September is the expectant month. Limp from their summer vacations, art-loving Second Citians await the new season and fantasize about things to come, eagerly but not always lovingly. We're all delighted, for instance, that the Museum of Modern Art will be reopening on Nov. 20 -- but irked that it'll now cost $20 a head to get in. (The Met still costs $12, thank heavens.) Fortunately, the Great Art Machine didn't grind to a total halt between summer and fall, meaning that I was able to spend my usual share of nights on the town, chasing after pleasure.
Just last week, for instance, I heard Mark O'Connor's Hot Swing Trio play a combined concert and recording session at Merkin Concert Hall (they taped two nights' worth of music plus a few after-hours retakes).
O'Connor is the country-plus fiddler whose "Appalachia Waltz" made its way into crossover-friendly CD players the world over, but for the past couple of years he's been devoting much of his time and energy to playing jazz with guitarist Frank Vignola and bassist Jon Burr. At first the Hot Swing Trio sounded rather like a modernized knockoff of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, with Vignola as Django Reinhardt and O'Connor as Stephane Grappelli (a role that came naturally to him -- he was a Grappelli protege, after all). By now, though, the group has evolved into a strongly individual-sounding ensemble, one that plays both high-speed swing tunes and folk-flavored long-form originals like O'Connor's "Anniversary" with identical skill.
Vignola and Burr are, of course, two of New York's first-call jazz players, so everybody knows how good they are. O'Connor's metamorphosis into a full-fledged swinger, by contrast, has been something of a surprise. To hear him tear into "Tiger Rag" or his own "Pickles on the Elbow," you'd think he'd been playing jazz since he was in the nursery. Yet what I find most exciting about the Hot Swing Trio is the collective willingness of its members to knock down the artificial boundaries between seemingly different musical idioms. I can't wait to hear the CD that comes out of these concerts.
As always, Merkin Hall is a nice place to visit, but real jazz belongs in nightclubs, and it so happens that Second City is currently in the midst of a furious competition for the title of New York's Best Jazz Club. For decades the Village Vanguard had that honor sewed up tight, but the Jazz Standard is now a serious contender. Not only is it bigger and more comfortable than the Vanguard, but the low-key atmosphere -- you get the distinct feeling that the owners are not only glad to see you but eager to serve you -- is a refreshing change from the hipper-than-thou tone of too many well-known nightspots. What's more, you can dine on the class-A barbecue from Blue Smoke, the restaurant upstairs, and the music starts at 7:30, which is an infinitely more reasonable hour for those unhappy jazz buffs who have to get up in the morning.
Needless to say, the music is the heart of the matter, but the Standard has also been racking up a pretty damn dazzling track record when it comes to bookings. Bob Brookmeyer's Quartet East, for instance, made its impressive debut there last month, closely followed by a never-to-be-forgotten reunion performance by guitarist Gene Bertoncini and bassist Michael Moore, who hadn't played together in a New York club for years (I used to hang out at the late, lamented Zinno as often as possible back in the '90s to hear their exquisite duets). Add to that last week's roof-raising appearance by the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra and you've got something to shout about.
The Village Vanguard is, of course, the Village Vanguard, scene of so many unforgettable jazz performances that the house piano all but plays itself after midnight. I remain more than fond of the Vanguard's grubby charms, and it continues to present top players on a regular basis. But the musical fare has become a trifle predictable of late, and if for some reason I could hear jazz in only one New York club for the rest of the year . . . well, I'd scream and squirm and beg for mercy, but in the end I just might opt for the Jazz Standard.
When not club-hopping, I've been doing plenty of playgoing, and I recently saw three widely varied shows that continue to stick in my mind. Different though they are, they have one thing in common: nobody onstage says anything memorable. In the Atlantic Theatre Company's flawlessly acted double bill of Eugene Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano" and "The Lesson," two now-classic plays that long ago laid the groundwork for the theater of the absurd, language is stripped of its normal implications and turned into a slippery substance that never quite means what it sounds like. "Slava's Snowshow," playing at the Union Square Theatre, is a preposterous farrago of craziness enacted by an ensemble of five Russian clowns who never utter an intelligible word.
And Basil Twist's "Symphonie Fantastique," newly revived at Dodger Stages for what I hope will be an unlimited run, is an abstract, wordless puppet show accompanied by the music of Berlioz. All wildly unorthodox -- and all hugely entertaining.
For those inclined to more conventional fare, the place to be in September was Kristin Chenoweth's Carnegie Hall debut. Fresh from "Wicked," she brought along a couple of chorus boys and a medium-size band and put on a show that set the sold-out crowd to shrieking. I make no secret of being an ardent fan of the improbably tiny Chenoweth, who can sing anything from coloratura soprano to country music and make it sound like a billion bucks, so I'll say only that she outdid herself this time around, offering a wide-ranging program that left no doubt that she's got what it takes to be the queen of Broadway. All she needs is the perfect show, which "Wicked" wasn't. In the meantime, I'll gladly come hear her at Carnegie Hall -- or anywhere else -- as often as she wants to sing there.