The party at Saturday’s slate of hot jazz bands at Central Park Summerstage was out back, on the lawn behind the arena. The picknickers and snuggling couples who’d made that spot their destination were on to something. There are no sightlines back there, unless you sit on somebody’s shoulders, maybe, but the grass has grown in since the hurricane, making a comfortable return to a time that for awhile seemed gone for good.
Inside, a mostly white, monied, youngish crowd slowly grew, milling around aimlessly, lethargic as the sun beat down oppressively on the astroturf. The bleachers to the left and right were packed, especially in the shade of the trees. The tented spaces directly behind the sound booth – which these days is situated at the back of a wide, fenced-off path to the stage – are paid seats reserved for ticketholders who fork over thousands of dollars to sit there, according to one of the many, many ushers working the show. But those seats remained empty for the duration of a concert that went on for over four hours. Then again, hedge funders are not known for their fondness for dancing, or their taste in music, or for any kind of fun in general. What would have been fun would have been to organize a posse to occupy those seats since all that space was going to waste. Needless to say, plenty of people would have jumped at a chance to do that in, say, 1988, when the arena was funded by taxpayer money rather than hedge funders trying to dodge the IRS. Then again, that was also before antidepressants and post-9/11 security paranoia.
On one hand, this concert was a bunch of familiar faces playing familiar material. Then again, that’s a spoiled New Yorker’s view. Many of the creme de la creme of the New York oldtimey swing jazz scene made their way up to the bandstand as the sun made its way slowly across the sky. Trumpter Bria Skonberg served as emcee for the New York Hot Jazz All-Stars, an aptly named pickup band featuring – in no particular order – Anat Cohen on clarinet, Wycliffe Gordon (who’d just played a raptly fun set with Svetlana and the Delancey Five the previous night) on trombone and vocals, Jerron “Blnd Boy” Paxton on banjo, Dalton Ridenhour on piano, Vince Giordano on bass, vocals and bass sax and Joe Saylor on drums. With dixieland flair and expertly bluesy chops, they made their way through a New Orleans-heavy set, Gordon channeling Louis Jordan with similar erudite, unselfconscious verve.
Hot Sardines frontwoman Elizabeth Bougerol, decked out in a dazzling orange pantssuit, sang the most apt song of the afternoon. The wistfully swinging title track to the band’s new album French Fries and Champagne may speak to those on a beer budget with a taste for bubbly, but it’s as much of a guardedly hopeful anthem for those who’ve weathered the past several years’ blitzkrieg of gentrification. Bougerol didn’t mention the UK’s secession from the European Union – Svetlana did that the previous night, with relish – but that’s the first domino. The real estate bubble can’t last much longer. Meanwhile, the band – musical director Evan Palazzo on piano, Jason Prover on trombone, Mike Sailor on trumpet, plus sax, rhythm section and a full string quartet – partied like it was 1929. Bougerol toyed with the beat in a brassy, sometimes languid, sometimes come-hither mezzo-soprano, through a set composed mostly of original, period-perfect continental 1930s style swing numbers. The best of the standards was Bougerol’s insightful bilingual rendition of an old chestnut, titled Comes Love in English, but whose French chorus translates loosely as “Love Is Fucked Up.” They also took a rather farfetched stab at horn-driven countrypolitan along with a misguided remake of a wretched 1980s cheeseball pop hit. Then again, that song was huge in France, and that’s where Bougerol hails from.
Butler, Bernstein & the Hot 9 headlined. By then, the turf had really soaked up the heat and was throwing it back up, and the band onstage reflected that. This is basically trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s return to his roots playing the lively New Orleans-centric swing and pre-swing repertoire he cut his teeth on in Berkeley and then New York before making his own indelible mark as an avatar of noir, and film music, and Jewish jazz. So it was no surprise to hear him leap and snort and fire off one explosive burst after another as pianist Henry Butler boogied and rumbled and barrelhoused, guitarist Matt Munisteri jangling and clanging through every hip voicing in the book as the horns and strings wove an endlessly joyous lattice of southern-fried revelry. Inside, the crowd’s energy level had picked up to the point where it was hard to find a space out of the sun that wasn’t forbidden. Out back on the lawn, there was plenty of space, and relaxation, a good place for starting over when the time comes. And it will. Bring it on.