Tag Archives: Blue Roof Blues

LUCKY THIRTEEN: A NIGHT with the SIDNEY BECHET SOCIETY (Monday, November 5, 2012) featuring JON-ERIK KELLSO, EVAN CHRISTOPHER, MATT MUNISTERI, EHUD ASHERIE, PAT O’LEARY, MARION FELDER

The days slip away, and I see that I haven’t written a word about the final 2012 concert of the Sidney Bechet Society — an evening devoted to Sidney’s involvement with the New Orleans trumpet players.  Even though he said he disliked trumpeters because they got in his way, Sidney played alongside the very best.  This band at the Kaye Playhouse evoked but didn’t copy the great recordings he made:  in their thirteen performances, they managed not only to summon up Bechet’s musical worlds from 1925 on, but suggested how his spirit animated music being made in November 2012.

In short, a hot time was had by all.  

The members of this band exuded the fraternal delight one would expect from long-time comrades: Jon-Erik Kellso, Matt Munisteri, and Pat O’Leary are regular EarRegulars, with Evan Christopher an honored guest; Ehud Asherie and Marion Felder bring their own associations with sessions at Smalls and Birdland to the mix.

The first half of the concert was a more formal evocation of the title and of the hallowed recordings (some of them rather complex songs with multiple themes) highlighted by three vigorous romps — WEARY BLUES and I FOUND A NEW BABY (harking back to the 1932 Feetwarmers session with Tommy Ladnier and Hank Duncan); CAKE WALKIN’ BABIES FROM HOME (honoring Bechet’s early collaboration — or battle — with young Louis Armstrong on Clarence Williams’ dates).

A slower COAL CART BLUES swung with all its might, even though the tempo was less arduous (echoing the 1940 Decca “reunion” session for George Avakian’s NEW ORLEANS JAZZ album).  Three mood pieces took seriously divergent directions: Matt sang BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME in his own half-earnest, half-ironic way, very combustible; Evan took center stage for one of Bechet’s Haitian rhapsodies, TROPICAL MOON (“kind of a funky thing”) which had everyone swaying . . . as did the band’s EGYPTIAN FANTASY — with an “exotic” flavor that also drew on the “Spanish tinge.”

After an intermission during which we all could compare tales of Storm Sandy (many in the audience, I think, were going home to dark cold houses and apartments), the band reassembled for a looser second half . . . as if they had done their required assignment and could now play a bit more.

Some of the repertoire for the second half was drawn from the Kellso-Christopher-Munisteri BLUE ROOF BLUES: A LOVE LETTER TO NEW ORLEANS (Arbors) — one of the most completely realized jazz CDs I know: an intoxicating habanera-flavored PANAMA, a street-parade HIGH SOCIETY, with the famous Picou chorus played softly at first; Kellso’s lyrical JUST LIKE THAT, Evan’s intense improvisation on Tommy Ladnier’s MOJO BLUES, a solo feature for Ehud on WILLOW TREE, where Art Tatum, Cliff Jackson, and Christopher Columbus came for brief visits with Mr. Asherie; the concert ended with a rousing HINDUSTAN, with the always-surprising and always-gratifying key changes.

It was a great band: Marion Felder is one of those exalted drummers who cares deeply about sound, dynamics, and rhythms — a phenomenon rarer than you might think.  He will patiently stay on his snare drum or tom-toms and play simple rhythms for their sweetly intensifying dramatic effect; he can play a song as did Zutty Singleton but he’s always playing himself.  Pat O’Leary stayed in the background, but he is one of the essential guiding forces of any ensemble: his tone, taste, and choice notes keep everyone focused on melodic swing.

Matt Munisteri never fails to surprise: guitarists marvel at his technique, but I marvel more at the way every kind of music seems to osmotically work its way through him — and the end result never seems like a conscious synthesis.  Ehud Asherie continues to delight: his deep soulful range, bridging Then and Now, is a pleasure — because the influences have long since become a cohesive artistic whole, without one saying, “Oh, there’s a Fats lick!” again.

The horn players, as we have come to expect, worked together in friendship but there was the slightest edge of playful tussling — the kind of sweet competition that makes sessions rise above the ordinary.  Both of them are instantly recognizable, with big sounds: you know who’s playing in a bar or two, and the restrained intensity bubbles with elegant down-home ferocity.

It was fun — in case you haven’t guessed.  I’ll say more about the 2013 concerts when we cross into the spring.

May your happiness increase.

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A JOURNEY THROUGH “HINDUSTAN”: JON-ERIK KELLSO, DAN BLOCK, BOB HAVENS, JAMES DAPOGNY, FRANK TATE, PETE SIERS (JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA 2011)

In the name of geographers everywhere, here’s an 1835 map showing Hindustan:

And here’s the local paper — if you’d like something to read while travelling:

And here’s the sheet music cover for the song:

But enough of that.  What we’re concerned with today is an amazing extended hot performance of this song at Jazz at Chautauqua (Sept. 16, 2011) by a group led by trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, with Bob Havens (trombone); Dan Block (clarinet); James Dapogny (piano); Frank Tate (string bass); Pete Siers (drums).

Because the song has very simple harmonies — “chord changes” — and perhaps for the sake of variety, Jon-Erik had made HINDUSTAN into a key-changing exercise in swing on the superb CD, BLUE ROOF BLUES, that he created in 2006 with Matt Munisteri, Evan Christopher, and Danton Boller.  There’s something about key changes that’s inherently dramatic: the audience might not know that the band was in C for the first chorus and Eb for the second, but we feel it — even when (as is the case here) the band and the soloists keep shifting from one key to another . . . it seems exciting rather than mechanical.

This band is special to me because of its wonderfully paradoxical nature: they make it look easy, but you know their playing is the result of decades of study; it looks like great fun, but it’s very hard work (let the critics pick up a trumpet and try it sometime); they get hot but stay cool.  My heroes!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go check on my desert caravan.  The last time I unwittingly left it in a NO PARKING zone on the Upper West Side, I got a $65 ticket.

OH, DIDN’T THEY RAMBLE!

I spent a few glorious hours last night (Sunday, May 24) at the Ear Inn — absorbing the sounds in two long sets by New Orleanian Evan Christopher (clarinet), Scott Robinson (trumpet, C-melody saxophone, and tenora), Matt Munisteri (guitar), and Danton Boller (bass) — the EarRegulars minus co-leader Jon-Erik Kellso, who was working his plunger mute at the Breda Jazz Festival in the Netherlands.

Candor compels me to say when I walked into the Ear, I found it noisy and crowded — as expected on the Sunday of a four-day weekend.  Finding no place to sit at first, I even entertained the cowardly thought of turning tail and heading back uptown.  But when I saw friendly faces — Jim and Grace Balantic, whose amiable presence I’ve missed for some time, Doug Pomeroy, jazz acupuncturist Marcia Salter, Conal and Vlatka Fowkes — I calmed myself and prepared to stay.

However, throughout the evening I kept noting the newest weird phenomena: photographers who have not yet figured out how to shoot without flash, thus exploding bursts of light a foot from the musicians.  Even more odd, I counted many young male faux-hipsters who now sport hats with tiny brims, rendering their skulls unnaturally huge.  Will no one tell them?  In my day, being Cool didn’t automatically mean looking Goofy.  But I digress.

The Ear Inn, incidentally, never turns into a monastic sanctuary — commerce, food, and drink are part of the cheerful drama of the evening . . . so one of the two hard-working waitresses was forever imploring the bartender (not Victor, alas for us), I need two Boddingtons, one Stella, two vodkas, one grapefruit tequila with salt!” In earnest near-shouts.

A word about the musicians.  Evan is one of the finest clarinet players I will ever hear: his command of that recalcitrant instrument from chalumeau to Davern-like high notes is astonishing, and he has a fat woody New Orleans tone, rapturous in the lower register, moving to an Ed Hall ferocity when he presses the octave key.  He is a fierce player in intensity and sometimes in volume, but he can murmur tenderly when he cares to.  And, although he is fluent — ripping through many-noted phrases — he doesn’t doodle or noodle aimlessly, as so many clarinetists do, filling up every space with superfluous rococco whimsies.

Scott Robinson, wearing his OUTER SPACE shirt, made by his multi-talented wife, Sharon, was in fine form: doubling trumpet and C-melody saxophone in the space of a performance, playing three choruses on the trumpet and then — without pause — going straight to the saxophone, magically.  Few payers (Benny Carter, Tom Baker, Smon Stribling) have managed to double brass and reeds; none of them have made it seem as effortless as Scott does.  And the tenora . . . a truly obscure Catalonian double-reed instrument that he had brought to the Ear on May 10 — which has an oboe’s insistent tone and timbre — is gradually becoming a Robinson friend.

Matt Munisteri was in fine form, even though the Ear gig was the second or third of the day (a concert for the Sidney Bechet Society in the early afternoon, then a 1:30 jam session with Evan in honor of Frankie Manning); he burned throughout the performance, with his humming-along-to-his-solos particularly endearing.

Young Danton Boller, quiet and unassuming, seemed to play his string bass without amplification, but swung heroically, reminding me at points of Milt Hinton or George Duvivier — his melodies ringing, his time flawless, his spaces just right.  One could transcribe a Boller solo for horns and it would be mightily compelling.  He is someone to watch, if you haven’t caught him yet — on CD, he is a delightful presence on the Kellso-Christopher-Munisteri CD, BLUE ROOF BLUES (Arbors).

The band began with a nearly slow AT SUNDOWN (perhaps in honor of the still light-blue evening sky?) which did that pretty tune honor, and then, perhaps in honor of togetherness to come, romped — and I don’t use that word lightly — through TOGETHER (“We strolled the lane to-geth-er,” etc.) in suggesting a modern version of Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra, with Scott riffing behind Evan, the two horns creating a rocking counterpoint.  A blistering THEM THERE EYES followed, with Evan and Scott swapping the lead in their opening choruses (this quartet showed it knew the value of old-time ensemble playing, something that some musicians have unwisely jettisoned in favor of long solo passages).  Evan, who has a comedic touch, then discussed the business of making requests of the band.  He laid out three conditions: the band had to know the song; the band had to be interested in playing the song; the band would be most knowledgeable and willing to play the request if some financial support was forthcoming.  A man sitting at the bar asked for the very unusual Bing Crosby JUNE IN JANUARY (1934) which Evan taught the band in a matter of moments, and the band learned it in performance, with its final choruses recalling the glories of Soprano Summit in years gone by.

At the end, Evan said, “That was a SPECIAL request!” — and some member of the quartet, primed to do so, asked, “Why was it SPECIAL, Evan?” to which he said, full-throttle, “Because it was PAID FOR!”  Making himself clear, you understand.

SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET followed, beginning with hints of Johnny Hodges, then moving into Louis-territory, with Evan and Scott using the Master’s passionate phrasing and high notes in their solos.  And something unexpected had taken place: perhaps because this jazz oasis is called the Ear, the noisy audience had gradually changed into a room (mostly) full of listeners, who had caught the group’s drift.  Of course, there were still people who talked through each song and then clapped enthusiastically at the end because everyone around them was doing so — but I could sense more people were paying attention, always a reassuring spectacle.  And the set ended with a joyous JUNE NIGHT — with laugh-out-loud trades between the two horns, and a jovial unbuttoned vocal by Evan (a little Fats, a little Louis Prima) which surprised everyone.  Then the musicians retired to the back room to eat some well-deserved food.

Emboldened by the idea of JUNE IN JANUARY, before the second set started, I approached Evan with an appropriate portion of currency unsubtly displayed, and asked him, “Excuse me, Evan, would that buy me some SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE?”  Evan took in the bill, said, “SWEAT-HOGS ON PARADE?  OK?!”  And that’s how the set began, the band rounding the corners in wonderful style, Scott even beginning his trumpet solo with a nod to LOVE IN BLOOM, Matt playing a chorus of ringing chords, the band inventing one riff after another to close.  Scott, brave fellow that he is, took up the tenora for a feature on THE NEARNESS OF YOU — which had plaintive urgency as you could hear him getting more comfortable with his new horn.  (At the end of the night, when I talked with him about the tenora, he said, “I know it has a pretty sound, but I haven’t quite found it yet.”  He will, I know.)

HINDUSTAN was a highlight of the BLUE ROOF BLUES CD, with the nifty idea of shifting from the key of C to the key of Eb for alternating choruses, something I’ve never heard another band do, raising the temperature considerably; this performance ended with a serious of ecstatic, hilarious, and knowing phrase-tradings, with quotes from I’M BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT, PAGILACCI, leading up to an urgent, pushing counterpoint, mixing long melodic lines with fervent improvisations, savoring the many textures of the quartet.  A waltz-time NEW ORLEANS cooled things down, beginning with a duet for clarinet and guitar that sounded like back-porch music for a warm night.  A riotous THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE took us back to Noone, to Soprano Summit, with Scott’s rocking solo pleasing Evan so much that he was clapping along with it.  Finally, a down-home MAKE ME A PALLET ON THE FLOOR mixed operatic fervor and hymnlike unison playing, ending with the band getting softer and softer, as if they were walking slowly into the distance.

It was lovely music, fulfilling and fulfilled, and it has filled my thoughts a day later.  You should have been there!

“RIGHT ON IT!”

My title comes from the musicians’ expression for starting a song without an introduction, rather than easing their way in with a four-bar piano passage or eight bars of hi-hat cymbal from the drums.  And it’s the way that clarinetist Evan Christopher began the first song at the September 15 Sidney Bechet Society concert at Symphony Space.  Evan brought a cross-cultural version of his new group, “Django A La Creole,” with guitarists Pete Smith and Matt Munisteri, string bassist Sebastien Giradot, and trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso.  This little band loosely followed the post-Stephane Grappelly instrumentation of Django Reinhardt’s Quintette of the Hot Club of France.  But Evan had more in mind that simply producing another version of Gypsy jazz: he is interested in the cross-currents between New Orleans jazz (with its Creole roots, drawing on Spanish, French, and Cuban rhythms) and Django’s music.

We attended the early show — for jazz musicians, a 6:15 concert is quite early.  Jazz players take a bit of time to warm up, even when their instruments are checked, tuned, oiled, and aligned backstage.  That warming up is not a matter of valves and reeds, but of comfort, individual and collective.  Artists have to be balanced midway between tension and relaxation; they have to get the feel of the hall, of the audience, of the lights, of their fellow players.  This is rarely accomplished on the first selection.  There wasn’t a note out of place in the opening performances, but the band took its time to be truly inspiring.  And the group grew more inventive, more playful, with each succeeding song.

Evan is someone to watch.  He has characterized himself as a New Orleans clarinet player, someone who knows and loves the tradition.  But that doesn’t mean he offers pastiches of what his forebears have already played.  A completely assured instrumentalist, he takes risks; his soaring lines dance.  So, as a matter of fact, does he; he never keeps still.  If you could only see him (as in a silent film) you would guess that he was putting his heart into his music and having a fine time doing so.  Unlike some other players, he is also comfortable when talking about the music, and last night he offered witty, engaging commentary on the proceedings.

Witty, dancing versions of “Flee As A Bird – High Society” and Jelly Roll Morton’s “Mamanita” opened the program, making it clear to listeners that there would be genre crossing from funeral music to street parade anthems to Creole – Spanish jazz.  Pete Smith, who seemed to have broken his foot (it was in a cast) turned in ringing single-string solos with some of Django’s declamatory fervor.
Evan turned the stage over to Jon-Erik, announcing his feature as “a romantic ballad.”  That was a fine joke, since the song was called “Funky Butt” when Buddy Bolden played it, cosmeticized into “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say” for Morton’s Victor recording.  Two of the Ear Regulars (or Earregulars, depending on whether you’re Reform or Conservative) heated things up immensely.  Matt Munisteri, who always comes to a gig ready to play, was in wonderfully intense form.  I think of his work as No Note Left Unbent, and he dug deep.  For his part, Jon-Erik was vividly inspired, working hard behind his plunger mute, rendering this naughty song as a quiet, growling lullaby full of ascending runs and vocalized cries, protesting and cajoling.  It was an Oscar-winning performance without words and without a script.  The first set closed with a train-inspired “Farewell Blues,” Matt harking back to Django’s “Mystery Pacific,” in a performance that merged a Basie small group, the Hot Club Quintette, and a Wellman Braud solo from Giradot.  An intermission followed: we needed one.

The second half of the concert focused primarily on the magical jazz recorded in 1939 when Rex Stewart, Barney Bigard, and Billy Taylor (the bassist), then members of the Duke Ellington band touring Europe, met up with Django Reinhardt.  I heard the original 78s for the first time around 1970 and they are still thrilling recordings.  On the moody “Low Cotton,” the thoughtful, lowdown “Solid Old Man,” and a romping “I Know That You Know,” the band outdid itself.  And Evan, telling the story about Django meeting the Ellingtonians, was as happy as he could be. (He has adopted some of Ed Hall’s nearly violent lyricism in the 1939 numbers, to great effect.)   The concert closed with a truly joyous romp on “Hindustan,” with the musicians changing key on every chorus, alternating between C and Eb, something they had done on their Arbors CD, BLUE ROOF BLUES, a classic recording.  (I learned some days later that they had done the title song, a Kellso composition about what Katrina and the U.S. government had done to New Orleans, at the second concert.  I’m sorry that I missed it, but urge readers of this blog to check out the CD.)

It was a thrilling evening of impassioned jazz.

Photographs copyright 2008 by Lorna Sass.

CREOLE RHAPSODIES AT SYMPHONY SPACE

The good news is that another Sidney Bechet Society concert is around the corner on Monday, September 15. There is no bad news.

Evan Christopher is back in town, heading a new small group, “Django a la Creole,” which combines the all-strings instrumentation of the QHCF with Evan’s deep New Orleans roots. Evan will be playing alongside guitarists Matt Munisteri and Pete Smith, and bassist Sebastien Giradot. And, if that were not enough, the special guest star is Jon-Erik Kellso. (Evan, Jon-Erik, and Matt are a wonderful team, as the Arbors CD BLUE ROOF BLUES proves.)

The concerts will take place at 6:15 and 9 PM at Symphony Space (2537 Broadway at 95th Street). Tickets are $25 for Bechet Society members, $30 in advance, $35 the day of the concert. The hall has excellent acoustics and good sightlines. Evan’s 2006 and 2007 concerts sold out; this one will too. To order tickets, visit the Bechet Society website at www.sidneybechet.org.

Even though it’s only a fragment, I was delighted to see this YouTube clip of Evan and a version of this admirable small group. Here, they play a wistful version of “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” making yearning, intimate jazz. Evan’s delicacy reminds me of late Pee Wee Russell, a great compliment.