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.