A brassy melody spilled out into the Ninth Square. Inside the 9th Note restaurant and nightclub, lone men in suits nursed their drinks by the bar. A young couple played eight-ball on a red-felted pool table. Friends ate steak and traded jokes. No matter the patrons’ disposition, heads had to perk up whenever a daring riff came from the man with the trombone — Steve Davis, a bebop virtuoso.
Two blocks away, at the new Lucky Chao restaurant on Temple Street, another Connecticut jazz stalwart held court. Plucking his guitar strings with aplomb, Morris Trent led his band, and his audience, to musical bliss.
It was Friday night, and jazz was on the schedule. It has become more of a regular part of downtown’s weekend nightlife, thanks in part to these two new Roaring Twenties-themed clubs.
Jazz has been blowing all over downtown this month. This Saturday the New Haven Jazz Festival has its second of three concerts on the Green; the festival has sparked 26 other gigs at area clubs. Meanwhile, the two new downtown nightspots — one which opened in March, the other three weeks ago — have added to the regular scene by making jazz a permanent theme of their weekend schedules.
Under The Spell
With cerulean flappers adorning its walls, a cocktail menu inspired by Prohibition-era concoctions and an intimate atmosphere, The 9th Note brings to mind a lush and cozy bootlegger’s parlor. You can imagine a character like Bix Beiderbecke sitting on a stool, polishing his cornet as he prepares for an encore.
Ever since its grand opening a little over four months ago, the spot appears to have morphed into a full-time jazz club. Musicians and customers alike contact the restaurant to inquire about arranging or attending performances.
“The floodgates have opened,” owner Christopher O’Dowd said. “People find us now.”
Other area clubs — like the Owl Shoppe and Cafe Nine — have jazz nights. Jazz is the menu four nights a week at the 9th Note. And Steve Davis was a tall drink of water for jazz enthusiasts at Friday night’s performance.
Davis accompanied the Uri Shaham Trio, a band led by Shaham himself on the piano. It was their first time performing together. Both Dowd and Shaham, on their own accord, described Davis as a jazz “monster.”
Bathed in shades of crimson and fuchsia, the four players — a trombonist, a drummer, a pianist and a bassist — made the room their domain. (Click on the video at the top of the story to see a snippet of the show.)
They blazed through a series of jazz standards from “Blue Monk” to “Peace Piece,” from “In A Sentimental Mood” to “St. Thomas.” The corner of their eyes, at times, betrayed an impulse to sneak in an extra riff or burst of fanfare.
Drummer Justin Ottaviano (pictured) seemed to be in a trance as he stroked the drumheads with his brush. Vocalist Shane Coverdale, in her riveting guest performance of “Fly Me To The Moon,” rode her notes with grace like a dragonfly gliding over lily pads.
Lines were blurred: Were they playing for an audience or paying to tribute to the unseen muse in the heavens who governs their musical compass? It didn’t matter. Their zeal grew ever more contagious.
Inching closer to a stroller, Davis improvised a lullaby for a sleeping baby. He then returned to his spot behind the microphone and blew a kiss to a little girl in a dress.
The kids, it turned out, were Shaham’s children, sitting and dining in the audience with his parents. They quietly admired the show. This crowd, both old and young, was bewitched from the get-go.
“The place is elegant, but it’s not stuffy,” Davis said. “You get the feeling you can just draw passersby into the club.”
Something For Everyone
Over at the Lucky Chao at Temple and Crown, it was a more casual affair.
The setting had nothing to do with it. The space was palatial. Its geometric wall details and its black-and-white light fixture, gargantuan and spinning overhead, gave the impression that Jay Gatsby would reveal himself as the party’s host at any given moment.
The Morris Trent Band thrived in all manners of improvisation. The evening was a potpourri of genre: pop, jazz, blues. Trent, wearing sunglasses indoors, would make the rounds, checking in with patrons and striking up conversation.
“We want to have something for everyone,” he said when he approached my table. “I try to make people feel comfortable.”
The restaurant co-owner and general manager, Steve Garrett, said he started out with having jazz on Fridays and Saturday nights, with a “funky” feel; this coming Saturday, for instance, local bassist Jeff Fuller’s band will lead an evening of Brazilian Samaleza. Garrett said that next week he will add more traditional jazz to the menu every Thursday night, and he plans to continue the three-night jazz schedule indefinitely into the future.
The Morris Trent Band’s own instrumental arrangement — electric guitar, electric bass, saxophone, drums — allowed the musicians to exploit a more adaptable sound. Guest vocalists, taking the stage in turns, harnessed that versatility.
Performing her own original song “What Will It Take,” Lisa Bellamy Fluker showcased full dominion over her pipes, fluctuating from whispers to bouts of crescendo.
“We need each other to survive,” she warbled at the end of her ditty, a soulful ode to “the way things used to be.”
Ebony Miller, a songbird with a mellifluous voice, infused a sultry R&B flavor to last Friday night’s performance. Digging deeper into each consecutive “I know” in “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” Miller threw the song’s latent desperation into great relief. (Click the video above for the full performance.)
The real showstopper came like an unexpected uppercut, as Barry Reeves, the band’s drummer, gave everyone a master class in improvisation.
A pony-tailed wizard, Reeves led his sticks down a meandering trip around his drum set, hitting the chrome rims, stems and legs for effect. He jammed using his cocktail glasses, and playfully tilted a half-empty Pilsner glass as he tapped it, searching for different sounds.
Reeves and Trent guided the band through seamless changes in rhythm for the remainder of the night, from mellow, rock-a-billy cadences to jollier, uptempo tunes.
As they played on, a couple of gals on the town began to bob their heads to the music, as they passed by the restaurant windows. The women stopped and smiled, as one is wont to do when stumbling across music one enjoys, and then continued walking to their destination.