Monthly Archives: June 2008

LANCELOT TAKES MANHATTAN

Last Monday, the French stride wizard Olivier Lancelot flew in from Paris for ten days of tri-state jazz immersion — a duet gig at Smalls with Dan Levinson, and appearances at the Hot Steamed Jazz Festival in Essex, Connecticut, with serendipitious sitting-in here and there. 

Photograph by Lorna Sass.  Coptright 2008.

When Olivier sat down at the keyboard at Roth’s Westside Steakhouse (680 Columbus Avenue at 93rd Street) only five hours after his plane had landed, he looked serene and cheerful.  And he approached his four-hour gig with enthusiasm, playing nearly fifty songs in the course of the night, drawing on a huge repertoire.  His musical standrads are high: thus, no “Feelings,” no “The Way We Were,” no “New York, New York.”  Rather, he explored “Body and Soul,” “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” “That Old Feeling,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” “Darn That Dream,” “Blue Moon,” all at a gentle jog reminiscent of middle-period Teddy Wilson.  True to his reputation, he gave out with a few stride showpieces, most memorably “Handful of Keys” and a blazing “Song of the Vagabonds.”  A very pretty “La Vie En Rose” reminded us of Piaf and Louis at once, a neat accomplishment. 

But the unfamiliar material was even more intriguing: a song neither I nor the Beloved could place turned out to be “Somethin’ Stupid,” a Sixties AM radio hit for Frank and daughter Nancy Sinatra.  Late in the evening, driven by some private whimsy, Olivier went into “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” once the tradmark song of Helen Kane, reprised by Marilyn Monroe in SOME LIKE IT HOT.  Following that line of thought, he leapt into a jaunty “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” a song James P. Johnson would have loved — although who, besides Olivier, ever thought of it as worthy material?  “Do-Re-Mi,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein, became a Donald Lambert fantasy.  

Lancelot’s understanding of the music goes beyond his admirable facility at the keyboard.    Many players who identify themselves as stride (or Stride) piano specialists narrow the style as a double handful of composed pieces: here’s “Carolina Shout,” here’s “Russian Fantasy,” here’s “Keep Your Temper.”  Dick Wellstood, ever questing, extended this approach by playing Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and “Rubber Duckie” (from SESAME STREET) as they would have been done uptown circa 1934.  Olivier has the technique and stamina to play ten or twelve choruses of violently athletic stride without strain, even though he pantomimed exhaustion (a giant wiping-of-the-forehead gesture) after his extravaganzas.  But he didn’t restrict himself to such fireworks: as he told me during the evening, playing these pieces too often in a set blurs the effect quickly.  Rather, he played stride patterns, casually and as a matter of course, remembering a time when that was the accepted way to play, at a variety of tempos — whether the song was an easy “Darn That Dream” or even “As Time Goes By,” suggesting Bogart and Bacall at Monroe’s Uptown House.  His rhythm was impeccable, his time steady, his bass lines varied (not just a metronomic oom-pah).  Combined with a light touch, he made it seem as if we had been invited into Fats’s living room to hear him play some tunes — informal and delightful.           

The last word belongs to our waiter Chad, a gracious import from the South.  “You know our regular pianist Ehud?  He sent this guy in for tonight — he’s from Paris.  Oh, this one’s great!” 

Yes, indeed.     

SUMMIT SESSION WITH THE SIDNEY BECHET SOCIETY

Last Wednesday, the Sidney Bechet Society, created by Eric Offner, held two concerts at Symphony Space, paying tribute to Kenny Davern, who died in 2006, and Bob Wilber, happily still with us. Here’s what took place at the 9 PM show, with Wilber himself, Dan Levinson, and Nik Payton on a vast assortment of reeds, Dick Hyman on piano, Vince Giordano on vocals, string bass, bass sax, and tuba, Matt Munisteri on guitar, and Kevin Dorn on drums.

After a very brief introduction by Donald Gardner, who, with Phil Stern, will be running the shows in future (Eric will continue to savor them from the audience), Dan and Nik launched into a Soprano Summit original, “Please Clarify,” in the spirit of a 1941 Eddie Sauter composition for Benny Goodman — ornate, needing superb technique.

I noticed, happily, that Hyman’s piano had a lovely acoustic sound rather than the over-miking one so often must endure. Dan commented, as a segue, that Kenny Davern was the reason he had wanted to become a jazz musician — a good thing for us all!

A looser “Love Me Or Leave Me” followed, with earnest playing by Nik and Matt, and sterling work from Kevin on his hi-hat; “Elsa’s Dream,” a Davern line on the chords of “I Found A New Baby,” let us hear the two reedmen trade fours, then twos — very exciting! Nik then had the stage to himself for a too-brief, heartfelt exploration of Bechet’s own “Premier Bal,” where he showed off his rich, woody clarinet tone. “Hindustan,” from the 1918 hit parade, had the horns — in true Summit fashion — swapping the lead and harmony roles. Matt was especially lively, as was Hyman, on this romp. Nik then played his tribute to Wilber (his mentor) whose middle name, he explained, is “Sage,” thus, “The Sage,” an attractive minor theme that suggested both a Goodman Sextet theme with echoes of “Dark Eyes.”

Dan took center stage himself to work out on a Davern variant of Ellington’s “Jubilee Stomp,” aptly dubbed “Fast As A Bastard.” It certainly was, offering Hyman a chance to show his amazing stride, and Vince to slap his aluminum string bass, resonant and focused as ever. Dan’s arrangement of PeeWee Russell’s “PeeWee’s Blues” brought Nik back, but the spotlight belonged to Matt, who bent notes as if Symphony Space had become the Delta for a few choruses. The first half of the concert ended with a deeply felt version of “Trav’lin All Alone.”

The second half began with The Man Himself, Bob Wilber, looking bouncy and boyish, announcing “Eighty is the new fifty!” (I still haven’t figured out how old that makes me: it’s a puzzlement.) Over the rocking rhythm section, with Kevin becoming Jo Jones, Bob and Nik played Kern’s “I Won’t Dance,” delighting in its singular bridge. Bob handed things over to Nik for a ballad, “You Are Too Beautiful,” that initially was a duet with Vince’s bass, reminding me of the Lucky Thompson – Oscar Pettiford – Skeeter Best recordings of the Fifties. A Condon-inspired “California, Here I Come” changed the mood in a flash, with Hyman boiling away behind the horns. Hyman announced his solo feature as a song with three titles: “Moritat,” “The Theme from The Threepenny Opera,” and “Mack the Knife,” and went from a brooding introduction to a minimalist exploration of the simple theme (echoes of Dave McKenna), to his patented uptempo stride, clipped and reminiscent of Forties Johnny Guarneri. It was truly a virtuoso exhibition with every note in place.

Much of the music that had preceded was cheerful, extroverted, which is as a tribute to Davern and Wilber should be. But for me the highlight of the evening was Wilber’s tribute to Johnny Hodges and Billy Strayhorn, “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing,” where Wilber showed that his tone and power, his singing melodic conception, were all intact. (The brilliant young pianist Ehud Asherie was in the audience; at Smalls, the next night, he created a sorrowing version of Strayhorn’s song, clearly with Wilber’s notes in his head.)

The mood changed for a rollicking Vince vocal on “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” No tribute to Soprano Summit could conclude without “The Mooche,” and the evening concluded with a romp on “Bye Bye Blues,” with a guest spot for Wilber’s newest prodigy, Alex Mendham, on alto, as the youngest member of the lineage that began with Wilber as Bechet’s student in 1946. It was a generous concert — over two hours — in honor of reed players who gave their all to their audiences. Future concerts will feature Evan Christopher (September 15) and Vince’s “Mini-Hawks” (October 20). The smaller room at Symphony Space, by the way, has clear sight lines, good acoustics, and it’s a splendid place to hear jazz like this.

GOOD OLD NEW YORK

New York City can be irritating: the subway system is bound and gagged by repairs every weekend; a quart of milk is $1.45 at the corner bodega; the ticket I just received for double-parking will cost $115. “Officer, I was only there for thirty-two bars!” didn’t mitigate my criminality.

But it is possible to immerse yourself — no, drown yourself — in fine live jazz here. Consider this past week, if you will:

On Wednesday night, the Sidney Bechet Society hosted two concerts at Symphony Space, honoring Kenny Davern and Bob Wilber. Dan Levinson ran the shows, with Wilber himself, Dick Hyman, Nik Payton, Alex Mandham, Matt Munisteri, Vince Giordano, and Kevin Dorn. I’ll have more to say about this one soon — but it was as rewarding as the names suggest.

The next night, I went to hear Ehud Asherie play duets with Jon-Erik Kellso at Smalls. Wonderful, intimate, thoughtful jazz. Tamar Korn and Jake Sanders of the Cangelosi Cards were in the audience, happily taking it all in.

On Friday, we were lucky enough to go to the Rubin Museum of Art for another of their “Harlem in the Himalayas” series, featuring the irreplaceable Joe Wilder and Loren Schoenberg, Steve Ash, Yasushi Nakamura, and Marion Felder.

I’m writing about the Wednesday and Thursday gigs for the justly famous jazz magazine CODA (http://www.coda1958.com) — a new association I’m very proud of — so these pieces will appear in their “Heard and Seen” pages.

Not sated, we made our Sunday pilgrimage to The Ear Inn to catch the Earregulars (variant spellings proliferate*). The first set featured Kellso, John Allred, Joe Cohn, and Frank Tate. Then the ranks were swelled, and nobly so, by Dan Tobias, Ken Peplowski, David Ostwald, and Bob DiMaio.

My ears are ringing, my eyelids are drooping, but what a blessed cornucipa of jazz!

P.S. Tonight, you could go to hear the Grove Street Stompers at Arthur’s Tavern on Grove Street, or hear Vince and the Nighthawks at Sofia’s . . . . and on and on. I’ll be trying to catch up on my sleep, but that’s no reason you should deny yourself such pleasures.

P.P.S. *This just in! Jon-Erik, Prince of Musical Passions, informs me that the approved spelling is “EarRegulars.” Lexicographers and media please note.

JAZZ MANGLISH 3

When a Japanese record label issued collections of Lee Wiley’s live recordings, they generously provided these versions of famous lyrics:

“I’ve got a crush on you, weedy pine.”

Nothing can happen to me anymore / I’m writing turkeys all over my door.”

Thanks to Scott Robinson for these gems.

JAZZ RAPTURE! AT THE EAR INN

Whether it’s collective improvisation or a soaring solo episode, jazz has the power to make us even more glad to be alive. The last two Sunday nights at The Ear Inn were thrilling examples of musical and spiritual energy.

On June 1, the Earregulars were led by New Orleans clarinetist Orange Kellin, who, quietly and without fanfare, recreated the hot Wednesday night band from the much-missed Cajun: banjoist-singer Eddy Davis, Scott Robinson on C-melody sax (atypically, playing only one instrument), bassist Kelly Friesen — who gave way to charter member Debbie Kennedy late in the evening. Pianist Conal Fowkes wasn’t there, but two ringers, both clarinetists, gave a truly international flavor: Motoo Yamzaki from Japan, and Adrian Cunningham for Sydney. Eddy used to call this band “Wild Reeds and Wicked Rhythm,” an apt moniker.

After a rocking medium-tempo “Sunday,” there were lovely ballads: “Prelude to A Kiss,” “I Cover the Waterfront,” “Ghost Of A Chance,” and a Scott Robinson specialty, “A Melody From the Sky,” which brought out the best in the crowd — a tidily-dressed woman at a nearby table half-sang, half-whispered the words to herself, smiling as she did so. (When later I congratulated her on knowing the sweet lyrics, she said, shyly, “Oh, you caught me!”)

Eddy sang one of his favorites, Jerry Herman’s paean to vaudeville, “Two A Day,” as well as asking the audience to join in on “Bourbon Street Parade.” Since the crowd included John Gill and Simon Wettenhall, it was an expertly swinging sing-along. What started out as a mysterious Middle Eastern meditation, rather like “Lena is the Queen of Palesteena,” revealed itself as an early hundredth-birthday tribute to Cole Porter, “I Love Paris,” which kept on threatening to become “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”

Orange, Scott, and Eddy (supported by Kelly or Debbie), musicians and friends, have a special chemistry. It is how brilliant soloists can intuitively sense what the band needs, create it on the spot, and send it forth. Scott and Orange, tussling like terrier puppies in a pet-shop window, worked wonderfully together: less aggressively than Soprano Summit or Sidney Bechet and Muggsy Spanier, but with feeling and drive. Orange’s style seems plain, even homespun: his inspirations are New Orleans Albert-system deities, not Goodman’s legions — but his simplicity is deceptive, for he is really a racing-car driver negotiating a tight turn at high speed. Before we know it, Orange has slyly got it and gone. Scott energized us with his beautiful tone, his yearning phrases, his deep well of feeling. Eddy pushed the band — not only rhythmically, but with his cheerful front-porch singing and his needling “Whaddaya got? Whaddaya got?” to urge his colleagues to pick the next tune.

In the first set, a lengthy, shouting “Diga Diga Doo” let the band testify at length. Eighty years old, the song is not harmonically complex, and its lyrics are all about the “Zulu man, feeling blue,” who sings the title — Eurocentrism in capital letters, at best. But musicians love it because it lacks complexity; its simplicity enables them to wander around in old friends D minor and C7 without fear of bumping into some radical chord change in transit. Scott created pushing riffs behind Orange; the solos hinted at rhythm and blues, George Lewis, and Charlie Parker, all leading to a driving closing ensemble. The quartet had the force and playfulness of a whole jam session — not in volume, but in variety, as the band changed its approach from chorus to chorus, sometimes in the middle of choruses. Doug Pomeroy, who has heard more inspired jazz than most people, turned to me and said, when it had ended, “THAT was worth the trip to Manhattan for me!”

For any other jazz group, that performance would have been the high point of the evening, reason enough to go home and take a well-deserved nap. But the Earregulars topped themselves in the second set with a rendition of “Good Old New York,” a very simple Jelly Roll Morton tune that he recorded at the end of his life, in band sessions that endearingly have their hearts set on jukebox hits — which did not happen. The song’s two ascending phrases, four notes apiece, that make up its opening melody, are infuriatingly catchy. After a pulsing statement of the melody, veering between unison playing and collective improvisation, Scott and Orange riffed energetically behind Eddy’s banjo solo; Scott and Kelly then played an unaccompanied duet, leading to a rocking, nearly ecstatic close.

Last night at The Ear was equally gratifying, with Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Joel Forbes, bass; John Allred, trombone. The quartet seemed a little big band, brass and rhythm sections, compact and wasteless. Kellso’s growls, slides, and muted moans were wonderfully in place. Jon pours his heart into every note: although he moves nimbly at fast tempos, each eighth note is a serious matter, with its own weight. Allred’s style bristles with sharply focused thirty-second notes, but his tone gleams, his blues dig in, his ballads sing. Behind them, Matt and Joel worked in idiosyncratic harmony, truly rocking in rhythm.

Jon started off with the wittily apt “June Night,” but the music truly became electric with a brisk “Smiles,” an almost-forgotten sentimental song circa 1920, that inspired the band into jam-session polyphony, counterlines, and riffs escalating in intensity. He then asked the singer Catherine Russell, seated at the bar, to join them. She chose “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?” — a tune that has had violence done to it by amateurs. Russell is stocky and solid but physically mobile, a playful actress, swaying her body and gesturing as the song indicated. Standing almost in the doorway, she made a spontaneous acting exercise of the lyrics, including the people wandering in and out in her script. It would have been hilarious improvised theatre if she had not sung a word. But Russell’s voice is extraordinary: a huge forceful instrument with power both released and held in reserve. I thought of Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington, but the resemblance was more organic than a collection of phrases copied from records. Singing, Russell can move mountains. But she has more than one approach: on a tenderly sad “I Cover the Waterfront,” with Kellso murmuring behind her, she made us believe the lyrics — honoring Billie Holiday without copying her mannerisms, Then, as if polishing off her imagined homage to jazz singers, she did Fats Waller’s “The Joint is Jumpin’,” with some clever changes to the lyrics. If the joint hadn’t been jumping before, it certainly was now.

The essayist Lorna Sass, whose most recent book won the James Beard Award, said excitedly, “They were cooking!” She knows.

The second set began with a luxuriant exploration of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” complete with verse, and the Earregulars, perhaps still thinking of Fats, went into a slow-drag “Squeeze Me” that suggested the great recording Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, and Kenny Burrell made for Vanguard, with honors going to Matt, whose solo evoked Jimmy Ryan’s 1942 and deep rural folk music at the same time, sometimes in the same phrase. A romping three-trombone “Sweet Georgia Brown,” featuring Allred, Harvey Tibbs, and Matt McDonald followed (Kellso sat happily watching). After a deeply Ellingtonian “Just Squeeze Me,” where the three trombones played choral held notes behind Joel’s solo, Jon called up the singer Tamar Korn, known for her work as part of the Cangelosi Cards.

I’ve written about Korn on a previous posting, when she came to the Ear and astonished everyone with a slow-tempo “Dinah,” so I couldn’t wait to hear her sing “Exactly Like You.” She is tiny and looks doll-like, but she’s clearly a hip urban doll; no Disney figurine, she. While the band played, Korn tapped her foot and wiggled, but in miniature. When she sang, she was intent, still, serious, gathering all her energy in her voice, which was focused but not at all tiny. Her approach is slippery, quicksilver: by the time a listener has said, “Was that a yodel?” or “That’s operatic,” or “She sounds like smeone on the Grand Old Opry,” the phrase is long gone — one runs behind Korn’s voice, trying to catch up with the beauties she has spread before us. “Exactly Like You” was all rocking sincerity: we knew that Mother HAD raught her to be true, and she didn’t need chorus after chorus to prove it. She then surpassed herself with a simple, eloquent, deeply felt reading of “Stardust,” which silenced most of the front room. What she sang transcended the song; we stopped listening to notes and words; we were swept up in her vision of lonely nights and memories. Sitting near me, Joyce Metz turned to her husband Ed (the noted jazz drummer) and lightly struck her sternum a few times with her fist, gently, to say, “That came from the heart.” It certainly did.

A postscript: the Earregulars, even before they had a name, played their first Sunday night gig at 326 Spring Street on June 17, 2007. I don’t know if next Sunday, June 15, is therefore a birthday or an anniversary (correct me, readers) but I hope to be there to join the cheering throng. However, and I find this pleasing, amusing, and just slightly annoying, The Ear Inn has now become so popular that people are calling for reservations.

Reservations?! Indeed!

But you will understand why in the first ten minutes of any Sunday night there.

SUMMIT SESSION (Wednesday, June 11)

The Sidney Bechet Society is sponsoring what promises to be a remarkable tribute to the late clarinetist Kenny Davern, whose jazz career spanned more than fifty years. Two concerts will be held at Symphony Space (that’s 2537 Broadway at 95th Street) on Wednesday, June 11, at 6:15 and 9:00.

Early and late in his career, Kenny was a forceful soloist — reaching astonishingly high notes on the clarinet with beautiful force, making sharp-edged remarks from the stage, turning off every microphone he could find, purling his way through delicate ballads, dramatic blues, and riotous stomps. But for more than one generation of jazz listeners, it’s impossible to think of Davern without having the name of Bob Wilber come right behind it. Here they are in a portrait, thirty or so years ago, when they were co-leading one of the best jazz groups imaginable, Soprano Summit, sparring partners and colleagues both:

Kenny was a powerful individualist, and the concerts feature very strong musical personalities. Happily for us, Wilber, who has just turned eighty, will be there! Then there’s the irreplaceable Dick Hyman on piano. I don’t recall seeing these two musicians on the same stage for a very long time, not since Hyman’s Perfect Repertory Quintet (PeeWee Erwin, Wilber, Milt Hinton, Bobby Rosengarden — names to conjure with) folded its tents.

But wait, there’s more — as they say in emails. A panorama of reeds will be handled by Dan Levinson and by Wilber’s protege Nik Payton. Getting equal time, and deserving it, will be the rollicking rhythm trio of Matt Munisteri, guitar; Vince Giordano, bass sax, aluminum string bass, vocals; Kevin Dorn, drums. (That rhythm trio was astonishing at the 2006 Atlanta Jazz Party: you could feel them rocking the suburbs.) I’ve never seen all these players together in the same place, and I predict great things, so I’ll be there with the Beloved.

The 6:15 show, I am told, is sold out, but the later concert is not. Tickets are $35, or $25 for Bechet Society members. Contact www.sidneybechet.org. for information. The Symphony Space website is, of course, www.symphonyspace.org., and the box office phone is 212.864.5400.