In an unlikely fusion, jazz vibes with ping-pong
BY SAM SPOKONY | When tenor saxophonist Asaf Yurai stepped up to the microphone to take his first solo on a recent Saturday night, he wasn’t just playing over the piano, bass and drums of the rhythm section. A chorus of tipsy revelers filled the room with shouts, laughter and the persistent clicking of ping-pong balls, most of them failing to notice the musician’s melodies or even his presence.
Some strangely layered form of collective improvisation then took place, as the sound from Yurai’s horn countered and danced over an audience whose noise level might have shocked unfamiliar jazz fans or musicians.
But there were no complaints from the few diehards sitting in front of the bandstand, and no outbursts from the musicians akin to what the bassist Charles Mingus once told patrons of a noisy nightclub: “Isaac Stern doesn’t have to put up with this s—!”
At Fat Cat, it was just another gig.
“Yeah, sometimes it can be rough when people get loud, but it’s never stopped me from enjoying it here,” said Yurai, who has been playing at Fat Cat for about five years as a member of various ensembles. “And it’s somewhat rewarding to know that the music we play is something that most of the people here would never have been exposed to.”
Founded in 1992, Fat Cat, at 75 Christopher St. at Seventh Ave., originally consisted of two individual spaces: a pool hall and a tiny music venue, the latter serving mainly for shows booked through Smalls Jazz Club, which sits about a block away at 183 W. 10th St. In 2007, the wall separating the rooms was knocked down, allowing for an innovative integration of the two environments.
Now, the space attracts hordes of pleasure seekers each night, with diverse activities that include chess, Scrabble and foosball, as well as ping-pong and pool. And for the few jazz fans left, Fat Cat’s $3 cover charge for concerts is much lower than that of the city’s more traditional venues.
Although the size and loud climate do have their drawbacks, plenty of dedicated swing and bop lovers return weekly to lounge on the half-dozen couches that make up Fat Cat’s audience seating area.
“The overcrowdedness is kind of a downside,” said jazz fan Vlad Novakovich, as a foosball player bumped into him while scampering around the table. “There’s not the chamber atmosphere that you get from a place like the Village Vanguard or the Blue Note.”
But he’s been returning over and over again for years, he explained, because Fat Cat’s nontraditional atmosphere lends itself to such a wide range of both performers and concertgoers.
“The variety of the jazz experience is just enormous, and that mixture of personalities and tastes actually creates an incredibly unique vibe,” said Novakovich.
That’s not to say that the blend of the space’s users doesn’t create some awkward situations. As Yurai and his fellow musicians — a quartet led by drummer Billy Kaye — dropped the volume to begin their first ballad of the night, several college-age males accidentally meandered toward the bandstand, visibly confused. The group quietly backed away, but not before looking as if they were ready to skip out and spend their Saturday night somewhere with a D.J.
For all of jazz’s old-fashioned connotations, though, some younger people welcome the change in genre, even if they’re not hardcore fans of the music. Yagil Kadosh, one of the only 20-somethings not at a game table or the bar, had an urge to bring his girlfriend, Kasia, to Fat Cat even though he’d only been there a couple of times before.
“It just felt like a jazz night. It also doesn’t hurt that they have cheap P.B.R.’s,” he said. “And jazz tends to be kind of inaccessible to the younger generation these days — so if putting a bunch of ping-pong tables up helps bring them here, I guess that’s not so bad.”
In the end, Asaf Yurai didn’t care why anyone came to Fat Cat to hear him play. He didn’t even care if they were listening. When the band took a break between sets at around midnight, Yurai walked quietly off the bandstand. He sat down on a couch off to the side of the drum set, looking peaceful, like a monk.
“Everybody’s just coming to do their own thing,” he said. “And even if they aren’t aware of it, the music surrounds them, and the vibrations touch them. If the intention behind the vibrations is positive, it will create a positive effect even if they don’t realize it. You know, even if they just came to play pool.”