You may have heard: Jazz is cool, again. Its mainstream sounds are being featured in Oscar-nominated Hollywood films and represented on the Grammys. At the grassroots level, it is mutating more quickly, stirring conversations about the sound of the new music, its audience and where it’s being performed. One local conversation is how the role of jazz nightclubs in New York is in flux, even as an increased number of shows in apartments, backyards and makeshift venues are pushing improvised music into exciting spaces, while nurturing new listeners and even dancers.
Take Two, a running series of just such performances, has been bringing together classic sounds, great local players and a deep listening, do-it-yourself energy in Brooklyn homes for three years now. The series was founded in 2018 by two music-loving expats who were also DJ partners at a Williamsburg club, Black Flamingo. Samuel Ngahane, a 32-year-old French-Cameroonian software engineer, and Jared Proudfoot, a 33-year-old writer and digital producer from Sydney, wanted to start their own party. But they weren’t interested in emulating the rave-like atmosphere of popular Brooklyn nightlife. Both were jazz fans, as attuned to the music’s history as they were to the new sounds being made by young artists in London, Chicago, Johannesburg and increasingly New York. (Proudfoot already had started a label, Pique-nique Recordings.) The party they were inspired to create would be more of a private-public event, where friends could listen to great records and enjoy live music in intimate settings.
“Take Two came together in response to what was actually happening in London [at] Brilliant Corners,” Proudfoot said, invoking a Hackney jazz bar named after a Thelonious Monk song. Boasting a famous sound system beloved by vinylheads around the world, the club has been an epicenter of that city’s young jazz scene. “They have an event called Played Twice, in which you listen to a record all the way through and then have musicians perform a reinterpretation of that record. We were in New York and we thought, given the history of the music here and the talented musicians that we'd been seeing over the past few years, that this idea would really work in New York.”
They started small: Take Two kicked off in September 2018 in Ngahane’s Bushwick loft, with singer, songwriter and acoustic guitarist Matt White performing a solo rendition of the classic 1964 bossa nova jazz album, Getz/Gilberto, famous for giving the world the classic version of “The Girl From Ipanema,” sung by Astrud Gilberto.
The emotional connection between the audience and the material was immediate. “Someone came to us after that gig saying, ‘This was my mom's favorite record, this is what I grew up with as a child, and I shed a few tears thinking about it and my relationship to her,'" Ngahane said.
Musicians from throughout the New York scene instantly gravitated to the idea, bringing with them exciting, often off-beat album choices . Endea Owens, best known as Jon Batiste’s bass player on The Late Show, led her group through Earfood, a 2008 recording by the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove that's familiar to many jazz fans. Avant-garde composer and vibraphonist Sasha Berliner, leading a quartet with drummer Tyshawn Sorey, interpreted an obscure album by contemporary New York trumpeter Avishai Cohen. And Brooklyn Afro-funk group Super Yamba paid homage to the long-running Beninese band Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou.
Take Two’s diversity of styles and selections reflect the many directions of today’s creative music, just as the 13 versions of Take Two that have occurred at various Brooklyn lofts and backyards, in front of small, always-sold-out crowds, has revealed an evolving community for the music usually called “jazz.”
“We can curate an experience for both the audience and the performer,” Ngahane said. “Musicians play differently when they are at a venue versus a place where they feel safe to express themselves the way they want it. They can do that in front of an audience that is appreciative, but also very different from what they are used to. You are so close [to each other], the audience is almost part of the band and the band is part of the audience. There is no clear limit, clear boundary. And so we've had musicians making the audience participate: not just to 'clap on the one,' but almost creating the music with them.”
That symbiosis between musicians and audiences in private spaces has played a big part of New York’s musical evolution. It was there in the loft spaces toward which experimental-jazz musicians gravitated in the 1960s and ‘70s, when traditional jazz clubs chose not to book the more complicated, freedom-minded sounds. And it was the magnet at David Mancuso’s famous Loft parties, the cornerstone of New York’s 1970s disco renaissance.
That symbiosis is also emphasized in the next Take Two, on Sunday, March 27th, when the Brooklyn-born and -raised drummer Tcheser Holmes will reinterpret Brown Rice, a 1975 album by Don Cherry. A legendary trumpeter and global-music thinker who began his career playing free jazz with Paul Bley and Ornette Coleman, Cherry and his wife, Moki, staged community concerts around the world, inviting audience members to play along. These events, and the Cherrys’ wider legacy, are the subject of the 2021 book, Organic Music Societies, which has been inspiring Proudfoot and Ngahane.
“They talk a lot in that book about how Moki Cherry created these safe spaces in schools or in apartments,” Proudfoot said. “Don Cherry was part of the loft scene in New York, and it's a very similar thing that we are trying to do here.”
Holmes, a New England Conservatory-educated musician and composer, plays with many local improvisers around town, but is best known for his work with the punk-jazz group Irreversible Entanglements, a leading light in today’s free-improvisation scene. The quintet he’ll lead on Sunday includes two other members of that band, trumpeter Aquiles Navarro and bassist Luke Stewart; plus Tomin Perea-Chamblee on woodwinds and electronics, and Francois on percussion.
Holmes chose Brown Rice because for him the album invokes a lot of what’s happening now in the music he loves — and his identity, as well.
“Don Cherry's music relates to me being a black youth in Brooklyn, in an inner city,” Holmes said. “He embodies that essence to me, of being in Brooklyn and exploring. [Brown Rice] was also super relevant to the times, where it was going. If you think of the last cut of that album, “Degi-Degi” — the voices, the talking over the music, the wildness of it is just a great precursor of what's to go on for the music I like making in the scene. I would even call it a noise record ... even the note choice reminds me of punk rock, or like something maybe The Who would do. It’s really all-encompassing.”
As a veteran of both conventional stages and do-it-yourself spaces, Holmes recognizes the inherent value of home shows like Take Two in helping to foster the community connection between artists and audiences — especially in the confusing moment (is it “post-pandemic”? “the latter stages of”?) that live music is experiencing right now.
“It feels like the future at times,” Holmes said. “I see artists being signed [to record labels] doing major productions in their backyard or at a friend's house. I see some major artists, when they're not touring, maybe being in a loft and performing for a crowd of 60, and doing that maybe for a week.
So what is it about those shows that make them stand out from playing more conventional venues? “I feel like in a DIY show, people will get a great look into you as an artist,” Holmes said. “They'll see everything, they'll hear everything. They'll hear the cough, they’ll see the face you make when you hit your thumb on the rim. With DIY, they're just really seeing you. And that's more spiritual to me.”
Sunday’s Take Two performance of Brown Rice with Tcheser Holmes is sold out. To find out about future events, visit piqueniquerecordings.com/take-two.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the trumpeter Avishai Cohen.