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.