Joel Ross Quartet – Walk With The Wind series
(The Mall in Central Park NYC. 20 September 2020. Review by Dan Bergsagel)
L-R: Joel Ross, Sergio Tabanico, Rashaan Carter, the Shakespeare statue, Craig Weinrib. Photo by Jimmy Katz courtesy of Giant Step Arts
On Sunday, a Joel Ross quartet played a rare gig in Manhattan. Things felt normal: there was hubbub and excited chat amongst the crowd; keen fans had staked out the best seats at the venue nice and early; we heard a few mallet taps of the vibes and stretches of the double bass as the band warmed-up. Except, it was in broad daylight instead of the gloom of a basement, the seats in the venue were benches on The Mall in Central Park not tightly packed chairs and tables, and the distant sound of joggers yelling at cyclists replaced the traditional crumpled crunch of a cocktail shaker.
This unusual gig marked the fourth weekend of “Walk With The Wind” – a free live music series staged in honour of the late US representative John Lewis. It all happens al fresco in The Mall of Central Park in the shadow of the William Shakespeare monument. The series is organised by Jimmy Katz of the non-profit Giant Step Arts, partly as a replacement for GSA’s typical work: commissioning new music and organising high calibre live concerts so they can be intensely documented – recorded, filmed, and photographed – to produce albums and promotional material for up-and-coming musicians.
The musicians didn’t seem perturbed by the location as they played an extended single afternoon set – starting delicately, almost to avoid imposing themselves on the rest of the park denizens. Their crowd hushed, and leaned in. The outside environment does change the dynamic of the band and the instrumental mix, and more than ever the onus is on the drummer, Craig Weinrib, to listen and keep in line with the rest of the group. Weinrib, with Rashaan Carter on bass, hit a nice swing, even as some of Sergio Tabanico‘s tenor tone was swallowed by the foliage.
The vibraphone, however, seems to fit perfectly with the park setting, whether ringing in the metronomic theme of Touched By An Angel and melting into the end of a Carter bass solo, or captivating the area with a thoughtful song prologue which drifts over head. Mixed with the very mellow (like an apt Autumn Leaves), there were also anthemic moments which embraced and stretched the open expanse of outdoor performance – an epic Tabanico tenor adventure, or Weinrib assertively crackling over a juicy vibes loop..
Sitting socially distanced on The Mall and listening to live jazz feels like an optimistic moment. It might just be part of the 2020 zeitgeist – a brief reprieve overshadowed by the continuing uncertainty brewing: a concert series in honour of Civil Rights leaders, but overshadowed by continuing police violence and and unfolding Supreme Court bunfight with the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg; the welcome return of organised top-notch live music programming, but with the knowledge that lockdowns are being re-imposed in Europe and that the cold weather around the corner will make outdoor programming increasingly challenging. As NYC school re-openings are delayed, and colleges across the US tackle covid outbreaks in returning students, one of the unsettling questions is over the long-term impact the pandemic will have on students and young talent.
This is no different in Jazz. Indeed, for an art-form so dominated by live performance, improvisation and impromptu collaborations, it is potentially much worse. With the resumption of indoor gigs still not on the horizon, and no music school practice rooms, late night jam sessions or warmup sets, where are the next generation getting their exposure? From the evidence of a crowd full of eager young jazzers clutching their horn cases hoping to sit in or planning their busking pitches for later in the day, these outdoor happenings are clearly vitally important.
It’s within this context that Jimmy Katz and Giant Step Arts are plugging a gap with Walk With The Wind. The organization brings welcome momentum and reach to those it invites to play, but Katz alone can’t replace the depth of live jazz opportunities which should be across the city each night. However he can certainly try, and the crowd on The Mall – those there intentionally as well as the surprised passersby – were grateful to catch some jazz, and some Joel Ross.
Next weekend playing in the park – underneath the watch of William Shakespeare’s rear – will be two sax/bass/drums trios: our bass hero Rashaan Carter with friends on Saturday, and Joel Ross’ Good Vibes saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins on Sunday. And while they don’t appear together in the Walk With The Wind series, Wilkins and Ross have their next album Who Are You? out October 23 on Blue Note.