Jersey City Spring – Iris Records
It’s cold, windy, and damp, and it feels like it’s been drizzling for a week. Well, to be frank, today’s precipitation is much more than a drizzle: I woke up to a patter of rain on the roof of the house, and by noon, the skies had opened. The top of the Goldman Sachs Tower is smothered in fog, and the intersection of Newark Avenue and Monmouth Street is an inland sea. This would have been a miserable day to stand out under the sky amidst tombstones; thus, the organizers of the annual Pushing Up The Daisies have moved their festival from Harsimus Cove Cemetery to the shelter of FM. While it’s good that we now have that option, it’s long past time for Mr. Sun to come out and kick off spring properly. The rest of us are ready. Why isn’t he?
I’m not heading to FM. My destination today is Iris Records, where a local jazzman named Ian Kenselaar is doing an in-store performance with his trio. Jazz combos are famously flexible: it’s possible to set them up in strange corners and let them rip. Often rockers and even folkies struggle with in-stores, but to a veteran jazz guy, it’s just another gig. There isn’t even much need to set up a sound system: jazz players can usually fill a space with sound without much additional amplification. Still, Iris Records is a small space – roughly the size of a Downtown bodega and crammed with discs of all sorts. Will these guys have room to swing their elbows around?
Probably. Iris is no stranger to events – they have musicians in there pretty regularly. Every music town needs a record store, and we’ve got a great one, a shop with personality to burn and a terrific selection of discs, used and brand spanking new. If you’ve never been to Iris, you ought to remedy that at once; I’d wager that it’s one of the cornerstones upon which any future Jersey City music scene will be built. It’s a converted pharmacy, and there are still tin ceilings and old receptacles for vintage concoctions behind glass cases, and a deejay booth where the medicine dispensary used to be. In other words, it’s one of those unusual, inimitable establishments that gives a town its character, without which we’d be just another satellite town.
The Kenselaar trio sets up in a corner of the room, right in a corner made by two aisles for record browsing. He’s brought along a guitarist with a nice-looking hollow-bodied number, and a drummer with an undersized kit – though it isn’t a cocktail kit. He’s got a kick, a snare, a tom, and a few cymbals. They’re just smaller than what you’d expect to see at a rock show. Ian Kenselaar himself has an instrument that’s difficult to hide: a standing bass. He and his guitarist play through little amps; amps hardly the size of the crates of albums. Forget NPR; this is the real Tiny Desk Concert. Only there’s no desk here – instead, it’s hundreds of albums and three lively, jovial musicians who look as though they grew here like trees.
I confess: there’s a gaping hole in the middle of my record collection where the classic jazz ought to be. There are many jazz albums that I really ought to know, cut by musical giants – Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane – but I’ve never gotten around to learning them. Part of that is my writerly aversion to music that doesn’t have words, but it’s also an effect of my preference for the contemporary and my reluctance to do research when there’s a new hip-hop album to reach for. But if I’m going to write about music in Jersey City, I’m going to need to learn my jazz history, because jazz is an crucial part of the story around here. There are good jazz players all over town, and the appetite for live jazz is growing: the Riverview Jazz Festival, which kicks off in a couple of weeks, will be bigger and more multifaceted than it ever has been before. Winard Harper continues to attract sensational talent to Moore’s Place on Monticello Avenue. The jazz section at Iris Records is large and prominent, and it looks like it gets thumbed through just as often as the rock does.
Minutes into the set, and it’s not hard to tell that these guys are quite talented, especially the drummer, who Kenselaar refers to as a mentor and an inspiration. He’s certainly animated: he stashes a set of sticks atop the new releases and grins widely at the bassist and the guitarist whenever anybody in the combo comes up with something clever (which is often). This is a man full of tricks. During a Thelonious Monk number, he sticks his elbow on the snare to alter its tonality, which is something rock drummers really ought to try. One of his solos is taken mainly on the cymbals with occasional snare interjections, and somehow it isn’t annoying at all. It takes a light touch to pull off what he’s able to pull off, which is not to say that he can’t hit hard when he wants to. Kenselaar is all over his bass, plunking out melodies and finding chords and singing along to his solos as he takes them. The guitar player stays seated and is nearly eclipsed by the stacks. From time to time I fall into the daydream-illusion that the music is emanating from the room itself.
A nice thing about shows at Iris: the space is so tiny that even a modest crowd feels substantial. Just as the musicians are tucked into the narrow aisles, the listeners stand in those same aisles, and some of them browse through the bins as the show happens. It all feels extremely natural, as if it’s no big deal that there’s a gig going on while people are shopping, and it suggests that there ought to be a jazz combo playing in the corner of every store in town. Iris Records has made its allegiance to local music evident – there are posters for local shows up in the windows, a record sleeve on the wall in which you can stuff your donations to WFMU, and a rack right in front of the entrance featuring artists playing at White Eagle Hall. At its best, a record store is a nerve center for a scene (that’s what Pier Platters was in Hoboken), and a nerve center requires a pulse. Tonight, Ian Kenselaar is providing it; tomorrow it’ll be somebody else. Unless these guys really do intend to keep that groove simmering all night.
It strikes me, once again, that this budding music neighborhood – one growing daily in cohesion – demands a nickname. Iris Records is here, as is FM, Madame Claude is tucked in the back of White Eagle Hall and Prato Bakery has opened a new location around the corner. I learned about today’s show from a flier in the P&K Fruit Market. The Italian Village is technically accurate, but it sounds too old-world for what’s getting built here. Harsimus Cove sounds way too stuffy. I know from local history books that during the bad old days of Frank Hague, these blocks were part of a larger neighborhood called the Horseshoe. That’s poetic, and I think we ought to bring it back. Horses are fast and powerful and a little dangerous, and, in at least four cases, they carry horsemen of the apocalypse. Horseshoes are made of hard iron: they facilitate fast travel, and they’re nailed into place. Moreover, if you’ll forgive the Springsteen reference, I’m starting to feel like we’re living in a very lucky town.
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.
This series is dedicated to all you Rockers, Musicians, Artists, and of course, JC fans.