New York Minutes

Tuesday, 5 August 2008 — 10:55pm | Adventures, Jazz, Music, Pianism, Scrabble

I visited Manhattan for the first time before and after the Orlando NSC, and one doesn’t visit Manhattan for the first time without coming back with a swarm of impressions that cling to the memory like barnacles.

Not content with restricting myself to the usual landmark-hopping tourist experience of scheduling ill-lit drive-by shootings (now in digital), I thought it would be rewarding to amble around the City That Sleeps As Much As I Do with little planning and forethought, and let adventure ambush me as it will. At times, the excursion assumed the manner of a pilgrimage. Mecca, with less ululation. This isn’t to say that I didn’t tick my way down the usual checklist—the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the more navigable corners of Central Park, a Broadway production or two—but stopping there wouldn’t have made it my New York, and like any good tourist, I populated my list of things to see with a few sentimental items, guided as always by the invisible hand of personal entitlement.

So when I wasn’t busy getting lost in more of Central Park than most New Yorkers will ever see, I went looking for Scrabble and jazz.

For readability’s sake, let’s switch to point form. I intend to meander, after all.

First, Scrabble:

  • If you’ve read Stefan Fatsis’s Word Freak, the definitive book on the subculture of competitive Scrabble, you know about the “parkies”—the legendary players in the northwest corner of Washington Square Park, some of them reputed to be the best players outside of the tournament circuit. (This was before the rise of online play, of course; now there’s a whole generation of players on ISC and Scrabulous who have never touched a real set of tiles.) Naturally, I went hunting. To my chagrin, the parkies were nowhere to be found: the entire northwest quadrant of Washington Square Park had been torn up for restoration.
  • This didn’t stop a chess hustler from pulling me aside at the southwest corner, where the chess tables lie. Now, I know I’m not very good at chess, and I accept his challenge fully expecting to lose a few bucks. At five dollars a game, it doesn’t sound like such a bad proposition. What I didn’t foresee was how quickly he’d turn my pockets inside out. The first warning was when he pulled out a clock and set it to five minutes apiece. Dear God, chess I can handle—but speed chess? I don’t think it should come as a surprise that I lost the first game on time. My opponent swept the pieces aside and set up another game with the colours reversed, and the spicy taste of challenge was enough to pull me back in. With the pressure of the clock now firmly in mind, I tried to play like a speed demon. Careless, that: his queen kicked me in the nuts in five or six moves.
  • After a reluctant escape—and believe me, that Stockholm-syndrome part of me wanted to remain captive, especially when the hustler offered to play without time constraints—I toured the perimeter of the park just in case there was Scrabble about. Later, I passed by the chess corner again: there was a prowler amidst the tables, and an arrest in progress. The scene would have made for an exceptional photograph, but I thought better of it: I wasn’t about to get involved in a mess in front of the NYPD and the most dangerous chess players in all of Manhattan.
  • Still intent on playing Scrabble with people I didn’t know, I paid a visit to the weekly meeting of NSA Club #56, directed by former World Champion Joel Sherman. This was actually my first experience of club play outside Alberta, and the fact that it was one of the most competitive clubs in North America (and also featured in Word Freak) was a bonus. “G.I. Joel” runs four rounds a night in two divisions, and works out all the pairings himself. The Manhattan club plays under a time limit of 23 minutes instead of the usual 25, and several of the players have boards shaped like apples. There is also a frozen yogurt machine on the 14th floor.
  • “Nicholas Tam? From Calgary?” I was flattered that Joel Sherman (the Joel Sherman!) had at least a cursory recognition of who I was, given that Scrabble-wise, I haven’t done anything that I would be known for in the last four years at least. (Joe Edley knew my name when I was introduced to him at New Orleans, but that was back in my prime, when I was bounding up the standings 100 rating points at a time.) Then I remembered that I was talking to a guy who knew every word in the dictionary up to nine or ten letters. At one point, another player argued that he was certain BEJESTS* was a word. “Look in this book,” said Joel, holding a dictionary shut. “You will find BEJEEZUS and BEJEWEL. You will not find BEJESTS*.”
  • The two divisions at the Manhattan club are divided by NSA rating, with the boundary line at 1300. I was in the unique circumstance of being above 1300 before Orlando, and tumbling to about 1260 after my little four-day disaster, so Joel let me choose where I wanted to play. Naturally, I picked the upper division. I lost every game, and this time around, I couldn’t even post any decent scores. For record-keeping purposes, the club has a spread cap of 200 points—that is, you record a +200 or -200 even if the spread in the game exceeds that margin. I’m embarrassed to say that I had to use it twice.

And now, jazz:

  • The first leg of my visit had the good fortune of coinciding with the Jazz in July festival at 92nd Street Y, a posh concert series directed by pianist Bill Charlap, who plays in every concert but refrains from carrying on like a star. If I had my way, I’d have attended every night: at the price of $25 per concert for under-35s, it wouldn’t have been infeasible. There was a concert dedicated to Leonard Bernstein featuring vocalist Kurt Elling, whom I saw wow Edmonton at the Citadel two years ago. An all-star tribute to George Shearing. Another tribute to Billy Strayhorn. A piano masterclass that regrettably overlapped with my trip to Orlando, though I received fair compensation for missing it: it took place on the apotheotic Day 3. I’m satisfied with what I did see: a piano jam on twin grands, featuring rotating permutations of Charlap, Billy Taylor, Bill Mays, and Cedar Walton, including a few solo improvisations and a two-pianos, eight-hands setting that involved more than a little on-the-fly seat-swapping. Or should I call it musical chairs?
  • The most pleasant surprise of the piano jam was not a pianist at all, but cornetist Warren Vaché. This is the same Vaché whose recording with the Scottish Ensemble, Don’t Look Back, was the subject of a Paul Wells encomium not too long ago. Vaché has an ineffable stage presence that stops just short of calling too much attention to itself. When he isn’t delivering his pithy bebop aphorisms with clarity and grace, he responds to the music around him with a substrate of subtle gestures—a brush of the knee here, a straightening of the collar there, as Sandy Stewart (Charlap’s vocalist mother) danced over the lyrics of “Tea for Two”. Needless to say, I bought myself a copy of Don’t Look Back, which is every bit the landmark jazzer-with-strings recording that Wells venerates. To be fair, I was sold on it already, thanks to Vaché’s interpretation of what is probably my favourite Irish reel, the Percy Grainger setting of “Molly on the Shore”.
  • I missed Monty Alexander when he played at the Calgary International Jazz Festival in June, but I caught his engagement at Birdland for about the same price—that is, before you count the souvenir polo shirt, chocolate martini, and succulent striploin steak. This isn’t the original Birdland, Birdland-comma-Lullaby-of, the Charlie Parker temple that witnessed the doorstep billy-clubbing of Miles Davis, which has long since closed. The Birdland name carries on at a fine little dinner establishment where they seat you along a semicircle of candlelit tables that hug a nine-foot Steinway handpicked by Oscar Peterson. In a trio setting, Alexander’s brand of jazz piano belongs to the same branch of the family tree as Peterson’s glistening swing, but with a homegrown Caribbean presence in its rhythmic underbelly. I was seated at a table from which I couldn’t see the keys, nor could I see bassist Hassan Shakur behind the lid of the piano; at first, this seemed to be a problem, but I seized on that whole other dimension of entertainment in live music performance: the facial expressions, the stomping of feet. It provides an insight into improvisational thought that we too often forget.
  • I wasn’t about to leave New York without a visit to the Village Vanguard. For those of you who don’t know, the Village Vanguard—a cozy, intimate basement club with a fire-hazard capacity of 123 and no food—is a site of monumental importance in jazz history, the venue at which a staggering number of legendary concert recordings were produced. Chief among them are the last recorded sessions of the original Bill Evans Trio (Evans on piano, Scott LaFaro on bass, and Paul Motian on drums; LaFaro would die in a car accident two weeks later). As a piano enthusiast, The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 (originally released as Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby) is the crown jewel of my CD library. I’d say more, but Adam Gopnik’s article in The New Yorker will do more than I can to convince you that the Bill Evans engagement at the Vanguard was, and remains, a very, very big deal.
  • So it was, to say the least, a special occasion for me to visit the Village Vanguard to see Paul Motian, the original Bill Evans Trio’s last surviving member. Motian played in a nonet setting—in essence, the septet from his 2006 album Garden of Eden plus Jacob Sacks on piano and Matt Maneri on viola. The curious thing about Motian is how he manages to remain a background presence, never overpowering his soloists and and never taking extended solos himself, while always doing something interesting whenever you consciously decide to pay attention to him. The music for the evening consisted mostly of originals with an emphasis on collective improvisation over free structures that appear to defy harmony, but somehow manage to remain coherent. There was only one standard: Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, the jazz canon’s preeminent funeral dirge.
  • Here’s something I don’t get to do every day: solicit an autograph from Paul Motian at the Village Vanguard, a few feet away from a 47-year-old photograph on the wall of Motian sitting with Evans and LaFaro… at the Village Vanguard. Motian doesn’t look anything like his picture anymore, now that he’s shed the moustache (and indeed, any trace of hair on his head), and wears shades when he’s under the lights. I tell him that I wish I’d brought my Evans albums with me, to get his autograph on them as well. “Yeah, I heard from a lady in London,” he says, as he struggles to help me unseal a copy of his own CD. “She’s doing a documentary on Bill Evans, and she wants to interview me—fifty years later!”


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One rejoinder to “New York Minutes”

  1. You seem to know all the places we need to go for music in NYC. Both of us will undoubtedly need a repeat trip to the Big Apple at some point, I suggest we consider whether our schedules can overlap on that point. In any case, sounds like an amazing experience.

    Wednesday, 6 August 2008 at 11:22pm

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