FEELING THE SPIRIT

People danced in the aisles at The Ear Inn last night.

In the movies, when a scene takes place in a jazz club, inevitably, the music is transcendent, the audience transported. Experienced listeners know that this doesn’t happen often. And sometimes it happens for the wrong reasons, showmanship or Scotch-induced euphoria. When the musicians play wondrously and the audience understands what they are hearing, that’s rare and thrilling.

Last night at The Ear Inn was one of those splendid times when everything coalesced, lifting the already fine players to a higher plane, uplifting all of us, too. The music was quietly spectacular, the audience attentive and enthusiastic.

The Ear Regulars who came together on April 20 were old friends: Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, Scott Robinson on reeds, James Chirillo on guitar, and Greg Cohen on bass. Each of these players is special, someone able to lift up a group of musicians by himself. Scott deserves a special note about his instruments. I imagine his studio as wall-to-wall instruments, each more rare and strange than the next. To list all his usual reed and brass instruments would be exhausting. Last night, he brought his tenor, but also two reeds, surpassing strange — a tenor Rothaphone, resembling a tenor sax seen through the wrong end of the binoculars, thicker than a fountain pen but not much. Its adenoidal sound suggests that there was a naughty interlude with a bassoon in its past. But Scott played it with his characteristic easy splendor. Aside from his tenor sax, his other horn was a taragato, apparently a Hungarian version of a straight soprano, with a sweeter sound and a wooden barrel. Give Scott a pencil sharpener and stand back — lovely music will come out.

I’ve praised Kellso elsewhere in this blog as the Prince of Growl, someone whose ascents and descents get to the deep heart of jazz. He said to me that this band brought together Don Cherry (Ornette Coleman’s early colleague) and Dixieland, and he was right. Chirillo and Cohen had a solid rhythmic wave going — no mere matter of metronomic precision. Flexibility was the key, as this quartet listened to each other and reacted in nanoseconds. Many times, listening, I was reminded of why we say jazz musicians play – jubilant experimentation was in the air. The music started out simply — melody plus variations over a swinging pulse, but it went to the Edge, gave the Edge a friendly hug, and then explored uncharted territories, scaring no one in the process.

The band kicked off with “Sunday,” an early Jule Styne song — the Regulars had been playing for almost a year of Sundays, but hadn’t called this song, which seemed perfectly on target. Taken at a slightly slower tempo than its usual bounce, it felt like a ballad with a Basie heart: Jon began his solo with cries that suggested someone calling out to see if there were any other hikers in the woods. With whimsical logic, he called “From Monday On” next. Chirillo had fun laying The Third Man theme over whatever chords were moving along. Scott’s momentum took him seamlessly from one chorus to the next, and Greg, in high spirits, stayed on one good note for some time, enjoying it, prompting Scott to launch into a witty rendition of “One Note Samba,” a great jazz witticism.

After some not-too-serious discussion about what songs could follow — Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were vetoed — Scott launched into a solo rubato introduction to “The More I See You.” Aside from brief solos by Jon and James, the latter tinkering with the line to make it more of a blues, it was all Scott, reaching into the upper register with the utmost delicacy. A little comedy took over when the lovely ballad had ended, perhaps as a release from the tension of creating great beauty — Scott paraphrased the melody as a slap-tongue interlude. For a moment, I thought Chuck Jones had come to 326 Spring Street.

A fast “Whispering” came next, reminiscent of the glory days of the Braff-Barnes quartet. Scott stretched the expected chords in his solo, Greg, happily floating on the rhythm wave, bobbed his head. The Ear Regulars have returned often to “Some of These Days,” an old-time classic with a built-in swing, but this time, it was “Samba These Days,” with twangy abstract dissonances from James, upward slides from Jon, a joyous momentum.

Strayhorn’s “The Intimacy of the Blues” followed — a walking slow blues introduced by Greg and James, with the horns taking their time, earnest and sad against a slow-motion boogie woogie background. Chirillo did his own version of an Earl Hines tremolo in a solo that sounded as if he was sitting on a Mississippi porch at dusk. With each chorus, the song became a grieving lullaby, as slow as possible but with a fierce pulse underneath. I couldn’t imagine what could follow that, but Jon pulled something else out of his substantial memory, a stomping “Farewell Blues,” lifted up by Greg’s slapped bass and propulsive one-note riffs that backed Louis on his early Thirties records. Scott took out his Rothaphone and wailed away on it.

That’s when it happened.

At a table in front of me, a slender woman had been gyrating, holding on to the shoulders of the man seated in front of her. Without a word, the two of them, lithe and graceful, started to jitterbug ferociously in the smallest possible space, moving in tiny but energetic arcs, dancing on a dime — with hip-wiggling, dips, and spins that would have wowed them at the Savoy Ballroom. It was brilliant, funny, heartwarming. Whoever you are, O dancing couple, blessings on your nimble selves!

I was grateful for the break — I didn’t think my nervous system could absorb much more delightful stimulation — and it gave me a chance to talk to Doug Pomeroy, veteran recording engineer and wise listener. And, during the first set, a half-dozen extraordinary musicians had come in — trombonists Harvey Tibbs and Jim Fryer; the young trumpet sensation Bria Skonberg; reedmen Dan Block and Mark Phaneuf, singers Tamar Korn and Gina Sicilia, guitarist Dave Gross, banjoist Cynthia Sayer.

The quartet reassembled for a breezy, affectionate “The Lady’s in Love With You,” and then Jon invited Bria Skonberg to sit in. Bria, from Vancouver, is a Louis-and-Roy-inspired hot trumpeter. She has a big sound, impressive technique, a thoughtful way of constructing phrases, a fervent vibrato (used judiciously) and a throaty growl. All of this was on display in a jogging “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” with the two trumpeters graciously trading places — one playing embellished melody, the other improvising around the lead or offering echoing harmony parts.

Then it happened again, as if one piece of jubilant choreography wasn’t enough. A solidly-built woman in a navy-blue dress, her hair cropped short, decided that the narrow aisle of the Ear’s main room, was a New Orleans street parade, and began, with a paper napkin waving flirtatiously from her mobile right hand, to sashay up and down the room. The grins that were already there — on the bandstand and in the audience — grew wider, and I heard more than one voice say approvingly, “Second line!” which is the name given to the dancing bystanders in the Crescent City. Thank you, ma’am, for sharing your good times with us.

A new quintet of Bria, Harvey, Scott, James, and Greg turned to a heart-on-sleeve “Out of Nowhere,” before the singer Tamar Korn (of the new band, The Cangelosi Cards) was invited to sing, Scott turning to his taragato for an Ellington-shaded version of “Dinah,” at a fervently slow tempo. Korn, tiny and emotive, showed off a nearly operatic voice with deep jazz roots. I heard Adelaide Hall and Lee Morse in her scat exchanges with Jon. She is her own woman, someone to search out. She was invited to stay on for a brisk “After You’ve Gone” which gave all the sitters-in space in the best Thirties manner of two compact choruses apiece. Gina Sicilia took over from Tamar for a dark, smoky “Fine and Mellow,” and Cynthia Sayer joined the congregation — making for a string section of electric and acoustic guitars and banjo, each individualistic yet meshing. It was well past eleven, but no one wanted to go home, so Jon called for a closing “You’re Driving Me Crazy” which gave the trombones room to trade solos.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a happier group — not artificial enthusiasm whipped up by drum solos and high notes, by volume and showmanship, but by the energy and joy the musicians (and dancers) so generously shared with us. Everything possible in jazz had happened here, and more. Inspired solos, of course, but jammed counterpoint, stop-time backgrounds, riffs and organ-note backgrounds, sotto voce hums, four and eight-bar trades, key changes, spontaneous head arrangements.

I walked to the subway, so dreamily happy that I walked right past the entrance, thinking what a privilege it had been to be there. I’ve had a great deal of aesthetic levitation at The Ear Inn, and I expect to have a good deal more, but I won’t ever forget last night.

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One response to “FEELING THE SPIRIT

  1. Thank you so much for your lovely description of our dance. It’s balboa, a dance designed in the early 30′s, late 20′s, for speed and small spaces. Started at the Rendezvous Ballroom Balboa California.

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