This was a conumdrum. On Friday night, Habana Sax, the obscure but brilliant Cuban jazz quintet whom I go back with a ways, were making a rare stop in Albany at the Swyer Theater at the Egg. Also on Friday night, Steven Wright, the legendary comic with whom I also go back a ways, was making a rare stop at the Hart Theater at the Egg. “I’ve got an idea,” he said a little too confidently, “I’ll review both simultaneously.”
This didn’t even look good on paper, but here we go. Habana Sax got a head start at 7:30, which meant 30 minutes of uninterrupted, guilt-free brilliance. The lineup is four saxes, one drummer, all college professors in Havana, playing a ridiculous mash-up of jazz, Latin jazz, Cuban, Brazilian, funk, avant-garde, and some things that defy description. By my count, they haven’t played in town in at least 10 years, and strangely or not, the show hasn’t changed a whole lot since then. But when you’ve got a show that’s as totally virtuosic, varied, joyous and fun as theirs, maybe big changes aren’t in order.
They opened with a furious and complex piece, with all four saxes playing in unison and the drummer cranking hard. This is fall-off-your-chair stuff. Fingers flying, bodies moving (to a person, they are fabulous dancers, and they all move while playing), and drummer Mauricio Guiterrez playing drum set, timbales, and congo . . . . all at once. A couple more numbers (including a charming, cool version of Gershwin’s “Summertime”) and it was time to reluctantly split and grab an elevator upstairs, where what looked to be a sellout crowd was quickly filing into the Hart Theater.
Steven Wright has to be the only comedian ever who always gets a laugh for merely walking out on stage and saying “Thanks.” Which pretty much sums up his genius. There are few comedians more unique, groundbreaking, and influential; and 32-plus years since a stunned and hysterical Johnny Carson turned him, virtually overnight, into a major star, Wright hasn’t lost a step, or his edge. First joke: “A search party is always a surprise party.”
And then he did something different. He told a long story. A long story about trying to catch somebody making a long-distance call on his phone. The story was composed end-to-end of Wright-isms, so the listener was simultaneously trying to follow the story and absorb one cerebral and absurd declaration after another. Yikes. If I have one bone to pick it’s this: While Wright has never been known for his sartorial elegance, his current get-up of a Crazy Guggenheim hat, oversized formless jacket, and baggy jeans combined with a unruly beard going white made him look less like one of the greatest comedians of all time, and more like a hobo. Just sayin’.
After 30 minutes or so of my brain going through the Wright-wringer and my face hurting from laughing, I skedaddled back downstairs, where the party was in full swing. The vibe of the two rooms was so different, although both were great. Habana Sax had a bunch of folks on stage with them, dancing. Percussion instruments were handed out, vocal parts were taught, and the folks took over the show while the band came out and sat in the audience. Then they did their version of the Buena Vista Social Club, then a super high-powered merengue that morphed into a 5-piece beat-box extravaganza. The smallish crowd was roaring and the little theater sounded like Madison Square Garden. The encore was a ridiculous reggaeton hip-hop number, the room was crushed, I snuck out and went back upstairs.
Wright continued killing it apace. “Imagine Pulitzer Prize fighting.” “I want an Indian midget. Oh I can’t say Indian anymore. Oh, I can’t say midget anymore. Here’s something I can say: Eat me.” “I just remembered my mother told me never to talk to strangers.” And with that he walked off the stage. He walked back out. “Hermits have no peer pressure.” He told some incomprehensible story about wearing a dress and being in a car with some booze and a gun. “That joke’s not like the others, is it?” “I had a girlfriend in college who was a fluid exchange student. Did that one go to far?” Even when he steps out of the rhythm and addresses the audience directly like that he’s still a good five steps to the left of any comedian you’re ever likely to see.
What a great night. My brain was happily tired and my soul was floating around the ceiling.