Let us now celebrate pianist and singer Mark Shane.
Without strain, he creates new melodies; he swings; he has a wonderful touch. His easy, graceful embellishments and composed-on-the-spot lines linger in the ear. When he was only a boyish sideman in Bob Wilber’s Bechet Legacy, I was impressed by how he played behind everyone, listening, creating a generous, mobile harmonic platform. With beautifully voiced chords and memorable single-note lines, he commented appreciatively on what he was hearing and pointed the way to what a soloist might play next.
Although jazz is greatly an intuitive art, Mark has clearly thought deeply about what it means to improvise. Even the most creative players – Parker, Tatum, Teagarden — have a secret stash of favorite phrases they can’t resist, an open bag of potato chips hidden behind the big dictionary. Mark has avoided this trap. His lines sing; they make a listener pay attention. He mastered stride playing a long time ago, and can display the joyous velocity of early Teddy Wilson, of James P. Johnson, but he knows that the style is more than broad strokes. His stride is heroically athletic, but he can be delicate at top speed without pounding away at the keyboard or the listener.
Two recent CDs on his own Amber Lake label reveal his virtues as an ensemble pianist and soloist.
FATS LIVES!!! – credo as well as title — was recorded in 2007 with “the Shane Gang”: Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet), Dan Levinson (clarinet, tenor sax), Brian Nalepka (string bass), Kevin Dorn (drums). Since Waller’s early death in 1943, admirers and alumni have often assembled, trying to recreate those Bluebird and Victor 78s. But the reunion bands capture only their noisy joviality.
Although the Shane Gang creates stirring versions of “Hold Tight,” “Oh Susanna, Dust Off That Old Pianna,” and “That Rhythm Man,” Mark has understood that Fats was inspired by tenderness and simplicity, perhaps more than by shouting out-choruses. “Oh, Baby, Sweet Baby,” hardly one of the six songs Waller is best known for, is all gentle ambling down the path. And Shane is a wonderful singer. He can be theatrical, with vaudeville touches, but his understatement is exceedingly moving. (On this track, Kellso, quietly impassioned, and Dorn, master of those now-forgotten implements, wire brushes and the bass drum, outdo Waller’s own Rhythm.) “Lonesome Me” is a touching lament with a steadily beating swing heart. But Shane’s Fats isn’t a creature given to self-pity: a trio “Seek and Ye Shall Find,” featuring Levinson and Dorn, shows off Levinson’s bubbling tenor and Shane’s irresistibly comic vocalizing. The closing track, a Public Domain specialty that Fats never got to record, “Nothin’ on the Hawg,” is a paean to pork, inspired by a Cajun tune Mark transformed into “One O’Clock Jump” with cracklins. At the 2007 Atlanta Jazz Party, Mark introduced this number and got the audience to sing along – a priceless moment.
Mark’s earlier CD, RIFFLES, is a beautifully-recorded 2003 solo recital. The BBC has yet to call, but it’s one of my Desert Island Discs. The title composition prances, but I am most fond of two Benny Carter compositions from a 1933 “Chocolate Dandies” session that featured Teddy Wilson, Chu Berry, Max Kaminsky, and Sidney Catlett: “Blue Interlude” and “Once Upon A Time.” On both of them, Shane does something that physics tells us is impossible: he appears to stand still, lingering meditatively over cherished notes, letting them ring in mid-air, while quietly pushing the music forward with calm, unceasing rhythms. His own composition, “Along Came Shmendrick,” has the same clarity of approach, shining right-hand melodies laid over walking tenths and finely-wrought stride bass patterns. Beginning as a rubato homage to Fred and Ginger, “Isn’t This A Lovely Day” shifts into a happy stroll, appropriate to the simple pleasures of Berlin’s song.
Thirty years ago, I could direct readers to the “S” bins at Sam Goody, King Karol, or Happy Tunes to find these recordings. Those days are gone, so here is the necessary mercantile information: to purchase either CD ($16.95 including shipping), email Mark Shane at email@example.com.