The Concept Album Is Alive and Well in Jazz

Lyricist David Hajdu was so moved by the history of a Manhattan address that he spent four years writing and producing an eight-song ‘cycle’ about it, and then recruited eight composers to bring them to life.

Christopher Drukker
David Hajdu, left, Theo Bleckmann, Alicia Olatuja, and Dan Tepfer. Christopher Drukker

‘The Parsonage’
(Sunnyside Records)

Even people who never watched the TV show “Naked City” remember its famous line, “There are eight million stories in the naked city, this has been one of them.” The crime drama’s memorable phrase was heard each week the show ran between 1958 and 1963. 

New York City is like that: It sometimes seems like there’s more drama and history packed into any one building than can be found in most entire towns. The journalist, educator, and lyricist David Hajdu discovered such a building at 64 E. 7th St.; he was so moved by the stories connected to that Manhattan address — over a 100-year period — that he spent four years writing and producing an eight-song “cycle” about it. 

The result was “The Parsonage,” which had its premiere at the Museum of the City of New York recently, and has also just been released as an album.

Mr. Hajdu wrote the texts for the eight songs and then, for the melodies, he recruited eight composers in what he calls “the worlds of jazz, contemporary classical, and ‘post-classical’ music”: Darcy James Argue, Theo Bleckmann, Regina Carter, Ted Hearne, Kirk Nurock, Renee Rosnes, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and Dan Tepfer. The songs and styles are vastly different from each other, representing widely diverging points of view, though they all feel most like lieder or open-ended “art songs” that don’t fall into any particular form, like a show tune or a jazz standard.  

The songs were performed by vocalists Theo Bleckmann and Alicia Olatuja accompanied by a quartet of pianist Dan Tepfer, bass clarinetist Carl Maraghi, bassist Sean Smith, and cellist Erik Friedlander.

The work starts with an instrumental overture by Mr. Tepfer, played as an unaccompanied piano solo. It’s essentially a minor key waltz, and, completely in step with the rest of the work, doesn’t seem to belong to any one genre, but touches on jazz, classical, and musical theater.  

The eight songs — actually, that does seem to be the best term for them — capture the general flavor of the eras in which their stories take place while at the same time incorporating outside elements from a later perspective; they seem to be both inside and outside their time periods. 

The first piece, “Sailing to the Sunday School Picnic (and All But a Few Will Die),” may be the most dramatic. The building, which was constructed in 1889, served as the parsonage for St. Mark’s Church in the neighborhood that was then known as “Little Germany.” With music by Regina Carter, the song depicts the worst disaster in the history of New York before 9/11.  

This was the fire and sinking of the General Slocum, a steamship chartered by the church for a Sunday picnic; more than a thousand people perished, mostly women and children. Ms. Carter’s melody takes the form of a sentimental, turn of the 20th century ballad, but spiked with dissonant notes that foreshadow the impending catastrophe. Mr. Tepfer also plays a tumultuous sequence recalling a silent movie pianist depicting a shipwreck or a storm at sea.

Renee Rosnes’s “Ballad of the Man Who Laughed” details another epic tragedy, and its aftermath. In 1920, a  terrorist bombing of Wall Street sent 38 souls to their demise and wounded more than a hundred others. A Soviet propagandist, Alexander Brailovsky — some have called him a journalist, but that might be a stretch — was spotted near the explosion and was said to be laughing. Police tracked him down to the office of Russky Golos at 64 E. 7th St. and arrested him there, but no one was ever prosecuted for the crime.  

Ms. Rosnes’s theme is set in a Russian-style minor key, and the language of the text echoes Stalinist propaganda, celebrating “Comrade Brailovsky” as a brave hero with the chilling line, “We’re proud it could have been him.”

Most of the remaining pieces, gratefully, don’t deal with death and crime, but paint a musical picture of the many counterculture movements that thrived in the East Village in the post-war era. 

In the 1950s and ’60s, the building housed a beatnik coffeehouse called Les Deux Mégots; an early macrobiotic restaurant, the Paradox, where a young Yoko Ono worked as a waitress and performance artist; and the literary shop Books n’ Things, where Mr. Hajdu first  encountered it in the ’70s.  

“Translation, The Two Cigar Butts” (Ted Hearne) at times points to several of the Beatles’s spacier works, like “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Within Without You,” especially when the singers chant, “Open your head and reach in.”  

“Translation,” “East in the Village” (Kirk Nurock), and “Glamour and Standing,” which was conducted at the premiere by the composer, Darcy James Argue, are very challenging postmodern works that make use of sound collage and other avant-garde techniques. Conversely, “The Rainbow Family of Living Light” (Dan Tepfer) is a simple, almost naive tune that reflects the optimistic viewpoint of a commune that resided in the building during the 1960s. 

“Lou Reed Was Very Well Read” drops the names of the punk-era celebrities who frequented the bookshop with considerable humor, both in its punny title and in Mr. Bleckmann’s yodeling ululations. 

The piece ends with “Eighteen Million Six,” which might be called a “found text” in that it’s taken from a recent real estate listing for the property. It almost seems as if the agent set out to create the driest and most generic description of the building — even AI-generated verbiage would have more zing to it — and then adds insult to injury by ending with, “Site history: Not applicable.”  

Ironically, the theme composed by Sarah Kirkland Snider, as sung by Mr. Bleckmann and Ms. Olatuja, is warm and full of life, and deliberately at odds with the ice-cold lyric. In a century we have traveled full circle: from the brutality of communism to pure capitalism at its most soulless.  According to current statistics found during a web search, there are somewhere between 800,000 and a million buildings currently standing in the city that never sleeps. Mr. Hajdu has his work cut out for him.

The New York Sun

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