A Sandwich in the Storm

There’s a reason Manhattan’s Upper East Side doesn’t get much of a mention in the guide books. It’s a pretty bleak part of town. No matter the weather, up there the sky is grey and washed out; the wind whips around corners of blindingly white buildings, and pedestrians wear a mask of grim determination as they scuttle to get anywhere else. Some days it’s just gloomy; on others, it’s downright bruising. And then there’s now.

  I walked with C, west on 70th street, crossing silent, deserted avenues, making our way uncertainly, staring around in bleary disbelief. The lockdown was in full effect, the only signs of life a few exhausted hospital workers out for a desperate cigarette or a hurried bite from one of the few remaining bagel-and-coffee carts. Mealtimes, like sleep patterns, seem to have fallen by the wayside since the quarantining began. We eat and sleep whenever we feel like it, losing track of time and date. After a few blocks we realized we were both starving. This was not good. Under the new laws, restaurants could serve takeout food, but most weren’t, choosing instead to take the hit and shutter completely. The empty overpriced coffee chains offering their sad selection of apologetic pastries were somehow even less enticing than usual.

We pushed on, torturing ourselves by stopping to read the menus still plastered outside the neighbourhood’s fancier joints, when our eyes were caught by the glowing neon sign of a corner diner. We’d walked by this place countless times, always on our way somewhere, confident that it, like everything else, would always be there. We looked through the front window into a Hopper painting: a classic American diner, empty except for the proprietor standing behind the counter, towel slung over drooping shoulder, staring glumly back at us. His welcoming smile as we came in couldn’t hide the tired worry in his eyes. He motioned to the row of shiny plastic-topped stools bolted down in front of the formica counter. We took a load off and surveyed the situation: the polished surfaces of bright primary colours, the display case offering an ambitious selection of pies of various percentages; ketchup bottles and napkin dispensers; the antique milkshake machine, the stacks of chunky, off-white crockery; doughnuts on the counter, famous faces on the wall… the whole tableau enveloped in the same familiar uneasy quiet, punctured by the occasional blast of Merengue from the kitchen.

 Our host solemnly presented the appropriately mammoth menu, a greatest-hits of American diner specialties: all-day breakfast, Belgian waffles, club sandwiches, chili, chicken soup… When you slide into a booth at an American corner restaurant, you’re not looking for individuality or innovation. You don’t even want excellence. You come here when you need something flavorful and comforting. Soothing and steadying. We immediately and wordlessly settled on a hot pastrami sandwich on rye. It was the only reasonable choice under the circumstances. And a pair of beers while we waited. We chatted with our man about the current situation (who talks about anything else these days?); he told us with good humoured resignation about the scarcity of customers, and his efforts to keep the joint running. In uncertain times, places like this– neighbourhood stalwarts– supply much more than food. They provide constancy and stability, an emotional anchor in the terrifying turbulence. But the trouble is double when the one thing people need in a crisis– human interaction– is the one thing we can’t have. He clearly felt a duty to sustain his neighbours, and was doing his darnedest, but the writing was on the wall.

 Within minutes, a paper bag slid onto the counter. We chugged the rest of our beers, shared some last optimistic pleasantries, buttoned up our coats and shoved back out into the dreary street; strolled to the corner, leaned against a pole and had a picnic. 

 I’d be lying if I said it was the best pastrami sandwich I’d ever had. New York City has countless Jewish delis that wouldn’t use this thing to wipe the tables down. But at that moment, on that corner, with the world shifting beneath our feet, it was everything we wanted. The reassuring rye; the fatty, salty, smoky meat and warming mustard; the bracing vinegar and satisfying crunch of a shared pickle. In the strangest time, when New York looks and feels completely unlike New York, we had a genuine New York moment. It couldn’t have been more New York if I’d mugged her and she’d had me whacked. And then a rat had run off with our sandwich.

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5PM. Different neighbourhood, same day.

This post was suggested by C.

Hysteria, Pandemonium, and a Cast-Iron Solution

I was doing so well. A news-free world. I was oblivious to all but what was happening right in front of me. The childish bellowing of politicians, talking heads, and celebrities which make us all dumber and angrier had been silenced. Instead of opening my news apps first thing in the afternoon, I was scrolling Instagram looking at wholesome videos of bearded men cooking steaks beside a river… And then the Coronavirus came along. 

 Like people from all walks, musicians are being greatly affected by this thing. I have a tour of Italy booked for April which, as if Schroedinger was my travel agent, is simultaneously happening and not happening. It hasn’t been canceled, but taking place mostly in Italy, it surely has. But in monitoring the hysteria almost hourly, I’ve been sucked in to it.

 I’ve noticed the marauding bug comes up in every conversation, and I make no effort to change the subject, delighting in telling people of my precarious situation (nobody cares). I greet acquaintances with an elaborate curtsy instead of a handshake; I’m mentally designing a face-mask with a mouthpiece hole cut into it; agonizing over whether to order hazmat suits in pinstripe or windowpane; I’m stockpiling black truffles and Barolo in case supply lines are cut… In short, I’ve given in to the madness. 

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As of yesterday, all bars in NYC have been ordered to shut down, which means my other job of herding cats in and out of Smalls Jazz Club is on extended hiatus. A very sad turn of events, but considering basement bars in our fair city are generally humid, poorly-ventilated incubators, it’s hardly surprising- it’s a swirling mass of world-traveling, close-talking, drinking, smoking, coughing, rarely-washed humanity down there. A petri dish. It’s brilliant.

I wonder, as a horn player, if I could be considered a “super-spreader.” When we get fired up (and sorry if this is a tad graphic), it’s not just notes we’re spraying around up there. Those front few rows should be provided with some type of weatherproof poncho- it’s not a pretty business. But maybe infection of this kind depends on the fertility of the music being played- listen to a musician play with enough heart and soul, and don’t be surprised if you get a bit of lung in there. In times of pandemic pandemonium, it might be safer to seek out a more hygienic musician: a more aseptic, anemic style of player. I can suggest several…

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The band cops it too

 Gnawing uneasiness caused by hysteria and fear-mongering drove me to the kitchen. Harrowing times like these demand the steadfast solidity of cast iron and beans and ham hocks. If I had access to an open fire and a beard I would have utilized those too. Hempton’s pot of beans gets its enveloping earthy warmth from a variety of Mexican chilies- some hot, some not- found huddling up the back of my increasingly bland and expensive supermarket. They’re keeping their heads down, working hard to feed us despite the creeping gentrification. Guajillo, Ancho, Pasillo: go find them. Drink-wise, one silver lining to the Coronavirus cumulonimbus is that it has apparently stemmed our desire for Corona beer- amazing that it took a simple misunderstanding for people to stop buying that awful yellow muck. Anyway, forget beer- smoky, porky bean stew deserves red wine and so do you. And Gene Ammons on the Hi-Fi. More soon…

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Hempton’s Pot o’ Beans

Soften chunks of carrot, onion, whole garlic cloves in olive oil in a cast iron crock pot. Add a whole smoked ham hock (a big chunk of salt pork or bacon would do), soaked dried beans (probably any kind will do- I buy a mix), chicken stock (water in a pinch), fresh thyme, bay leaves, a mix of dried chillies, and simmer for a couple of hours until the beans are the way you like them, and the pork is falling off the bone. Add a couple of handfuls of kale for the last 5 minutes or so. Season and fish out the chillies, bay leaves, and thyme stalks if you can find them. Take the hock out, strip the meat off and slide the meat back in. Serve with bread or cornbread and a muscular vino.  

Throw Your Dentures in the Air and Pass the Meds– it’s the Roaring 20s!!

 It’s the first blog post of a new decade- I can only imagine you’re as excited about this momentous event as I am! If you’ve been paying attention, it’s clear the world is crumbling in a fiery heap around us, so I think the only remedy is to let our remaining hair down and party! After all, it’s the roaring 20s!

 I rang in the New Year in a swanky hotel in midtown Manhattan, surrounded by attractive young folk, and free-flowing champagne. The lights were low, the weather was warm, a night of repercussion-free debauchery seemed in order. Of course, being part of the band, or hired-help-with-benefits, I was “in” the party, but not “of” the party. But I was in my best suit, I’d put away a few sneaky white wines while the boss wasn’t looking, and I was ready to boogie! We watched a live telecast from Times Square on a giant screen, and charged our glasses as we counted down along with the maniacal plastic-faced celebrities. The big moment came, the strangely half-hearted cheers went up, and we launched into Auld Lang Syne… to the apparent mystification of all present. Instead of getting the party started, these good looking, financially secure, socially mobile young people just stood there awkwardly, checked their phones, rolled their eyes, then put their coats on and drifted off. If a three-piece jazz combo with no drums playing obscure boogaloos from the 1960s doesn’t keep these people on the dance floor, what will??

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At 12:30AM, we released the remaining patrons from the grip of our groove, packed up, and shoved off. I strolled down 7th Avenue towards the village, the night still young, and my eyes still focussing; my mind abuzz with anticipation of a night of delightfully terrible decisions. And all the way, the same event repeated itself: haughty, detached youngsters (the girls in glamorous gowns, the boys in jeans and sneakers) dribbling out of bars and clubs, silently and resignedly inserting themselves into Ubers. Maybe they were all going to wild parties where they snort stimulants off each other’s exquisitely toned body parts, before stuffing themselves obscenely with foie gras and Krug to build up the energy for the ensuing week-long orgy. But honestly, these kids had the air of going home. Now fair enough- New Year’s Eve is amateur night– maybe they do their partying the other 364 nights of the year. But I don’t think so. 

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 In the actual Roaring 20s, young people partied to celebrate newfound freedoms, while protesting against the puritanical prejudices of their prudish parents. World War 1 was done and dusted; for the first time the kids had their own culture, slang, music, and fashion and they were celebrating a bright future. With our collective shithouse going up in flames, today’s youth realize they’ll be lucky to have a future at all, and they’re responding with early nights and sound investments, leaving the grind of reckless revelry to those of us who know how to do it properly. Older and wiser, it’s my generation that needs to light the way: we have years of experience behaving disgracefully, but we don’t yet need help getting up the stairs. This decade, I vote for more tuxedos and cocktails, late nights, off-centre party hats, and general abandon. Who’s with me?!

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An Impermanent Residency

I may have just finished one of the shortest residencies in jazz history. I mean real short. I’m not complaining- it was fun- but even our current president’s managed to keep his job longer than this, and his racism is WAY less veiled than mine. VERY BAD!

Anyway, it started with my annual trip to Brooklyn (it’s far and the people look at me funny), where I was to meet up with my mate Dan. Dan lives in Sunset Park, in what I believe is the most recently adopted China Town in NYC (we have several), and where a stroll feels like walking the side streets of Hong Kong. There’s very little English spoken, there’s a hawker on every corner, and the live frogs are to die for. I was early so I ducked into a recently-opened restaurant for some cold chicken gizzards and a beer. The owner, presumably seeing the resignation etched into my pallid countenance (or the horn on my back), came running up and excitedly asked if I was a musician. I hesitated, assuming he’d want me to pay in advance, but it turned out musicians were just what he wanted!

It’s not often that a gig falls in your lap like this. Usually my strategy is to wear down the landlord with a months-long regimen of phone calls and drop-ins, until they finally succumb to my demands or seek legal advice. But here was a restaurateur who actually wanted me to play. I was most uncomfortable with this situation, but as he’d agreed to my first offer, what could I do? I called my mate Avi to play some guitar with me, and confirmed the date.

I’ve been to China a few times, and if there’s one thing the people there are largely indifferent to, it’s jazz music, so it seemed an odd choice. The room went silent as Avi and I slunk over to our assigned position: a minuscule stage- actually more of a shelf- in front of the biggest TV screen you’ve ever seen. Times Square billboards would have been green-screened with envy. And playing constantly on this behemoth was what looked like Guangzhou’s Got Talent- the IMAX Experience: giant teary-eyed Chinese teenagers emotionally belting out the kind of schlocky smooth-pop ear candy at which, as a cultured and refined artist, I look down my pince-nez; however as an underfed dive-bar honker, I happily play for the right price. We slogged through three sets of jazz standards which were received with general indifference punctuated by occasional bemusement. The boss loved it. But along with our band meal of shrimp heads and noodles came the first warning sign: “can you guys play some music like off the radio?” My first response was, “I’m Nick Hempton! Nobody could be further off the radio than me!” But it was clear our cloth-eared friend wanted current pop songs. I tried explaining that Maroon 5’s carefully constructed compositions lose some of their impact when translated to saxophone/guitar duo, but the word “timbre” had barely passed my lips when his eyes started to glaze over. I realised a return gig was in jeopardy, so I shouted, “you got it, chief!” and high-fived a passing busboy. He asked us back the following night.

This time we were prepared. While the music of *google another current pop act* is clearly beyond my purview, I can bluster my way through some Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, Bill Withers, and the like. It’s not current, but at least it’s not jazz. We busted out some of that good stuff, but astonishingly, the reaction of the young Chinese crowd was exactly the same! It was like they couldn’t tell the difference! Our man, however, was still convinced he was on to a good thing. But this time our prawn tails were served with a request for Chinese pop music. This couldn’t have been more portentous if he’d actually written it on a wall.

We were back a few nights later and, having never intended to learn any Chinese music, we served up more of the same. For some reason the crowd got right behind us this time, rewarding our efforts with an occasional glance, and even some uncertain applause. This was clearly not the desired effect, as we were left to eat our prawn shells in peace, and when we said goodnight, the boss wouldn’t meet our eyes. I knew it was over.

I called him the other day, just to say I was watching Chinese Idol and eating “our” special dish, but emotion overtook me and I choked up. I also had a wad of shrimp antennae stuck in my throat. He said he’ll keep us in mind, but I know he just doesn’t want us. I hung up and breathed a sigh of relief. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

 

 

A Stroll Through the Belly of the Beast

Recently in lower Manhattan, an astonishing new attraction/eyesore was unveiled. A massive white marble mausoleum, it’s what officials quoted in newspapers like to call a “transport hub”, which makes slightly more sense, but has vastly less terrifying supernatural impact than, its official title: THE OCULUS. Built in the hole left by the twin towers, a respectful 15 years later, it connects my beloved/behated PATH train (which sometimes runs under the Hudson river to Jersey City), with the NYC subway. Check this thing out:

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Excellent photo by Champian Fulton

Apparently designed to resemble a just-released dove, it feels much more like wandering around inside a bleached whale, which is surely a boon to lovers of biblical re-enactments, and hopefully doesn’t attract the attention of too many psychotic Ahabs. At 5PM daily, a wave of humans gushes though its gaping doors, from which New Jerseyans are filtered, like loud pushy plankton, and swallowed up by the PATH station. They are then discharged from the back of the whale and deposited in New Jersey where New Yorkers don’t have to think about them.

I’m sure the Oculus is meant to represent freedom, or liberty, or justice, or one of the other American-owned abstract concepts that make my adopted homies well up with national pride. But predictably, it’s really there to showcase that one overarching western idea: consumerism. When I first wandered through the space, none of the shops was occupied, and I very naively imagined an array of friendly welcoming independent purveyors of goods and services aimed at the commuter. I envisioned a bakery, a bookshop, maybe a fishmonger, meatmonger, Flowermonger Dude!- places useful to a working person on their way to or from work. Instead the’ve installed Hugo Boss, Kate Spade, John Varvatos, and various other high-end boutiques with people names. And of course, they’re always empty. Who’s buying a thousand-dollar suit at a train station? But I suspect the shops aren’t there to be patronised. It might be worth Hugo losing that presumably astronomical rent to have his storefront seen in such a high-profile building. At least he’ll show up in the background of a million Instagram photos each day.

It also occurred to me that putting such recognisable brands in a new and slightly intimidating building might be to reassure the populace; to soothe our panic at the sight of something weird and foreign. It’s like when I cook my family something exotic for dinner, I always include something recognisable so they don’t run and hide in my skirts. Like my celebrated Croatian Goulash with Hot Dog, or Vietnamese Pho with Oreos. This strategy has proven successful in many areas, like when Beethoven put that da-da-da-dummm thing that we all know so well into his 5th Symphony; and instead of painting just anyone, da Vinci chose Mona Lisa because he knew we’d all recognise her. Those guys had Seamless Familiarity Integration sewn up before breakfast!

I’m hoping that if this Oculus is deemed a success, it will spawn a chain of Worldwide Oculi, each more terrifying and, erm, megapterine than the last. The Oculus Down Under: It’s Humpback for More! And so on. But until then, it’s another vulgar, overblown, outsized New York speciality, and I have no choice but to tiptoe timorously through its turgid intestines every day. It’s a colossally ostentatious waste of public money, and I think it’s way cool.

 Don’t Knock the Knob Jockey

The other day I spent several hours in a tiny windowless closet. Don’t judge me- sometimes we all need a quiet place to contemplate life while lying in a shivering ball, wide-eyed and whimpering. But in this case, I was in an engineer’s studio in Midtown Manhattan, remastering the Catch and Release tracks for the upcoming CD release. And it occurred to me that we’ve never really talked about the post-recording process. Not that that’s any reason to start now. But someone’s got to cater to your insatiable appetite for sizzling new content. Begin.

 The first step after recording a tune is picking a take. Usually when recording an album, we’ll play each tune two or three times, then move on. But because we had all afternoon for each tune, we usually did five or six. Then I had to pick the best one. Now I don’t have children, but I imagine this process is akin to picking which one of your offspring you dislike the least. Actually, I find the whole listening-back process to be pretty unpleasant- it’s kind of like rubbing your dog’s nose in its own poo. But it’s got to be done, and eventually you settle on your favourite pooey child.   

 Then comes mixing. This is fairly mystifying to me, but it seems to involve manipulating the sound of each instrument within the recording, to try to recreate a real live performance. A saxophone played directly into a microphone doesn’t really sound anything like a saxophone aimed at your head from the stage of a jazz club. So we have to fiddle with it. Different frequencies are toyed with, and effects are added to mimic the sound bouncing off walls and people. Then we fix the levels: bass softer here, drums a bit lower here, saxophone louder here. And here. And in this bit. And I think that’s mixing: getting the instrument sounds, the “room” sounds, and making sure the saxophone is loud enough. 

  

 The mastering process is even more mysterious to me, and I have to confess I’ve dropped off in more than one mastering session. But basically, this is the last step in the process before the album goes to print. Some jiggling is done with overall sound, beginnings and ends of the tracks are tidied up, appropriate spaces are wedged between tunes, and the whole mess is sent to the printers. 

 I have great respect for the folks who devote themselves to this discipline. They sit for hours on end in an airless box, with an intensity of focus which I can’t maintain for more than a few minutes. I try. Really I do. I talk in really abstract terms involving colours and depths and weights. I watch for when the engineer twiddles a knob, and I say Hm or Yeah. I even invested in a pair of those glasses with the open eyes painted on the lenses so they can’t tell I’ve drifted off. That’s how much I care. And when people ask me who did the mixing, I tell them, and then add that I was there. I was involved. I was putting in. A lot of people snore when they’re concentrating.

 Anyway, next time you’re listening to an album, take a second to notice the “sound”. Somebody made that. 

 Righto, more soon. Cheers, Nick

Afternoon Has Broken, Also Brain: The Price of the Jazz Life

Firstly let me apologise if this post descends into indecipherable drivel. But that’s my writing style, and it’s got me where I am today. Aside from that, I just read a disturbing article informing me that my late-night lifestyle is making me sick and stupid; my ability to form coherent sentences is diminishing, and my days of comprehending simple arithmetic may be numbered. I don’t even understand that last bit!

I spend most of my nights in jazz clubs, and have done so since I was in my late teens. Back in Australia, this wasn’t so bad, as the action would generally wind up by midnight or 1AM (we all had to be up early to feed the wombats). Then I came to New York. On my first trip here in 1996, Smalls Jazz Club was open until 8AM, and often later. I’d get my arse handed to me at the jam session, go to a diner to berate myself over breakfast, and be in bed by noon. These days, I’m older and wiser, and am tucked up by 6AM.

Inaccurate band T-shirt from my youth

Conventional wisdom says that we eventually adapt to a change in sleep patterns; that if we keep our hours regular, and turn in at the same time every day, the sleep will be just as beneficial. I even dimly recall reading articles that claimed our most creative work is done after midnight. But recent studies refute all this, and moreover, suggest that staying up all night and sleeping all day, while undeniably awesome, has some pretty serious downsides, namely type-two diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and a “significantly shorter lifespan”. Additionally, these studies show that, “the brains of workers who’d done 10 years of night shifts had aged by an extra 6 1/2 years- they couldn’t remember as much or think so quickly.” And at 4AM, apparently my ability to think is the same as if I was drunk. Of course, I wouldn’t know what that’s like, but it sounds serious and fun.

Anyway, I thought I’d prove all these so-called experts wrong by doing a bit of investigative googling and coming up with some brainy achievers who share my habits. Unfortunately, many people known as “night owls” (Freud, Churchill, Tolstoy, Mozart, Nabokov, Obama, etc) are nodding off at a relatively respectable 1AM. For real day-sleepers, here’s what I came up with: pianist and hypochondriac fusspot Glenn Gould; gloomy ponderers Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust; literary lunatic Hunter S Thompson (check out his insane daily routine), and maniacal dingbats Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler. The only glimmer of hope is Rolling Stones madman Keith Richards, and it’s looking more and more like he’s not actually human. I’m not in healthy, well-adjusted company.

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The most frustrating part of these reports is that they offer no solution other than doing what every minuscule fibre of my body is desperately pleading with me to do. I want to hear that I can reverse the negative effects of my boogie-loving lifestyle by, I don’t know, eating carrots? Finishing the occasional cryptic crossword? Curbing my consumption of the blood of comely young virgins? But no. It seems I’ll have to resign myself to incremental idiocy and an early demise.

Are you an all-nighter? Someone you know? Want to cheer me up with tales of healthy, alert, intelligent, productive, long-living nocturnalists? Use the comments box below, but not too many big words please. Anyway, got to go- it’s nearly midnight and lunch isn’t going to make itself.

Righto, more soon. Cheers, Nick

A Big Finish: Tune #8 in Pictures

We made it! The last tune in the Catch and Release series is in the can! It’ll be up online next week, and I’ll put up a video outlining the tune tomorrow. But in the meantime, check out some pics from the session (as always, thanks to the brilliant and talented Una)! And we can reveal our special guest for the big finale: the great Jerry Weldon!!

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Hempton Band in Arty Noir Masterpiece!

It’s been action central here at Catch and Release HQ, which should really mean lots of posts on this blog. Unfortunately most of the goings-on are unsuitable for broadcast. So instead we bring you BY FAR the coolest video we’ve ever been a part of.

Our resident videographer, the all-around awesome Una, growing tired of my ham-fisted attempts at music videos, took the tune and her footage from the session, and whipped up this arty little ripper. Thanks Una! Hope you dig it…

Like the tune? Buy it for a buck on iTunes: Catch Up

or Amazon: Catch Up

An Internet First: Cat Pictures!!

Tune #7 went down a couple of weeks ago, and as usual, the fabulous Una was on the scene, trusty camera in hand, to show why music is not a visual medium. But Minnow the cat’s a looker isn’t she??

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