Jersey City Spring – Thursday, April 26 (Madame Claude Bis)
When I first arrived in Jersey City in the early ‘00s, I was welcomed with a bit of advice. Everyone agreed I had to try the new French café. Its presence in the western part of the Downtown – far from the waterfront – was a sign of neighborhood transformation. Plus the crepes were really good. Go, I was told. You’ll feel like you’re in Paris.
I’d never been to Paris. But Mattias Gustafsson, who’d opened Madame Claude with his wife Alice, sure had. He was, in accent and affect, pleasantly European. His place did not remind me of the Old World. Instead, it seemed like Hudson County at its scrappiest: modest, approachable, unplanned, casually multi-ethnic, cramped and low-ceilinged and quirkily warm. This, I felt, was an expression of an idiosyncratic personality that wasn’t grounded in any particular ethnic experience. I’d been to Madame Claude a few times before I learned that Gustafsson was also a musician – a guitar player, songwriter, and producer who’d worked with, among others, the Backstreet Boys.
By the time Gustafsson was ready to leave the old space behind, everybody in Downtown Jersey City knew he was a musician. He’d turned Madame Claude into the incubator for a new project: a French gypsy-jazz act called Manouche Bag (off-color joke intended). Tuesdays and Thursdays at the restaurant became rambunctious manouche nights. Some of the best jazz players in town pitched in. The space at the corner of Fourth and Brunswick wasn’t exactly designed to accommodate jazz combos, but that didn’t matter at all to these guys: they squeezed in by the front window, stashed gear in the corner, and let the music spill out. If a sax was blowing in your ear while you were having your crepe, well, that was all part of the experience. I certainly never heard anybody complain.
The little lot where the original Madame Claude stood is barren now. Tonight it’s nothing but bricks, ringed by a fence with a Norman Kirby cloth weave through its chain links. But the restaurant – and Manouche Bag – didn’t go far. The room has been reborn, right across Newark Avenue and down Fourth a bit, tucked in the rear of White Eagle Hall, its entrance marked out by fairy lights. Because it doesn’t front the main street — and because it’s on a road that isn’t often travelled — Madame Claude Bis does have a speakeasy feel, especially when the gypsy jazz is playing. And play it does, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, same as it used to.
A few things are different. Gustafsson bent the first Madame Claude to his musical purposes; Madame Claude Bis, with P.A. speakers high on brick walls and good sightlines for patrons who’d like to watch these guys solo, was made with Manouche Bag in mind. Among other things – this is still principally a restaurant, with its menu scrawled in chalk on a big blackboard that hangs over a modern-looking kitchen. There’s no stage, no spotlights, and there’s still not much separation between the band and the tables. Bryan Beninghove may still toot directly at you.
But all of that is central to the Manouche Bag operation as I understand it, and I am very glad they’ve preserved the intimacy, even as they’ve moved to a much larger and prettier space. Catching Manouche Bag remains a casual experience: you go inside, you sit at the bar (there’s a bar now; the old one was BYOB) or at a table, you listen to jazz, you put your tips for the band in a bucket and you leave whenever you want to. It’s so friendly and pleasant that it’s easy to miss how seriously these musicians take gypsy jazz. Manouche Bag is, above all, a really good show – a quintessential Jersey City evening out. It’s not quite Preservation Hall. But it isn’t as far from it as you’d think. This band has become part of the peculiar personality of the Downtown, and if you’re serious about local public culture, their set is something you’ll want to catch at least once.
The first thing I notice as I take my seat is that local folk-rock singer-songwriter Sean Kiely is, at least for tonight, in Manouche Bag. He’s even got the special D-hole guitar with its funny, elongated central eye, that serious practitioners of manouche like to use. This makes a kind of tactical sense: Kiely plays with Beninghove in his Hangmen, so he’s part of the saxman’s crew – and Beninghove, who is an extremely personable gremlin, likes to draw people into in his projects. On the other hand: whoa, this style of music is not easy. In addition to the solo sections, manouche jazz songs have dozens of changes in them; what’s more, they’re sung in a language that I don’t believe Kiely speaks. Nevertheless, he plays them all without missing a chord or a beat, contributes backing vocals on the choruses, and even takes a few leads of his own. I’ve called Kiely an outstanding acoustic guitarist a few times, but I wasn’t prepared for this.
As for Beninghove and bassist Brian Glassman, they look like they’ve been here forever, which in a sense they have: I’ll wager Gustafsson imagined their stations in the performance area the minute he checked out the space. Glassman has elbow room to bow his standing bass on occasion, which wasn’t exactly an issue at the old restaurant, but I sometimes did wonder if he had to stand in some traffic jams on the way in and out. Beninghove pairs the organic warmth of his saxophone and melodica with a MIDI synthesizer hooked up to the sound system, and he makes the most of the arrangement, occasionally playing lead lines on his wind instrument with one hand while decorating the song with synth-xylophone with the other. His solos are lively, playful, responsive, humorous; he likes to throw quotes from other songs into his leads and keep the diners on their toes with left turns. Jazz, to Beninghove, is silly putty, to be stretched and kneaded and manipulated for kicks, sometimes to be pressed up against other objects and peeled away, leaving an impression, or words written backward, daring to be deciphered.
But the highlight of the show, as always, is Gustafsson himself. It’s his place, and his band, and his tradition, and by now he knows exactly how to inhabit it. He’s been self-deprecating about his voice – he’s implied that he gets away with plenty because he’s singing in French, which could be true. But as any fan of cinema knows, as long as you’re rooting for the hero, getaways are always good for a cheer. I think Gustafsson’s voice suits the material perfectly, but then I do always prefer a conversational delivery. Song performance is, above all, a way to foreground personality, and even if you can’t catch all the words, you will come away from Manouche Bay with a picture of Gustafsson the guy: magnanimous, curious, urbane strategically aware, a little sly. Plus, he teaches me things. For instance, until I heard Manouche Bag, I didn’t know that it was possible to simulate the sound of classic ‘60s electric guitar distortion by playing a lead line on an acoustic and doubling it on a kazoo. Once again, he reminded me.
In the set break, I learn more. Kiely is just filling in for the night, but he’s become a frequent sub; this isn’t the first time he’s been part of this crew. He’s also been playing bluegrass at the Archer on Newark Ave. every Wednesday night with a different combo altogether. He’s got dimensions; there’s a lot going on behind that beard. Beninghove’s annual Riverview Jazz Festival kicks off on June 1 and runs through June 8. I’ve got to imagine this one is going to be the biggest one he’s ever done. There are more places to play, more game musicians, more awareness that there’s something budding.
Most importantly, I learn that Gustafsson is pleased with the move. I admit I’d been a little worried about it – I didn’t want the spirit of Madame Claude to get crushed beneath the sheer bigness of White Eagle Hall. It hasn’t, not at all; if anything, it’s expanded to fit the dimensions of the new digs, and maybe even dirtied up what I’ve sometimes found to be a too-pristine renovation. White Eagle Hall, as everybody in Jersey City knows, didn’t exactly open on schedule, and Gustafsson, had to have had a few sleepless nights about it. But here he is, guitar in hand, running through his old favorites in a pretty new spot that merits a comparison to the drop-dead gorgeous Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore. It’s a step up, and he knows it.
In a boomtown, there’s always a lot of talk about success – what it looks like, how to get it, who has it and who doesn’t. Most of the popular models have always felt a little hollow to me. Yet it occurs to me that if you can play the music you want to play – in public, twice a week, surrounded by friends in a beautiful room, in your own fine restaurant with a menu you’ve created – that’s about as sweet an outcome as any I can imagine. Mattias Gustafsson had his own peculiar tastes, proclivities, and choices ratified by the community he lives in. He rolled the dice on this town and he was rewarded. It speaks well of Jersey City that a story like that can be told here.
Tris McCall is a stalwart of Jersey City music, it’s scene and the artistic culture. In this new series, he’ll be covering the emotions and, more importantly, the journey to certain exciting venues around town. We’re happy to have him traverse around town, helping all of us feel a bit more connected to the JC music scene; which has always existed and now, deserving even more highlighting.
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Find out where and when Tris’ journey will take him this Spring around town, through comeherefloyd’s site or Social Media. You can follow Tris’ journey on Twitter [HERE], as well.