At its best, jazz improvisation is spirited play, even when the musicians are creating a slow blues or a heartbroken lament. Since the musicians are finding their paths on their own, bar by bar, there is no choice but to be flexible and leap in. Risks lead to rewards! It doesn’t surprise me that many of the finest improvisers are also verbally witty — not tellers of jokes, but people able to see the possibilities for hilarity in ordinary conversation, everyday situations.
So when we say that a jazz group played something beautifully, we mean more than the casual phrase says.
The second set at The Ear Inn (that’s 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York) this last Sunday — Mother’s Day 2011 — was a hoot and a holler.
Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso*, trombonist John Allred, guitarist Matt Munisteri, and bassist Neal Miner share the same sensibility and some of the same wit — intellectual and musical — so the attentive viewer will see many smiles among the band. You can’t always see the audience, but the atmosphere at The Ear was quietly, intently joyous.
And when Ray Heitger, clarinet, vocal, and father of the sterling Duke, joined in, the air was thick with happiness; when Dan Block brought his alto sax to the meeting, no one could ask for more.
Here are four leisurely selections from that evening, play at its finest.
LINGER AWHILE (why not sit a spell? To quote John Gill, “Make yourself to home!”). The ensemble choruses that close this performance made me think, “Ah, Fifty-Second Street South!”:
GORILLA MY DREAMS (or, for the prudish, GIRL OF MY DREAMS — composed by the bandleader Sunny Clapp) with a surprise — a rocking, down-home vocal by Ray, who sends us!
OLD-FASHIONED LOVE, for James P. Johnson and Kenny Davern, both:
And to close, Jelly Roll’s MILENBERG JOYS (or perhaps it’s MILNEBURG? But the JOYS remain unshakeable). I think the ensemble sound in the opening and closing choruses is what the angels swing to. (Wherever they are, Lips Page and Eddie Condon are smiling.) And please admire Neal Miner’s bass solo — something so eloquent and fleet that no one talks through it:
Oh, PLAY those things!
*It was Jon-Erik’s birthday, but (as always) he gave presents and presence to us.