Grassroots Jazz Effort at Grassroots Tavern 12/10/2017 (by Nathan Bellott)

PERSONNEL: Adam Kolker (tenor) Jerome Sabbagh (tenor) Jeremy Stratton (bass)
George Schuller (drums)

SET LIST: Ah-Leu-Cha, When Lights Are Low, Stablemates, Hackensack, Airegin, We See, Milestones (John Lewis)

HIGHLIGHTS: News broke recently that after 42 years this classic dive would close its doors for good on New Year’s Eve, giving this longstanding Sunday night gig new meaning. This is the regular configuration of the ensemble and they played with an inspired abandon.

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I’ve attended this gig many times over the 5 or so years I’ve lived in the city. Attracted by the music and charmed by the scene, it is one of my favorite haunts. This evening had a vibe in the air: full of regulars, old drunks, East Village yuppies, and the legion of loyal musicians that come out every Sunday. The band began with a burning rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Ah-Leu-Cha” (Sabbagh as Bird, Kolker as Miles). They have the free-wheeling energy and surprise of Bebop paired with the chordless aesthetic: it provides an open palette within a defined space.

Kolker and Sabbagh are great foils. Kolker possesses the dark, dry, resistant sound that echoes Coltrane as well as Charlie Rouse, which may explain the group’s fondness for Thelonious Monk. Sabbagh buoyant sound and rhythmic concept remind me of Lester Young and Sonny Rollins. The two tenors’ tones were on display in a walking ballad rendition of Benny Carter’s “When Lights Are Low.” They gave the tune the proper treatment, playing the wonderful bridge that Miles thought not to include on “Blue Haze” or “Cookin’.” Bassist Jeremy Stratton played a rare solo on this number. Rare because it’s hard to hear his unamplified bass in a dive, but those who know quiet down when the horns cut out.

Then a slew Grassroots favorites: “Stablemates,” “Hackensack,” “Airegin,” “We See,” and finally “Milestones.” Monk weighs heavily on this group which works well without a pianist. George Schuller adds a great touch, I appreciate how he ends many of his phrases on or after beat one. It’s the mark of an elder statesman. The en vogue style in jazz amongst younger drummers is to end phrases/sections on the upbeat of 4, a simple gratification stolen from the more complex rhythmic cadences of drummers like Tony Williams, Jeff Tain Watts, and Bill Stewart. The veteran Schuller does nothing of the sort, his groovy beat propels the band forward. “Milestones” also served as a vehicle for sitters-in, including Noah Gershwin on guitar and Aaron Seeber on drums, both are younger additions to the NYC jazz scene.

By the time this is published, Grassroots Tavern will be no more. Perhaps the band will keep their formerly eponymous name, which would then give a literal meaning to the concept of a “grassroot effort.” We can only hope that The Grassroots Jazz Effort will find a home elsewhere, though nothing could replace the low-level dwelling on St. Marks, where bartenders regularly ignored me for years, accused me of interrupting their conversations with regulars or said they were too busy to serve me. Regular gigs and dive bars in NYC are becoming a thing of the past. With the exception of Dave Binney’s every-other Tuesday marathon at the 55 Bar, I’m at a loss. The music always finds a way to survive and I’m confident this band hasn’t yet said everything they have to say.

— by Nathan Bellott