SECRET STROLLERS: CORIN STIGGALL, CAROL MORGAN, CHUCK WILSON (Milano’s, Nov. 4, 2014)

Some jazz gigs are publicized energetically: you read about them on Facebook; you get emails and reminders; a paper brochure arrives in your mailbox. Other rewarding musical experiences go almost unnoticed — as if spies had gathered, swinging and playing melodies in whispers.

One such gig features bassist Corin Stiggall’s little band, STIGGALL & ASSOCIATES, that features Corin, the wonderful trumpeter Carol Morgan, and the always surprising Chuck Wilson on alto.  Guests have come by, too. They have been gathering at a little New York City bar, Milano’s (51 East Houston Street, about ninety seconds’ walk from the F train Broadway-Lafayette stop) on Tuesdays from 1 to 3 PM, and Thursdays from 2-4.

Weekday gigs at that hour are rare.  Even though the New York Times has told us that brunch is for the wrong people, jazz brunch gigs proliferate, often featuring wonderful singers.  But a weekday afternoon instrumental improvising gig?  How marvelous, how unusual.

And the music lived up to both those adjectives.

Corin is one of the city’s fine (and under-utilized) string bassists, who can keep time but does so much more — creating inventive castles of sound without ever treating his instrument like a guitar that has had espresso poured into its F-hole. A three-chorus solo from him is both logical and full of surprises, and he holds an audience’s interest (no rise in chatter) because of his melodic eloquence.

Carol is a wonder — melding all kinds of late-swing and contemporary influences while sounding exactly like herself.  She constructed phrases that made perfect sense (and were sometimes subtle musical jests) that started and ended in surprising places; her tone was golden without being sweet, her dynamics were admirable, and she continued to startle but in the best reassuring ways.

I’ve known Chuck the longest, and he is a sustaining pleasure, his tone his own — lemony but never acrid, his phrases following natural rhythms rather than strict four-bar divisions. He knows and admires the great alto Forerunner (that Avian deity) but doesn’t copy him; he is fleet but never glib.

What does a trio of string bass, trumpet, and alto saxophone sound like?

I didn’t miss the makings of a traditional quintet: piano and drums. Corin provided all the melody and harmonic basis needed, so the trio sounded like a small orchestra rather than a band with some of its members missing in action. Chuck and Carol hummed behind one another and behind Corin; they chatted happily, swapping melody and harmony; their solos never seemed a moment too long.

“Strolling,” as I understand it, was a term invented in the Forties (did Roy Eldridge have something to do with it?) where a horn soloist would work with a smaller portion of the three-or-four piece rhythm section.  Most often, the pianist would take a rest, often the drummer as well.  I heard it most often in the Seventies when I followed Ruby Braff, who — given a quartet of himself with traditional rhythm — would play duets in turn with piano, bass (most often) and drums, to vary the presentation, to get away from the familiar.

Without offending the many superb pianists and drummers I know, I will say that it was joyous today to hear horn / string bass duets and trios for an afternoon — music with translucent clarity, deliciously unadorned.  I could list the small groups I thought of, but why be historical? — this trio was a 2014 treat for the ears, with melodic improvisation the basis for their and our pleasure.

Although the musicians here know the creative improvised music offered in 1959 by Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry (they could have performed LONELY WOMAN splendidly) they stuck to more recognizable themes on which to improvise.  The first set began with a pair of show tunes, I’VE NEVER BEEN IN LOVE BEFORE and THE BEST THING FOR YOU (WOULD BE ME), then moved south for the theme from BLACK ORPHEUS, took a saunter into Tadd Dameron’s line on ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE from a Fats Navarro date, JAHBERO, and concluded with ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET.  (During SUNNY SIDE, a woman at the bar burst into song — but Milano is a hip bar and she was on key, in tune, and knew the words.  Brava, Madame, wherever you are!)

The second set started with Bud Powell’s SHE (a tune, I was told, that Barry Harris favors), moved into I’LL REMEMBER APRIL — then the esteemed bassist Murray Wall sat in, admiring the sound of Corin’s bass — for IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU, and the set concluded with PENNIES FROM HEAVEN that began with a Latin-rhythm chorus of the Navarro-Don Lanphere line on those chords, called STOP.

STOP was the last thing anyone wanted from this band, and I hope they don’t. Ever.

At this point, some of you may be looking eagerly for videos.  Circumstances got in the way — but I and the group are eager to present some music to you in the future.  For the moment, all I can do is urge you to break out of your weekday routine and go to Milano’s, a long narrow room that reminds me happily of jazz bars some decades back — happy, attentive customers and a pleasant staff.  A variety of beverages await; the atmosphere is happily informal; there is a plastic take-out container (it might have held a quart of wonton soup or coleslaw once) that acts as a tip jar.

I will return to Milano’s and hope you can be there also.  Stroll on by.

May your happiness increase!

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