Jon Davis Piano Duo at Mezzrow, with Bassist Ed Howard
Saturday, 22 June 2019, 1030PM Set
When being at the top of your game means heading to the basement.
SHE (my wife Lorna) took me out for my birthday on a recent Saturday. The plan was to walk from East 14th Street across town at 16th near sunset to catch the Manhattan-henge Solstice (a Holy Day for me) effect, have dinner at Buddakan (of Sex in the City fame), then wander down to Smalls for some small club basement Jazz, impromptu-like with no tickets or any idea who was even playing. The setting Sun was spectacular, as were the SMOKE cocktails and Pork Buns, along with Short Rib and Scallion Pancakes!
We made it down to Smalls at West 10th close to 1030PM, in time to make the next set, whatever it was, but only to find a prohibitively (and predictably) large crowd in line to descend from the street into the basement jazz room. Not being attached to our loose plan we immediately turned to find alternative means of entertainment, but before we were able, the earnestly concerned but smiling fans in line told us to go across the street to Mezzrow. I’d heard of it and seen listings here and there but had never been, so what could be better. Off we went.
Mezzrow is a similar establishment, if less established and more off the cuff, run by the same owners as Smalls, presumably as an overflow space; and for more of a good thing. Without any ostentation at the door and just a simple sign to mark the spot, we descended a nondescript set of stairs, passed a work permit for a small Korean restaurant being built right next door, into the basement of Mezzrow. And a basement it was, pretty literally: pipes and cabling running roughshod over the ceilings, a small host area, followed barrel-house fashion by a small bar into a ‘formal’ sitting area with the customary few small tables and chairs all congested together, and finally the “stage” with the center-piece Steinway, the upright ready to be picked up and played, and the house drum-set in shambles in the corner. This was capped off with the usual illusory space-expanding mirrors, and all wrapped up in a bow of about 6 different wall treatments suitable for a teenage pot den, with the standout being the obligatory 60s wood paneling sections. After the “this can’t possibly be up to code” gander around the space and noting the small single door with an exit sign, we sat down as the host had indicated: sitting next to each other. However, there was an immediate repositioning of seats to accommodate a party of 4 men – seemed like music industry types. The good news being of course that there was plenty of room, although the room did fill up by set time, and we were right up front with perfect views of piano hand and bass finger-board.
The waitress, a ginger, perhaps from the British Isles, was an obviously exuberant jazz aficionado, which I parsed from overheard conversation. I got the delightful impression this was her dream job. Our plan called for whiskey, but after taking more than a moment with the menu, the only waitress nicely explained with a smile that she was at our service and didn’t have much to do. She said this so nicely and without sarcasm that I couldn’t tell if it was snide or not. We decided it wasn’t, and the service was perfect throughout. We settled on a round of intense Cardamom Bourdon followed by Basil Hayden. These did not disappoint.
The host came up to address the audience and to explain that this was a listening room, to keep noise to a minimum, and refrain from talking. This the audience mostly did, which was great. Although the bass was amped, and they ran a vocal mic through this amp as well for announcements and banter, the piano was not amplified, so a talking room would have killed the listening. It reminded me a bit of an extraordinary experience I had in a tiny pub near the desolation of the Burren in western Ireland, run by a single grandmotherly/drill sergeant woman behind the bar. The pub was wall to wall people drinking, talking, and partying at full tilt. The artist was a single performer with a tenor guitar and vocals, neither amplified very much. At EVERY ballad would come a huge SHUUUSH! from the bar keep and remarkably, the entire place would be magically and absolutely hushed for the duration. Only after a respectable time into the next fast number would the revelry recommence.
So, you never know what genius you will stumble onto in a small basement venue in NYC, unplanned, and unsought out, but I suppose it should be expected and not surprising. It was a delightful surprise in this case to discover and hear pianist Jon Davis for the first time, whose career highlights include recording with bassist Jaco Pastorious, and stints with just about everyone else. Being a fan of Jaco, especially the big band recordings, and having studied and played with Rakalam Bob Moses, who recorded the brilliant Bright Size Life album with Jaco and Metheny, I felt right at home immediately.
Jon came out early to shuffle through some loose-leaf charts, that were even more loosely organized, with incredibly fidgety fingers, to fish out charts here and there for the Bassist, Ed Howard, who had now joined him on stage. No drums.
No drums needed. The music did not disappoint in the slightest and rather rose to the occasion of an exulted experience of hearing musicians at the height of super powers, polished with constant gigging for decades. The rhythmic cohesion of the duo in the face of regular use of polyrhythm and poly-meter, even on already complex arrangements, one in 5/8 was exceptional and inspiring. I found myself tapping fingers and wagging my head with every bop and weave, with every departure and slide into home.
They opened with Check to Cheek by Irving Berlin, which led to some entertaining banter wherein Jon suggested, “who doesn’t like…” and Ed interjected “Cheeks!”, not the likely summation of “Berlin”. This joke was revisited after every tune, to jolly effect. After a touching original ballad and a stable of standards including All the Things You Are at sometimes very up tempos, the duo retired for a break.
The comparison between the level of the musicianship and the humility of the surroundings of Jazz performed in a basement music venue was unavoidable. Yet it was obvious the intimacy available in this setting was itself in keeping with a pianist at the top of their game. Much in keeping with Glenn Gould’s aversion to large halls, I can only imagine that Mr. Davis was in his preferred and sought-after context.
Giving Ed Howard a profuse handshake on the way out we made our way back up to the street, to wend our way back home, piece de resistance in hand, artisanal ice cream, to complete the evening.
EAB 24 JULY 2019 NYC