Last night, Sunday, February 24, many Americans were happily watching the Oscars. I was having much more fun digging The Ear Regulars.
“Who that?” I hear you asking.
They are a hot quartet, expandable as noble jazz players and singers drop by, who jam from 8-11 PM every Sunday at The Ear Inn, 326 Spring Street, New York. (212.226.9060.) The co-leaders are trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso (http://www.kellsojazz/com.) and guitarist-vocalist Matt Munisteri, (http://www.mattmunisteri.com.) often joined by a reed player and a string bassist. Superficially, it might sound like “Dixieland,” with large helpings of rocking collective improvisation on good old good ones (“Tishomingo Blues” and “Original Dixieland One-Step”) but this small band is wildly flexible, open to everything from bluegrass, Reinhardt and Grappelly-styled gypsy jazz, Delta blues, postmodern versions of Thirties pop, and more. Pictured here are Kellso, reed virtuoso Mark Lopeman, and Munisteri. Joining them last night were swinging pianist and singer Mark Shane and bassist Joel Forbes. At the end of the night, clarinetist Joe Licari and trombonist Brad Shigeta bore down on “Blues in Dog Flat,” according to Jon-Erik, and a sprightly “Undecided.”
The Regulars began their stint here last summer and have lived up to their name in musical consistency. Since most New York jazz clubs are now gone, a steady gig for a small band with jam session tendencies is a blessing indeed. Sitters-in and ringers have included Howard Alden, Gene Bertoncini, Vince Giordano, Chris Flory, John Gill, guitar; Jim Fryer, Harvey Tibbs, Todd Londagin, Dick Dreiwitz, Emily Ascher, trombone; Charlie Caranicas, John Eckert, Danny Tobias, Peter Ecklund, trumpet / cornet; Scott Robinson, Harry Allen, Dan Block, Evan Christopher, reeds; Andy Stein, violin; Greg Cohen, Jim Whitney, Kelly Friesen, Frank Tate, Pat O’Leary, Matt Winer, bass; Rob Garcia, drums; Lisa Hearns, Vanessa Trouble, Rachelle Garniez, vocals.
Even Jeremy Irons came by one night, making pulses race faster, too much a gentleman to ask to sit in.
The Ear Inn is a venerable place with a fascinating history — check out www.earinn.com. to find out more. History aside, it is made up of two rectangular rooms with a long bar down one side, lovely antique bottles above the bar. Best of all, the bar is supervised by Victor, so much more than a dispenser of libations. He has impeccable taste: hard bop, Tatum, Duke, Joe Oliver cheerfully co-exist on his between-sets CDs.
The Regulars lean towards leisurely explorations of songs with solos that gently dig beneath the surface of the music, and the results are intensely moving at slow tempos, exhilarating at fast ones. Kellso and Munisteri are hot lyric players who savor vocalized bent notes, growls, and moans. Kellso learned a good deal from Ruby Braff and the Ellington brass, but he has been his own man for a long time, with a vocabulary of downward grumbles, mutters, and shouts. And when he uses his plunger mute, he exudes passion, high or low. Munisteri has irresistible rhythm, and the whole history of guitar playing passes through his eloquent, poised, single-note solos. Together they could rock any band.
Last night the Regulars were levitated by Shane and Lopeman, two players who don’t get to do this often enough. Shane is a brilliant neo-Thirties pianist, his first allegiances to Wilson and Waller, but with a touch that equals Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan. His singing is a joyous theatrical evocation of Louis and Fats, but with great tenderness. Lopeman is one of New York’s hidden treasures, often sitting peaceably in someone else’s reed section. But his solo and ensemble playing have the snap and fierce surprise of 1936 Lester Young, and he imitates no one. He played dazzling solos on song after song, making his bandmates grin. Late in the evening, Brad Shigeta led us in impromptu, well-deserved cheers of “Lo-pey! Lo-o-pey!” Joel Forbes, blessed with a rich tone, steady pulse, and wit, anchored everything masterfully.
The Regulars have a wide repertoire (no other band tackles “Get Acquainted With Yourself”) but last night was even more special: this band plus Rob Garcia was preparing for the PeeWee Russell Memorial Stomp held by the Jersey Jazz Society featuring centennial tributes to Red Allen, Max Kaminsky, Bunny Berigan, and Hot Lips Page, so they engagingly tried out versions of several neglected 1933 jazz classics recorded by Allen and Coleman Hawkins: “The Day You Came Along” (an early Crosby gem), “You’re Gonna Lose Your Gal,” and “Hush My Mouth,” these three with playful Shane vocals, and there was a delicious stroll through “I’m Rhythm Crazy Now,” a Henderson classic.
The PeeWee Stomp is at the Birchwood Manor in Whippany, New Jersey, during the afternoon of March 2: call 1-800-33-NJJS  for details.
More good news, as if this wasn’t enough. The Ear Inn specializes in old-time horizontal food, plain and satisfying, with a demonically good carrot cake. Prices remind me of my youth, the staff is solicitous and friendly. No reservations, so get there early. But please bring some folding money to befriend the musicians’ pal, Phillup de Bucket (for the uninitiated, a tip jar).
Look for me and The Beloved, as close to the bandstand as the law allows, having as good a time as is possible since the jazz clubs vanished from 52nd Street. I have no idea what picture won Oscars last night, but I heard the Ear Regulars play and sing Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Cha Glad?” so I am lucky for sure.