The shrieking of horns fills the dusty and smoky cellar flanked by brick walls, as too-cool-for-school spectators sit and watch, snapping their fingers, emitting “yeah’s” and guttural noises from their throats. It was all too familiar a scene. And yet onstage was a different sort of band—not old black men with long beards and funky hats, but high school students. Such was the setting for Slum Searching’s second concert at the Cornelia Street Café on Friday, January 15.
Slum Searching is a jazz music collective made up of Stuyvesant Alumni Benjamin Hirsch (’09) on trumpet, Allen Kramer (’09) on guitar and Natan Last (’08) on drums and percussion, current Stuyvesant students senior Andrew Chow on piano and junior Huei Lin on saxophone and LaGuardia junior Ruben Sonz-Barnes on the upright bass.
The band’s name is, appropriately, an anagram of the late jazz bassist Charles Mingus, generated by word whiz Last. They played two of Mingus’ compositions during their set.
“Slum Searching is an incredibly talented group of musicians. Although we all have a strong jazz background, our influences vary greatly, from Parker’s bebop to Derek Trucks to Stevie Wonder,” Chow said.
Hirsch, whose father owns the Cornelia Street Café, formed the band to get a graduation concert together at the club last year. However, the band’s experience playing together stretches back even further. All the musicians had played with each other at some point during various concerts, particularly as part of the Stuyvesant Composers Forum. “We jammed together,” Chow said. “[We] felt we had the right chemistry.”
The Cornelia Street concert was the reunion of the band members, back with a vengeance from their respective colleges. What ensued was music that transcended time, and that swung as hard as anything.
The improved chops of each of the players gave the music a hotter flavor, and yet the song selection was more on the mellow side. The band was less histrionic, and more melodic. Rhythmic interaction was particularly evident in Mingus’ gorgeous tune “Self Portrait in Three Colors.”
Hirsch’s bebop chops and fast chromatic lines were staggering in technique, and his tone was fat with sound, filling up the air in the club like a massive balloon.
Lin’s sound had a certain breathiness to it, bringing to mind the late Stan Getz or Cannonball Adderly. His tone lent itself perfectly to his bluesy cadences and avant-garde wailings, particularly on the Wayne Shorter composition, “Witch Hunt.”
Kramer, while playing as bluesy as ever, added to his arsenal of guitar weapons the bottleneck slide, which slithered tastefully over Lin’s Derek-Trucksesque composition “Agenda.”
Chow’s piano playing sounded ethereal and spacey, allowing the sound of the piano and his interesting chord voicings to speak for themselves. This was particularly evident in the gorgeous introduction to the Chick Corea composition, “Spain,” where Latin and Modern Classical influences permeated his improvisation.
Most notably, Last integrated a number of hip hop influences, possibly inspired by Questlove of the Roots, into his playing. His energetic but relaxed grooves soared over the music, particularly on the Freddie Hubbard composition, “Red Clay.”
Of course there were moments when the players’ juvenility showed. Hirsch sometimes got a little carried away with his solos, making the volume of his performance an issue, and Last’s fills sometimes landed in the wrong place, leaving the band off beat for a moment or so.
But overall, these are minor quips with what was a great performance. What was most noticeable was the personality and fire that each player left on the stage that night, and the impressive level of interaction between the musicians. The original compositions and the funkiness of the band left the crowd dancing in the aisles and clapping their hands with enthusiasm.
When the night was over, listeners left with the sound of horns ringing in their ears as they walked into the night, and onto the cobblestone streets and bright lights of Greenwich Village.