Last night, the Sunday that began March 2009, the Beloved and I took up our positions at the Ear Inn, close enough to the band to hear some of the muttered in-jokes. And what a band! Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, Mark Lopeman on tenor sax, James Chirillo on guitar, Jon Burr on bass — and, after the first number, Dan Block on alto sax.
That’s the reed and rhythm sections. Here’s the trumpet section, with friends. Everyone’s concentrating hard, eyes shut:
Photographs copyright 2009 by Lorna Sass. All rights reserved.
You’ll notice that two of the EarRegulars are tuxedo-clad, although with room to breathe. Not the usual Ear Inn dress code! We in the fashion world call this Unbuttoned Formal. Lest you were wondering if this was a new West Village aesthetic, the more obvious reason is that Jon-Erik, Dan, and Mark had just come from an afternoon gig with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks — the Pee Wee Russell Memorial Stomp, or “the PeeWee Stomp” to those in the know. Dan and Jon-Erik were wearing their Nighthawks regalia. Where Mark hid his is currently unknown.
I won’t say that the band’s particularly splendid playing last night was due to their clothing, but the situation reminded me of something common in the Thirties and Forties. Jazzmen spent the evening sitting in a big band, soloing occasionally but more often reading the charts — and then went someplace to blow, to get all of those arrangements out of their system. Vince, as you know, is no Swing Era martinet, and those charts are a pleasure to play . . . but there was a noticeable absence of printed music at the Ear last night. No one missed it.
Jon-Erik suggested Fats Waller’s cheerful I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY as an opener. Was he thinking about his own delightful Jackie, sitting nearby, or Liz, Jon Burr’s endearing partner, or even myself and the Beloved? Who can tell? But it’s always a good tune to play, and the streamlined quartet dug in joyously.
For any other jazz group, it would have been a triumphant performance. For the EarRegulars, who happily set their standards so high, it was only a casual romp, a friendly warm-up. An appetizer!
Dan Block, his injured finger still bandaged but playing marvelously, came aboard for Carmichael’s ROCKIN’ CHAIR, taken at a less lugubrious tempo than usual. And it was a stirring lesson in the many shades an improvising ensemble can bring to a piece of music — from intense hymnlike beginnings, with the saxes humming behind Jon-Erik, to a downhome shuffle with hints of rhythm and blues, coming full circle with Jon-Erik’s Braffish cadenza. We cheered, and the set was still young.
JEEPERS CREEPERS (in Bb) was another subliminal homage to Louis (with thanks to Johnny Mercer). Here the band rose to new peaks of swinging empathy. Jon-Erik ended his solo with a sideways homage to the Basie EVERY TUB, and Dan picked up the phrase to start his own solo. Jon Burr was particularly eloquent, shaping his phrases and leaving elegant spaces in between, and the “telepathy” of my title was at its height, with the two-man sax section answering Jon-Erik in the final ensemble with the wonderful intuition of artists fluent in a shared language. Everyone in this quintet knows how to respond to each other without taking time to intellectualize. I thought of the little bands that Hot Lips Page used to lead — trumpet, three saxes, and rhythm — a great compliment to the EarRegulars.
Mark Lopeman shone on a grooving, rhapsodic IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN that showed off his beautiful tone.
Then it was “tempo di jump” once again, and Jon-Erik, feeling cheerful and with good reason, called I WANT TO BE HAPPY. For the semanticists in the audience, of course the wish expressed in that title would have been a redundancy, but perhaps Jon-Erik wanted to make sure that every molecule in the Ear Inn felt the way he did. The performance began with a wondrously dissonant introduction by Chirillo — who occasionally delights everyone with thrillingly weird chords and jagged lines that meld Appalachia and Charles Ives — and everyone riffed behind Dan, who was flying. His Muse was not only Charlie Parker, but Charlie Holmes. Beautiful solos led into what I think of as Keynote Records-riffs, a shout chorus, an upwards key change (thanks, James!) for another exuberant finish.
The EarRegulars were having too much fun to stop, and it was time to let Phillip DeBucket, who loves to visit at every table, make his rounds of the Ear, so Jon-Erik called for the blues, which happily took shape as Strayhorn’s THE INTIMACY OF THE BLUES — spiritual, groovy, sad and spirited.
It was a thrilling hour. Creativity, a common jazz vocabulary, and high-level telepathy were all on display. Good job! Well done! Blessings on all your heads!