Twenty years ago and more, Marty Grosz told an interviewer, somewhat wistfully, “I would have been dynamite in 1933.”
I agreed wholeheartedly when I read those words, and although time has passed, Martin Oliver Grosz can still create spontaneous combustion on the bandstand.
It’s not just his chordal acoustic guitar playing, nor his sweet ballad singing or his romping comedy (vocally and in his extended introductions to each song): it’s the combination of all three. Marty summons up not only Fats Waller and Red McKenzie but also Dick McDonough and Carl Kress, with a healthy overlay of wicked humor.
Marty was in characteristic form at Jazz at Chautauqua 2010 — leavening his own recipe for hot music with acidic commentaries. He had been assembling obscure material and writing charts for a CD devoted to the music of pianist-composer James P. Johnson (pictured above in a 1946 photograph), but when Marty arrived at Chautauqua, he decided to improvise his tribute to James P. — with delightful results. (I’ll have more to say about that Arbors CD when it appears.)
Marty’s friends and colleagues here are the blazing cornetist Randy Reinhart, reed wizards Dan Block (here on clarinet and bass clarinet) and Scott Robinson (on alto clarinet, I think, and a German version of the echo cornet whose name I have forgotten), the steadily rollicking John Sheridan on piano and double-takes, Vince Giordano on string bass, and Arnie Kinsella on drums.
They began with a sweet ONE HOUR (properly called IF I COULD BE WITH YOU ONE HOUR TONIGHT) which had the right spirit all the way through. Marty doesn’t recycle Vic Dickenson’s naughty gesture — when Vic, singing, came to “one hour,” he held up two fingers — but he puts his own spin on it, turning this pretty rhythm ballad into a Fats Waller and his Rhythm evocation (what a pity Fats never recorded this one!). And what a front line — bass clarinet, cornet, and alto clarinet! Watch Dan Block delight in Randy and Scott; hear Arnie behind Sheridan; savor Marty’s guitar propulsions, pure Albert Edwin Condon — appropriately leading into a modern version of a 1938 Commodore ensemble. “Oh, mercy!” indeed:
Then, one of Marty’s specialties, A PORTER’S LOVE SONG TO A CHAMBERMAID (even though he required a second take — jazz while you wait! — to get Andy Razaf’s lyrics in the correct order) — after one of Marty’s ad libs cracks Sheridan up completely. But once things get properly underway, everyone is in the groove — beautiful horn solos and rocking piano from John, then a surprise bass sax solo from Vince and an interlude from Marty:
Finally, Marty has said that he finds James P.’s most famous song a little limiting as it’s written and performed — so here’s CHARLESTON performed as if Bizet’s Carmen had decided to go uptown (after a let’s-put-on-a-show-in-my-father’s-barn prelude). Habanera? Tango? Spanish tinge? Whatever it is, does it ever swing (after John delineates the verse in near-classical shadings). I don’t exactly remember the name of Scott Robinson’s new find (is it a love-child of the echo-cornet?) but he plays it splendidly, even though it was a very new acquisition — leading into Dan on bass clarinet with band interjections behind him (and Arnie’s Cuban enthusiasms), then Randy, soaring, Sheridan rollicking, Arnie stomping — and it gets even better:
Have my viewers guessed just how much I loved this little set? Or have I successfully concealed my enthusiasm in the name of objectivity? It’s hard, no, impossible, to be objective about what these musicians create — especially when they are led by M. Grosz. He can make as many savage jokes as he likes or forget the proper order of lyrics: he’s still dynamite.