Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Bitter End All Star Jam

Image: The Bitter End, 147, Bleeker Street, New York City

Man, I love the internet!

As I write this I am sitting on the Greek island of Ikaria, watching the fortnightly Bitter End All Star Jam in New York City streaming live via my laptop. The ‘house’ band for the jam generally consists of Dave Fields on guitar, Brett Bass on bass, and the organizer/host, Mark Greenberg on drums. I say, ‘generally’, because which musicians play on any given night depends on whether they are gigging elsewhere with their own outfits or with other acts, and tonight Brett Bass is away.


Other regular performers at the jam are the irrepressible Delmar Brown on Keytar (a keyboard or synthesizer hung around the neck and shoulders like a guitar); then there’s Chuck Hancock, a great alto sax player, Lisa, one of the Bitter End’s bar staff who always sings at least one song, Don Cazio the doorman and cashier, and a score of some of the hottest talent that just wants to hang out and jam late into the New York night.


The Jam works like this. While the ‘house’ band opens with three or four numbers to get the crowd jumping, visiting musicians and singers add their names to a sheet of paper and then wait to be called up during the show for a chance to strut their stuff on stage. At this point anything could happen, and often does. Singers and musicians who have never performed together are thrown into the mix for a night of great music that is always exciting, eclectic and rocking.

I made regular visits to the Bitter End specifically to catch the All Star Jam during both my two month stay in 2008, and my recent two month visit over the summer of 2010. So for the record, here is a profile of four of the greatest musicians you are likely to see gathered together in the same place on a Sunday night in New York City.
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Image: Mark Greenberg, looking every inch a star!

Mark Greenberg began playing drums at age 14. In the year 2000, he formed his own band, Pimp The Cat, which performs in the same vein as The Grateful Dead, Phish, and The Allman Brothers Band with which he has toured.


Mark has also played and toured with The Dave Matthews Band, The Charlie Daniels Band, Billy Bob Thornton, Vasser Clements, and The Doobie Brothers to name just five from his musical resume. In addition he had played on albums by Ronnie Earl, Dickey Betts (of The Allman Brothers Band), Otis Grand, Apache Stone and numerous other albums.

Mark Greenberg was born in Connecticut. At age 14, while picking tobacco, (yes, tobacco) he decided to take up the drums, which he ‘took’ to like a duck takes to water and thereafter determined to make music his career. He went to Boston to study music at the world renown Berklee College of Music. While there he was recognized by The National Endowment for the Arts with three fellowship grants, some Berklee Scholarships and other awards.

Mark has shared the stage and/or recorded with artists like Dickey Betts & Great Southern (The Allman Brothers Band), The Dave Matthews Band, Roomful Of Blues, Ronnie Earl, Bob Weir & Ratdog, Jimmy McGriff, Lee Roy Parnell, Billy Bob Thorton, Moe., Tongue n' Groove (Deep Banana Blackout), Roy Hargrove, The Doobie Brothers, The Charlie Daniels Band, Larry Coryell, Joss Stone, Bill Simms, Pimp The Cat, The Dana Fuchs Band, and many others.

Dave Fields (guitar)

Image: Dave Fields

Watching Dave Fields squeezing note after note out of his electric guitar, you just know he was born to play that instrument.

His father was the much lauded virtuoso pianist, composer, arranger and producer, Sammy Fields. Sam Fields insisted that his son receive a thorough musical foundation before allowing him to take up the guitar by making him study the piano (starting at eight), followed later by bass guitar. He was finally allowed to move on to the guitar (his preferred instrument) when he was 14. Dave quickly became an accomplished pianist and a skillful guitarist who was playing at recording sessions by the time he was 15.

Like Mark Greenberg, Fields studied at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. His musical résumé is exhausting to read through. He has been on tour with Tommy James and the Shondells; was director for the New Voices of Freedom who performed with U2 in their movie Rattle and Hum; he has played with and producing numerous jazz and blues luminaries; and he was a staff member for Look Music and has written CDs for many music libraries. In 1996 he started Fields Music, a company that services the radio, TV, web, film and industrial markets.

There can’t be a note or a chord that Dave Fields hasn’t played a million times over. He can play blindingly fast if he wants to, but understands that the best guitar players don’t just play fast, they know how to play s-l-o-w, drawing one note out so that it fills a whole bar (both the musical measure, and the venue). He can bend a ‘G’ string beyond its snapping point and still push it places many guitarists fear to tread. It is a pleasure watching him play – and play is the operative word. He is not afraid to have fun with his instrument or have fun on stage, and obviously gets real joy out of both, and that joy and enthusiasm is conveyed clearly to the audience.

Here he is fronting his own Dave Fields Band - Live at The Cutting Room – performing Let’s Get Shakin’. That's Dave Fields on lead guitar, with Dave Hughes also on guitar, Hurricane Bob Alfano (harmonica), Rob Chaseman (sax), Andy Huenerberg (bass), and Mark Greenberg, the All Star Jam host on drums.



Brett Bass (bass guitar)

Image: The very illusive Brett Bass captured on film at the Bitter End

Brett Bass plays bass. Could there have been any other choice for him? Of course, there could, but it just seems so right that Brett Bass plays bass. The thing I appreciate most about Brett's playing is that it seems to be so understated. It's almost as if he isn't there, but if he was to stop playing, you just know the performance wouldn't sound the same.

Most bass players tend to keep out of the limelight and just lay down that groove that (along with the drummer), helps hold everything together – and Brett Bass is no exception to this. In fact, Brett seems to have taken keeping out of the limelight to the extreme. Of all the musicians profiled here, Bass is the one who doesn’t appear to have his own website or MySpace page, and is all but invisible online. There are a bunch of music clips available via YouTube, which include Brett somewhere in the lineup, and some references to him appearing on other artists recordings, but that is about it. I couldn’t even find a decent photograph of him online, so had to make do with a screen shot from a video recording to illustrate this introduction.

Thankfully, I did manage to find one article online dated, Tuesday, April 15, 2003. Headlined 'Ace of Bass', the article written by John Davis for the Lubbock Avalanche Journal talks about a young Lubbock*, Texas bass player who is making it big in New York City. The bass player of course is Brett Bass, and from the article we learn that Brett’s interest in the bass guitar started at about 11 years of age. In 1998, at the age of 18, Brett moved to New York City with the help of his parents, and has been living there ever since.

"I find it to be sonically satisfying," Bass said of playing bass guitar. "It takes up a lot of room, sonically. It kind of supports the whole thing. It's the bridge between the harmony and the rhythm. It moves a lot of air. You feel it in your chest and in your legs."

I would add, and in your heart and soul.

On stage, hair down to his shoulders and sporting a pork pie hat, Brett rarely says a word, but you know he is there every note of the way. When a brief smile occasionally passes between Brett and Mark Greenberg, you are aware that he is loving every minute of the performance, and that right at that moment, there is nowhere else he would rather be.

In 2001 and 2002, Brett toured through the United States, Europe and Beirut with Enrique Iglesias, and has performed with numerous musicians since. On the following clip - from the DVD "Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth," - Brett joins Bernie Worrell (Talking Heads) for an improvization which includes Warren Haynes (Gov’t Mule, and the Allman Brothers) on guitar and Will Calhoun on drums. The track is available on the CD, Improvisczario.

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*Lubbock, Texas, is the birthplace of rock and roll legend Buddy Holly.


Delmar Brown (Keytar)

Image: The inimitable Delmar Brown

Delmar Brown (the creator of the Illuminator Keytar.) has performed with some of the greatest names in jazz, including Gil Evans, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Jaco Pastroius and many others. He has toured with Sting, Youssou N'Dour, and Peter Gabriel to name just three top acts. When Delmar steps into the Bitter End spotlights, he eats up the stage like no-one else I have seen in a long time. He coaxes notes out of his Keytar that makes you wonder if he is just a frustrated guitarist as his fingers fly across the keys in an attempt to keep up with his vibrant personality.

Here is a rare clip of Delmar Brown recorded in 1987 at the Free Jazz Festival with the Gil Evans Band in São Paulo, Brazil. The quality of the footage may be a bit rough, but there is nothing rough about the stunning performance Delmar gives in this nine minute video.

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I don’t know if Delmar Brown can hit those high notes anymore, but I do know he has a voice that is so powerful and dynamic it could stop a runaway freight train in its tracks! And you can quote me on that. You will find numerous videos through YouTube of Delmar performing, simply by searching his name. The man deserves wider recognition in his own right, and I’m happy to help that happen.


So how much would you expect to pay to see these talented musos? Twenty dollars? Twenty-five? More, or less? The really amazing thing about the Jam is that you can see these guys for Free! That’s right. Apart from the ‘two drink minimum’ you are asked to purchase during the night, there appears to be no cost to catch the show.

I deliberately said “appears to be”, because I have never been asked to pay to watch the show. I should explain however, that I have always attended early in the evening to catch part of the weekly Singer/Songwriter Sessions that kicks off at 8.00pm. There is a $5.00 entry fee for this, and I’ve always stayed on for the Jam which follows. I’ve never been asked to pay extra for this, and neither do the Bitter End website or the All Star Jam website give an indication of an entry fee. So I am assuming entry for the ASJ is free (If this is incorrect, I would appreciate someone letting me and other readers know by posting a comment below).

If you can’t physically be in New York to catch the show, you can always tap into the live stream and watch it from the comfort of your own home. To do that you will need to first work out the time difference between New York City and your home location, and the best way of doing this is the world clock feature on the Time and Date website.

So there you have it. My ultimate Bitter End All Star Jam lineup. You will see at least two of these four amazing musicians at each fortnightly gig, although you are more likely to see three of them – if not all four. If you are in New York City on the second and/or fourth Sunday of every month, do yourself a favor and head down to Greenwich Village and visit the Bitter End at 147, Bleeker Street, for a great night of live music. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

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