Jazz & Colors: Park Performance Art
Transforming NYC's gorgeous backyard
New York’s Central Park is eye candy any time of the year, but autumn amplifies its natural glories. A stroll in any direction is ooh- and ah-inducing, even more so when Jazz & Colors—the now seemingly annual event that returned for a second go-round on Nov. 9—provides this most magnificent space with a live soundtrack. With 30 jazz ensembles strategically situated throughout the 778-acre playground, each performing simultaneously for one afternoon over four hours, Central Park is in essence transformed into a colossal performance art piece. Turn down any of its pathways or follow the provided map and jazz will soon beckon. Stay and listen to a band you like, or scamper about, sampling at will (even if you’re a fast walker it’s impossible to see even half of them). It’s a concept so brilliant and so natural it’s only a wonder that it took so long to happen. And it’s free to experience.
The brainchild of executive producer Peter Shapiro, whose other ventures include the music venues Brooklyn Bowl and the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., working in conjunction with the New York City parks department and the Central Park Conservancy, Jazz & Colors is intended to lure both dedicated jazzers and those who may never have set foot inside of a jazz club. Each band is expected—or at least encouraged—to follow the same predetermined set list. This year the repertoire included “Caravan,” the Juan Tizol number made famous by Ellington, Monk’s “Bemsha Swing,” Paul Desmond’s “Take Five,” Miles’ “So What” and Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”—all in the first set. Following a 45-minute lunch break, each outfit was to launch into the Billy Strayhorn staple “Take the ‘A’ Train,” followed by other such New York-centric nuggets as “Harlem Nocturne,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and Coltrane’s “Grand Central,” as well as “A Foggy Day” and Gil Evans’ “Las Vegas Tango.” (The organizers have their sights set on Jazz & Colors events outside of NYC.)
The vast majority of the chosen numbers date from the mid-20th century—about the closest the list comes to the present day is Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s “New York City,” from 1976. When the protocol is followed, it can provide something of a surreal experience for a quick sprinter: “A Night in Tunisia” may begin in the hands of an edgy piano trio, be continued by a big band and get wrapped up by a hard-bop saxophone-led quintet a couple of hundred yards down the road. Not all played by the rules. When this writer came upon the Doug Wamble Quartet late in the afternoon, holding forth in Duke Ellington Circle in the park’s northeast corner, the guitarist and his charges were swinging “St. Louis Blues” and then Lerner and Loewe’s “On the Street Where You Live,” neither of which were on the official program.
But that was beside the point, which was discovery. The artists performing this year covered a wide swath of jazz styles, from Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra to flutist Jamie Baum’s Yard Byard tribute to pianist Jaki Byard to trumpeter Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All Stars. There were plenty of bands led by saxophonists (Wayne Escoffery, Yosvany Terry Quartet, the 2 Sisters, Inc. band with bari saxists Claire Daly and Dave Sewelson), keyboardists (ELEW and Nature of the Next, Brian Charette’s organ-fronted sextet), guitarists (Wamble, Joel Harrison), as well as rhythm players and those yielding unconventional instruments (violinist Jason Kao Hwang, cellist Marika Hughes) and the odd vocalist (this writer saw only one, Carolyn Leonhart, working with Escoffery’s quartet).
This year the promoters—Jazz & Colors is booked by Brice Rosenbloom, who also produces the city’s Winter Jazzfest—kept one surprise up their sleeves: an unannounced appearance by former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. Lesh’s following is such that he could probably have packed a formidable crowd into the park’s spacious Sheep Meadow on his own had his participation been publicized. But like all of the artists performing at Jazz & Colors, Lesh adhered to the low-carbon-footprint nature of the event, plugging into a tiny battery-powered amplifier and immediately getting down to the business of playing.
Lesh jammed on his six-string bass for a half-hour with jazz-funk guitarist Eric Krasno (of Soulive and Lettuce) and drummer Joe Russo (who has worked with Lesh in the latter’s Furthur and is best known as half of the Benevento/Russo Duo). The three had never before played together as a trio. Along the park’s appropriately named Dead Road, they tangled in a trippy improvised piece reminiscent of the Grateful Dead’s beloved “Dark Star,” before rocking out on the Beatles’ “Get Back” and jamming through a brisk blues.
Lesh beamed often: The Dead’s most ardent jazz fan (he introduced the others to Miles and Trane), he doesn’t play many gigs in front of 200 or so people, many of whom just happened to be passing by. But his set was very much in the spirit of Jazz & Colors, an event that has in just two years become one of the most anticipated in a city where quality jazz is never in short supply.
Originally published in January/February 2014