Whenever we visit “the jungle” as Paquito D’Rivera calls New York City, it brings up a host of feelings in me. Despite the economic hardships perpetuated by the recession, Manhattan is still ground zero as far as the arts are concerned. Competition is incredibly fierce, and getting reviews and media support is an ongoing battle. Then there are the costs associated with playing in one of the most expensive cities in the world. However, it’s still a must to be seen by some of the toughest audiences in the country, and reviewed by the journal of record, the NY Times. So once again, we crossed the country and landed in NYC.
Dave and I arrived at JFK on Sunday evening, September 13th to wonderful weather. Our presenter for the New York Chamber Music Festival, violinist Elmira Darvarova, the former concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera met us at baggage claim, and her husband, Howard Wall, the 4th horn in the NY Philharmonic drove us to our hotel in their Toyota SUV. To say we were well cared for by them both is an understatement.
We had stayed at the Edison, an old Art Deco institution right around the corner from Times Square at least once before. I had forgotten how small the rooms are, and couldn’t even figure out how I would find the space to play my cello. It was the quintessential New York hotel: old, small but atmospheric.
I had breakfast in the hotel coffee shop the next morning. I was served by a waitress from Russia, who had just the right amount of attitude. Waiters flew by who looked like they were born slinging hash. I ordered two of the most perfect poached eggs on toast you’ve ever seen. So good I had the same thing the next morning. And the price was right, under six bucks. Cheap for New York.
After doing a “phoner” interview in my little cloistered hotel room, I met David downstairs. I had asked a security guard near the elevator how long we should allow to cab it to Columbus Circle, where our interview at XM Radio was to be. “40 minutes, minimum. Notice, I said minimum,” he told me. One of the doormen hailed us a cab. I always enjoy watching doormen hail cabs, and always give them a tip for their trouble. There’s no more helpless feeling in the world then trying to hail a cab in New York, your arms uselessly waving at cabs filled with paying passengers, watching them fly by.
We arrived at our destination not 10 minutes later, a full 30 minutes early. We decided to go to the interview, and see if we could get it done early. With a sound check and rehearsal still ahead of us before the concert, it was going to be a long day. As we looked for the stage door for Jazz At Lincoln Center, where the interview was to be recorded, a man sweeping the sidewalk noticed us hesitating and asked where we were going. I am always moved by how helpful New Yorkers can be. He directed us to the correct door, and we were buzzed in. We ended up being met at the check in counter by Bruce Berenson, from XM Radio. Since we were so early, and our host Mark Ruffin was in transit, Bruce was nice enough to give us a guided tour of Jazz At Lincoln Center.
I had always wanted to see JALC, and it’s a beautiful place. The main hall has a large stage, with extra seating directly behind the performers, yet the feel is intimate. We also saw the smaller space, the Frederick P. Rose hall with its impressive glass wall overlooking Columbus Circle and Central Park. And I finally got to see Club Dizzy, where our good friend and collaborator, Cyrus Chestnut had recently performed.
Our interviewer Mark, resplendent with dreadlocks and sporting a big smile had a surprise for us. He got a mystery guest on the line who turned out to be jazz great Ramsey Lewis, We had performed with Mr. Lewis at Ravinia in Chicago a couple of summers ago, and it was great to hear his voice and to say hello. Mark was a more than capable interviewer, and he and David had a great time talking about the good old days of the David Grisman Quintet, a favorite of Mark’s. I enjoyed hearing about Mark’s transition from Chicago
working for Oprah to his dream job at XM.
We left the interview determined to walk back to the hotel to meet our beloved publicist, Amanda Sweet. It was sunny and a perfect 70 degrees. I’ve never had better weather in NYC. We had a wonderful lunch in an Italian upscale restaurant a couple of doors up from the hotel, and after an amazing dessert of panna cotta, we made it back to the room with barely a half an hour to rest up for the really big show.
We had played Symphony Space a several years ago with the Ying Quartet, and remembered it well. Good acoustics, for some but not for me. A large brick wall in back of us, that when lit with red light invoked the Comedy Club in Los Angeles. It took a full 30 minutes to get my sound to work. My pickup came out of the monitor speaker sounding like a distorted fart. The soundman finally got things working, and then it was time to get the whole band in the mix. We had committed to performing David’s new quartet, Tree Of Life, and had much to rehearse. Jeremy Kittel, our violist works with the soundman to get our amplification just so. Our goal is to bring the listener into our space, boosting the sound just a bit while keeping the intimate acoustic sound that string quartets are known for. It’s a delicate dance, and this room, with its hollow stage, and booming low frequencies was not completely cooperating. Jeremy and the soundman finally got things under control and the group dove into rehearsal mode.
Attendance can be an issue in New York, where there are a million and one things happening every night, and in this we were not disappointed. Or rather, we were extremely disappointed to find out that by show time the hall was embarrassingly low on concertgoers. It was a Monday night, we were a last minute replacement for another group, etc. etc. There are always many reasons for a light turnout. We gamely took the stage, and played our hearts out. When the show was over, we were rewarded with a hard earned encore, something that rarely happens when playing for a small crowd. I was extremely happy with our performance, and encouraged by the response to the new piece.
We celebrated at Cleopatra’s Needle, a jazz club within walking distance of the hall. We lugged our instruments and concert clothes into the restaurant, plopped down and ordered. Later, we watched Jeremy jam with a combo while we ate exotic fare like Cornish GameHen in curry sauce. It was an evening to savor and remember well. New York can be lonely, harsh, loud and overwhelming, but this trip had been anything but those things. It was an auspicious start to our 2009-2010 season, and since we knew we’d be back to NYC in barely a month for a concert with Luna Negra Dance Company with Paquito D’Rivera, a welcome blessing of sorts.