Manhattan's Birdland, the Mother of All Jazz Clubs, has a new way of getting paying customers' asses into seats at 6 pm a few evenings a week. Just don't expect Ron Carter, Sonny Rollin, Herbie Hancock or Diane Krall to be performing. Instead, the Birdland Early Bird (Music) Specials allow gifted young musicians to add a gig at the world's landmark jazz club to their résumés. And if the fans of the partially knowns only partially fill the tables, it keeps the cash registers clinking more lucratively then if the room were filled with the sounds of silence, either melodic and monetary.
Last Thursday evening at 5:45 pm. Birdland was packed to the nines for 27-year-old Joe Alterman's Birdland debut, a significant event for him. Ten years ago when Joe was a senior in high school, his dad and he flew to Manhattan from Atlanta to catch what turned out to be the legendary Oscar Peterson's final New York appearance. Joe has never forgotten Peterson's powerful presence and dreamed about performing at Birdland ever since. Now, two CD's and several jazz festival appearances later, that dream was coming true and his father (and mother) sat facing him, pleased as punch at their son's success.
Alterman is hardly a keyboard Joey-come-lately. He's been tickling the ivories since he was five -- following his brothers to bluegrass festivals until his father plied him with bluesy jazz records that were a better fit. I first heard him at Dizzy's Club three years ago when he was enrolled in NYU's graduate music program and I've been an Alterman groupie ever since. My fellow fans include jazz authority Nat Hentoff who believes Joe "represents the past, present and future of jazz," and that "he'd be able to hold his own even with greats like Parker, Gillespie, Monk and Davis." Moreover, an actual Beatle was impressed enough with Joe's playing at a Friar's Club brunch to walk over to Joe's upright and ask Joe where he'd learned the tunes he was playing because they reminded Paul McCartney of his father.
Joe is handsome guy, with enough dark hair to pass as a Kennedy. He appeals to the square, the chic and the trendy. In a nicely fitting dark suit, white shirt and greenish-blue silk tie, he looks like a hip, happy accountant, or would if such a beast existed. Joe's an exuberant performer, beating the rhythm of the song he's playing with the foot not pressing the piano pedals, shaking his shoulders while boogying up and down the piano bench. He's polite too, and listens respectfully as bass player Nathaniel Schroeder and drummer Doug Hirlinger's play solo.
Alterman's attracted significant musical mentors including Les McCann, with whom he co-wrote "The Theme," a lush, sensuous, romantic melody, and sassy, senior saxophone bluesman, Houston Person, who plays that tune so seductively that it makes you want to snuggle forever, but only with someone you love. Alterman's set opened with "Give Me the Simple Life," followed by "I Heard it on the Grapevine" and "Time After Time." He pays homage to Les McCann with "The Theme," to Oscar Peterson with "Kelly's Blues," moves forward in time with Carole King's, "Take Good Care of My Baby," and shifts backwards with an angular arrangement of "Blue Moon." His strong but gentle fingers dance over the keys and his heart and brain speak to the strings in the piano harp. The Amazing Kreskin, seated beside me, found Joe's artistry truly amazing.
Other impressive talents I've heard at Birdland at 6 pm include Pianist Matt Baker, Blues Singer Carole J. Bufford, Vocalist Marissa Mulder and the bluesy Rob Silverman Quartet. The cover charge sounds steep at 25 bucks, but if you Google "complementary and discounted Broadway and Off Broadway tickets," several organizations that offer members the same performance for considerably less cash will pop up right before your very eyes. Furthermore, Birdland's food and drink minimum is a bargain $10 and their food is fresh, filling and tasty. The early show at Birdland is well worth paying to see.
To check out future gigs at Birdland go to www.birdlandjazzclub.com. To see what Alterman is up to check his calendar at www.joealtermanmusic.com
315 W. 44th St.
New York, NY 10036
Photo Credit: Fran Kaufman