Since many of the jazz musicians I revere are now dead, my musical immersions have a touch of necrology: this, I say, to someone, is the last recording ever made by Kid Lemon’s Happy Pals before the fatal club fire. Art blends with mourning and mortality — we can never hear Charlie Christian alive again! — to intensify the beauty of the music and our feeling of loss.
So it is both a pleasure and our responsibility to praise the living while they are still with us. The living, in this case, are pianist Sacha Perry and tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart, both often found playing at the darkly congenial Greenwich Village jazz club Smalls.
But my subject is two performances, found on separate CDs, less than fifteen minutes of music of a rare intensity: Perry’s trio exploration of the Depression lament, “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime”?” and Stewart’s “You’re My Thrill.”
Perry’s trio session (where he is joined by bassist Ari Roland and drummer Phil Stewart) came out on Not Brand X (Smalls Records srcd-0022). Perry has composed and recorded many originals, but this CD is devoted to standards by Porter, Rodgers, Gershwin. But these aren’t the same old jazz tunes-to-blow-on, nor are they treated in formulaic ways. “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” was a song rooted in a deep social awareness — Yip Harburg’s lyrics spring from the pageant of World War One veterans who were destitute in the early Thirties — and Jay Gorney’s strong melody verges on the operatic, as in Bing Crosby’s contemporaneous version, powerful and sad.
Perry takes this song at a properly elegiac tempo, reharmonizing its simple chords into granitic blocks, dense, weighty, and mournful. It becomes both dirge and angry protest: how could you have abandoned us? There are hints of Herbie Nichols, but Perry is blazing new trails, creating an intensely moving performance, serious, nearly grief-stricken.
Dark beauty of another kind comes through from the first notes of Grant Stewart’s “You’re My Thrill,” from his new CD, Young At Heart (Sharp Nine 1041), where he is joined by Tardo Hammer, Peter Washington, and Joe Farnsworth. Most listeners associate this song with Billie Holiday’s late-Forties Decca recording (I was astonished to learn that the song was written in 1933, also by Jay Gorney — are we on the verge of a Gorney renaissance? It wouldn’t be a bad idea: Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, and Ruby Braff did great things with another Gorney song with a political edge, “It’s The Same Old South.”)
I heard this performance — without knowing the players — coming through my car radio while I was on my way to work — courtesy of WKCR’s longtime Tuesday “Daybreak Express” man, Sid Gribetz, the latter-day Symphony Sid. It held me spellbound, or as spellbound as I could be without driving off the road. Stewart takes the song at a steady slow pace, from his rubato duet with pianist Hammer, creating something that is half paean, half prayer. His tone is mahogany and port wine; his timbre is deep-hued fabric, passionate and rich. And he refuses to rush: he lingers over his notes — in a way that suggests a combination of Ben Webster and Pablo Casals.
Both of these performances are music to marvel at, music to savor. Bless Perry and Stewart: may they continue to create masterpieces that can stop listeners in their tracks in astonished surprise and joy.
As an aside: Grant’s CD has the additional boon of fine straightforward notes by writer Marc Myers. If you haven’t visited his blog, JazzWax, where he writes about a jazz record –78 to CD — every blessed day, you have missed out on a real pleasure. He’s also interviewed many of the great masters (Sonny Rollins, Ron Carter!) in addition.