Over the past five years, Jon-Erik Kellso is the musician I’ve had the most frequent opportunities to observe and appreciate. And I keep coming back for more: he doesn’t run out of things to say; he doesn’t fall back on prepared solos; he takes risks; he balances technique and emotion, individuality and tradition superbly. When he gets into what he calls “his happy place,” he has no equals!
So I offer this version of a rarely-played Twenties pop tune, DO YOU EVER THINK OF ME? (a memorable question for sure) that he played at Jazz at Chautauqua this last September. His colleagues for this session were James Dapogny, Vince Giordano, and Arnie Kinsella in the rhythm section, with Dan Block, Bob Havens, and Bob Reitmeier in the front line.
In anyone else’s hands, a set-closer at this tempo (and with seventy or so years of performance convention behind it) would be simple and not always subtle: a rocketing tempo, a long drum solo, and horn solos without much support from the band. You’ve all seen such performances: Fast becomes Faster and the soloists are left on their own while the front line waits its turn off to the side. Not so here. Jon-Erik learned a great deal about leading an ensemble from the Master, Ruby Braff, who knew how to keep monotony at bay. Without pushing anyone around, Jon knows how to lead an ensemble. So, in this performance, he wisely extends the opening ensemble chorus into a second one (honoring New Orleans traditions all the way up to the present — why let the emotional temperature drop?). And while the wonderful rhythm section is cooking away, Jon motions to the horns who aren’t soloing to play “footballs,” whole-note harmonies, musical and emotional choirs giving strength to the band. His own solo (which plays with a phrase from Bob Reitmeier’s outing) gets a well-deserved thumbs-up.
And everyone floats on the momentum: Dapogny takes risks that come off; Vince Giordano and Arnie Kinsella exchange comments, witty and thunderous, becoming the twentieth-century version of Milt Hinton and Jo Jones — which leads to the closing ensemble. Thinking orchestrally, Jon-Erik guides the horns into a soft passage (you have to play softly to shout it out at the end) and we romp home. Even the still photographer in the plaid shirt, who sweetly yet obliviously blocked my view, couldn’t stifle my joy. Or ours, I trust.
Swing, you cats!