Sunday, September 6, 2009, was my first visit to The Ear Inn after a summer’s hiatus.
The music I heard there was uplifting, with a Labor Day holiday weekend version of the EarRegulars: cornetist Dan Tobias, alto saxophonist Michael Hashim, gutiarist James Chirillo, and bassist Frank Tate — with violinist Valerie Levy sitting in for two songs in the second set.
I brought my video camera, as I had done at Whitley Bay, to capture the proceedings in cinematographic splendor. And I did, although less than splendidly. The Ear is rarely brightly lit (although occasionally strings of tiny white bulbs come to life, suggesting Christmas for non-sectarian audiences) but that night the ambiance was especially murky. So the videos that follow are occasionally blurry and consistently grainy.
Mea cinema culpa, I say. Readers who object to having their jazz turned noir (Dan’s shirt was a series of vivid pastels) should avert their gaze. But the music is so restorative that I hope they can listen while doing something else.*
About the band. Dan Tobias is a wonderful, intuitive player, someone who would have been welcome on Fifty-Second Street or at a Keynote Records session. He has a glowing tone but can also growl and soar, although he usually takes the compact middle-register paths of Buck Clayton and Bobby Hackett. This night he reminded me of Roy Eldridge, of the Thirties Ellington and Basie brass, of Joe Thomas and Shorty Baker. Need I say more? Dan is also a genial ad-hoc bandleader: almost every number ended with a series of Kansas City riffing outchoruses created on the spot. Michael Hashim has spectacular technique and musical wit. His bubbling personality has so many sides that it’s like a full sax section on the gig. There’s the Johnny Hodges balladeer; the rhythm and blues crowd-inciter; Pete Brown’s love-child; the King of Arpeggios. He only got paid once on Sunday, a pity. James Chirillo’s solos are full of brilliant tumbling lines (yet every note rings and has a purpose), happily weird dissonances, a sonic spectrum that goes from pastoral whisperings to twangy Fifties chords to hints of electronic music. He’s never predictable, and his rhythm is a wondrous force. Frank Tate was there two years ago on the EarRegulars’ first gig. Frank can walk the chords with a resonance and rightness that suggests Walter Page, and his melodic inventions catch the ear (fitting for someone who learned a great deal from playing alongside Bobby Hackett). When the music heats up, many bassists get carried away: Frank swings hard but is the epitome of steadiness.
Let’s start with IF DREAMS COME TRUE — the property of Billie Holiday, also James P. Johnson, Teddy Wilson, and Buck Clayton — here a trotting conversation among friends:
A Duke Ellington medley is often formulaic, stringing together “greatest hits” as Duke himself did — almost as if to get it over so that the crowd would go home happy they had heard SATIN DOLL. This version is anything but cliched; it begins with DO NOTHIN’ TILL YOU HEAR FROM ME, where Hashim does Hodges perfectly, then the quartet gets serious for Danny’s SOLITUDE, full of mournful growls (bringing together Arthur Whetsol and Clark Terry), and James’s pensive WARM VALLEY brings everyone together in a deliciously hymning way:
Jazz musicians keep coming back to Irving Berlin’s melodies, even those that seem most simple, and ALL BY MYSELF (a favorite of Kenny Davern) should be played more often — especially as it is here:
Performed as an unstated homage to Bix (catch the first chorus) and to Eddie Condon (throughout), SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL is one of those happy oddities that blossomed through Twenties and Thirties pop music — a song that should properly be melancholy but is a real romp. Notice James’s brilliant introduction, and Danny’s invitation to the ball game:
On a “gal” kick? Who knows, but the next tune called was the old favorite MY GAL SAL:
Another “Dixieland” tune, BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME, is fun to play, even if the band neatly sidesteps the stop-time patter vocal chorus:
Valerie Levy, a classically-trained violinist who’s also got a great deal of experience playing the American Songbook (and who also happens to be Mrs. Chirillo), joined the band for a lovely EMBRACEABLE YOU:
I try to request songs infrequently, but my restraint gave way. Not only did I ask Danny if the band would play I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME, but I pushed presumption to its limits by asking for a slow-medium tempo. Danny agreed, and I got to record this wonderful performance:
I remember Davern calling I WANT TO BE HAPPY at the extraordinary concert Hank O’Neal put on at the New School in 1972 (the other participants: Condon, Wellstood, Davison, and Krupa) and Davison leering at the crowd, “Don’t we all!” We still do:
Finally, for this post, POOR BUTTERFLY, a sideways memory of the suffering operatic heroine:
Some band! — even through the murk and blur.
*If anyone can recommend a hard-drive compact video camera that functions well in low light, I would be grateful. I’m using a Sony DCR SR 220. . . .