Named after a screenplay written by celebrated regular Paul Auster, Smoke is a dimly lit jazz bar in a deep grey building on Broadway on the Upper West Side. On a muggy Wednesday night, Eve Cornelious was the charismatic vocalist who brought out the best in Wednesday regulars Mosaic. Mosaic, an ensemble of drums, bass, piano, trumpet and trombone opened with some conventional blues, executed skillfully, yet without great dynamic range; the relentless volume was almost overwhelming in the small, red-toned room. When the vocalist Eve Cornelious took to the stage, the mood changed and a reverent hush fell. Swaying in a black and white rose patterned dress with a beautiful low voice and huge corkscrew curls, Cornelious narrowed her focus on an unhappy middle-aged couple in the front row, her, in pastels, him in pinstripes. She interwove husky spoken passages with trickling improvisations, bouncing off the excellent pianist and trombonist, giving the husband and wife salacious winks and smiles, as they stared into the flickering candlelight on their table.
My friend and I had opted for the dinner deal and shared a perfectly fresh tomato and mozzarella salad drizzled with olive oil, as well as poached salmon (for me) and steak (for him). The food was simple; however, the ingredients were good, and everything was well cooked and presented. This was uncomplicated cooking which did not distract from the music – the real focus of the evening for us and the rest of the audience. The bar has a nice wine list, and perhaps unwisely we finished the meal with copious amounts of whisky, which went beautifully with the second half of the performance, although not so harmoniously with the following morning.
The second half of the performance marked a notable change in the music. While during the first half of the evening the instrumentalists seemed most concerned with improvisatory pyrotechnics, during the later session the band sat back and allowed some wonderful space and softness into their music. Cornelious returned to the stage and also seemed more languid and fluid, working as a cohesive force with the rest of the band, weaving her solos into the refrains and taking time to linger on high notes and poignant moments. Her impressive stage presence often did much of the work for her, as she winked, smiled, and danced through the solos of the instrumentalists, providing the occasional vocal counterpoint to some seriously polished improvisatory passages.
During the last song Cornelious returned her focus on the husband and wife in the front row, as she inquired seductively of the audience if we had ever been in love. The husband and wife stared back stonily as the rest of the room sighed, enchanted, as her husky voice drifted like weighted smoke through the dim red room.