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New Musical Adventures: Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola

Published on
September 30

I don’t think of myself as a “jazz person.” Most of my experiences listening to or making music have been in a more classical vein, and though I had listened to jazz, I had never enjoyed it in the same way that I did music I was more familiar with. But I was intrigued by Helen Sung’s sextet, performing at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I didn’t know exactly what “straight-ahead jazz” or “post-bop” meant, but I was interested by Helen Sung’s classical background. If she could find a way to bring classical music and a classical ear to jazz, maybe I could too.

            If you’re planning to go to a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert, you actually don’t want to get off the subway at the Lincoln Center stop. It is located in the incredibly gorgeous and upscale Shops at Columbus Circle. Helen Sung and her group played two concerts every night from Friday through Sunday, and I had tickets for the very last one. It was strange for me to be heading out on a Sunday night for a 9:30pm concert, but I was certainly not alone. When I got off the elevator on the fifth floor, I was greeted by a huge line of people waiting to be let in. Often when I go to an opera or orchestra concert I am one of the youngest people there, but at Dizzy’s there was an incredible diversity of people – college students, elderly couples, and everything in between.

            After confirming my reservation, I was shown to my table. The first thing that struck me was the view. The back wall of the club, behind the stage, was made up of huge windows overlooking Columbus Circle, Central Park, and beyond the park a beautiful city skyline. The club is fairly small, but this view makes it feel spacious. The majority of attendees sat on barstools arranged around most of the perimeter of the room, with a platform behind them for food or drinks. I was lucky enough to get a table right next to the stage, but there didn’t seem to be a bad seat in the house. I glanced over the menu, accompanied by a light jazz CD and the gentle hum of conversation. The menu features “Down-home flavor served with New York flair,” and included specialty gumbos, succotash, baby back ribs and fried chicken. Many of the choices were a bit pricey for the average student on a night out, but they also have cheaper options. Next time I will be sure to try their hushpuppies with charred scallion ravigote for $5. Dizzy’s has a great selection of drinks too, including cocktails with jazzy names like “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” “Summertime,” and “A Night in Tunisia.”

                   At 9:45, Helen Hunt and her sextet was introduced: Seamus Blake on saxophones, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, Doug Weiss on bass, Obed Calvaire on drum set, and Samuel Torres on auxiliary percussion. Helen Hunt took her place at the piano. Without a word from the band, Torres began playing an impassioned and energetic solo on a hand drum, which immediately got the audience’s attention and led us into the first song of the evening. The song began with a crisp, fragmented melody played by the trumpet and saxophone, and quickly led into a long section of improv solos, starting with Jensen playing trumpet with a gorgeous tone. Each soloist was incredibly comfortable on his or her instrument, transitioning between long gentle lines and quick gritty passages all throughout their range. Other members of the band listened as intently to the solos as the audience did, even making little exclamations if they particularly enjoyed something the soloist did. The communication between the musicians was incredible to watch. During Blake’s solo, Calvaire watched him from the drum set, smiling broadly as Blake ramped up the speed and intensity of his playing. Calvaire followed his lead and matched his intensity, adding to the texture and feeling Blake was creating. 

                After the piece ended, Hunt revealed that she had written the melody for the piece, and that it was originally written as a tune for a beer, named “Brother Thelonius.” Hunt also wrote the melody for the next song, called “Bittersweet,” which began with a long piano solo. Hunt was very modest about her abilities as a jazz musician. She started jazz late and said that she only recently got to the point where she felt that she was “treading water” as opposed to “drowning” in the new style. But her performance, as both a soloist and as accompaniment for others, was sensitive and powerful. It certainly sounded to me like Hunt knew how to swim with the best of them. The band was joined on “Bittersweet” and for the rest of the night with special guest Ted Nash, from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Each night the band had a different guest with them, but I was particularly happy to have arrived on the night Nash was playing as I saw him walk out with both a saxophone and a clarinet (clarinet is my primary instrument).

           The band played two more pieces, seamlessly transitioning from the energetic and growling “Anthem for a New Day” to a slower and gentler “Never Let Me Go,” featuring a lovely saxophone duet. Then, Nash switched to clarinet, the other musicians put away their instruments, and Hunt began playing a very classical intro to an infectious rumba featuring Nash. Hunt described Nash not just as a doubler (someone who can play more than one instrument), but as a “quintupler.” He had a beautiful jazzy tone on clarinet as he effortlessly bounced up and down the instrument’s multicolored register. Jensen, Weiss and Blake acted as percussionists for this piece, clapping along with the music. As they clapped, they smiled and laughed with each other, even trying some claps behind their backs or under their legs. The musicians were clearly having a blast with the piece, and it was infectious.

           The performance concluded with a piece inspired by the New York Subway system, called “Going Express.” It was a fast paced, exciting finale to the show. At the end, Calvaire and Torres had a percussion solo together. Their eyes locked on each other as they played incredible fast rhythms, sometimes in unison and other times creating new polyrhythms. The interplay between the two musicians was absolutely enthralling, and I couldn’t help but watch them with a big goofy smile. This performance helped me understand so much more about what jazz is. It is really about communication – players find personal ways to communicate the music to the audience, and inspire each other to push their own ideas further. The evening was not just a concert, it was an experience in music-making that can never be replicated. The concert was over a little before 11, but I found myself wishing I could have stayed all night long.

           I highly recommend checking out a concert at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. The concert I saw was part of the Fourth Annual Coca-Cola Generations in Jazz Festival, which continues through October 8th, and features both jazz masters as well as up-and-coming young jazz musicians. Dizzy’s offers special student nights, as well as a $5 cover and a $5 menu for late night concerts on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Whether you’re a jazz pro or you’ve never even heard a jazz standard before, this is an incredible way to experience just how engaging and exciting music can be.