Dan Block is a peerless reed player, arranger, composer, bandleader. A new CD captures his many imaginations whole. The picture (by Dan’s daughter Emma) adorns the cover of his Ellington tribute, FROM HIS WORLD TO MINE.
Tributes to Ellington, hoever well-intentioned, have often become self-limiting, even formulaic. Some musicians try to duplicate the sound of famous recordings; others rely upon Duke’s hit songs; others nod to an Ellington line for a chorus and then go off on their own. Dan Block’s way is his own. No SATIN DOLL, no transcriptions. Rather, the most familiar songs on this CD are OLD KING DOOJI and KISSING BUG. (Ask anyone who admires Ellingtonian to hum DOOJI and you’ll see what I mean.) The repertoire, although not consciously esoteric, encompasses both COTTON CLUB STOMP and SECOND LINE.
Dan didn’t try to find musicians who could simulate Cootie, Blanton, Greer. And while he can evoke Jimmy Hamilton, Webster, Gonsalves, Bigard, Hodges, he doesn’t ever shed his own identity. Every track has its own sound — respectfully inventive. So an Ellington composition from 1940 (MORNING GLORY) is treated as if it were timeless (which it is) material for melodic improvisation, but never imprisoned by its “period” and “genre.”
Duke’s compositions are deeply re-imagined: KISSING BUG, which leads off, has Dan wistfully playing the line — only after he has perched atop the rattling percussion of Renato Thoms, the drums of Brian Grice, the chiming vibes of Mark Sherman, alternating with 4 /4 sections where we hear James Chirillo’s guitar, Lee Hudson’s bass, Mike Kanan’s piano. The rhythm section work throughout — in shifting permutations — is energized without being restrictively “modern” or “traditional.” Although Dan is the only horn player on this CD, I never tired of his sounds or styles.
I also noticed and applauded the natural sound of the sessions, for which I thank not only Dan but fellow saxophonist Andy Farber, who did the recording and shared mixing duties with Andrew Williams. The players whose work I knew — James Chirillo, Pat O’Leary, Lee Hudson — sound beautifully and thoroughly realized. The players who were new to me impress me thoroughly.
Each track has its own suprises — a brief but wholly musical drum solo on BUG; an unaccompanied tenor cadenza on a musing NEW YORK CITY BLUES. Dan understands that a slight shift of tempo (changing a ballad into a Fifties walk) makes a new composition although the notes seem the same.
Dan has a searching lyricism, but he also loves to rock, as I see whenever he performs. Not only does he vary his approach from performance to performance, but his horn (alto, tenor, a variety of clarinets, bass clarinet, and basset horn) without the result becoming gimmicky.
The disc is full of marvels — but three in particular stand out. One is THE BEAUTIFUL INDIANS (originally from 1947) that Dan makes into a shimmering impressionist painting through multi-tracking four reed voices (on as many instruments) — reed lines echo and intertwine, then hum and waft — all supported exquisitely by Hudson on bass and O’Leary on cello.
Another is the ambling ballad medley of ALL HEART and CHANGE MY WAYS, a track combining duets for clarinet and piano, then alto sax and piano. Mike Kanan is wondrously intuitive, his lines gliding from one beautiful voicing to the next.
But I marvel the most at the pensive A PORTRAIT OF BERT WILLIAMS reconsidered at a slightly faster tempo as a four-minute chamber piece for Dan, bass clarinet; Chirillo, guitar; O’Leary, cello; Hudson, bass. Imagine the Budapest Quartet playing Dvorak’s “American” Quartet / hybridized with the Basie rhythm section, with a touch of Lucky Thompson, Oscar Pettiford, and Skeeter Best . . . that would hint at this irresistible performance. (Chirillo’s acoustic playing is both funky and delicate.) This quartet returns for a sweetly lamenting ROCKS IN MY BED which reminds me of Jimmy Giuffre, Pee Wee Russell, and Danny Barker: you’ll understand when you hear it.
But this disc is full of pleasures, some instantly apparent, some appearing only on repeated hearings. The music honors Ellington but no one is subsumed into an already-established idea of “Ellingtonia.” And the title says a great deal: Dan and friends play approach Ellington’s music by finding revelations within it.
The disc costs $20. To order yours, email its creator at BlockDan@aol.com.