Seconds in the City

by Josef Woodard

I ❤ NEW YORK: “For fuck’s sake, this is New York, isn’t it?!” She taunted the crowd, then repeated the potty-mouthed mantra, both for emphasis and to remind us that the tongue was semi-cheeked. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ inimitably charismatic singer Karen O was introducing a special encore “They Don’t Love You Like I Love You,” at the Roseland Ballroom in Midtown. Reportedly, the band had just played Coachella, failing to connect in any intense way in the desert. But their raucous arty ploy worked wonders in this room. For fuck’s sake, this was New York City, wasn’t it?

Really, O’s shout-out was a Rock Show equivalent of the over-eager Amtrak announcer, retro kitsch in his veins, bellowing “Ladies and gentlemen, next stop: New … Yo-o-ork … City!” It’s a city (not unlike Santa Barbara) forever high on self-regard. That may also be an extension of a general American impulse, for better and/or worse (thank you, Mr. Bush).

Art-watchers in N.Y.C. are making haste — or at least paying default deference — to the Whitney Biennial, now a blur of names and notions on the Upper East Side. Don’t start your Whitney visit by taking in the modest but hopelessly seductive sampler of Edward Hopper paintings on the top floor. After basking in the grandly detached American splendor of Hopper classics like “Seven A.M.” and “Summer Interior,” the Biennial’s power — though bursting and fizzing over with ideas and conceptual gimcrackery — diminishes by comparison.

At the risk of seeming like an Old Phart, where are the Hoppers of today? Or does the question reveal a misunderstanding of the contemporary art zeitgeist?

A different kind of real-time zeitgeist held forth in the pint-sized but inspiring East Village club called the Stone, the house that John Zorn built. When Zorn met trombonist/computer wizard George Lewis one night a few weeks ago, it was the kind of lofty, free-improvisational summit meeting that can make other improv encounters seem like so much hopeful child’s play and nose-blowing.

May’s programming at the Stone is dedicated to the late, great avant-guitar hero Derek Bailey, who had planned and curated the month’s doings, but whose death earlier this year cut short his high artful life. Bailey’s plans were nonetheless carried out, and the Lewis-Zorn meeting comprised two-thirds — also with Bill Frisell — of the historic News for Lulu concerts/albums of the ’80s. Bailey was missing, but not entirely: Lewis called up samples of his voice on laptop in the midst of improvisations, alternately lyrical and manic, in the most cathartic and controlled way.

This was also the week that trumpeter Dave Douglas — habitual poll winner, yet an underdog in broader public terms — hunkered down for a week at the Village Vanguard (another of those must-experience venues for any jazz fan). Douglas unveiled his reconfigured quintet, with fine tenor saxist Donny McCaslin replacing Chris Potter, and further proved why Douglas is making some of the most important and least dogma-tied jazz anywhere. Douglas ventures “outside,” but also tends to structure, melody, and resolution. He needs to darken the doors of the “Jazz at the Lobero” series.

After midnight, one could walk a few blocks from the Vanguard to the vibe-y little haunt, the 55 Bar & Grill, and catch the weekly stint by amazing guitarist Wayne Krantz, joined by flexible, freewheeling drummer Keith Carlock, freed from the backbeat duty of his gig with Steely Dan, Donald Fagen, and others. Carlock and Krantz were recently toasts of Fagen’s band at the Arlington, but here they were in more interstellar, commerciality-be-damned form.

Post-9/11, N.Y.C. has changed, but its embarrassment-of-enticements remain. On the subway, a generic, accent-less male voice gently booms: “… remain alert, and have a safe day.” Forget about a nice day: Safety and alertness are new priorities, there and everywhere. But the cultural pulse still races. It ain’t over until after the fat ladies and tenor players stop singing. (Got e?

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