By Mike Faloon | Photos by Michael Bogdanffy-Kriegh / Studio MBK
Driving westbound on 84 I fall into a trance behind the taillights of an eighteen-wheeler. The blips of red go in and out of sight as I dip and dive along the highway. I peek the next hill and the taillights line up with the moon and lead my eye to a starry sky. For a moment I consider going for a walk when I get to Beacon, take a minute to just wander and look up. But the temperature needs to have at least two syllables before that happens. Tonight it’s twelve. We’re not there yet.
The perma-ice inches across our driveway each day. I’m ready to yield. Yelp “uncle,” slam my palm on the mat and declare winter the winner. That’s longhand (denial?) for the fact that I’m about ready to join the whiners and gripers, just complain about the weather 24/7. My supply of winter distractions is running low. One after another I’ve had to cross items off that list. The latest to go is watching Knicks games. They’re brutal. I can’t take it anymore.
I need a shot of good music. It’s Monday night. There’s jazz at Quinn’s. Likely good jazz. But I’m not in the clear yet. Tonight it’s Lou Grassi. Nothing against Grassi’s talent. I’ve never heard his music. The variable in question is his chosen instrument. He’s a drummer.
I can easily rattle off a list of amazing drummers. Pop, punk, surf, garage, country, blues, jazz—genres don’t matter. I appreciate a good timekeeper, probably more than the next person; I dabble myself. It’s the drummer-led bands. That’s when it gets dicey. Phil Collins. Don Henley. Cringe. Can we even measure the soulless dreck they’ve dump on us? Then again, they sprouted from the likes of Genesis and the Eagles. Maybe not the most fertile ground. Also, they're rock drummers. Different ballgame.
There's more to it than genre--rock, jazz, otherwise. Bands tend to be led by the musicians out front. Maybe the risks of drummer-led combos are better illustrated with Tony Williams. He was an amazing talent. He pushed drumming in new directions. All those Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock records he powered (starting at age 17!), not to mention Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch and Grachan Moncur’s Some Other Stuff and Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure. He was integral part of so many stellar records. Then he got his hands on the steering wheel with the drive-off-a-cliff disaster that was Lifetime. He voice was muted--at best--amidst the bombastic fusion.
Transgressions aside, I revere Williams, but the evidence suggests that drummers should stay put, laugh off the drummer jokes, and support the lead actors (saxophonists, guitarists, pianists, etc.), accept their calling as character actors. That’s fine with me. Catherine O’Hara is infinitely more engaging than Sandra Bullock. Drummers who successfully lead bands—defy the natural order of all things—are exceptions. But the few are powerful. The Ramones would never have left their scorch mark on history if Joey hadn’t moved out from behind the traps. I'm curious to see if Grassi pulls it off.
The trio is underway when I step inside. The sights and sounds snare me before I’m able to grab a seat at the counter. Grassi is at the helm of a beautiful Ludwig four-piece, gold sparkled. He hangs back a bit and Johnson bows his upright—a deep, rich, satisfying sound. Not quite “abyss” deep, but far into the midnight zone. (Am I suggesting his sound is bioluminescent? I shouldn’t. That’d be pushing the analogy too far.)
Then Grassi breaks into a solo. I dig a good drum break—four beats here, eight beats there—but full-on drum solos tend to be tedious. They usually remind me of dudes parading their chops at drum stores in midtown. Grassi’s solo is different. Mostly it’s the sound, built on the floor and rack toms. He avoids the obvious, steers away from the snare. There’s also the timing—an extended solo at the top of the set. This is a drummer-led combo. Deal. Or perhaps, Enjoy, is more accurate.
Each song in the first set yields head bobbing satisfaction mixed with admiration for technical prowess. It’s all good. Evaporates the grumbling I felt seeping in earlier. During the second half, though, wow, the Lou Grassi trio launches into the Stratosphere.
Smaller crowd tonight, but the good will flows. One couple reminds the bartender that he's undercharged them. And I finally meet Michael Bogdanffy-Kriegh. His photographs have spiced up most of the Quinn’s write-ups that I’ve posted on the Go Metric site (including this one). I've been assuming that our use of his photos is kosher, but I wasn't certain until now, which is a relief. Michael and I marvel over how consistent the jazz series is. He captures it perfectly: “I didn’t know this was my kind of music until I heard it.”
From the outset of the next set it’s clear that something, maybe everything, has changed. The tune is "Aventi Calopi." Johnson is on tiptoes reaching for the upper register. Then he’s huddled, bent low before springing back up. Lewis leads. He’s suggesting rather than wailing. It’s the best he’s sounded all night, especially with Grassi’s ride cymbal and rack tom pushing the beat. Lewis responds in turn, going bigger, louder, more dynamic. In hindsight, that’s what I missed early on—the ramp up, the build up, the contrast.
The energy carries over to the next number. Lewis and Johnson seem even more in synch. Grassi opts for a variety of percussion, circling, coloring more than defining. The opening is near perfect. Then it builds.
When I listen to a classic live record, like Live at the Village Vanguard, I wonder how many people in attendance that night appreciated what they were witnessing. This is especially true of albums recorded before a few hundred people, maybe a few dozen. When I hear the clinking glasses and and faint chatter I assume that a third of the audience was there for the cheap drinks. Another third were there for music in general, giving or taking what the bandstand had to offer. The rest were there for that band, that performer. But I’ve always guessed, speculated, never had a clear image in my mind. This set by Grassi, Lewis, and Johnson, this song, is one I’d relish being able to revisit, share with friends, pass on to my kids. It’s one of the most transcendent I’ve experienced.
(Are these sets at Quinn’s being recorded? When can I buy volume one of the Jazz at Quinn’s series? LP, right? Gatefold. A spine you can walk on. I’m volunteering to write the liner notes.)
The song—which is introduced as “Untitled” or maybe untitled is more accurate—kicks into another gear when Lewis turns away from his music stand to face Grassi and Johnson. He’s no longer facing us. We can join him or not. Direct crowd acknowledgement is not the priority. Some bands wilt when playing for smaller crowds. The experienced usually shrug it off. Once in awhile, though, a band is spurred on, unified, playing a bit more for themselves.
Bit by bit, the trio ratchets up the intensity. They lock in ever tighter, and so do we, everyone who’s seen this built from the ground up. A few minutes into the song—maybe, I’m just guessing, I’ve lost sense of time—two guys walk into the bar. I know, it sounds like the set up to a joke. My initial reaction is to pity them; they missed it, the movie’s half over. That gives way to scorn; they didn’t earn this, they’re not even paying attention. They’re just about to order drinks, clueless as to what they’ve entered. Yet they don’t. They stop. They turn and listen, and something registers. There’s a moment or three before they order.
Lewis turns back, faces the crowd again. He hasn’t been neglecting us, just focusing on the task at hand. The end of the tune is approaching, the landing is on the horizon. I don’t want it to end.
What we lack in numbers we make up for with volume. Over my shoulder I hear someone belt out, “Yes, yes, yes!” Lou Grassi picks up the mic. “James Brandon Lewis. James Brandon Lewis. James Brandon Lewis.” It may be his band but he’s wise enough to know when someone else knocks in the winning run.
“And let’s not forget James Keepnews,” Grassi continues, referring to the patron saint of this jazz series. To which someone replies, “Let’s forget him!”
There are hollers for an encore and then Keepnews closes up shop. “If it’s a Monday night, there’s great music here at Quinn’s.” I’ve heard that on many a Monday, but it’s never been more true.