Straight, No Chaser
We won't go so far as to say it means we're "maturing," but one sure sign Noise is getting older is that recently we've begun paying much more attention to jazz. Maybe it's all the time we've been spending at Warren's.
Jazz history is sunk deep into the cobblestones surrounding Market Square, from when nearby basement club La Bastille hosted big names like Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton and Charles Mingus up until the mid-'70s. And although on any given night you're as likely to hear contemporary soul and R&B — which have steadfast roots in jazz and, in some people's minds, still count as such — as you are, say, a bebop group, it continues into the present at Sambuca, Adagio and the Red Cat Jazz Café.
But after spending a couple of years wondering why Warren's management never switched out all that Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis on the jukebox, it's starting to make sense. For one thing, like Warren's itself, jazz has either aged extremely well or simply not at all.
Dial up Basie's "Jumpin' at the Woodside" or Duke Ellington's orchestra doing "Sophisticated Lady," and it seems likely that Eliot Ness types in trenchcoats and fedoras could burst in and shut the whole joint down at any moment or, at the very least, the crew of regulars ringing the bar should start calling each other "bub" and "dollface." Besides, listening to Sinatra sing "Summer Wind" will never go out of style, particularly after a martini or two.
Let's set some parameters before we go much further. The postmodern, deconstructivist improvisations of long-running multiple Houston Press Best Jazz winners Free Radicals, who maintain one of the busiest local booking calendars of any band in any genre, are a little beyond this discussion. Neither are we talking about the A-list avant-garde touring artists DiverseWorks presents from time to time, or the numerous Nameless Sound events that routinely offer a cornucopia of free-jazz expressions.
Right here, right now, we mean just jazz, of the still-acoustic, small-combo variety that prospered between the eras of big-band swing and rock-influenced fusion.
During those years, artists such as Davis, Gillespie, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Stan Getz were constantly updating jazz with melodic, harmonic and rhythmic innovations. Every new album of theirs edged the music a little further away from being the primary lingua franca of American pop (which it had been from the days of ragtime through the end of World War II), and closer to the chromatically dense, aesthetically challenging and commercially off-putting music it eventually became.
Nevertheless, jazz was able to hold the middle ground between institution and innovation for a good while, and albums like Davis's Kind of Blue, Coltrane's A Love Supreme and Monk's Monk's Dream did about as well at the cash register as they did with critics. And even though jazz eventually ceased being pop, it never stopped being popular. It still is, in Houston, even...provided you know where to look.
After soaking up all that jazz at Warren's, Noise decided our next step should be to seek it out live. Our search led us not to another Market Square-area venue but to Cézanne, the tiny listening room on the leafy outskirts of the University of St. Thomas campus.
It's fair to say Cézanne is a little off the beaten path. It's located upstairs from British pub the Black Labrador, in a Montrose shopping center almost completely obscured from the street by trees. Cézanne does minimal advertising or publicity with the Houston Press or, as far as Noise can tell, any other local media outlet.
But it's also hiding in plain sight, as it were. Over its nearly 25 years in business, Cézanne has won multiple awards as Houston's best jazz venue, both in the Houston Press music awards and our annual Best of Houston® honors (the last time was in 2004), and been singled out as one of America's 100 best places to hear live jazz by DownBeat magazine several times. A long list of latter-day jazz lions have played the room, from saxophonists Randy Brecker and Joshua Redman to keyboardist, HSPVA grad and Terence Blanchard protégé Robert Glasper.
This past Saturday, Noise caught the early set by Kingwood-based pianist Pamela York and her trio at Cézanne, and it's not hard to understand why the room has been so decorated. The wood-paneled walls not only give it a rustic ambience that offers a nice contrast to the sophisticated music, but enhance Cézanne's acoustics immeasurably. There's only between 40 and 50 seats (counting the bar), but not a bad one in the house.
Even better, unlike all too many shows Noise has been to in Houston lately, the crowd — older at first, but more people in their twenties and thirties filtered in as the evening progressed — did not drive us up the wall. All of them acted like grown-ups, and were rewarded with a good hour and change of grown folks' music.
Noise is still enough of a jazz novice that we know a samba from a bossa nova, say, but have trouble distinguishing between the various post-bop permutations. It didn't especially matter Saturday, though.
The evening's repertoire encompassed standards like "April in Paris" and George Gershwin's "Fascinatin' Rhythm" and originals like the Monk-inspired swift blues of "Sphere of Influence," which Noise especially enjoyed. Whether speeding up for a McCoy Tyner tune or slowing down for Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin," York, bassist Anthony Casares and drummer Sebastian Whittaker played with the agility, interplay and nuance of seasoned professionals — and the enthusiasm of serious fans.
But however much you may know or not know about jazz, musicians like York's trio are just fun to watch. One kid who couldn't have been more than 23 years old had eyes as wide as dinner plates studying Whittaker's brushes sliding across the snare. Noise understands, because as a former bassist ourselves, we spent a good portion of the set watching Casares's fingers hopscotching over the strings.
By the time we left, Cézanne was packed, with all the seats spoken for and the bar two or three people deep. The club itself is at a bit of a crossroads, as saxophonist Woody Witt hands over the booking reins he's handled for the better part of a decade to another local jazz musician, guitarist Mike Wheeler, after this weekend's Bobby Lyle shows — in a bit of syncopation any jazz fan can appreciate, both men will be in Lyle's backing band (see "Playbill").
But Cézanne, which is only open Friday and Saturday nights, has a lot of company. On the edge of the Third Ward, Smitty's near MacGregor and 288 hosts jams on Mondays and Wednesdays, while Heights patio cafe King Biscuit (see "The Nightfly") does the same Tuesdays. Furthermore, Witt says longtime local guitarist Joe Carmouche is close to reopening Legends Jazz Café just north of Buffalo Bayou downtown, and will add Thursdays to the mix once that happens.
Realizing a kind of music a lot of people gave up for dead years ago is not only surviving but, in its own way, thriving on a grass-roots level — and with a fraction of the media attention given to, say, the local hip-hop and indie-rock scenes — is both surprising and gratifying. And considering our own blossoming appreciation for jazz, however belated it may be, the timing couldn't be better.
For both Cézanne and local jazz in general,we'll be back for more. Soon.
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