by Steven Pisano
This winter in New York City has been so unrelentingly and inhospitably cold, so bone-numbingly frigid that a lot of sensible people have just stayed home from exploring the city’s nightlife to catch up on Netflix. Who wants to wander the streets of an urban Antarctica?
But things were blazing hot last week at Jazz Standard when Chris Bergson brought his sizable band to town for a two-night stand on February 24-25. Bergson has been playing this club for over a decade now, and his latest recording, Live at Jazz Standard, has been lauded as one of the top recordings of 2014 by the blues press.
First thing's first. Despite the club’s name, Bergson does not play jazz. He and his band play blues, funk, rock, and soul, in a rich, hearty stew of down home styles that in many ways is reminiscent of the Sixties when a lot of rock artists, from Eric Clapton on down, first started stirring blues into their base of rock.
Most of Bergson’s songs are originals (many co-written with wife Kate), only occasionally doing a classic cover. He sings about gritty urban streets, Greyhound bus stations, and broken love. “Heavenly Grass,” with lyrics taken from a Tennessee Williams poem, was an especially moving number.
Bergson plays guitar, and can coax a wide range of emotion from the strings of his electric and acoustic instruments, the latter especially effective on a loving tribute to his young daughter, Chloe, who was in the room.
Guest vocalist Ellis Hooks joined the band for about half of each set. Hooks belts out songs in a soulful, sexy Stax-style voice that can be smoky smooth as bourbon in one phrase and cut like a stiletto in the next. He struts, he screams, he coos - it was hard not to think of Sam Cooke.
The encores at each show were a perfect cap, and well-suited to Hooks’ magnetic charms. At the early show, “Don’t Do It,” originally recorded by Marvin Gaye and later made popular by Levon Helm and The Band as the encore in The Last Waltz. At the late show, Robert Johnson’s classic “Dust My Broom” had so much energy that if you had held up an unlit match, it would have burst into flame from spontaneous combustion.
One of the delights of this particular configuration of sidemen was the three-man brass section -- Steven Bernstein on trumpet, Jay Collins on tenor and alto saxophones, and Ian Hendrickson-Smith on baritone saxophone. These guys really cook, both individually and together, and when they take over a song you almost don’t want them to give it up, they settle into such a steady groove. Also in support were Craig Dreyer on organ and Wurlitzer piano, Ethan Eubanks on the skins, and Matt Clohesy on bass. Dreyer could hardly be seen on stage, lurking at the back, but his keyboard work was thrilling.
(All photos by Steven Pisano. More pics here.)