When we think of the great small bands of the Swing Era, early and late, Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five is both memorable and overshadowed . . . perhaps because (unlike the Goodman small groups, the Crosby Bobcats, and others I can’t call to mind) it was a studio aggregation, so we don’t have a large history of live performances in concert or recorded off the radio. (I’ve seen a photograph of the 1945 group with Roy Eldridge and Dodo Marmarosa, apparently performing as part of the Shaw big band presentation, but I don’t think the 1941 group existed outside the Victor studios.)
It was a superb — and quirky — group, with an affectionate kinship to the Raymond Scott and Alec Wilder small bands. Its instrumentation accounted for much of that — pianist Johnny Guarnieri on harpsichord — but its very tight arrangements were also remarkable. Al Hendrickson was an excellent electric guitarist — in the dawn of that era; Billy Butterfield, Nick Fatool, and Jud deNaut were also brilliant.
I was delighted to see and capture this four-song evocation at the 2015. Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party, where such heartfelt expertise is the main dish. Led by the masterful drummer Richard Pite, this new Gramercy 5 — what would that be on your smartphone? — soared and rocked. The noble participants: the brilliant clarinetist Lars Frank, Martin Litton, harpsichord; Rico Tomasso, trumpet; Martin Wheatley, electric guitar; Henry Lemaire, string bass. And they perform four classics: SUMMIT RIDGE DRIVE, KEEPIN’ MYSELF FOR YOU, SCUTTLEBUTT, and SPECIAL DELIVERY STOMP. A quarter-hour of compact pleasure:
Hot modernism in its own way, and it hasn’t aged. Try to make your way to the 2016 Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party — where such good surprises proliferate.
May your happiness increase!