Anyone who frequented Cornelia Street Cafe in recent years is aware of the tradition that arose with the Tom Rainey Trio playing the second to last night of the year. For each of the last eight years, an eager crowd gathered to hear one of New York’s most cutting-edge bands. Drummer and composer Tom Rainey has been working New York’s music scene since the late 1970s as well as touring internationally with dates at the premier festivals. Rainey’s de-centered, high-energy, multi-dimensional, and multi-layered playing has no equivalent anywhere. His is as distinct a voice on drums as any living player.
The inclusion of saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and guitarist Mary Halvorson make this ensemble one of the great improvising units of the 2010s, doing some of the most exciting small group work on the planet. All three figures have mastered their instruments, while remaining hungry and open to further growth and exploration. Amazingly, as a drummer, Rainey never overplays. He demarcates the structures of the music with his off-kilter rhythms and sonic shapes that never cut at right angles. Adding to this the decisive play of Laubrock and Halvorson and this trio seems to give birth to new ideas at every turn.
On this particular night, they played before a rapt audience. The audience had gathered, as we had done so many times before, but this time with the somber knowledge that Cornelia Street Cafe was closing after serving artist communities for more than forty years as one of Greenwich Village’s last organic music spaces. With all of the necessary anticipation, the trio delivered some of their most exquisite music to date. Due to the fact that the first set had already sold out, I was only able to attend the late set.
The opening piece featured simmering drums cooking with guitar, creating curtains of sound through which Laubrock leaped, arcing up, then evaporating through rapid cymbal work and guitar turned ethereal. Laubrock’s sax lines were, at times, croaking and almost mournful, yet brimming with life, while Halvorson’s high-speed, nimble guitar work was ecstatic. The interlaced play of all three demonstrated their intimate understanding of each other.
The second piece opened with a duet of Halvorson’s signature wavering, resonant lines, and Laubrock’s somber sax over the top. It was truly one for the ages. One of the brilliant moments of the third piece was a Laubrock-Rainey duet in the final moments. Rainey showed his inventiveness with hand drumming on the kit and cymbals, finding the different tones within the drums. Laubrock eventually entered, with a deep, open sound to counter Rainey’s rumbling snare and floor tom, before letting her sound evaporate completely to reveal solo drums that continued to conclusion.
2018 was a hard year for musicians and audiences in New York. We saw a number of venues close, but Cornelia Street Cafe was the hardest of all of them to see go. Will New York ever be the same? The artists always keep creating. They never let us down. What has the city done in return?
Cover Photo Credit: Cisco Bradley