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.