It was hot. Disgustingly hot. Hot enough to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window. (Whoops, that's Raymond Chandler; better try again.) It was so hot last month that nobody here could talk about anything else -- not about real estate, not about trendy new restaurants, not even about Hillary.
I knew I had to act fast before I went crazy and started writing about politics. Then it hit me: Go to an art gallery, a place where the humidity is tightly controlled to keep the paintings from curling up and dying. So I caught a bus and got off at Knoedler & Company, and what did I find? A show about summer, "Coming to Light: Avery Gottlieb Rothko, Provincetown Summers 1957-1961." Arrgh! But it was too hot to stand on the sidewalk and scream, so I opened the door, sucked in a lungful of cool air and spent the next half-hour communing happily with a half-dozen museum- quality oils and works on paper by America's most underrated great painter, Milton Avery.
Avery is underrated because he was unfashionable. A dedicated follower of Matisse back in the days when American art was still hopelessly in thrall to the aggressive pieties of abstract expressionism, he stuck firmly to his representational ways. No matter how far he strayed from the objects he painted -- and some of his later works march right up to the edge of abstraction -- Avery never turned his back on the world around him, portraying it with playful wit and an ever-fresh eye for color.
Avery's work appealed to several younger abstract expressionists, including Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, and "Coming to Light" was a thoughtfully conceived tribute to the summers the three men spent together in Provincetown, Mass. Gottlieb was well represented, Rothko less so (most of his best stuff is in museums, and his rigidly limited style means that there's a yawning gap in quality between best and second-best). But every Avery in "Coming to Light" was indelibly memorable, and together they left me feeling that New York is sorely in need of a Milton Avery retrospective.
Instead, the Whitney Museum of American Art gave us a jumbo dose of Joan Mitchell. I'm not complaining, since "The Paintings of Joan Mitchell" is the first large- scale Mitchell retrospective to be presented here, or anywhere. Unlike many such shows, it's a treat, not a chore. Mitchell was among the most accessible of the abstract expressionists, a vibrant, complex colorist whose paintings are always a joy to see -- one at a time. Viewed in bulk, they struck me, for all their individual beauty, as surprisingly repetitive and sometimes uncomfortably derivative (I was amazed to stumble across a whole roomful of Mitchells that looked weirdly like the late works of Hans Hofmann, the great abstract- expressionist painter-teacher -- those big blocks of paint are as distinctive as a fingerprint). Mine was a minority view, though, and I plan to go back and think again, since "The Paintings of Joan Mitchell" is up through Sept. 29. It's also headed for the Phillips Collection in February, so go see for yourself. You may not be as impressed as you'd like, but you'll have a good time.
I had a very good time at the Mostly Mozart Festival when the Mark Morris Dance Group performed Morris's "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato" at the New York State Theater. That was no surprise, though, since I came to my senses last year and realized that "L'Allegro" was one of the greatest dances to be made in my lifetime. I can't claim to have gotten as much pleasure out of the Trisha Brown Dance Company's appearance at Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors, but that wasn't entirely the company's fault. Blame it on the police helicopter that circled over the outdoor stage midway through the evening, shining a searchlight on the crowd while grim-faced cops scurried up the aisles, looking for God knows what. The dancers kept moving, but Brown's loose, baggy postmodern steps never quite recaptured my full attention.
Doc Watson had better luck the preceding week, and the huge crowd that came to his free Lincoln Center concert had no trouble hearing his whirlwind flat-picked guitar solos and easygoing front-porch vocals. Alas, I couldn't see much of him -- Damrosch Park, Lincoln Center's outdoor performance space, is as flat as a pizza, and unless you're sitting in the first 25 or 30 rows, the stage isn't high enough to be comfortably visible over the heads of the people sitting in front of you. That didn't matter, though, since the music was good, a timely breeze kept the night air moving and everybody in my row had come to listen, not talk.
Not so the anthropoid jabberers seated next to me at the Village Vanguard on the night I went to hear Bill Frisell, but that didn't matter, either, because he cranked his amp up loud enough to render all conversation irrelevant, if not inaudible. Frisell is one of the most startlingly original jazz guitarists of his generation, a polystylist capable of playing Hank Williams's "Lost Highway" and George Gershwin's "My Man's Gone Now" in the same set and making both songs sound utterly right. (The Vanguard, by the way, was packed with fellow guitarists trying in vain to figure out how he makes all those mysterious noises.)
Meanwhile, over at the Blue Note, Charlie Haden was putting on his own mini-festival, playing duets with a string of world-class pianists in honor of his 65th birthday. I heard him with Kenny Barron and Brad Mehldau, and though both men were in fine form, it was Haden's big-toned, plain-spoken bass solos that kept me on the edge of my seat. Best of all was "Bittersweet," Don Sebesky's adaptation of the slow movement from Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony, which Haden and Barron played with pensive grace. It's on "American Dreams," Haden's next CD, out in October from Verve, so watch for it.
As the temperature finally eased downward, I closed out the month with another double-header.
The cabaret singer Blossom Dearie, as regular readers of this column are well aware, is in the middle of an extended run at Danny's Skylight Room, and when I heard that Meredith d'Ambrosio would be singing the late show at Danny's last Saturday, I decided to catch both sets, pausing in between to grab a quick but good dinner on the premises. (The Skylight Room is conveniently located in back of Danny's Grand Sea Palace, a comfy seafood spot on Restaurant Row in the theater district.)
Nobody in the world sings "I Walk a Little Faster" or "Give Him the Ooh-La-La" like Dearie, and I can't begin to say enough good things about d'Ambrosio, a singer-composer of the utmost subtlety and refinement whose low, whisper-soft voice sounds rather like the way it feels to stroke an expensive cat. Her new CD, "Love Is for the Birds" (Sunnyside), is in stores, and I commend it to your attention if you like classy vocal jazz. Hearing d'Ambrosio and Dearie on the same bill was almost as good as air conditioning.