Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Jazz Club at Schwartz's Point in Cincinnati by Molly McArthur

What you may not know:
- On a commercial artery of Over-The-Rhine, you'll step into a jazz room evoking 1950's Paris - but lushly plopped into modern Cincy.
- Go on a Tuesday if you want dinner and an 8-piece jazz orchestra for $10.  A buffet spread is included in the price.
- Cash only; drinks run from $3 to $8. Pours are on the right side of generous - you'll get your money's worth.
- Park on Vine and enjoy the crowd on the sidewalk between music sets outside the club entrance.  Expect passers-by to ask: "Is there really a jazz club in there?"
- The answer: Step up from the street past its threshold, and you'll see a home of jazz that's the real deal.
How to get there:
- Anywhere in the city: head up
Vine St.
to 1901 Vine.
- From University of Cincinnati/Clifton/CUF/Mt. Auburn: roll down the hill 1.5 miles on Vine.
- From the West/North: Take I-75 South to the city/
7th Street
exit. Head into city, turn left on Vine.
- From the East/North: Take I-71 South to the Reading Rd. exit / Make a right at the Staples (you are now on Liberty St.). Turn right onto Vine.
1901 Vine St.
(at McMicken)
Cincinnati, OH 45202
(513) 651-2236
What to expect if you go:
- It's casual and relaxing. The crowd is diverse and friendly - you'll meet in-the-know OTR residents, suburbanites, musicians, out-of-towners and foreign music fans; a very welcoming environment all around.
- Voted the "Best Hidden Hangout" in 2009 by voters for Cincinnati City Beat, it seats 35-40 in a peaceful, intimate bohemian decor.
- Reservations aren't necessary; most tables seat three (four in a pinch) but a couple of tables can seat eight.
- Call for scheduling info; Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays the club is always open, but will add Wednesday and Thursday gigs on an irregular basis- and these are excellent jazz impressions. - $5 cover on Fridays and Saturdays
Cool musical moments to catch:
- Kathy Wade, acclaimed vocalist on Friday nights, grooving into midpoint of her first set; - Tuesdays, the 9-piece Society Jazz Orchestra, kicking up the swing on Ellington charts; - Jazz cabaret on some Saturday nights, when capable audience members are invited to share the mic with silky smooth vocalist (and regular Saturday night performer) Pam Ross - and this reviewer has heard some amazing stuff from the club's musical audience (incl. duets with Ross) from such gems as NYC-bound CCM phenom Mia Gentile.
Relative Scorecard:
+4  major romantic date setting - intimate, genuine, and original - not contrived
+1  very friendly, unobtrusive wait staff
+1  food (Tuesdays) and generous drinks - free quality snacks at each table on any night
+3  for being the real deal; you'll know it within 10 minutes of the piano keys being struck
+2  relaxing - this quality of the club deserves a stand apart mention
+1  for providing a special table near back of club for overt conversation
-1  neighborhood awaiting OTR breakthrough happening elsewhere
-1  more billings needed to diversify musical offerings
-1  disconnected media message; more digital outreach available to be tapped in social media
The sign on the door under the green lantern lights says "Live Jazz", but the spirit of this place is "live" (the verb) jazz.  If you haven't visited before, throw out notions of stuffy exclusivity.  This is that genial Cincinnati attitude of note, and the proprietors bring an easy charm and certain care to creating an inviting place with some great music performance.  You'll go away understanding that jazz does really live there.  Upstairs and downstairs.

On the first floor of a peculiar wedge-shaped building with a partial cobblestone facade, up
Vine St.
from the city center and bearing a large building clock heralding its name, legendary Cincinnati pianist Ed Moss hosts a special jazz scene in a comfortable room skirted with hanging Turkish rugs and paintings.  Velvet drapery and triangle-shaped tables provide harbor; the bar is one appropriated from the original Blue Wisp location.  At the piano bench is a barely-disguised musical perfectionist who has attracted around him a set of substantial players to lean on and several decades of orchestral composition and piano jazz performance.  Welcome to his living room.  Moss resides upstairs and opens the door to us on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday evenings. (Call ahead for info on special seasonal Wednesday and Thursday nights, as well as Friday happy hour events.)

It's a just-right ambiance for listening and relaxing, and springs from many years of private jazz gatherings held in the same building.  That heritage carries with it a few
local myths, new and old, worth consideration.  No, you would have to work extra hard to actually get 'shushed' at your table.  (On the other hand, if you are trying to be the
look-at-me person at your table in this intimate space, you will succeed.)  No, sets do not last upwards of 100 minutes. (In attending several nights over 3 months, this reviewer found 40-50 minutes to be the consistent mark.)  Yes, poured drinks really are stiff.  Yes, many of the newest OTR residents - that involved professional set - are walking several blocks to spend an evening there.  (Are the two previous statements related?)  This reviewer met lots of them ... around 30 of them ... or was it 50??  Good drinks ease the soul but challenge the memory.

But the music: here you also will find accomplished artists - musicians with something to say. Kathy Wade (Fridays) stuns the audience (and sometimes, Ed Moss, too) into holding their own breath to hear her wind down a quiet melody with sustained pitch perfection.  She is always a vibrant and exciting performer.  Wade deems these peaceful caps to her work week as her "therapy", and certainly when her muse is on full blast, you'll be serenaded to the same conclusion for your week, too.  Her singing has been welcomed in several corners of the globe, and it's a delight for Cincinnati to be able to catch Wade most Fridays here.  It's not the Kennedy Center (she's performed there, too) but who would complain when you and just 30 other people can hear this at a handshake's distance in front of you?

Saturday evenings brings Pam Ross to the front, a longtime accompaniment to Moss' circle of music making.  Pam Ross is a tight jazz vocalist with an intent and smooth style, who can trade off with Moss in brief dictum to establish the exact touch she wants on a given tune in terms of style and moment, evidence of their long musical partnership.  She also possesses a demeanor which can fool one into feeling she might be quite demure; but then will punch through with creative humor projected towards the audience as she gets warmed into the night's performance.  On some Saturday 'jazz cabaret' nights, visiting singers are welcomed to share the mic with her.  (And here we admit to sad eyes for the briefest flash of time when the visual spotlight switches momentarily away from the beautiful Ross, but she graciously shares her stage, guiding along song and performer with sure countenance, and sometimes in shining duets with the guest performer.)

Both Friday and Saturday nights see other talented instrumentalists join on to accent the rhythm laid down by Moss or to highlight the melody line.  Longtime Cincinnati woodwind player Gene Marquis often provides gorgeous accompaniment on soprano sax, with particularly strong ballad work by him.

Tuesday nights at Schwartz's Point are not quite like any other jazz experience to be found in the tri-state area.  At 7:30 the crowd will start arriving to partake of a spread of delicious food that Ed Moss conjures.  No potato chips here.  Fragrant lamb meatballs, various dolmadakia, or a rich pasta is likely to be your first guidepost along a lengthy spread lined with other entrees, savory vegetable treatments, meaty soups, salad, and decent breads and desserts.  There is a $10 cover on Tuesdays but that will get you food all night long and the bop of the Society Jazz Orchestra (SJO) until midnight.  This 8-piece band charms you (and sometimes charges you up) with charts by Moss and standards by big band greats.  This ensemble often sounds very good and on occasion they are simply fantastic.  Moss' compositions blend complex bridges with plenty of room for long solo works by a cadre of experienced performers.  The man at the piano is obviously intent on a certain perfection of sound, but he lets loose to direct the group more by persuasion than precision.  That's also a tribute to just how long Moss' SJO has been at it - since 1978.

Recent off-cycle engagements [Wednesday nights in October 2011] included the Mike Wade Quartet, featuring this brilliant trumpeter and Melvin Broach on drums.  This was tight, expressive, and impressive jazz - the small environment of Schwartz's Point lends to a genuine sync between audience and performer - and encourages the soloist to 'Say It Now' when the tune turns their direction.  Mike Wade is a great example of special offerings that Schwartz's Point can consider in potentially expanding the scene.  Another lies up the street at CCM, which has been turning out some boggling young jazz artists of late, deep talents with their own entourage about town. 

Jazz at Schwartz's Point, like any establishment, can look for opportunities to improve the experience.  A list of critiques, though, would flirt with the border of being trite.  Tuesday orchestra performances for the dinner set should get started promptly at 8:30.  A microphone/stage equipment foible might be present on this week but should not be found the next week.  Outreach to the Internet audience should be more vigorous - one can find on the Net many trails of smart phone users who, no doubt stunned when they have first entered the place, snap away photos of the unique lamps and of the scene inside the club and who try to "check in" on FaceBook during their visit, but there is no central place yet for this kind of synergy with attendees. 

Also, the delicious mixed free snacks present on any night at each table should include more of the cheddar-covered pretzel bits.  This reviewer really likes the cheddar-covered pretzel bits.  Yes, that's how somewhat unserious one can be in finding fault with the delight that is Schwartz's Point.  The club is an uber-relaxing spot to enjoy quality jazz, and as one couple attending told me recently, referring to the club's ownership, "It's sort of their spot, but it's really our spot, too.  We felt that way the very first time we came here."  The bet is that once you have tried it, you'll feel the same, and you'll go back to feel it again.