Tag Archives: creative improvisation

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!

THE PAST GIVES THE FUTURE A PRESENT: EHUD ASHERIE, JON-ERIK KELLSO, ALEX HOFFMAN at SMALLS (May 10, 2012)

The casually affecting improvisations that Ehud Asherie (piano), Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet), and Alex Hoffman created at Smalls (183 West Tenth Street, Greenwich Village, New York) a few weeks ago don’t need much explication.

But to me they prove, once again, that improvisations on familiar chord sequences over a swinging 4 / 4 aren’t outmoded.  This music looks backwards as far as recorded jazz can — Ehud’s stride playing is deeply aware of ragtime and Fats Waller . . . but it also exemplifies the spiky brilliance of Bud Powell and Monk — while sounding just like Mr. Asherie.  Jon-Erik’s winding phrases shine with his admiration of Louis, Roy, and Ruby, but no one would mistake him for a player stuck in the grooves of recordings.  And Alex’s sweetly easeful tenor evokes Lester Young — but Alex knows the present and future.

The wonderful legerdemain of this performance is that it summons up an imagined 1938 Basie jam session brought whole into May 2012.  Delineations between Now and Then blur as these three masters savor the joys of serious play.

They began the second set with I NEVER KNEW — to me an empty statement, for these players certainly do know, no matter how much they protest otherwise:

Eloquent, romantic, pretty — James P. Johnson’s IF I COULD BE WITH YOU ONE HOUR TONIGHT (to give it its full title):

Explicitly for Basie — Eddie Durham’s TOPSY (with superhero Kellso and his Magic Mute):

Equal time for Ellington, Webster, and Beatrix Potter — COTTON TAIL:

And — to close the session — a funky, slow-motion blues that pays homage to Bird and to “rhythm and blues,” NOW’S THE TIME:

An inspired trio!

May your happiness increase.

“NOTHING BUT LOVE”: ROB HECHT, TAMAR KORN, GORDON AU, ROB ADKINS (May 19, 2011)

Walter Donaldson knew “what makes the world go round,” and it was displayed in many ways at Teddy’s (that’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York) on the night of May 19, 2011.

Violinist Rob Hecht (he plays a five-string fiddle) was joined by singer / actress Tamar Korn, trumpeter Gordon Au, and string bassist Rob Adkins for a few sets of familiar music made new. 

I was there with the Beloved. and UK comrades Sir Robert Cox, his wife Bobbie, and sons Tom and Ed — representing the Empire most happily amidst barbecued spareribs and appropriate beverages. 

Here are seven performances from that evening: musicians in love with the music, creative artists able to focus on making beauty in the midst of an amiable crowd enwrapped in their own conversations.  I make a point of the chatty crowd not to rebuke them — they’re used to background music. even if it’s coming from live musicians.  But I applaud the unselfconscious integrity and focus of these (and other) musicians who shut out the distractions and go straight ahead, sending beauty and swing into the world even if the world seems not to pay much attention.  Musicians know that there’s always someone listening . . . !

Here’s some optimism.  THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE (which we are reasonably sure will come again tomorrow morning):

Another kind of optimism is a little more didactic.  There’s only one thing to do, so WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS:

I suppose it’s hard not to take it personally, but YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY, which Tamar sings with great good humor (and the verse!) rather than rancor or frustration:

Donaldson’s paean to domestic bliss, from whence this posting’s title comes, MY BLUE HEAVEN:

A sweet old-fashioned song (Wayne King’s theme), THE WALTZ YOU SAVED FOR ME, gets a beautifully delicate and convincing performance here:

STARDUST, a song that doesn’t grow old:

Do you run your hands / through silv’ry strands?  You might be BLUE, TURNING GREY (OVER YOU) or over someone:

Beautiful music, bravely made!

MIGHTY DREAMS: EMIL VIKLICKY / SCOTT ROBINSON (Jan. 5, 2010)

I’ve always thought of the multi-instrumentalist and improviser Scott Robinson as a great explorer.  He is sweet-natured and mild-mannered, so it might be difficult to imagine him at the helm of a ship five hundred years ago, sighting a new land . . . I have less trouble imagining him as galactic traveler, coming and going in between gigs. 

Scott is also exceedingly loyal to his friends, musical colleagues, and family . . . so he was extremely excited that the Czech composer-pianist Emil Viklicky was coming to New York City for a brief visit and that they would have a chance to perform together in concert. 

I had heard Emil and Scott on their 2003 compact disc, SUMMERTIME, so I looked forward to what they would create in tandem.  I knew that Emil would have a few of his own compositions, as would Scott, and that they would offer a few jazz standards.

Here’s what I captured that night, in the informal setting of the Czech National Center on East 73rd Street — stirring music by not one but two bold explorers — and dear friends who go back to 1977. 

Emil’s approach mixes the lyrical with the percussive: he is rhythmically strong, although choosing not to emphasize a regular 4 / 4 in his left hand.  He didn’t need a bassist or drummer.  And his compositions, some of them based on traditional melodies, never bogged down in a self-conscious sentimentality: he built his own glistening structures on these “simple melodies”.

Scott brought only three instruments (two saxophones and a euphonium) and captivated everyone.  He, too, is a great “singer,” although he refused to vocalize at one point in the concert, but he loves the entire range of whatever horn or reed he is playing, sometimes pushing the sound to its outer limits but never losing an essential beauty.  But if you closed your eyes and listened to his saxophone playing, for instance, and forgot that it was coming from a metal tube, you would hear the cries of a solitary seabird; you would hear opera as well as rhythm and blues.

Here are nine performances from that mighty, dreamlike performance.

EAST OF THE SUN, tender yet intense:

Scott’s THE MIGHTY ONES, which certainly lives up to its title:

Emil’s evocative PORTHCAWL (and a dark story of a theft):

FANOSHU (OH, FRANKIE), composed and explained by Emil:

Scott’s lovely new-yet-old invitation, STEP INTO MY DREAMS:

Emil’s BAZALICKA (SWEET BASIL), which begins assertively and then turns pensive:

Something familiar, although Scott said he “tinkered with it,” Louis’s SOMEDAY YOU’LL BE SORRY, explored in a mellow way:

Emil’s composition, based on a Moravian folk song, BEZI, VODA BEZI (GONE WITH WATER:

And an encore: TOUHA (DESIRE) — a fitting conclusion to a concert of sweet explorations of realms both familiar and new:

Eloquence, bravura playing, and rare intimacy throughout!

To hear more of Scott and Emil, check out THE MAGIC EYE here: http://home.earthlink.net/~smoulden/scott/magiceye.html#getthecd.  SUMMERTIME is harder — but not impossible — to find online.  And well worth the search.