Jack Wilkins Trio/featuring Mike Clark
Swing 46 (www.swing46.com)
349 West 46th Street
NYC, NY 10036
Life is strange. Here's a jazz and supper club that had been nurturing a vibrant and successful scene since 1997 due to their policy of combining swing music with various forms of jazz dancing. And yet, as of March 19, 2003—the very night I first walked into the joint—because of some bizarre, archaic zoning regulations that reflect the commercial and residential nature of West 46th Street between Eight and Ninth Avenues (known to tourists as Restaurant Row), the club was henceforth prohibited from allowing dancers. Back during World War II there was a prohibitive tax placed on dance halls—as if loose hips could sink ships—and as a result, club-owners started putting in tables and people became accustomed to jazz as a listening experience. Over the next decade, R&B and rock and roll emerged as functional forms of dance music, while jazz evolved more or less as concert music—never to regain the popular stature it enjoyed during the big band craze of the 1930s, when everyone danced to the sounds of jazz.
As a result, Swing 46 has been forced to inaugurate a new music policy and to begin revamping the club for purely instrumental music and vocalists. The acoustics I experienced out at a table on the big dance floor were very full-bodied and warm, with a nice natural bottom end, lots of midrange detail and a nice smooth top end. Mike Clark's drums in particular has a much more sensual, involving sound than what was captured on his new CD Summertime, which tended more towards the dry and analytical, with an upper midrange emphasis (jazz drums have traditionally been recorded as if the drummer employed more hands than feet). There just seemed to be an aura around his snare and bass drum, which might be a function of tuning (in an organ trio, he tuned the bass drum much looser and lower to give the band a solid low-end foundation, whereas in hooking up with an upright acoustic bassist, he would normally tune the drum much higher and tighter so that his low frequencies blended into the background and let the bass carry the weight of the band). Even when the organ and guitar were roaring, I could still make out the wet, meaty, melodic thump of his bass drum, and the woody overtones of his snare, and on his solo features, Mike certainly was dancing even if no one else could. On "She's The One" he invoked all sorts of flamenco-styled rhythm figures to break up his long rolls and complex syncopations, achieving a chanting, singsong effect as if he had a jazz top and a funk bottom to his drum kit.
But mostly Mike just kept the pot boiling underneath guitarist Jack Wilkins, one of the premier modern jazz virtuosos on the electric arch top acoustic guitar. While always gifted with formidable chops, Wilkins has come to relax over the years and learned to let the action come to him without forcing things, and as a result his playing has taken on a Bill Evans-like harmonic splendor, to particular effect on this evening when he dedicated "Everything Happens to Me" to the great chord-melody master, Johnny Smith. The interaction between the sound of his amplified guitar and the room was quite striking, as his chords took on a double helping of room ambiance, which allowed the subtleties of his chording and picking hands to really project and carry, so Jack could get a bigger, more detailed sound without necessarily playing louder—always the mark of a nice acoustic space. Organist Ron Oswanski provided subtle underpinning and sensitive accompaniment, tying things all together with a pulsating, understated orchestral sound—easy on the vibrato, hold the onions. It all came together with Ellingtonian splendor on a concluding "Nardis" where the trio responded to each other with such ease and grace, that it was if everyone was soloing… yet no one was soloing. All in all, a damn nice room to kick back and hear musicians who know how to sculpt in sound and swing hard without getting all lathered up.
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