My title comes from Ezra Pound, whose serious instruction to hopeful modernists was MAKE IT NEW. In its own way, jazz has always been about making it new; even when one generation was paying tribute to preceding ones, the act of homage was in some ways grounded in newness. If, in 2016, one decides to play note-for-note recreations of an Alcide Nunez record, that act is bound to have 2016 sensibilities and nuances built in. But what animates Dan Block is much deeper than that. Dan, who embodies an extraordinarily wide range of music, is one of the most imaginative shape-changers I know.
For his most recent gig at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Dan assembled a surprising quintet: himself on clarinet and tenor saxophone; Godwin Louis on alto; Adam Birnbaum, piano; Jennifer Vincent, string bass; and for this rehearsal-session, Pete Van Nostrand, drums (Alvester Garnett played drums at Dizzy’s on June 7). The videos here are from an informal session held at Fat Cat on May 31. I present them here with Dan’s encouragement: although the crowd was its usual boy-and-girlish self, the music was spectacular. The band was advertised as “The Dan Block Quintet: Mary Lou Williams and Benny Carter Meet Hard Bop.” Intriguing, no?
Dan took half a dozen venerable songs from the Thirties — with connections to Chick Webb, Fletcher and Horace Henderson, Edgar Sampson, Mary Lou Williams, and Benny Carter — and reconsidered them, as if he were a very imaginative couturier. Take the song down to its sparest elements: strong melody, strong rhythm, familiar harmonies, and ask, “How would this look in lime green? What about a very short denim jacket?” and so on. As if he were fascinated by the essential self of the song — that which could not be harmed or obliterated — and started to play with the trappings — new rhythms, a different approach, new harmonies and voicings — to see what might result.
What resulted was and is terribly exciting — a blossoming-forth of exuberant energies from all the musicians.
HARLEM CONGO (from the Webb book):
PUDDIN’ HEAD SERENADE (Andy Kirk):
HOTTER THAN ‘ELL (Henderson):
BLUES IN MY HEART (Carter):
LONESOME NIGHTS (Carter):
BLUE LOU (Edgar Sampson for Chick Webb, then everyone else):
I think the originators, who were radical for their time, would certainly approve.
As an aside: everyone’s a critic, and cyber-communications have intensified this feeling. If readers write, “I like the original 78 versions better! This is not the way these songs should sound!” such comments will stay hidden. I revere the originals also, but I won’t have creative musicians I admire be insulted by comparisons of this nature.
May your happiness increase!