As an alternative to swanky or dank clubs, try the concerts in the city’s harbor and parks
One of the great things about jazz in this city is that you can get away from it all and still be on the case—at least during summer. For instance, there are few venues more transporting than the open deck of a two-masted schooner skimming through the night in New York Harbor.
Just after the 4th of July, saxophonist Avram Fefer and guitarist Joe Cohn kicked off a weekly gig on the Clipper City, a tall ship that will disembark from the far end of South Street Seaport at 9:30 every Wednesday night during July, August and September. It’s a pleasure cruise, plain and simple: two hours on the water, including a turn around the Statue of Liberty with the Fefer-Cohn quartet (completed by what will be a rotating cast of bassists and drummers) stretching out on standards without much fuss. On opening night, they breezed mellowly through Miles’ “All Blues,” Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” and Rollins’ calypso “St. Thomas,” among other evergreen modern fare.
An eclectic audience of about 80—dating couples, middle-aged folks and families with kids—sat on wooden benches or lounged against the gunwales, gazing out at the skyscraper lights of Manhattan and Brooklyn, while party boats headed upriver and the Statue of Liberty, indefatigably, held her torch aloft. There was a bar, no food. Fefer, a gregarious reedsman best known on the edgy downtown scene but also a veteran of straight-ahead commercial jobs, connected easily with the crowd, though the whole band—indeed, the whole deck—was bathed in darkness.
A young woman danced expressively, energetically, a few feet from where the saxophonist stood, and he played to her (but there was no requisite intermingling among attendees). We were as unknown to each other as ticket-holders at the movies. Cohn, whose guitar playing is fresh yet swing-based, was only a silhouette; similarly, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Mike Pride could be heard, not seen. But the entire experience, rather than fine points of the musicians’ performances, was the balm. The music, familiar but always mutating, was our link to shore, to home; the air, the water, the gentle swells of the sea and rolling of the boat was our respite.
Time out on the Clipper City is not exactly cheap. It costs $95 to board (reservations recommended), with a complimentary drink. Other away-at-home possibilities exist, however.
We’re lucky in this town to have an extraordinary variety of free concerts in the parks, ranging from the Metropolitan Opera’s summer recital series throughout the boroughs to Prospect Park Bandshell’s celebration of Nigerian independence July 22 with Faaji Agba (that country’s Buena Vista Social Club) opening for Seun Kuti (youngest son of Fela Kuti) and his band Egypt 80. The following Friday (July 29), Prospect Park hosts Malian singer Oumou Sangaré and Arabic multi-instrumentalist Bassam Saba. On July 31, Yeminite singer Ravid Kahalani, the French group Watcha Clan (its latest recording is Radio Babel) and Shabate (described as Ethiopian rhythms meet Jewish melodies and bebop blues) practice the imperative of world fusions. Can one get further out while remaining in New York?
Well, yes: Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center is presenting the New York Electronic Arts Festival at Governors Island, with participatory sound sculptures, installations, workshops and shows through Sept. 25. Composers Inside Electronics has realized the late David Tudor’s “Rainforest V” sound art piece, which features an “orchestra of resonant instruments.” Composer John Driscoll will discuss the concept behind that work and demonstrate his own developments of it as “Sounds Out of Thin Air” on the afternoon of Saturday, July 16; there’s also a special CIE performance July 30.
If processed sound waves aren’t music to your ears, know that Governors Island is home to car-free biking, grassy meadows, a trapeze school, playgrounds, art exhibits and participatory sound sculptures, including a percussion instrument made of thousands of bottle caps and the Ministry of Random Events’ circle of plastic drums. Most of the exhibits—spread through indoor and outdoor sites—are open every Friday through Sunday.
The beloved island, about half a mile into New York Bay, is reached by ferry (free ones leave from Manhattan’s Battery Maritime Building, next to the Staten Island Ferry, and from Pier 6 in the Brooklyn Bridge Park at the foot of Atlantic Avenue). From it you can look back at the grit and pressure of the city, be glad you’re out of it, and yet get quickly back. It’s the perfect escape for those who can’t bear to leave for long.