What do you get when you put David Ostwald, Jon-Erik Kellso, Dion Tucker, Anat Cohen, Mark Shane, and Kevin Dorn — with their respective instruments — in front of an appreciative audience? You get hot, heartfelt jazz. And it happened in front of my very eyes and ears at Birdland last Wednesday night — the Louis Armstrong Centennial Band’s regular gig.
David, who plays tuba, leads the band, and offers vaudeville commentary, is deeply devoted to Louis. But he understands that repertory recreation is not the way. So he will call songs that Louis played without insisting that his star musicians copy the recorded performances, and this freedom is ennobling.
The band characteristically begins its early evening gigs with Louis’s theme, SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH — which (after a drum break) becomes BACK HOME AGAIN IN INDIANA. What wistful domestic thoughts were going through David’s head last Wednesday night I can’t know, but they had a wonderful result, as he called one of my favorite songs, HOME, subtitled “When Shadows Fall.” And the band seemed just as inspired. Catch Jon-Erik’s passion-barely-under-control upward emoting at the end of the ensemble chorus, before Mark explores the lovely possibilities of this song in his best thoughtful, ambling way — out of Teddy and Fats (singing quietly to himself) with Kevin’s padding brushwork behind it all. Brief solos by Dion (gruff and feeling) and Anat (exploring the clarinet’s chalumeau register) give way to Jon-Erik’s solo, embodying everything Louis did without ever moving from his own creative sense. Discographical digression: Louis recorded it for the first time in 1931, with his introduction a quote from “Home Sweet Home,” and then revisited the song with Russ Garcia in the middle Fifties for one of his most moving sessions, LOUIS UNDER THE STARS. The other version that is firmly implanted in loving memory is on the Keynote label, 1944, featuring George Wettling and his New Yorkers — with devastating playing and singing from Jack Teagarden, Coleman Hawkins, and the Blessed Joe Thomas. But here it is in 2009:
Mark Shane’s solo feature, a happy romp through that old nonsense ditty, JADA, showed off what he does so well. Not only has the the technical capacity to seamlessly recreate the ambiance of Fats and Teddy, but he has so intuited their playing that he sounds like himself rather than someone offering gestures learned from the records. A good deal of this comes from Mark’s deep listening — we were talking about early Miles Davis before the set began–that goes far and wide. He’s heard and thought about all the great jazz players, and they smile on his playing.
Finally, for this post, we have MELANCHOLY (or MELANCHOLY BLUES), a song Louis recorded twice in 1927. It has the same chords as I AIN’T GOT NOBODY, and here the mood vacillates between sorrow, resignation, and some impassioned frustration — especially in the playing of Jon-Erik and Dion. But you should also listen to and admire the band’s rocking cohesiveness.
More to come in a future post . . . . so there will be no reason for anyone to be melancholy or Melancholy. Trust me.
Sharp-eyed viewers may note that the video quality is different from those occasions when Flip was in charge. Flip didn’t accompany me on this gig, his place having been taken by a more elaborate Sony camcorder, whose intricacies I am still mastering (exposure and the like). But Flip will be back when the occasion suits him, I assure my tender-hearted readers who might be anxious about his fate and well-being.