Monday, May 23, 2011

Dream Journal #7

Had a strange dream last night involving husband-and-wife evangelists/cult leaders who may have been based on a similar husband-and-wife team from Season 2 of True Blood, a show I haven't watched for several months. They were really into fishing ("fishers of men"?) for some reason, and at some point I think I swallowed a small, live fish whole. They were also control freaks, in true cult leader fashion, at one point inserting a small metal button or peg in the floor so that I couldn't close the door to my bedroom. I was living in some sort of communal house with them and some other people who'd fallen under their spell. I seemed to be the only person who knew that the situation was bad news, but no one would believe me. My favorite detail of the dream was that the cult leaders had some sort of Christian rock band who played in the style of the early Sir Douglas Quintet, and they'd had great success recruiting wannabe Sir Dougs from Sweden, where there was apparently a large group of young SDQ fans ripe for cult indoctrination.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Selected Ballads Selects...Coffee and Baked Goods

Stumptown is my go-to supplier for coffee beans, as they have a great selection, they get consistently good beans, and they seem to know how to roast to just the right level. Just about everything I try from them makes a great cup of coffee, though I tend to like the Guatemalan and Ethiopian coffees the best. Hopefully this was an anomaly, but on my last trip to the Ace Hotel location, I had a hard time finding any beans roasted most recently than a week before. I feel a little silly even mentioning this, but Stumptown has spoiled me with their usually dependable freshness (often selling beans roasted the previous day), and after all, the beans only have to make it from Red Hook to the Flatiron. When I see Stumptown for sale in Brooklyn stores like Union Market and Blue Apron, it's much more common to see that they've been sitting around for a week or two.

After running out of my last bag of Stumptown beans, I decided to give Gorilla Coffee another try. I'd written their coffee off as overroasted, with the consistently heavy hand on the roaster eliminating flavor differences between single-source beans from different parts of the world, but based on the Guatemalan beans I just bought from them, they seem to have eased up, much to the coffee's benefit. After only one cup, I can't judge the new-and-improved Gorilla yet, but if I was going to name some honorable mentions behind Stumptown, the first two that come to mind are La Colombe, the Philly roaster that now has cafes in Manhattan, and Blue Bottle, the San Fran "microroaster" with a Williamsburg location. Blue Bottle is probably Stumptown's nearest competitor in quality and attention to detail in their cafe - they've been getting serious with their baked goods lately and they serve NYC's best (and possibly most expensive) iced coffee. La Colombe takes a different (Italian-influenced) approach, focusing on blending rather than single-source coffee, and roasting darker across the board. Though I tend to like lighter roasts than the typical La Colombe coffee, they seem to really know what they're doing, and if I'm in the mood to switch things up with a darker roast, I'll go with one of their blends. Intelligentsia beans (from Chicago), some of the best in the country, are available at a couple places in NYC, but haven't been fresh when I've looked at them as I don't think they're being roasted locally. I'll pick up a bag next time I'm in Chicago.

[Update: good piece on Stumptown here - "the Jesus Christ of caffeinated beverages"]

For me, the undisputed king of NYC bakeries is still Almondine - their bread is the best (they wisely stick to a few basic French styles that they've mastered, rather than trying to be everything to everybody) and they can contend with anyone in the pastry and cake department (I was very fortunate to receive some of Almondine's superb macarons as a gift recently). Grandaisy is not far behind, though, and may be the best bakery in Manhattan, also very strong in both bread and sweet stuff (my observations are based on the W 72nd St location). In Brooklyn, Marlow & Sons, though only having a small pastry case at the front of the restaurant, produces consistently excellent scones, biscuits, and the like. I also tried Peels on the Bowery for the first time recently, and the two items I got (a biscuit and a banana donut) were enough to convince me of its potential elite baked goods status.

Venturing into still sweeter realms, I was in Yorkville for the first time in some time over the weekend and stopped in at Two Little Red Hens. I was glad to be reassured that it's still the place to go for unpretentious and unashamedly sweet and rich desserts - cookies, lemon (or lime-coconut) bars, cakes/cupcakes, and though they didn't have it when I stopped in, the best cake/loaf-style gingerbread I know of. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for my health), I didn't make it to neighborhood landmark and old-school butter-bomb cookie and pastry provider Glaser's. I need to get back there for what may be the world's greatest prune danish before they go on their annual extended summer break.

On the doughnut front, I've been hearing great things about Dough, the new place in Clinton Hill. While a still-warm dulce de leche from Doughnut Plant has put doubt into my mind at least once and Pies 'n' Thighs puts out a fine product (though they don't taste quite as good as they look - P'n'T might have, to my eye, the most visually appealing donuts in town), I still haven't found any place that seriously challenges Greenpoint's Peter Pan for NYC donut supremacy. I do tend to favor the purity of an unadorned or lightly glazed cake donut over the yeast-raised, heavily-iced-in-exotic-flavors style Dough seems to be working in, but I look forward to trying their offerings with an open mind. I've somehow not mentioned pie in this post, but Four & Twenty Blackbirds in the Gowanus is also high on my list of places to try.

As a final note, I'm pretty sure I got fatter just by typing the second half of this post.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Recent (and Less Recent) Live Music, Part One

Although it's already been said better, I feel I should add one more voice to the chorus of enthusiasm for the meeting of contemporary titans that was The Bad Plus w/ Joshua Redman at the Blue Note. To say that Redman was able to find a place within TBP's often tightly arranged tunes would be a huge understatement. If I was to employ a deliberately terrible mixed metaphor, I would say that like master jewelers, the trio gave Redman a setting in which to shine and he knocked that s**t out of the park. For every mood and mode that The Bad Plus explored (and they get to lots of different places in a single set), Redman was right there with something profound (and often jaw-dropping) to add to the mix.

I do regret not planning ahead and getting stuck in the SRO bar area with a terrible sightline, but even at that remove it was impossible to miss the strong musical message that was being delivered - TBP's inimitable compositions taken to the next level live. "People Like You" and "Layin' a Strip for the Higher-Self State Line" are the first titles that come to mind as highlights, but there were many, many great moments spread through the set I saw (which also included, if memory serves, "Who's He?" and "Dirty Blonde" - I didn't make any notes).

I can't fault the Blue Note on its bookings - they bring in some of the best - but the decor does tend to give one the unsettling feeling (as I'm sure I'm not the first to point out) of having walked into the highest tier "gentleman's club" in a medium-to-large size Midwestern city, so that seeing someone with, for example, the elegance and stature of Ron Carter on stage there can seem almost distractingly incongruous. I suppose the defiantly unremodeled yet far-from-classic interior could serve as a sobering commentary on the economic viability of presenting jazz seven nights a week in the current economic and cultural climate. Mirrors and neon or not, they keep pulling me back in by booking musicians that are just undeniable, such as James Carter with 'Blood' Ulmer and Nicholas Payton (more about that in the forthcoming Part Two of this post).

I was at The Stone twice recently, finally seeing Dr. Eugene Chadbourne after listening to his music on and off for many years, and seeing the mighty Ken Vandermark in a duo with Joe Morris on guitar. Though he originally made his reputation as a downtown/avant guitar weirduoso, the Doc's recent solo set left no doubt that he's also a heckuva songwriter (highlights in that department included "God Made Country Music" and "Old Piano") and a great (though still plenty weird) banjo player. Come to think of it, I'd love to see a guitar-banjo duo with Morris and Chadbourne (looks like they have recorded together). If Clifford Jordan and John Gilmore hadn't already used the album title Blowin' In From Chicago, it would suit Ken Vandermark perfectly. His technique is highly advanced, but at the same time, he makes it very clear that playing the saxophone essentially involves blowing into a tube. There was no shortage of brains or guts in the Vandermark-Morris duo.

I saw the Mary Halvorson Quintet at Barbes for a second time (the first time, I think they were playing a mixture of material from the trio album Dragon's Head and some then-new compositions that would end up on Saturn Sings, but I may be combining it in my memory with an earlier trio gig). In any case, with the newer material firmly under their belts, the growth of the group sound and of Halvorson's compositions was very much in evidence. This group, already acclaimed well beyond the Brooklyn scene centered on venues like Barbes and Korzo, just keeps getting better.

For the March installment of Tower of Song, a monthly songwriter's-circle-type deal at Rock Shop, host/organizer Jennifer O'Connor outdid herself, assembling a very heavy lineup: Tim Bracy, formerly of Mendoza Line; the undisputed Queen of Country Music in Brooklyn and personal favorite of John Peel, Laura Cantrell; and a man who must be one of the most underappreciated songwriting talents of our time, 33-1/3 author and sometime John Darnielle collaborator Franklin Bruno. The performers made the most of being onstage together as a group, covering each others songs and contributing harmonies and extra guitar and keyboard parts. The highlight of the show may have been Bruno's song inspired by Felix Gonzalez-Torres' Untitled (Perfect Lovers). I don't know if he's recorded it, and I'm not even sure of the title, but I'd really like to hear it again.

I guess these YouTube clips (scroll down on the right-hand column) of the '80s-era public access jazz chat show The John Lewis Show (not the famous pianist or the civil rights leader and politician, but the less famous drummer) have been circulating for a while, but I just discovered them via A Blog Supreme and they are my new favorite thing. Ron Jefferson, the Ed McMahon to Lewis' Carson, must have been one of the hippest people alive at the time (not to mention "dynamic", "prolific", and "beautiful"). The show provides a valuable historical window into '80s jazz fashions, though I assume that Jefferson's bow tie in this segment was purely his own thing and not representative of any current trend. And fans of The Fighter might enjoy the interview Lewis and Jefferson conducted with boxer Saoul Mamby (who, at a critical turning point of that movie, pulls out of a fight with Micky Ward at the last minute). Lewis has DVDs of the full-length shows available here.

Next time in Part Two: Bill Frisell! Paul Motian! Neil Young! James Carter! and more?

And a final word from Schroeder:
More true than I'd like to admit.