Pianist Donald Vega and guitarist Peter Bernstein played as a duo for the first time last night, not in the capital of jazz connections, New York City, where unexpected, even unprecedented, pairings are commonplace features of the clubscape, but in distant Ithaca in the Finger Lakes region of the state some five hours from the clangor of Manhattan. Whether it was a mutual dare, a favor redeemed, or a shared need to breathe the crisp Upstate air that spurred these two masters of spontaneous collaboration to make the journey was not revealed at their performance. Whatever the motivation, the result was an unforgettable evening that traversed a vast and varied range of the jazz repertory, from Fats Waller through Thelonius Monk to John Coltrane, stopping at classics of the (north) American songbook before, towards evening’s end, detouring south of the border to Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velazquez’s Besamé mucho (Kiss me again and again) for the occasion—a Valentine’s Day card fashioned and decorated in real time before a full house of admirers.
The duo made their debut in the second floor of a refashioned 19th-century Carriage House. In honor of its former function, the upstairs is called the Hayloft even though it no longer feeds horses, but rather the ears and souls of its dedicated clientele. Dare I say it? Yes! The Hayloft is the premier provincial venue for jazz on the planet. And when it comes to jazz in this university town, “provincial” is not a pejorative in my lexicon. Among the world-class local heroes who often play at the Carriage House are the tremendous pianist John Stetch, my neighbor bassist Nicholas Walker, my Cornell colleague trumpeter Paul Merrill. Many heavy-hitters from New York have come to the Hayloft to make music with these and other resident players. Certainly the quality of the local musicians lures virtuosos up from the big city. But the venue itself must also be an attraction: glowing wooden floor and slanting roofline offer an ideal acoustic environment for music; the décor (from a penny farthing cycle to manual typewriters) providing much—but not too much—to entertain the eye and warm the ambiance; and the eager and attentive audience anchoring the sense of hospitable adventure that the space fosters.
The way in which the once-derelict building was itself recovered and reimagined fits in well with the mission of jazz, one of the greatest of art forms at drawing from the past in pursuit of the new. The maiden voyage of the Vega-Bernstein duo bore this out within the intimate surroundings. In their two sets there was not a single “original”; yet all was original. That paradox is the engine of jazz, music that should be familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, the beloved appearing in constantly shifting and unanticipated guises. The point of this evening was to make the standard—the huge corpus of songs known by jazz masters—become fresh.
This was not to say that everything is created out of the void. Like all improvising musicians, Vega and Bernstein each have their own voluminous catalog of stock phrases from which they can draw on, either at whirring be-bop or languid ballad tempo. Among Vega’s favored motives are arpeggios decorated with elegant, incisive turns, but the way he incorporates this figure into his improvisation above the harmonies of familiar tunes, and spins off from these flourishes into his bluesy laughs or corruscating runs constantly fascinates. From the evening’s first tune,Victor Young’s Beautiful Love, another Valentine’s Day offering, the way Vega’s fleet fingers spun out these motives was a source of great joy to the members of the audience, his musical partner for the evening, and—most obviously and importantly—himself. I hear the influence of his mentor Kenny Barron, but also earlier greats: the speedy fingers and mind of Bud Powell and the bluesy swing of Wynton Kelly.
Vega was classically trained in Nicaragua before his emigration to the US in his teens; you can hear this in the surety of technique and the way, for example, he often brought out counter melodies in the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, like a bassoon line in Mozart’s great G Minor symphony. Vega’s love of repeated notes might reflect Iberian influences from Scarlatti to Albeniz, but I think it also brings to mind the double-tonguing of a Clifford Brown or Lee Morgan. The subtlety of Vega’s touch and the spark of his accents came through in seemingly unending detail at the Carriage House Steinway, thankfully unmiked and therefore capable of projecting the subtlety and verve of Vega’s expressive playing. Fluency, flair, humor flow from Vega with the ease and necessity of breathing. If ever there were an improvised music of optimism and renewal, this is it.
That opening standard heard in nonchalant tempo was the evening’s manifesto of swinging lyricism, crisp improvised lines, and lively, smiling exchanges between guitar and piano, not just in the trading at the close of the tune, but throughout. At its best jazz accompaniment becomes a form of vital commentary, necessary but never intrusive. Here it became a form of vivid dialog, an uplifting and always challenging forum for mutual appreciation.
Monk’s Pannonica followed, set up with a searching introduction by the New York native, Bernstein. At swinging tempos Bernstein delivers graceful and biting single lines, gutsy octaves, and insouciant block chords, but his solo ruminations are marked above all by contrapuntal daring. His Adagio prelude to Pannonica was full of countermelodies and piquant dissonances that worked in sonic and aesthetic counterpoint to the warmth of his guitar sound. Monk famously claimed that there are no wrong notes on the piano. Bernstein has absorbed that message on his instrument: he’s a genius at finding the rightest wrong notes on his guitar.
The first set culminated in a tribute to Charlie Parker with an up-tempo blues that I thought began as Moose the Mooche but certainly ended as Bloomdido. Perhaps my memory is already confused by the many free-wheeling allusions to Parker and others that Vega and Bernstein enlivened their discourse with. Whatever the case may be, the best jazz presses incessantly into the immediate future, forgetting what has just gone by by remembering it differently in the ensuing moment. The pair was already jumbling my cognitive faculties with their opening presentation of the tune, Vega leading the way in octaves while Bernstein commented a beat behind, in a manner reminiscent of Medieval—and therefore highly artful—hocket. From out of this heterophonic thicket—one that reminded me of the spiky, spindly barberry bushes encountered on winter walks in Ithaca’s Hinterland—the players burst into the glory of the blues, sure but never simply safe.
The mostly minor and more muted second half lit afire at its close with Coltrane’s minor blues—Mr. PC. Those letters stand not for Politically Correct nor for what noted after-hours cultural critic Tommy Bruce—who not coincidentally also attended the concert—has called “Post-Civilization” (“post-civ” for short). Mr. PC refers to the great Paul Chambers, and it was a fitting irony that this bass-less duo should end with Coltrane’s tribute to the immortal bassist. Bernstein showed again his mastery of the fast and occasionally furious, with angular bursts and long arcs of melody. Vega unspooled skeins of right-handed invention and then went on to display a jaw-dropping independence between his hands. The left remained as secure as Gibraltar in maintaining the tempo and its harmonic progress; above this rock, the right hand ventured into far-out polyrhythmic realms, crossing over the twelve-measure border of the tune’s form and into a fantastical landscape inhabited by mambo dancing creatures and mischievous harmonic devils. This tableau was riven by unexpected bolts of dissonant lightning. Bernstein charged in after Vega’s final solo foray so the pair could hurtle together towards the finish line.
Jazz is said to be an urban invention even if its roots lie in the rural, preindustrial South. Outside the Hayloft only an occasional car trod the cobblestone street. Far from the hue-and-cry of the asphalt jungle, Vega-Bernstein’s music created its own universe. Over the years of the Carriage House’s existence many ad hoc ensembles made up of locals and/or visitors have come together only to disappear with the music they had created. Here’s hoping that the Vega-Bernstein piano-guitar duo returns to our neck of the universe soon and, even more important, that it takes its message to the world beyond.