The earnest, cheerful young pianist in this photograph is Ehud Asherie. At Smalls, the happily atmospheric jazz club at 183 West 10th Street, he has been at the helm of small groups with Harry Allen, Jon-Erik Kellso, Mchael Hashim, and others. Smalls, incidentally, is a compact jazz shrine — one of the owners, Mitch Borden, launched a conversation about trumpeter Bill Coleman — a name you don’t hear very often, more’s the pity. And behind Jon-Erik on the small stage you will see a famous picture of a young, nattily dressed Louis in London, around 1932 (catch the plus fours), giving his blessing to everything that happens in the room.
I went to hear Ehud and Jon-Erik play duets on Thursday night, and their one-hour set was varied, heartfelt, and swinging. If you visit Ehud’s beautifully designed website (www.ehudasherie.com), you might think you were listening to a most capable Mainstream – Bop pianist, nimbly improvising in the treble, supporting his treble flights with percussive chords in the bass. But I had heard from musicians, among them drummer Kevin Dorn, that Ehud knew what it was to swing, to play stride piano, most convincingly. Kevin was right.
Solo piano is extremely difficult, because there’s no Walter Page /Jo Jones cushion to rest on. Ehud is more than up to the task: his melodic embellishments never abandon the beauties of the songs, and his style is a rewarding melding of thoughtful, graceful Teddy Wilson treble lines, deep harmonies that took in the whole history of jazz piano, and flexible rhythmic support with modern touches. He has the quiet drive of late-period Ralph Sutton, with the harmonic surprise of Jimmy Rowles. At times, I thought of Fats Waller having a drink with Thelonious Monk, but the music isn’t an academic exercise, a player showing off how many styles he’s learned. Ehud’s playing is an organic whole, with one phrase leading to the next, one chorus logically building on its predecessor. If solo playing is a difficult task, duet playing requires special intuition and empathy so that it isn’t Dueling Ego. Jon-Erik is not only a priceless soloist but a generous ensemble player, so what happened at Smalls was an aesthetic conversation that occasionally became spiritual communion. If I tell you that both players were ginning at each other throughout the set, that should convey their (and our) pleasure.
They began with an ambling “I Would Do Anything For You,” written by the now almost-forgotten Claude Hopkins, a Thirties song usually taken at a breakneck pace, with Jon-Erik using one of his many mutes. They picked up the tempo to explore a traditional melody Ehud thought had Irish roots, “When You And I Were Young, Maggie,” at a tempo that suggested that the past must have been more than usually athletic. Jon-Erik thought that such reminiscences deserved the naughty growls and moans that only plunger-muted trumpet can convey. A lyrical “Body and Soul” followed (a classic that deserves to be played on its own terms at least once a night at every jazz gig), then a Bixish “I’m Comin’ Virginia,” complete with its verse. Perhaps as a nod to Fats Waller, or to Ruby Braff, Ehud called for “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby,” which was ferocious. Here he showed his inspiring stride playing — technically assured, with delicious variations of the bass patterns — subtly propulsive rather than mechanistic. Jon-Erik then announced that Ehud, “the band within a band,” would play a solo, and the “Echo of Spring” that followed did honor to its creator, Willie “the Lion” Smith. A “funky – groovy” “Lonesome Road” was the occasion for an extended Kellso solo, impassioned yet controlled. A playful “i’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket” featured some truly joyful interplay, and the set closed with “Tea for Two,” taken straight, Ehud beginning with an elaborate Waller-tinged reading of the verse, and wittily slipping in reference to “Some Other Time” into his improvisations.
As I left, I saw the fine pianist Rossano Sportiello at the back of the room: he, too, had come to admire. And there was so much to admire! Future Thursdays will feature other distinguished New Yorkers joining Ehud: something not to be missed!