Critic’s Notebook: 30 Years Later, Three Bands From New York’s Downtown Scene Unite for One Night


Kamikaze Ground Crew, which opened the concert on Saturday, has a similar history; the band was originally founded in San Francisco as a backing ensemble for the Flying Karamazov Brothers, a juggling comedy troupe. Long scattered about the country, the band’s members settled into the New York scene in 1994.

“It was the tail end of the heyday of the ’80s,” said the multi-instrumentalist Gina Leishman, who has led the group with the reedist Doug Wieselman since its inception. The city still felt perilous then, she said, but the scene was close-knit. “The musical community was so supportive of each other. It’s as though the city itself was a common enemy, and everyone here came out to listen to everyone else.”

At the Kitchen, Kamikaze started with a piece called “Epilogue.” Assembled informally onstage, the band began before the audience knew it, the six horn players shushing tonelessly and almost introspectively through their instruments. Mr. Wieselman started to play the tune’s hymnlike melody on tenor saxophone, and as the others found their voices around him, they rose from their seats one by one.

The group moved into “S’Albufera,” a piece by Mr. Wieselman, with a simple, two-chord progression over a gentle rock beat. Slowly you were being submerged, becoming weightless; the horns were both the water and the swimmers, looping and accruing around each other. This was consonant, repetitious music, major and balladic in tone, but not form. You could see that Mr. Weiselman and Ms. Leishman had been onto something that would eventually resonate with jazz musicians like Donny McCaslin and Chris Potter, as well as first-generation indie-rock bands like Yo La Tengo and Wilco.

The Jazz Passengers followed, playing as a sextet. Running through material old and new, they held together some marriage of noir, midcentury blues, klezmer and hard-bop. The group’s music has a nervous humor that can only make total sense in New York; it feels most satisfying when the Passengers seem on the verge of falling apart — as they did during the up-tempo “Trouble,” or on the slower, drolly pessimistic “Wake Up, Again!” There Mr. Fowlkes sang of city troubles in a pensive baritone: “Can’t afford to live/Can’t afford to die.”


Dave Sewelson playing with the Microscopic Septet, the oldest band on the bill at the Kitchen. Credit Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

The Microscopic Septet, the oldest band on the bill, played the closing set. The group started in 1980, and the members have remained together for about half of the intervening years (there was a hiatus between 1992 and 2006). The original incarnation featured John Zorn and a number of other musicians whose affinities ran from punk to vaudeville.

The Micros — four saxophones and a piano-bass-drum rhythm section — began with “A Strange Thought Entered My Head,” written by the co-leader and soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston. Mixing swing, boogie-woogie, polka and free jazz, it came from the band’s first album, “Take the Z Train,” recorded in 1983, when the group was two years into its longtime residency at the Ear Inn, one of Manhattan’s longest-running bars. Later in the set, they conjured a different brew on “Lobster in the Limelight,” tidy, marching-band locomotion giving way to clattering post-bop hits.

Watching the members of all three bands play one final tune together, you might have reflected on the idea that the 1980s were the first truly postmodern decade, when genres fell utterly apart (one critic called it “the end of art”). But what stuck with you about Saturday was less academic: something direct and pragmatic. For all its absurdism and performativity, were the ’80s also our least existentialist decade — one of our most embodied? In a digital marketplace of crippling choice, there’s room for a lot more of that. The old downtown scene isn’t just a guide for today’s eclectic thinkers; it’s a foil again.


Members of the Microscopic Septet, the Jazz Passengers and Kamikaze Ground Crew performed a final song together. Credit Vincent Tullo for The New York Times Continue reading the main story


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