Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Sweet Basil

Jane Bunnett, Sweet Basil, NYC, August 1989

IN THE LATE SUMMER OF 1989 MY GIRLFRIEND MOVED TO NEW YORK, just in time for me to help my friend Jane Bunnett with her third record - a live album recorded at Sweet Basil, a famous jazz club just north of the Village in Chelsea. The club was the headquarters of the Greenwich Village Jazz Festival, which was in its eighth (and final) year. Getting an invite to play was a big deal, and Jane and her husband Larry decided not to waste the opportunity.

The club was owned by Mel Litoff and his wife Phyllis, a singer, and was booked by Horst Liepolt, a major figure in the New York jazz scene at the time. Recording live at the club was something of a tradition, and there's a long list of "Live at Sweet Basil" titles by everyone from Gil Evans and Art Blakey to Paul Bley and McCoy Tyner. Adding Jane's name to the list when the chance came up seemed like a good idea.

Jane's duet record with pianist Don Pullen was still unreleased, but since he was available it made sense to build a band around Don. I showed up at the club during soundcheck early in the afternoon and ended up filling five rolls of film with my new Nikon by the time the band finished playing later that evening, hoping to get material for the CD booklet. It was a frantic day; in between soundcheck and the gig we went back to Jane and Larry's hotel to shoot portraits for the New York Duets package, and it felt like a lot was riding on what was essentially Jane's debut in front of a New York audience.

Don Pullen, Sweet Basil, NYC, August 1989
Billy Hart, Sweet Basil, NYC, August 1989

Drummer Billy Hart was Don's suggestion. They had recorded together on a Hamiet Bluiett record a decade earlier, but Hart had been around for years, playing with Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery in the early '60s and playing on Miles Davis' seminal fusion record On The Corner. He's a powerhouse drummer from the same generation as Jack DeJohnette and Tony Williams, and he's still recording and performing today.

I remember Billy being low-key and serious during the soundcheck, still feeling out unfamiliar bandmates, but he's typically monstrous on the record; his cymbal work on tracks like "Hole in One" is phenomenal.

Kieran Overs, Sweet Basil, NYC, August 1989

Bassist Kieran Overs was a lynchpin in Jane's band at this time. A busy sideman back in Toronto, he'd record with Jane through the next decade and a half, showing incredible flexibility as Jane started moving towards Cuban and Latin music. As an indifferent guitarist, I had a lot of respect for double bassists like Kieran, both for the immense physical effort of tugging on its strings and the vast inconvenience of being wedded to such an inconveniently un-portable instrument.

I liked Kieran a lot but I always had the feeling that he regarded me a bit dubiously. By Live at Sweet Basil I'd become part of Jane's entourage - not quite on equal footing with the musicians in her bands but more than just a hired shutterbug, there to catch a few nice snapshots. And I could, I can see in retrospect, be a bit in the way.

Larry Cramer, Sweet Basil, NYC, August 1989

I have known Jane and her husband Larry Cramer now for almost thirty years, and for the longest time I've had enormous respect for Larry's decision to take on a support role in Jane's career, helping arrange and produce records, concerts and tours and otherwise take on the endless - and often thankless - background tasks required to keep a career in jazz viable.

Playing jazz isn't any easier now than it was twenty-five years ago, and while I know Larry has given up a lot of opportunities to have his own career as a bandleader and sideman, in the end it might have been fortuitous for two people to be able to busy themselves with the sometimes Sisyphean task of keeping a single jazz career afloat.

Between the soundcheck and the gig I took the band off to a table by the side of the stage and took just three frames of a group portrait, bouncing my Metz flash into a newly-acquired diffuser stuck to the flash with Velcro. The shot just below is the one that ran in the CD package, chosen because everyone was looking at the camera, though Jane says that it made her looked like a rabbit caught in a car's headlights. The shot below that is an outtake that gives a better sense of what that day was like - frenzied and anxious and a little bit ad hoc.

Larry, Kieran, Jane, Don, Billy; Sweet Basil, NYC, August 1989

The shots I took in Sweet Basil on that August day were decently executed, I think, but I knew that they were ultimately only filler in the record's package, and that the cover would really be the test of my ability as a photographer. My only regret with the work is that I was so intent on capturing at least one decent shot of every musician on the stage that I never turned around and took photos of the club and the crowd; it would take me years to understand that having a camera in your hand was a priceless opportunity to capture a moment in time, and a quarter century later it would have been nice to get a few glimpses of the inside of a jazz club in New York City on a summer evening in 1989.

New York has changed a lot. You can still see jazz in Greenwich Village, but Sweet Basil has gone the way of the Village Gate, Fat Tuesday's and Bradley's. Mel and Phyllis Litoff sold the club to new owners in 1992; Sweet Basil closed in 2001 and became Sweet Rhythm, which in turn closed in 2009. The address - 88 7th Avenue - is now Legend, a Chinese restaurant.

Sweet Basil is currently the name of a Thai restaurant in Brooklyn.


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