I was reading an interview in Screen Slate between critic A.S. Hamrah and filmmaker Michael Roemer when one line stopped me in my tracks. Written on the occasion of the re-release of a lost 1984 film by Roemer called Vengeance Is Mine, it begins with an overview of the director’s short but distinguished career. Hamrah writes that Roemer’s 1971 The Plot Against Harry is “a high-water mark of American cinema, a jewel found in the grime of New York City as it entered its worst decade before this one.”
I loved The Plot Against Harry, but that wasn’t what got me about the off-hand assessment. We are accustomed to thinking of New York in the 1970s as a decrepit place. After all, this was the time of the iconic Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” when burned-out buildings on the Lower East Side and in the Bronx were often left to smolder, and the whole place began to take on the aura of a ruin. I moved here in 1979, and it did sometimes seem then that New York was in the midst of its worst decade—before this one.
What will be the legacy of our still young, but hardly distinguished decade? Almost all of it has been spent in the peculiar bardo of the pandemic, in which so many of the things we love about the city—the proximity of people from everywhere in the world, the packed clubs and restaurants and theaters, the sense of glorious compression—have become either verboten or highly suspect. Whole prosperous sections of New York, from Midtown to the Financial District, remain depleted, unsure of how to move forward. With all this dislocation has come the perception of more crime, dirtier streets, a general air of anxiety. Another Roaring Twenties this decade is not, but what it is and where we are headed is far from clear.
And yet…we want to believe that New York is coming back, that it still has the gift for regeneration. And if anything can help us believe in that, it might be the persistence of live music. All the festivals that make the city so great have announced their summer schedules, and they continue to bring the world to our doorstep in the most extraordinary way. Here, then, are twenty-one concerts I’m counting on to restore my faith in New York. Need further incentive to get out of the house, and proof that our city remains unparalleled in its offerings? All these shows are free.
George Gee and his Make-Believe Ballroom Orchestra revives the spirit of the lost ballroom with full-blooded renditions of the kinds of songs heard at the Savoy way back in the day (July 1, Lincoln Center). Canada has loomed as an appealing getaway from our rightward-veering, increasingly insane country, and some of its innovators, led by chanteur Patrick Watson, are gathering to show what’s happening up north (July 2, Central Park). Brazilian singer-songwriter Céu integrates samba and choro with trip hop and other influences to create a rich amalgam of sounds (July 6, Lincoln Center). The superb Kronos Quartet is celebrating its four decades together with a concert version of the film A Thousand Thoughts. They’ve been touring this for a while, and word is that it’s extraordinary (July 14, Prospect Park).
Chicano Batman has a retro, organ-driven feel, but still maintains its originality. The music sounds like it floated out of L.A. and landed at a picnic (July 16, Prospect Park). The always-freestyling critic Greg Tate passed away at the end of last year, and Burnt Sugar, the Arkestra Chamber, pays tribute to his vision. His writing was joyously over the top, and the band he created isn’t afraid to swing for the fences, either (July 17, Lincoln Center). Cory Henry is the very model of the modern producer/performer, fully versed in classic soul arrangements draped in contemporary sounds (July 20, Central Park). Joe McGinty & The Loser’s Lounge crew takes on disco—the Times said the ensemble “gets its frisson from giving permission to love pop, that throwaway stuff, with every ounce of your heart” (July 21, Lincoln Center).
Led by the mother-daughter team of Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, the Ragamala Dance Company brings to life the color-saturated South Indian storytelling style known as Bharatanatyam (July 24, Prospect Park). Bobby Sanabria is a longtime Nuyorican drummer, raised in the South Bronx, who is featured on over a hundred recordings of musicians from Henry Threadgill to Ray Barretto. He also serves as the host for several dynamite radio programs that explore the widest possible range of jazz and Latin music (July 23, Bryant Park). What a pairing: the pulsating experimentalism of Black Midi and the pure mush of Sinatra-school crooner Sal “The Voice” Valentinetti; here’s hoping they’ll do at least one song together (July 24, Central Park).
The stellar ensemble the Knights has taken up a kind of residence at the lovely Naumburg Bandshell, presenting eclectic programs like one with violinist Lara St. John, ranging from Mendelssohn to the premiere of a piece by Israeli composer Avner Dorman (July 26, Central Park). Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas are proud of their Creole heritage, and committed to the accordion-driven music of rural Louisiana (July 29, Lincoln Center). Sons of Kemet is a project of the London-based saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings that keeps its sound percolating through the employment of two drummers and a tuba. Opening is the horizon-expanding American drummer Makaya McCraven, whose Blue Note reshuffle from last year I raved about in a past issue of the Rail (July 31, Central Park). “Jubilee for Jimmy” celebrates the genuinely brilliant James Baldwin, whose meditations on personhood seem more prescient every year (August 3, Lincoln Center).
The Budos Band is a standard bearer for the style of Daptone Records, one that described its very particular sound as “Afro-soul inspired by Ethiopian music with a soul undercurrent … and a little bit of sweet sixties stuff on top” (August 4, Staten Island). Basement Bhangra, the club night started by DJ Rekha that became a movement, is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a number of special guests, including the raucous party band Red Baraat (August 6, Central Park). The Last Poets first formed in 1968 on the occasion of Malcolm X’s birthday. For this show in their home base of Harlem, new members join co-founder Abiodun Oyewole, along with a backing band led by bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma (August 18, Marcus Garvey Park).
The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival also starts uptown, with a show featuring trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard overseeing a collaboration between his E-Collective and the Turtle Island Quartet, in which they’ll be playing numbers from a new Wayne Shorter tribute album (August 27, Marcus Garvey Park). The festival then moves down to the East Village with a diverse line-up: saxophonist Melissa Aldana, trumpeter Bria Skonberg, guitarist Pasquale Grasso, and the topper, polymorphically gifted pianist Jason Moran playing with firebrand tenor Archie Shepp (August 28, Tompkins Square Park). The summer closes out with Jazz at Lincoln Center, led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. This ensemble actually opened the SummerStage season in 2021, and their bookend performance here highlights a longstanding group that has only gotten stronger over the years. Hope springs eternal, especially in the summertime.