I know that in JULIUS CAESAR the Ides of March are a bad time to be out in public. But Bob Wilber — that’s Robert Sage Wilber, clarinetist, soprano saxophonist, tenor saxophonist, composer, arranger, occasional singer, eminent bandleader — turned eighty-four on March 15, 2012, and played two substantial duet sets with pianist Ehud Asherie at Smalls (183 West Tenth Street, New York). So we have to conclude that the Ides are not ominous for everyone.
People who do not play instruments professionally forget or perhaps have never known just how difficult it is to do — consistently, on any level. Breath and reflexes, mental memory and muscle memory, all are essential attributes. And just as people slow down when they reach “the golden years,” we might expect a musician’s fingers and embouchure to weaken, to falter.
Bob is an astonishing example of someone at the top of his form. And this isn’t sweet-natured hyperbole for a diminished elder player: listen to his firm attack, lustrous tone, gliding mobility. He was remarkable as a Bechet protege in 1947; he is even more remarkable now.
Bob calls Ehud “my favorite rhythm section in New York,” and if you don’t know Ehud’s work already — intuitive, attentive, subtle, multi-hued, and swinging — you are in for yet another treat. Not only is he a delicious soloist, he is a splendidly sensitized accompanist.
It was lovely to meet a few old friends and to make some new ones (Alistair and Jan from London; Vanessa Tagliabue Yorke, among others) — and the audience was delighted to be in the same room as Bob and his wife Pug, to share their happiness.
The first set began with a lyrical version of Ellington’s I LET A SONG GO OUT OF MY HEART — Bob’s evocation of Johnny Hodges:
Even though I don’t quite want to give Lil Hardin Armstrong as much credit for writing STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE as does Bob, I have no quibbles with his floating version here:
More Ellingtonia. And why not? JUST SQUEEZE ME:
After Bob turned down Ehud’s suggestion of HIGH SOCIETY, they settled on the cheerful THREE LITTLE WORDS (with echoes of Benny, of course):
Not only is THANKS A MILLION the way we feel about Bob; it’s such a pretty Louis-associated song:
And the first set ended with Bob’s tribute to Billy Strayhorn with — what else? — TAKE THE “A” TRAIN:
How generous — and how typical — of Bob to use his time in the limelight, the celebration that he had for himself, to honor the Masters: Louis and Duke, Lil and Strays, Benny and Hodges!
Take a fifteen-minute break: we’ll be back for the second set! (Bob and Ehud are working the room . . . talking to friends, too.)
May your happiness increase.