On the same street where tourists place their hands in cement impressions and high cuisine takes the form of a Hard Rock Café, hard bop jazz drummer Art Blakey is getting his due.
It’s a Wednesday night at The Spare Room, the second-floor hideaway at the Roosevelt Hotel, and the jazz duo Mattson 2, along with an assist from drummer Johnny Herndon, are rolling through their version of “Ping Pong,” the Wayne Shorter-composed bop classic. The three women who ran towards the makeshift dance floor in front of guitarist Jared Mattson at the beginning of the set have gone for additional liquid refreshment elsewhere, and a respectful crowd nods along in time, forming a semi-circle around the combo. Unlike at many venues, those watching the band seem to be actually listening, and not conversing with neighbors; somehow, even the percussive sounds from The Spare Room’s bowling lanes seem to fade, rather than distract.
This is Jazzilla, a monthly residency that combines the history of jazz with its evolutionary progeny—and throws in specialty cocktails and a sexy lounge vibe for good measure.
“We wanted to create an environment where people could come who like jazz but maybe don’t know as much and can just enjoy it,” Jared said before the evening started. “As a listener and a jazz lover, I haven’t been to as many places where there’s a jazz residency and a really honed, aesthetically-cool environment to expand what jazz means.”
The Mattson twins—Jonathan keeps rhythm behind the drums—brought the idea to the owners of the Spare Room in the fall of 2014, after a successful show at the Roosevelt’s second floor lounge. On October 15, 2014, the first Jazzilla paid tribute to saxophonist and pianist Eddie Harris, with a video loop of Harris created by the Brooklyn visual artists of Studio ZOO in the background and the songs interpreted through the lens of drum and guitar. The result: The birth of an open-ended residency, one that combines a very modern jazz group with its influences.
“We realized the Mattson 2 had the perfect balance of talent and youth, and had an extreme amount of respect for the artists that are responsible for the Jazz Age,” Marc Rose and Med Abrous, the owners of The Spare Room, said via email. “Their dedication to honoring the musicians they love, and ability to find innovative ways to attract new fans to this genre was intriguing to us.”
Jared and Jonathan Mattson have more than a respect for their jazz forefathers. The duo studied Jazz and the African Diaspora at UC San Diego and earned Masters Degrees from UC Irvine in Integrated Composition, Improvisation and Techonology. They’ve toured the world, performing in South America, Europe and Asia, and most recently released “Agar,” a full-length album that saw the duo collaborating with Farmer Dave Scher, who has played with everyone from Interpol to Jenny Lewis.
That combination of sounds—the modern flourishes, the historical knowledge, the respect for elders—creates an hour-long set that is both current and timeless. On this night, it seems like Jonathan is in the role of the respectful student, thanks to the subject: It’s obvious that the Mattson drummer has taken a lesson or two from the hard-bop sound of Blakey. It leaves Jared open to play freely, as well, like during a modified version of “Free For All,” another Shorter-authored Jazz Messengers track.
DJs spin jazz classics and rarities both before and after the twins take the makeshift stage next to The Spare Room’s bar. The bartenders create monthly libations inspired by the great being feted: In March, the cocktail du jour was the Ping Pong, a mix of rum, lime, pineapple, Pavan and blue curacao, and named after the aforementioned Blakey track. The video screens play new visuals from Studio ZOO. It’s less a concert, or even a residency, and more of a full evening out, themed toward jazz fans—and those who could be.
“As a listener and a jazz lover, I haven’t been to as many places where there’s a jazz residency and a really honed, aesthetically-cool environment to really expand what jazz means,” Jared said. “We wanted to create an environment where people could come who like jazz but maybe don’t know as much and can just enjoy it.”
Jazzilla returns to The Spare Room on April 22.