kurfirst switched between his kit and a boomy dumbek for intricate polyrhythms as well as slinky snakecharmer grooves. Bassist John Murchison held the center, often playing subtle, sometimes haunting variations on a pedal line. If memory serves right – this was a long time ago – he switched to the magical, incisive Moroccan sintir bass lute for a handful of trance-inducing, gnawa-inspired numbers.

Game plan at the time was to write up this show to plug whatever the trio’s next gig was. But they were all busy in other bands at the time, and if they actually played somewhere else within the next couple of months, it was so far under the radar that this blog missed it. The good news is that Ensemble Fanaa are doing an outdoor gig on April 20 at 5:30 PM in Prospect Park, close to the 11th St. entrance off 7th Ave. Considering that this band’s music is on the serious side: haunting, and rapturous, and mystical, nobody in the group seems like a weedhead. But if that’s your thing, there is no other 4/20 show that can match this one for psychedelic ambience. And it that’s not your thing, this still promises to be the best concert of the month.

Everybody’s Jumping Out of Their Shoes to Play Central Park

What a pleasure it was to walk down the hill to the Central Park mall on Sunday afternoon without being assaulted by the tedious, computerized whoomp-whoomp that all the druggies would be dancing to in years past. Instead, the sounds were organic. A guy with an acoustic guitar. A bunch of southern kids having a picnic and listening to twangy Nashville pop on a big boombox. Ralph Williams, tall and resolute, running sinuous riffs solo on tenor sax as he’s been doing since forever at the far end of the benches by the bandshell. The Dark Sky Hustlers playing expertly slinky, vampy funk instrumentals in the middle of the mall.

And at the south end, four of the foremost musicians in jazz, busking.

OK, this wasn’t your typical busker gig. Photographer Jimmy Katz and his nonprofit Giant Step Arts began booking top-tier jazz talent there on the weekends last fall, as a way to help keep New York musicians solvent in the time since Andrew Cuomo criminalized live music venues. Katz is keeping the series going this year, working with drummer Nasheet Waits on the booking side and Jazz Generation’s Keyed Up program for sponsorship. Sunday’s allstar lineup was the kind that people pay a hundred dollars a ticket for at swanky festivals: Wayne Escoffery on tenor sax, Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, Dezron Douglas on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. At the peak of the quartet’s first set, there might have been forty people scattered around the area. Where was everybody else? In the middle of the mall, watching the Dark Sky Hustlers. More about that later.

But even with the sonic competition from the Hustlers’ loud guitar amp, this was the place to be for a set of classics. The four players took a winding staircase up into Sonny Rollins’ East Broadway Rundown, Escoffery’s flurrying solo contrasting with Pelt’s spacious, allusively modal approach. The way Pelt shadowed Escoffery at halfspeed or thereabouts, as they wound it down to a brief drum solo, was the kind of sage, perfectly executed moment so many jazz fans have had to turn to albums and youtube clips to find over the past year.

The rest of the set underscored the group’s combined erudition, each a bandleader in his own right. By the time they’d made it halfway through a roughly ten-minute, hard-swinging, anthemically bluesy take of Joe Henderson’s Punjab, Blake was already getting hot, throwing elbows and jabbing when least expected. Kenny Dorham’s Short Story was more of a short novel, from a snazzy latin intro to swinging sizzle from Escoffery and Pelt and a rat-a-tat coda from Blake that he could have kept going for twice as long and everybody still would have wanted more. They closed with a ballad, If Ever I Would Leave You, the drummer immediately cracking the whip when it was apparent that the Strat across the way was drowning out the horns. When Douglas went to take a spare, plaintive solo, the guitar went silent: pure serendipity.

After the set was over, the Dark Sky Hustlers were still going, and it turned out that they were good at what they were doing: loopmusic, essentially. The Strat player has a deep bag of Memphis and New Orleans licks, and used them voluminously over one slowly undulating two-chord vamp after another, stashed away in his loop pedal.

Therein lies the joy and also the hazard of playing public spaces. The elephant in the room, of course, is Cuomo: if clubs were open at capacity, all of these musicians could continue their careers without jousting for sonic space. What’s most ironic here is that had the Dark Sky Hustlers known who was playing just a few hundred feet away, they might have joined the crowd. They’re a funk band; Johnathan Blake plays in Dr. Lonnie Smith‘s group. And there’s nobody funkier than him.

This spring’s lineup of jazz talent in the park is just as off the hook as this group. This coming Saturday, April 10 there’s a twinbill starting at noon with alto saxophonist  Sarah Hanahan leading a trio with bassist Phil Norris and drummer Robert Lotreck followed at 1:30 by iconic free jazz bassist William Parker‘s Trio with Cooper-Moore plus Hamid Drake on percussion at Summit Rock in Seneca Village in Central Park – enter at 82nd St. on the west side. Hanahan and her trio return on Sunday the 11th at the same time, followed at 1:30 by intense tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana leading hers with Pablo Menares on bass and Kush Abadey on drums. It’s not likely that there will be any funk bands to compete with up there.

Back at Bryant Park For an Even More Revealing, Entertaining Concert of String Quartets

The American Symphony Orchestra deserve immense credit for their courage in taking a frontline role in bringing live music back to New York at such a perilous historical moment. Likewise, the programmers at Bryant Park deserve just as much of a shout for giving musicians a space to perform when indoor spots have been ruled off-limits by Il Duce up in Albany. Concert-starved audiences whose daytime hours are free can catch an ongoing series of solo performances on the park’s electric piano at half past noon on frequent weekdays.

Monday night’s performance featured a string quartet of violinists Cyrus Beroukhim andRichard Rood, violist William Frampton and cellist Alberto Parrini playing a fascinating and entertaining mix of obscure and standard repertoire. Crowds have become immune to rote homilies like “You’re such a lovely audience, we’d like to take you home with us.” But when Frampton unselfconsciously gushed about how much of a pleasure it was to finally be able to play concerts again, there was no doubting his sincerity.

With full-on vibrato, they opened with an unabashedly Romantic rendition of Nino Rota’s Love Theme from the film Romeo and Juliet, and brought the concert full circle with the encore, Gabriel’s Oboe, by Ennio Morricone. In between, they confidently and vividly tackled three completely different but equally engaging pieces.

The first was Nino Rota’s lone string quartet, in three movements – considering the demands on his creativity as a film composer, it’s no surprise that there isn’t a fourth. From the initial movement’s soaring, lively, anthemic opening-credits energy,  the quartet turned in a robust, dynamic interpretation – more than a little cabin fever may have been exorcised at this show. The contrasts between the meticulously calm, baroque-tinged rondo and rise to a bracingly insistent minor-key coda in the second movement were striking, as the visceral triumph of the conclusion.

The group worked a spring-loaded, dynamically-charged intensity in the opening and closing movements of Samuel Barber’s String Quartet, Op. 11, its centerpiece being an even more dynamic, gossamer interpretation of the iconic Appassionate For Strings. Hearing that often whispery, achingly crescendoing movement – often played as a stand-alone piece – in the context of a greater whole was revelatory, especially when the quartet threw caution to the wind and reveled in the rise to the payoff at the end.

George Walker’s 1946 String Quartet No. 1 was the most technically challenging, thorniest work on the bill, but also the most fascinating. Much more rhythmic, bustling with constantly changing counterpoint, it’s  a crazy quilt of short, incisive, pervasively restless phrases, like a Bartok Jr. Never having heard the piece before, the simmering, nocturnal second movement came as a surprise – as did the shivery intensity of the reprise of the opening theme in the movement afterward. The dichotomy between bristling energy and plaintiveness was evoked even more strongly in the rather brief coda.

You can go on youtube anytime you want and look up every composer who ever wrote a note, but nothing compares to new discoveries brought to life before your eyes by a group who seem to be enjoying that every bit as much.

The next live performance at Bryant Park is a solo piano gig tomorrow, Sept 25 at half past noon by Yuko Aikawa.

Jazz on an Autumn Day

This has been a year of heroes and zeros like no other. One of the more recent heroes is Jimmy Katz of Giant Step Arts, who has stepped in to program a world-class series of weekend afternoon outdoor jazz concerts in Central Park at a time when musicians have arguably become more imperiled than at any other point in world history. Of the many nonprofits advocating for jazz artists, Katz’s is one of the most ambitious. Before the lockdown, he was booking a series of concerts at the Jazz Gallery, recording them for release on album and also on video, putting his own talent behind the lens to good use. Sunday afternoon’s performance on the southern end of the Central Park mall by vibraphonist Joel Ross and his quartet wasn’t like a hot Saturday night at Smalls or the Vanguard, but that didn’t seem to be the point anyway. Instead, a small, transient but generally very attentive crowd of maybe fifty people, at the most, scattered around the statue towering over the band, were treated to a thoughtful, very purposeful and occasionally outright haunting show.

Until we get Smalls and the Vanguard back again, in the short run this seems to be the future of live music in New York: communities coming together to support each other. Lately the park has become a pretty much daylong jazz festival, buskers everywhere, and several of them threw some of their own hard-earned cash into tenor saxophonist Sergio Tabanico’s open case as they passed by. A toddler sprinted up to the group in a joyous attempt to become their dancer, and the band loved it. His muzzled mom snatched him away: the child was distraught.

With mist from Tabanico’s sax and glimmer from Ross’ vibes, pedal down all the way, the group launched into the show with a wary take of what sounded like John Coltrane’s Birmingham. Drummer Craig Weinrib methodically worked his way up to the loose-limbed swing that would propel most of the set: like his bandmates, he was pacing himself. Tabanico set the stage for the rest of his afternoon, building slowly to a coda of insistent bursts and occasional shrieks against the beat.

Bassist Rashaan Carter maintained a more undulating, bubbling approach throughout the set, airing out his extended technique with harmonics in a couple of low-key solos. The bandleader was as terse as always, whether driving through steady but increasingly intense volleys of eighth notes, or providing spacious, judiciously ringing ambience behind the rest of the group.

One of the high points of Ross’ afternoon was an absolutely gorgeous, creepily tritone-infused solo to open the broodingly modal but increasingly funky third number. Another was the rivetingly allusive solo he took during an otherwise upbeat, bluesy swing tune toward the end. The group hinted they’d go further in a latin direction with a catchy, vamping minor-key number punctuated by another emphatically rhythmic Tabanico solo, but ended up holding back.

A return to pensive minor-key balladry – more Trane, maybe? – gave Ross a springboard for a stiletto-precise solo where he completely took the pedal off: it was almost as if he was playing a steel pan. Ross’ next scheduled gig is this Oct 9 at 4 PM with the Jazz Gallery Allstars at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

This particular Central Park series continues on Sept 26 at around 1:30 PM with drummer Nasheet Waits and saxophonist Mark Turner, plus Carter on bass again. It’s possible the players may not be at this exact location – on this particular afternoon, there was every possible kind of sonic competition further north, so sometimes you have to move around the park a little. The mall extends from the skating rink to the north, past the Naumburg Bandshell to about five blocks further south. The closest entrance is probably at 72nd St. and Central Park West.

Gail Archer Brings Concert Organ Music Back to New York with a Rare, Fascinating Ukrainian Program

Gail Archer is not only a trailblazing organist and rescuer of undeservedly obscure repertoire. She’s also been responsible for some of the most entertaining and often rewardingly unorthodox organ music programming in this city in recent years. So it was no surprise to see her back at the console Saturday afternoon, playing what has to be one of the first, quite possibly the very first organ concert for a public audience in this city since Andrew Cuomo declared himself dictator. While the turnout at St. John Nepomucene Church just west of Tudor City was very sparse, this being Rosh Hashanah, Archer and the church’s very personable staff deserve immense credit for their commitment to bringing back the arts.

What was most immediately striking about the program – essentially a reprise of Archer’s new album, Chernivtsi, A Recording of Contemporary Ukrainian Organ Music – was how loud it was. She took full advantage of the 1956 Kilgen organ and the space’s impressive amount of natural reverb throughout a robustly seamless performance of mostly rather midrangey material.

Ukraine has a deep tradition of choral music, but less so with the organ, and as a result most of the works on the bill were 20th century vintage. Much as it was glorious to simply be able to see an organ concert in Manhattan again, this was a pensive glory. There was no Lisztian ostentatiousness, nor much reliance on the many more colors that composers from where the organ has more of a history might have brought into the music. Rather, the similarity of the timbres and registrations made for plenty of strong segues. And it’s a fair bet that Archer was premiering much of this material, whether simply for New York, or for all of North America.

What stood out from hearing Bohdan Kotyuk’s Fanfare live rather than on the album? The echo effects – a favorite concert device for Archer – and the prominence of the lows. His Benedictus: Song of Zachariah seemed much more distinctly Romantic, by comparison. The initial, blustery foreshadowing of Tadeusz Machl’s Piece in Five Movements brought to mind Charles Widor; its stormy bursts over lingering resonance later on evoked the work of contemporary composer Naji Hakim.

Archer surpassed her already colorful album version of Viktor Goncharenko’s Fantasia with a steady dynamism, and later brought out more of a lilt in the cadences of Svitlana Ostrova’s Chacona. The remaining two pieces on the bill were the most rapturous, beginning with the dark, slowly expanding majesty of Mykola Kolessa’s Passacaglia. Iwan Kryschanowskij’s arguably even more mysterious, symphonic Fantasie was an enveloping yet relentlessly restless choice of coda, Archer building starry ambience and broodingly stairstepping intensity amidst the swirl and pedalpoint, to a deliciously articulated series of chromatic themes right before the end.

The monthly series of organ concerts at St. John Nepomucene Church, 411 E 66th St. continues on Oct 17 at 3 PM with a performance by Austin Philemon.

A Rare, Fascinating Program of String Quartet Music by African-American Composers at Bryant Park

Every year, this blog (and its predecessor) has chosen both a Brooklyn and Manhattan space as best venue of the year for each borough. In 2018, not wanting to settle for the obvious (i.e. Carnegie Hall and the Village Vanguard) and frustrated by the closure of so many small clubs, the pick for best Manhattan venue went to Bryant Park. Home to an annual, multi-night accordion festival as well as plenty of jazz festivals, chamber music and global sounds over the years, the space had earned it. In a long-awaited and highly auspicious return to live classical music there last night, a quartet featuring members of the American Symphony Orchestra played a rich, rare mix of music by African-American composers.

They opened with Adolphus Hailstork’s Three Spirituals For String Quartet, which quickly took on a gently benedictory ambience as the four musicians joined in unison in a lullaby theme. Cellist Alberto Parrini gave it a delicate pizzicato pulse, the group rising to distantly blues-tinged variations over an increasingly vibrant, dancing drive.

Violinist Phillip Payton, who’d put together this fascinating program, played first chair for that one and then switched positions with the ASO’s concertmaster, Cyrus Beroukhim for Jessie Montgomery’s 2008 piece Voodoo Dolls. Parrini and first-chair ASO violist William Frampton dug in with their bandmates for a recurrently grim, staccato pedalpoint, akin to Julia Wolfe at her bluesiest. Bracingly glissandoing chords set off a suspenseful lull, then the group bowed hard and swooped through the finale. Payton made no secret of how much he loved that piece: it was the big hit of the night with the audience, a relatively sparse but raptly attentive crowd of maybe sixty people scattered across the space behind the library.

Next on the bill were movements one, three and four of Florence Price’s Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet. The quartet matter-of-factly worked steady, Mozartean exchanges as the music shifted from a pensive, old-world minor-key theme to a more warmly enveloping atmosphere that seemed to draw as much on the French Romantics (Faure most noticeably) as the African-American gospel tradition.

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, as Payton explained, bridged a lot of genres. He played in Max Roach’s jazz group and later arranged for Marvin Gaye. His String Quartet No. 1, “Calvary, ” contained “A lot of notes we’re not expected to play,” Payton grinned, “Very jazzy harmonies!” He wasn’t kidding. Steady, rapidly strolling bluesiness quickly receded for more chromatic, brooding passages, like Bartok at his most unadorned. From there the ensemble followed a counterintuitive downward arc, from shivery counterpoint, a tease of a big swell and then crepuscular, flickering pianissimo textures that gently filtered away. The final movement, with its wickedly catchy cello lines, delivered a triumphant, anthemic payoff.

Trevor Weston’s Juba for String Quartet, the newest piece on the bill, seemed to be a study in how far from the blues a series of variations can go. In this group’s hands, that meant pretty far, and involving some extended technique, but also not so far that the center was lost. Terse, spare riffs were spun through a kaleidoscope and then back, through numerous dynamic shifts and ghostly harmonics.

William Grant Still’s first symphony, Payton explained, was in its time the most-played orchestral work by an American composer. His three-movement Lyric Quartette (Musical Portraits of Three Friends), from 1960, was the final piece on the bill. The composer’s eclecticism was front and center here, more than alluding to Romany swing after a fondly Romantic song without words to open the triptych, later finding common ground between Indian carnatic music and the blues. Quasi-microtonal flickers added depth to the incisively minor-key, jubilantly emphatic conclusion and its coyly Beethoven-ish series of false endings.

The quartet encored with Price’s heartwarmingly familiar variations on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. The organizers behind the music at Bryant Park seem to be determined to help this city get back to normal; their long-running series of solo shows on the park’s electric piano continues on several weekdays into next month. This string quartet return there on Sept 21 at 5:30 PM with a program including works by Samuel Barber and Nino Rota.