For the past six years I’ve been playing regularly in the Loston Harris Trio. I started subbing in the band at Bemelman’s bar at the Carlyle Hotel and then doing most of the band’s road work and finally becoming the regular saxophonist about three years ago. I’m surprised that even though I play about 80 gigs a year with Loston,many people with whom I interact often aren’t aware of this trio or our regular venue – Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle Hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Here’s the low-down:
Loston is brilliant. As a pianist he is exceptional – Early in his career he toured and recorded with Wynton Marsalis. On our instrumental selections he plays with fire and technical facility that would rival any pianist. As a vocalist he is sublime with a deep affinity for Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. He deals with the nuance of lyrics and standard repertoire with a professionalism and ease that makes him one of the brightest stars of jazz and the American Songbook.
The gig at Bemelman’s Bar is magical. Named in honor of Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of the classic Madeline children’s books, the club features his artwork on the walls and even on the lampshades at your table. We play jazz. We play some instrumental tunes every set from Thelonious Monk, Benny Golson, Dave Brubeck and many others. The vocal selections also can have long solo sections where we stretch and “work it out” on the gig. We’re set up in the middle of the room where we are part of the crowd. The crowd is part of the atmosphere. Movie stars, musical celebrities, political figures show up with great regularity. By no stretch is this a “listening” room, but every night we “win” the room by turning the boisterous crowd into an appreciative audience. It feels like a throwback to the 1930’s with an adoring crowd cheering, shouting, and having great merriment.
This is a musically demanding situation. I’ve learned more from this gig than any other gig or situation in my life. Playing night after night, learning the ins and outs of so much amazing repertoire with two inventive intelligent, enthusiastic band mates (the great Gianluca Renzi plays bass!) has caused me to dig deeper and hear more music than I ever thought I would at this advanced stage of my career. There is no teacher like a nightly gig. Playing at Bemelman’s 3, 4, or 5 nights a week for two and a half months twice a year has been a revelation.
It’s not cheap. There is a $25 cover weeknights and $35 on the weekends ($15 at the bar) and the drinks are expensive. But I feel every music fan needs to see this place at least once to see music in close proximity to a real engaged crowd.