Happy Birthday Langston Hughes

February 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Paul Hecht‘s ongoing series celebrating the birthdays of poets with words and music continues this Monday with an evening devoted to the life and work of Langston Hughes. Hosted & directed by Hecht, featuring the mighty and sometimes mohawked Malesha Jessie, pianist Ellen Mandel, and actors Denise Burse, Michael Early and Phillip James Brannon.

Feb 13, 6pm. Visit our lovely website or call 212/989-9319 to make reservations.


michael lydon

December 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

fragments from conversation with michael lydon in his studio.

in the 60’s michael left an anemic rock beat at newsweek to help co-found rolling stone. he started out tagging along as part of the national psychedelic entourage but his writing and candor brought him closer to the center, sat him next to mick jagger on rough flights and made janis joplin suggest maybe he wanted to pick up a harmonica and give it a try too. matched with encouragement from his the likewise excellent and dedicated pianist ellen mandel, he began new life as a loving crooner. file under: writer-musician/musician-writer/all-around-mensch.
michael lydon plays cornelia street cafe tuesday december 12th at 830.

music: “midnight in manhattan” & “love at first sight”

Paul Motian, 1931-2011

November 23, 2011 § 2 Comments

This week Cornelia Street Café marks the loss of Paul Motian, a legendary drummer and powerfully influential musician whose long career coursed through many transfigurations of Jazz. Motian performed regularly and in the company of musicians young and old up until the very end of his life, sustaining an inimitable verve & intelligence while battling persistent illness. Of late Motian became the closest Cornelia has had to a house drummer, appearing nearly a dozen times with stalwarts and upstarts from Dan Tepfer to Tony Malaby to Samuel Blasser; his last performance at the Café came at the end of September, with Kris Davis. His absence will be deeply felt in our Downstairs, as it is through the world of Jazz and beyond.

The Latest Return of Marc Ostrow

October 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Marc Ostrow has performed at the Cornelia Street Cafe often enough that he really doesn’t need an introduction. But if you’d like one, please see what we wrote the last time we interviewed Marc, prior to his July performance.

When you sit down at the piano, is there anyone you’ve got in mind, performance-wise, you’re aiming to emulate? Where in the sizable range of lounge-appropriate genres would you locate your work? What are some of your favorite sounds/feels/idioms to play with? 

Well, I grew up listening to the great singer-songwriters of the 60s and 70s, especially piano-playing ones like Elton John, Billy Joel and Carole King. Also the Beatles, Paul Simon…The list goes on. I also really love standards by the likes of Gershwin, Rodgers, Jimmy Van Heusen, Harry Warren… . I don’t really try to emulate anyone. As a performer, I try mostly to hit the notes vocally and put my hands on the right keys.

That said, I do think anybody who considers himself an artist tries to come up with his own unique sound. As a writer I think my songs definitely have their own individual stamp and I care very much about the craft.  In whatever genre I’m working in, I’ve always got some weird melodic —  and especially harmonic — twists. In bridge or B sections, I like to go as far out harmonically as I can and then somehow seamlessly find my way back home. I’ll also throw in things like 9-bar phrases – just because I can! I don’t write a lot of songs because I set very high standards for myself. I don’t want to listen to half-baked crap – even if it’s my half-baked crap!

As for feels/idioms/genres, I first came to Cornelia Street as part of Frank J. Oteri’s Twenty-First Century Schizoid Music series, which I played twice – meaning I’m doubly schizoid! I’ve written everything from pop to show tunes to swing and bebop, country, and even a few art songs. Anything that’s harmonically interesting, doesn’t require sampling, heavy percussion or vocal pyrotechnics is fair game for me.But there’s almost always a jazz influence, usually quirky chord substitutions even if it’s a pop tune with plain triadic chords.

What’s the songwriting process like for you? How and how soon does it come to be that a song is Done? How does your music change when introduced to the rest of your band?  

I’ve written songs any number of ways. I’ve written music first, lyrics first, I’ve set lyrics to other people’s music and I’ve set music to other people’s lyrics.  Usually I sit down at the piano and come up with the tune. Then the title. Then the words.  A couple of years ago I was dating a woman who was good friends with some great guitar players and I discovered that guitarists seem to write differently from piano players. They strum chords and kind of improvise a melody over it and go from there. So, for one piece, Lullaby, I first came up with a set of chord changes – mapped the whole thing out from first to last measure. Then I wrote a melody over it and then set the lyrics. It’s a really pretty piece, if I do say so myself.

I used the same approach for a very different tune, “I’ve Been Unfriended On Facebook,” which, like many of my songs, is loosely based on experience. It’s a mock horror song, perfect for Halloween, which I describe as Steve Reich meets the Ramones meets Dr. Demento. The music doesn’t change much when I’ve got the band playing – it just sounds much better. The people I work with are top-flight musicians who “get it” right away. And I’m open-minded about what they bring to the table as well. So, there’s not a lot of rehearsal or explanation needed.

What are some of the places you’ve played, in the City or elsewhere? How do differences in the venue change the experience of performing there? Where does Cornelia fit in?  

Being a full-time lawyer and starting a new business, I don’t gig much. And I don’t mean to be a shill, but I really love playing at Cornelia Street. Since Robin expanded the stage and got Jed Distler’s Yamaha grand up there, it’s really an ideal venue for someone like me who likes an intimate setting and to interact with the audience. While I don’t quite do a cabaret act, I do set up the songs a bit and talk to the audience more than just, say, playing an hour’s jazz set at the Vanguard. The sight lines are very good, I’ve always had excellent sound and the food and drink is much better than most of the other clubs I go to.

Last time you suggested burgeoning songwriters buy a rhyming dictionary. Any other advice? 

Learn your craft. Get a good songwriting and/or lyric writing book. There’s plenty out there. And learn about the business. Don Passman’s “Everything You Need To Know About the Music Business” is the best introduction. It’s well-written and I used it in both the music publishing and recording industry courses I’ve taught. I should be getting royalties from recommending it so often!

Describe the ideal cover art for a hypothetical LP of your work. Feel free to include illustrations or diagrams if you wish. 

One would be an M.C. Escher print I have hanging on my wall. It’s fairly well known – two hands drawing themselves. Life’s about reinventing yourself and that image is how I look at songwriting. As someone who writes both music and lyrics, I can freely change one element to accommodate the other. If a melodic phrase and a lyric don’t quite work, I don’t need anyone’s approval either to modify the music or change the lyric and I usually do a bit of both as a song progresses. And I’ll do at least 3-5 drafts – sometimes more – of a lyric. That’s why I’ve always got my lyrics up on stage with me. The tune and the chord changes are much easier to remember than which version of what verse to sing.

Pressing deadlines… people re-emerging from your past… As the great Yogi said, “it’s déjà vu all overagain” for piano-playing professor, Marc Ostrow. Join him on and his merry band on October 19th at 6pm as they play through some new songs on old themes and dusts off a few favorites in myriad moods and styles from the memory trunk of tunes. Call 212/989-9319 or visit http://www.corneliastreetcafe.com for reservations. 

Teaching Talia Billig

August 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Cornelia’s vocal festival concludes Sunday night with Talia Billig, a self-taught singer whose graceful disavowal of genre & type make way for a clear voice unbound. She sings from the piano alongside her band of kindred New Schoolers, and was kind enough to spare a few words with us here. 

How old were you when you first began teaching yourself to play music? 

From what I hear, I started playing piano at age three. My grandmother had a piano in her Washington Heights apartment that I believe functioned more as a frame holder than anything else. I do remember the initial sensation of that piano and just understanding it. From then on I would seek out whatever pianos I could find. There was an elderly couple next door to us that had a piano and I would just wander over at any point in the day asking to play it. Eventually my parents got me my own. I was in love.

Was there anyone around you family & friends-wise who provided encouragement/inspiration? 

My family was incredibly encouraging, but no one in the immediate family played, so they just were really amused that they had a daughter that figured it out.  I learned by piecemeal. My parents’ dear friend Elliot is an incredibly gifted guitarist, also by ear. He was a really helpful creative sounding board as I was growing up. I was also fortunate to go to a school that encouraged me to pursue my music.

What sorts of music did you initially learn, and how, if at all, did that differ from what you’ve come to play since then? 

The initial music that I was playing was whatever I heard and loved, whether it was classical or contemporary. I was able to play what I heard, so I learned what I heard in my own house, which was a lot of folk, soul, and old Israeli deliciousness (my father’s side of the family is Israeli). I’d like to think that the folk stays with me today.

Tell us a little about your time at the New School. What led you there in specific? How did it differ from a more traditional conservatory setting? 

My path to the New School was definitely not direct. I knew that I wanted to pursue my music, but I had a lot of questions because I had never placed myself in any sort of box before. I didn’t know if I should study piano or voice, and I was in no place to decide what genre to study. I eventually chose The New School deliberately, because they appeared to be the most open to new ideas while still remaining small and nurturing.

I was entirely right in that initial impression. The New School provided a really open environment for me. It definitely differs from a more traditional conservatory setting because it’s called The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, and they work hard to make sure they live up to that name. You’re required to take all the courses of a standard jazz degree, but can also elect to take ensembles in some really fascinating genres (almost all of which I did). In my first semester I took a Middle Eastern Ensemble with Israeli legend Harel Shachal that completely changed my life.

In the end, I started to realize that I was not cut out to be a jazz singer in the purest sense of the form. I began to compose my own songs. Eventually I worked up the courage to put together a group of my best friends to play these songs. Again, the New School — being the excellent haven for creativity that it is — allowed the band to be considered an “ensemble” with a faculty advisor. We chose Richard Boukas: a prodigious guitar player and singer who excels in literally every single variety of music. His advice was brilliant, sensitive and intuitive. He somehow taught me my own patterns of songwriting with each suggestion.

When did you realize that your classmates were also the perfect people to become your bandmates? 

I realized that from the first mangled draft of a song I brought in. They were able to sidestep my neuroses and bring their own brilliant and unique ways of playing and thinking into my music from day one. They made my songs come alive. These days I couldn’t be happier than when I’m playing with them. There’s a lot of pressure on young singers coming out of jazz school to hire bands, or to find bands of very well established pros, but I really believe in just playing with your absolute best friends. Everyone in my band is fully invested and  I consider each member to be completely essential and irreplaceable. They’re like my brothers.

What can folks expect to experience at your performance this weekend? What do you hope they’ll come away with? 

I’d say expect to smile. Expect some really joyful music to be made. This is a group of people that just really loves playing music together.

Talia Billig appears downstairs on Sunday, August 14th  at 10pm, with Francois Rousseau, guitar, vocals;  Dan Parra, bass, vocals; and  Marc Beland , drums, vocals. Call 212/989-9319 or visit http://www.corneliastreetcafe.com for reservations. 

Make Music New York @ Cornelia Street Café, Pt. II

June 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Tomorrow between 4 and 6pm, Cornelia will make a block party of a side-street. To this end, and through the dedicated work of singer-curatress Jean Rohe, we have assembled an expert platoon of ourdoors musicians, specially-trained for just such an occassion. Says Rohe, “programming for MMNY appealed to me because I believe live music needs to be and can be in our lives without being mysterious, expensive, or separate from the day-to-day. I myself love busking in the street (I have my own secret favorite spot in SoHo with great acoustics and lots of ogling tourist traffic). MMNY just takes busking to another level. Minus the hat-passing.”

Yesterday you met the Xylopholks, costumed buskers extraordinaires. They will be joined by the sublime vocal masters of our Bel Canto series, led by former Met chorus master Eugene Sirotkine. There will be periodic punctuation by our upper-story neighbor, trumpeter Mr. Leif Arntzen.  Shakuhachi Ensemble will bring truth-seeking Eastern wind instruments out in force. And ensemble Red Light New Music will not so much perform as incite a musical piece for 111 bicycles.

Things you may wonder: What is a Shakuhachi? How do a hundred bicycles add up to a work of music? And what on Earth will all of this look and feel like?

We have answers. James Nyoraku Schlefer, Shakuhachi Grand Master: “The sound of the shakuhachi is quite special. The instrument is made from a single piece of thick bamboo and its sound has a deeply penetrating yet earthy tone. The traditional music is from an ancient tradition associated with the practice of Zen Buddhist meditation and that repertoire focuses on sound rather than melody, rhythm and harmony as does Western music.”

As far as the bicycles? There is a why and a how. Vincent Raikhel of Red Light New Music: “We feel that it is essential that a work be both viscerally and intellectually stimulating, while not taking itself to seriously. Kagel was a rare composer who was able to weave his music seamlessly with the world of the theatrics while being honest and resisting silliness.

The audience should be prepared for a charming and interesting event- that will hopefully make them smile and think about the nature of performance and the music that surrounds us in our daily lives. The bikers will ride past, ringing, singing and making air sounds. And, as soon as they ride past, the piece is over and the day will move on to the other great musicians who we are performing with us on Tuesday, both on Cornelia street and throughout the city.”

When asked what audience-participants might expect, perhaps it was Jean herself who put it best: “Oh, only an unbridled feeling of joy and possibility. It’s the longest day of the year in the greatest city in the world, 111 bicycles, 5 xylophones, 3 basses, 2 guitars, 12 shakuhachis, 6 singers, one palpitating heart in your little ol’ chest.”

We hope to see you there.

For more information about the daylong concert-doing marathon known as Make Music New York, including a schedule of all that is set to occur, please visit their website at http://makemusicny.org/ If you’d like to follow the festivities outside with a bite to eat, please peruse our foodly offerings at http://www.corneliastreetcafe.com or call 212/989-9319

Radio Cornelia

March 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

This week we celebrate the inauguration of Cornelia Street Cafe’s new podcast series “Live From Cornelia Street”. Every week we broadcast another new and outstanding recording made from our very own downstairs. Visit this page to access our embedded player or simply click here to subscribe via iTunes. Artists already featured include Tim Berne’s Los Totopos, Tom Rainey Trio, Matthew Brewer Quintet, and Jeff Davis Band. In this way we continue to bring the best of 29 Cornelia Street to our friends everywhere beyond its walls.

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