Performances at Barbes are very do-it-yourself, and so Fahn seems to be in a real bind. Soon, of course, someone points out that there is another light on the wall, one that is pretty centrally located, too. The light, like each of the others in the room, is a bare bulb surrounded by an old record. Red walls and a red ceiling swallow the light whole once he has turned it on, and even with Fahn's new find, it still is not a bright room.
While Fahn might have had trouble seeing his lead sheets, for an audience the ambience is of candlelight, even without an abundance of candles. It's just that kind of room. A few tables and a bunch of chairs line the side wall, a very different scene from the full bar just a room away.
Barbes co-owners and musicians Olivier Conan and Vincent Douglas moved the wooden bar in themselves when they first found the space. Neither had planned on opening a bar, but they did not think a music club could survive without one. We wanted to open up a music place actually before a bar. But we figured it out that there's basically no way you can do it. So we had to open a bar, but the main interest for us, being musicians, is the music, says Douglas.
Because Conan's and Douglas' main concern is the music, patrons of the bar, even as they are in a separate room from the performances, are treated to a version of the show. There is a microphone on the ceiling of the back room, which is attached to speakers at the bar. When the show starts, the CDs that they play for the bar stop, and people at the bar therefore know when to be quiet.
That does not necessarily mean that they are always quiet during the shows, however. Recently, baritone saxophonist and bass clarinetist Alex Harding and pianist Lucian Ban performed at the space, and non-audience members were heard laughing and carousing in the other room. This did not particularly interfere with the duo's bluesy meditations, but Michael Attias, who books Wednesdays (aka Night of the Ravished Limbs) at the club, says that one time the cross-pollination of sound from one room to another actually added to a show.
I remember one night when there was Anthony [Coleman], Okkyung Lee and Doug Wieselman were doing a trio, he says. There was some woman having an incredible conversation and they started incorporating it into their playing. I remember the woman saying something like 'Yeah, Salman Rushdie, he's a writer and he's a Muslim, too.' In the middle of this quiet improvisation.
That kind of interplay and looseness pervades the club. When you walk in off the street, there is not the pomp and circumstance of a Manhattan night spot. Shorts are welcome. The street is quiet. Conan and Douglas even started Barbes off without allowing full drum sets or electric basses, though they have since relented (the rule was mainly to discourage rock groups). But what they have not relented on is the diverse booking that their Brooklyn space permits.
For all that New York is the center of the jazz world (and, let's not be timid, the whole world for that matter), its rents are so exorbitant that experimentation is a difficult thing to do. Opening a club in Brooklyn, then, is a good alternative to serving $9 gin and tonics and only booking established acts. While it may not relieve a club owner of the need to sell alcohol, it does allow for the nurturing of acts that might not sell out every night.
As a result, Barbes can pursue Attias' Ravished Limbs series, can pursue Matt Otto's Tuesday night straight-ahead jazz series, can pursue films, lectures and music from around the world. The only persistent theme is that these guys like to book accordion players (they're French). Aside from that, the sights and sounds filling the club are always changing.
August will see violinist Jenny Scheinman make multiple appearances, as well as a show from the always intriguing Ruckus Trio. September will even see Mark Helias bring his group, Open Loose, to the club. And Douglas favorites, eccentric circus rockers One Ring Zero will stop by in the meantime (there is a gigantic One Ring Zero poster on Barbes' wall).
Music fans who live in Park Slope are lucky to have this comfortable little space in the neighborhood. Musicians, a large percentage of whom live in Brooklyn, are lucky to have a musician-run venue in the neighborhood. And the folks over in Manhattan would be good to get on the train and check it out, because a good venue is a good venue. The rent may be lower, but this is still New York, after all.