The World According to Keitho

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Posts Tagged ‘Smalls’

New Years in New York

Posted by keithosaunders on December 31, 2011

I have mixed feelings about being back in New York.  I am here for a week to play my New Years gig, which is a gig that pays enough to make it worth my while to fly out.  

The best part of being here is staying with my best friend, and occasional guest-blogger, Jeff Mazzei.  We get a chance to catch up on life, as well as watch sports with impunity.  This year we will get to experience the final Sunday of the NFL, which will feature much more meaningful games than usual, with the Giants v Cowboys topping the list.

To me New York represents my past, and with it, the unrealized dreams and potential of my youth.  It’s difficult to pass a street without its associated memory  and I find this both fascinating and disconcerting.  I am proud that I was able to thrive in this hyper-competitive city, but always regret that I was not able to accomplish more.  I’m sad to call myself a former New Yorker, and sheepish about being back.

I spent two months here this past summer and I find it amusing that the earth has managed to travel halfway around our solar system in my absence.  When last I was here the temperature was in the high 90s with humidity.  Now, with the trees bare of leaves, the temperature is a comfortable and unseasonably warm 45 degrees.  

Manhattan is rotten with tourists, and much to my chagrin and consternation, I am one of them.  The city smells like fear to me.  There are cops on every corner — who knows, perhaps we went to crimson-red on the terror color scheme — and midtown seems tense and joyless. 

I was verbally assaulted by a security guard at the big library on 5th avenue and 42nd st.  She took me for an out-of-town rube and to that end forced me to open my backpack, delaying my exit.  When I glared at her, asking if she would like to look at my [Daily] News, she raised the ante, screaming at me to get out and advising me not to have a happy new year. 

I remember this New York.  In the old days I thrived on such confrontations.  These days I’m out of practice — they not only feel annoying to this re-transplanted Californian, but unnecessary.  I know — I should have my head examined for walking around midtown on December 30th.  Maybe I am a rube…

The best part of New York is the Italian food.  (not the Italians!)  On two consecutive evenings, in the Bronx and the Village respectively, I have had spectacular linguine, first with red clam sauce, and then with white, along with my favorite vegetable, brocoli rabe.  You can’t get that in California.

Not to mention the music.  I heard a great piano trio last night, and after my gig tonight I will end up at my favorite jazz club, Small’s.  In the end there is no denying the greatness of this town.   

Being here in the Christmas season is no bonus.

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Summer in the city

Posted by keithosaunders on July 17, 2011

Another great week spent in New York.  What a town!  I can’t believe I lived here for so many years. 

I had three gigs this week, and when I wasn’t gigging I was hanging out in the city, mostly at my favorite club, Small’s.  I’ve got long hair and a goatee now and everyone says that I look like a Californian.  Of course this belies the fact that I often had this look during my New York years.  Back then it would have bothered me to have been mistaken for a Californian, as if there was an inherent put-down in such a comment.  These days I don’t care; in fact, I’m amused by it.  Listen, there’s no denying it any longer..I am a Californian.

Musicians have been very welcoming to me since my return.  They seem genuinely happy to see me and curious about what my life in the Bay Area is like.  For my part, it feels great to be able to feel at home on both coasts.  Something that never occurred to me in all of my New York years, was that it is possible to actually like both places.  The inclination is to belittle the opposite coast.  I’m guilty of it —  there are jokes to be mined, for crying out loud!  But at this point, from where I stand, it’s a waste of energy.

A highpoint of my stay has been sitting in for one tune at the late night jam session at Small’s in the Village.  I was hanging out at the bar during the regular gig.  After the band finished I was getting ready to head to the subway to go back to the Bronx when I noticed that there was no piano player to start the session.  I figured, what the heck, I’ll play a tune.  A sax player began the first few notes of Oleo by himself, and boom, we were off. 

There is something about the energy of New York musicians that is at a different level than all others.  I lived here for 26 years, and after a while you can’t help taking it for granted.  But being away from it for a year and jumping back into the pool is an amazing experience the momentum is both startling and infectious.  

I didn’t know any of the musicians — they were all young guys — but it felt great to be in there with them, holding my own, and enjoying the energy.  The best part, for me, was the realization that even though I no longer live in new York, I haven’t lost that energy — that fire.

I played one tune, and ceded the piano bench to a young woman sitting in the front row who was patiently waiting her turn.  I went home on the subway, which slogged its way up the 2 train tracks, and arrived in the Bronx an hour and a half later, none the worse for wear.

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Night on the town

Posted by keithosaunders on July 7, 2011

I’ve been back east for three weeks now so i figured it was time to hit some of the ol’ spots.  I was upstate for a week, but for the most part I have been holed up in the Bronx watching baseball games. 

I decided I owed myself a night on the town so I took the subway down from Pelham Parkway to West 72nd street from which I walked down to 49th street to eat at my favorite Japanese soup kitchen, Sapporo. 

Last Sunday I attended a lecture on the British Invasion given by a trio of authors.  I had a great time and thought it was a fascinating subject.  It made me want to attend more lectures, particularly politically themed. 

 I spent ten minutes on google and came up with a reading at Bryant Park given by a history professor at CCNY who had written a book on Walt Whitman and Harriet Beecher Stowe.  

Much of the lecture had to do with the great influence that Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had on the abolition movement.  The professor claimed that it caused such a stir that it set into motion events that culminated in the civil war. 

I would say it was a good, but not great lecture, owing to the fact that the professor was reading from prepared text, and he wasn’t that engaging of a speaker.  Still, I enjoyed it enough to want to go to more lectures.  I have to admit, though, I was the youngest person there by a good 15 years.  And I’m 50!

After the lecture I took a subway down to the Lower East side to see my friend, and trumpet player, extraordinaire, Richie Vitale, play at a brand new club called The Moldy Fig.  It is a beautiful venue, and although it was sparsely attended, the music was great.  I sat in on three tunes. 

Afterwards I went to Small’s, which is in the Village.  There I saw a great trio led by pianist Mike LeDonne.  

After his set I ran into the drummer, Gerry Gibbs, who is the son of vibest, Terry Gibbs.  I have known Gerry since I was a senior in high school.  At that time he was a 13 year old phenom.  Gerry recalled that we had our first gig at a local McDonald’s.  We were paid in food, but there were certain high-price items, such as large coke, that we were forbidden from ordering.  Gerry’s memory is so good that he actually recalls, note for note, the bass line that my friend Milo used to play.  You might think he could hum any old notes and who’s to argue?  The thing is that they ring a bell with me.  I actually believe he remembers it!

I hung out until 1:30 before beginning on my return sojourn to the Bronx.  The train crawled along at the speed of a covered wagon.  All and all it was a 90 minute trip and I finally arrived home at 4AM.

A good night.

Stanton st on the Lower East Side

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You can’t go home again: Part 2

Posted by keithosaunders on January 1, 2011

One month ago, at Thanksgiving, I visited my father in Las Vegas.   On the way there I spent a night in Los Angeles seeing some old friends.  I couldn’t resist a chance to peek at the house in Van Nuys where I grew up.  The house was painted a different color, was a little worse for wear, but for the most part was as I remembered it.  But there was something otherworldly about looking at a place that was so familiar, yet not mine.

Here it is, a month later and I find myself in New York City — my first time back since moving to Berkeley five months ago.  I stepped off the subway at 47th st/Rockefeller Center and I wasn’t prepared for the emotion that hit me — anger.  Anger that from now on my status in New York will forever be that of a cameo.  Everything here seems the same, but like my experience with my childhood house, it seems alien to me.  New York is slightly out of focus;  it is no longer my town. 

My gig was great.  I played at a restaurant called Per Se with my good friend and favorite bassist, Bim Strasberg, and a fine singer, Hillary Gardner.   The gig was long, but good.  There was a nice Steinway there and we had a beautiful dinner.

Looking east on 59th street from the Time Warner Center

 Afterwards I went down to Small’s in the village for their after hours party.  I had a great time sitting in and I saw some old friends there.  I stayed for a few hours, stumbled onto the street and into the subway.  I rode all the way to the end of the line on the 6 train up to the Bronx.  After walking halfway up the ramp to the Bruckner Expressway I was able to reverse course and find my way to my friend’s house.   I went to bed a seven AM.

The great Richie Vitale at Smalls


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Smalls one last time

Posted by keithosaunders on July 13, 2010

My time in New York City can now be measured in weeks.  Although we do not have a definite departure date it is safe to assume that we are under  four weeks away from leaving.  We have yet to rent our apartment which, of course, is a source of great stress.  We are planning trading in our Subaru and leasing a bigger vehicle for the cross-country trip.  There will be four humans and one dog and we would like to minimize the sardine effect as much as possible.  Our oldest boy will not be travelling with us.  Instead he will fly out with a friend and spend some time in San Francisco at his friend’s aunt’s house.   

I first played at the jazz club Small’s with the HardBop Quintet shortly after it opened in 1993.  I remember going down to west 10th st to talk with the owner, Mitch Borden.  When I  met Mitch he was sitting outside on a chair playing violin.  He invited me downstairs to play for him and I remember we played together, though I can’t remember what we played.

The first time we played at Smalls there were just a few people in the audience but Mitch hired us back for the next month and we soon became part of the rotation, playing several times a year.  Gradually the business built up until it became unusual for the club not to be crowded.

In the early days Smalls had no bar and the chairs were arranged haphazardly throughout the basement club.  There were various couches and comfy chairs placed in nooks and crannys for people to plop down in.  For a small venue it was amazing how many such corners it had.  There were even secret alcoves and storage areas that actually served as crash pads — makeshift apartments — for down out musicians.  There was a heavy steel door in the back — it looked like an entrance to a supermarket freezer — which opened into one such storage area that served as a practice room.  It actually contained an upright piano. 

By 1995 Small’s had caught on and was crowded most every night — packed with college students, serious young musicians, and jazz fans.  It became a nurturing ground for young musicians, as well as a home base to some of the older masters, such as Jimmy Lovelace, Frank Hewitt, and Harry Whitaker.

There were times when the musicians, audience, and even the club itself could have an attitude.  Almost always, however, you could hear a pin drop during the sets.  This set it apart from many smaller jazz spots in which conversation was not discouraged.  

Smalls was a serious place in the best sense of the word.  You had young lions desperate to be heard, but with the passion to hang out night after night until five or six in the morning, learning, absorbing, and living jazz.  Not one of them was less than 100 percent committed to the music. 

In 2007, after Small’s had been closed for  a couple of years, the pianist Spike Wilner, and his partner, Lee Kostrinsky, bought Small’s and reopened it.  They remodeled it and added a full bar complete with tap beer.  They hired a much more diverse group of musicians — Mitch was partial to straight ahead bebop — but the standard of playing remains as  high as ever.  In my opinion it is, hands down, the best club in New York City.

 All of this is a long preamble to saying that I have played my final weekend at Smalls as a New York City musician.  If I play there again it will be as a Californian on tour, or on a visit.  I worked with the Richie Vitale Quintet, a group I have had the pleasure of playing with for almost ten years.  We had a great gig and the audiences were generous and appreciative.  It was fitting that towards the end of the final set of the weekend Richie called That’s All.  I thought it would be the last tune of the night but he ended with a medium tempo I Got Rhythm.  I wanted to scream “No!  You’re ruining the poetry!”  Instead I held my tongue. 

It’s going to take a lifetime to find a club in which I feel as home at, and as connected to.  I may never find one.

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One night at Small’s

Posted by keithosaunders on May 13, 2010

There are less than three months remaining in my 26 year stint in New York City.  To this end almost every gig I do is a last of some sort.  On Tuesday I had my last trio gig at Small’s, the popular Village basement club which, for the past 17 years has been home base to some of the city’s best musicians.  These are people I have had the pleasure of knowing, hanging out with, as well as playing with.  To name a few:  Joe Magnarelli, Sasha Perry, Neal Minor, Grant Stewart, and Chris Byars.

Small’s has a vibe to it.  It is a serious vibe — the unspoken sentiment is that if you gig there you had better be dealing.  At times it can feel clubby, or clique-ish, but no more so than other jazz clubs in New York.  Overriding all is the feeling of reverence and respect for the music that has existed at Small’s since its inception.   It is a comfortable place with excellent acoustics and I have felt at home there for the past several years.

All of this is a long preamble to stating how important it was for me to have a good last gig there.  I needed to take a positive memory with me out west because I know that may well be quite some time before I find another club that I care about so much. 

Tuesday was one of the rare nights that I was able to execute my ideas with a fluid connection between trio, audience, and myself.  I felt that I had all the chops I needed, but I also felt the ability to leave space and not to overplay.  There was little of the self-consciousness that can sometimes invade my playing when I am concerned with extraneous distractions, and I was able to interject my personality into the music. 

As is the case with my playing I always can find places for self-criticism and the other night was no exception.  The difference was that I felt that what came out of the piano was a true representation of where I am at musically and emotionally.  I was comfortable in my skin and I liked what I played — what more could I ask for?

I owe a great part of this feeling of comfort to the musicians that I was performing with.  Bim Strasberg, Taro Okamoto, and I have been playing as a trio for the past six years and we not only get along personally, but musicially.  Not having to worry about the hookup is a luxury.  

There’s something about having a working band that I have always loved.  I like the ease of calling tunes and the sense of camaraderie.  That’s not to say that great things do not occur with musicians that you only play with sporadically.  Sometimes the newness of the hookup can provide electricity and freshness.  But if I have my choice I will always opt for a working band. 

 In New York I am a small fish in a big pond — the biggest pond, in fact.  In Smalls I am also a small fish.  Almost every pianist who plays there is a motherfucker.  Although I am not the biggest fish, I take great pride in being among these marvelous musicians.  I am one of them.  If it took 26 years to feel this way, well it was worth the wait.  

Tuesday was a good night.

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