Tag Archives: Eddie Durham

“BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY: BIG BAND JAZZ ARRANGING IN THE SWING ERA,” by JOHN WRIGGLE (University of Illinois Press)

john-wriggle-cover

One way to answer the questions “Who was Chappie Willet, why haven’t I heard of him, and why does he deserve a book?” can be found here:

That was recorded in 1937 and is notable — to some — for solos by a young Dizzy Gillespie and others as members of Teddy Hill’s NBC Orchestra.  But if there were no solos to concentrate on, keen listeners would notice the depth and complexity of Willet’s composition and arrangement, full of surprises.

An extended BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY, performed by Gene Krupa:

We are trained by the “star system” in jazz to listen for soloists, to disregard the orchestral textures of a performance for the brief passages where Our Person improvises.  More erudite listeners will recognize the “charts” created by Mary Lou Williams, Bill Challis, Eddie Durham, Don Redman, Eddie Sauter, Gil Evans, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Ellington and/or Strayhorn — distinctive expressions of the writer, as recognizable as an individual soloist. John Wriggle’s superb book — a rewarding study of one brilliant arranger, his music, the world in which he operated, and the implications of Wriggle’s research — does a good deal to begin resetting the balance.

Francis “Chappie” Willet (1907-76) was a great arrangers and composer: we have heard his work for Hill, Krupa, Goodman, Armstrong, Lunceford, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and Norvo.  Yet he is almost unknown and the wonderful settings he created are taken for granted.  Consider his arrangement of STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE for Louis Armstrong, heard here in a 1938 performance.  But here I ask the reader / listener to consider only the first fifteen seconds of this performance.  I know it’s nearly impossible to consider anything but Louis, but try:

In two pages (123-24), Wriggle provides a transcription of what is happening in that opening, and then analyzes it.  The reader need not be a musicologist to follow and enjoy this book because Wriggle writes so clearly.

The experience of reading this book — well-organized and exquisitely documented but with beautiful control (some writers, unlike Wriggle, think every dust mote is equally important and thus overwhelm a reader) — is concentric.

Were it simply a biography of Willet, it would be a thin, perhaps limited study. But Wriggle is fascinated by context — “the economic, political, and professional landscape of popular music arrangers working during the Swing Era,” so we learn about the intersection of race and visibility; how arrangers learned their trade and the various rates of pay; Willet’s “Broadway Music Clinic,” music for nightclubs, Broadway shows and theatrical revues; the various clubs and venues themselves. Wriggle examines — I oversimplify here — how Swing Era arranging worked, with close analysis of excerpts from various scores and recordings, and how each arranger had a particularly recognizable identity.  He looks closely at the fluid relationships between jazz and the Western classical canon.

The book’s scope is refreshingly broad; at one point, Wriggle analyzes Willet’s elaborately dramatic score for the Lunceford version of YESTERDAYS; a few pages later, we learning all there is to know about a new dance, THE HICKY RICKY — novelty numbers, ballads, and jazz exotica are all considered with particular enthusiasm and research.

Rare photographs add a great deal to the experience, and the collaboration of Wriggle and the University of Illinois Press is a happy one: the book is carefully presented and well-edited.  I found no misprints or errors, rare in this century. The paper edition (a manageable 320 pages) is $30.

Reading this book over the past few months, whether I proceeded chronologically or opened it at random, I was always enlightened, ever bored: a great tribute to Wriggle from an impatient and often irritable reader.  His background explains a good deal: he is a trombonist, composer, arranger, and scholar, who has transcribed period jazz repertoire for Jazz at Lincoln Center and Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, and served as music editor for Oscar-winning Hollywood film scores.

As a writer and scholar, he is thoughtful without being pedantic or theoretical, without a confining ideological bias.  To get a sense of his and the book’s virtues, I offer excerpts from his interview (from the publisher’s blog) about this work.

As an aspiring composer-arranger, I first took notice of Willet’s music in the mid-1990s, when I was co-hosting a pre-stereo themed jazz program on college radio station WKCR. I heard the 1937 Mills Blue Rhythm Band session he arranged, including a version of “Blue Rhythm Fantasy.” The combination of musical adventurousness and balanced logic in those arrangements is beautiful, and I was an immediate fan. In 1999, I composed and presented a series of “Variations on Blue Rhythm Fantasy” for a new music ensemble I was leading. But as I tried to find more about Willet through standard jazz history sources, it was always a dead end. When I applied to the Rutgers Jazz History and Research program in 2003, I decided I would see if I could make a thesis project of it. A telephone book cold call led me to a musician named Chico Hicks, who had performed with Willet during 1933-34, and the pieces finally began to fall into place.

The more I was able to discover in newspapers and archives, the more I realized what a fascinating figure Willet was. His career reflects so many aspects of the music industry during that period that it made perfect sense to build a book around him. He was really tied into the Swing Era stage entertainment scene, which is something that jazz historians have attempted to ignore for decades as too “commercial.” Willet was also involved in music publishing, home recording, talent booking, and a music school—all the stuff that professional musicians still to do today in order to eke out a living.

Similar to music performers working in recording studios during the 1920s and ‘30s, swing big band arrangers were able to cross lines of racial segregation simply because no one could see them. As long as they weren’t appearing in mixed company on the public stage, it didn’t bother the establishment so much for white bandleaders to hire black arrangers, or vice versa. Whether or not these shrouded work opportunities actually helped to break down inequality is an interesting question—and one that was debated in the African American press at the time. On the one hand, arrangers could be considered pioneers of integration; on the other hand, these less-publicized instances of black writers working for white bands could also be interpreted as another form of exploitation. Some black bandleaders even worried that black arrangers were providing unfair advantage to their white competitors, as concerns regarding music and jazz authenticity were often tied to race. The popular success that white bandleaders enjoyed while playing the music of black arrangers like Jimmy Mundy, Sy Oliver, or Chappie Willet certainly highlighted issues of racism and segregation that America was struggling with leading up to the civil rights era. Willet himself was embraced as a “race man” in the African American press: a role model for economic success in an entertainment industry that was just beginning to consider strategies for integration.

This book attempts to provide a window into the broader world of professional arranging in jazz and popular music: What were these musicians trying to do with their music? How were they trained? Where did they work? How much were they paid? And looking in more detail, I also hope to highlight the artistry involved. Audiences of arranged music are being provided more sonic information than just the song lyrics or featured solos. And a good arranger can transmit a lot of information very effectively.

BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY is a wonderfully enlightening experience.  It is readable but dense with information — an old-fashioned book not especially suited for reading on one’s phone — a splendidly-documented exploration of an artist and his musical world that will both answer and raise many questions.  I hope John Wriggle will write many more books equally wise and appealing.

May your happiness increase!

LESTER YOUNG’S JOY (“Classic 1936-1947 Count Basie and Lester Young Studio Sessions, Mosaic Records: Mosaic MD-8 263)

Although some of us understandably recoil from chronicles of suffering, pain and oppression make for more compelling narrative than happiness does. Think of Emma (Bovary) and Anna (Karenina), their anguish and torment so much more gripping than the story of the main character in Willa Cather’s “Neighbour Rosicky.”  Montherlant, the French writer Larkin loved to quote, said that happiness “writes white,” that it has nothing to tell us.  Give us some despair, and we turn the pages.  It is true in jazz historiography as it is in fiction. Consider the ferociously detailed examination of the painful lives of Bix Beiderbecke and Charlie Parker.  Musicians like Hank Jones, Buck Clayton, Buster Bailey or Bennie Morton, artists who showed up early and sober to the session, are not examined in the same way.

Suffering, self-destruction, misery — those subjects engross us.

And Lester Willis Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959) whose birthday approaches, will be celebrated on WKCR-FM this weekend, is a splendid example of how the difficulties of one’s life become the subject of sad scrupulous examination.

The “Lester Young story” that is so often told is that of his victimization and grief.  And there is sufficient evidence to show him as a man oppressed — from childhood to his final plane ride — by people who didn’t understand him or didn’t want to.  Readers who know the tale can point accusing fingers at a stock company of betrayers and villains: Willis Young, Leora Henderson, John Hammond, the United States Army, a horde of Caucasians (some faceless, some identifiable) and more.

Although he is simply changing a reed, the photograph below is most expressive of that Lester.  Intent, but not at ease.  Skeptical of the world, wondering what will happen next, his expression verging on anxious.

Lester-Young-standing-changing-reed

But there is the music, lest we forget.  It speaks louder than words, Charlie Parker told Earl Wilson.

A different Lester — ebullient, inventive, full of joyous surprises — is the subject of one of the most grand musical productions I have ever seen, an eight CD set on Mosaic Recordsits cover depicted below.  Every note on this set is a direct rejection of the story of Lester the victim and every note tells us that Lester the creator was even more important, his impact deeper and more permanent.

LESTER BASIE Mosaic

Where did this mournful myth come from, and why?

Few African-American musicians received perceptive and sympathetic media coverage in the Thirties, perhaps because jazz was viewed as entertainment and writers often adopted the most painful “hip” jargon.  (I leave aside Ansermet on Sidney Bechet and early analysis of Ellington as notable exceptions.)  So the writings on Lester, some of which were his own speech, come late in his life and are cautious, full of bitterness and melancholy.  He was by nature sensitive and shy, and which of us would feel comfortable speaking to a stranger in front of a microphone?  Yes, the Lester of the irreplaceable Chris Albertson and Francois Postif interviews is quite a bit more unbuttoned, but much of what comes through is despair, exhaustion, suspicion, hurt.  (I make an exception for Bobby Scott’s gentle loving portrait, but that was posthumous, perhaps Scott’s effort to say, “This was the Lester I knew.”)

Even the film footage we have of Lester (leaving aside those jubilant, silent seconds from Randalls Island) supports this image of the suffering Pres, a bottle sticking out of the pocket of his long black coat, elusive, turning away from the world because of what it had done to him.  The mystical icon of JAMMIN’ THE BLUES is to me a mournful figure, even though Lester participates in the riotous closing blues.  The Lester of THE SOUND OF JAZZ evokes tears in his music and in his stance.  And on the 1958 Art Ford show, the song Lester calls for his feature is MEAN TO ME, a fact not cancelled out by JUMPIN’ WITH SYMPHONY SID.  The 1950 Norman Granz film, IMPROVISATION, is a notable exception: in BLUES FOR GREASY Lester quietly smiles while Harry Edison struts.  But the visual evidence we have is in more sad than happy.

Adding all this together, the mythic figure we have come to accept is that of Pres on the cross of racism, a man watching others less innovative getting more “pennies” and more prominent gigs.  Then, there’s the conception of him “in decline,” running parallel to Billie Holiday, “still my Lady Day.”  Although some have effectively argued for a more balanced view — why should a musician want to play in 1956 the way he played twenty years earlier, assuming even that it was possible?  Some critics still muse on the change in his sound around 1942, constructing the facile story of a man bowed down by adversity.  And we are drawn to the gravity-bound arc of a great artist, blooming beyond belief in his twenties, alcoholic and self-destructive, dying before reaching fifty.

But the brand-new eight-disc Mosaic set, taken for its own virtues, is a wonderful rebuke to such myth-making.  If you have heard nothing of it or from it, please visit here.

I am writing this review having heard less than one-fourth of this set, and that is intentional.  We do not stuff down fine cuisine in the same way one might mindlessly work their way through a bag of chips; we do not put the Beethoven string quartets on while washing the kitchen floor, and we do not play these Lester Young tracks as background music, or in the car.  To do so would be at best disrespectful.

I think that by now everyone has heard about the virtues of Mosaic’s delicate and thoughtful work.  Fine notes by Pres-scholar Loren Schoenberg, rare and new photographs, and transfers of familiar material that make it shine in ways I could not have imagined.  The music bursts through the speakers and I heard details I’d never heard, not even through forty years of close listening.

The news, of course, is that there are four astonishing discoveries on this set: alternate takes of LADY BE GOOD, EVENIN’, and BOOGIE WOOGIE from the 1936 Jones-Smith, Inc., session, and a previously unknown alternate take of HONEYSUCKLE ROSE by the 1937 Basie band.

Now, what follows may mark me as a suburban plutocrat, but if you’d come to me at any time in the past dozen years and said, “Pssst!  Michael!  Want beautiful transfers of three alternate takes from Jones-Smith, Inc., and I’ll throw in an unissued Basie Decca — for a hundred and fifty dollars?” I would have gone to the ATM as fast as I could.

When I first heard the issued take of SHOE SHINE BOY in 1969 — I taped it from an Ed Beach radio show and treasured it — the music went right to my heart in a way that only Louis did.  It still does, a living embodiment of joy.

And the joy is still profound.  I know this not only because of the feelings that course through me while listening to the Mosaic set, but because of an entirely unplanned experiment earlier this week.  I had lunch with a young musician whom I admire and like, and after the food was eaen we went back to my place — as is our habit — so that I could “play him some Dixieland!” as he likes to say.

But this time I asked, “Do you like Lester Young?” Had he said “No,” I would have invented an appointment with my podiatrist that I had to get to right away, but he answered properly and with enthusiasm.  He had never heard SHOE SHINE BOY, so I put the first Mosaic disc on.  He is someone whose emotions bubble through him, and although he is taller and broader than I am, he capered around my living room, completely ecstatic.  Lester’s magic is potent and undiminished: I could see the music hitting him as hard and sweetly as it had done to me in 1969.

And as I have been listening to this set while writing these words, I am continually astonished — by recordings I heard forty years ago, by recordings I first heard a week ago — not only by how alive they sound, but by the complete picture of Lester’s first decade of recordings, so influential.  Jones-Smith, Inc. Una Mae Carlisle.  Dickie Wells.  The Kansas City Six and Seven, and Lester’s 1943 Keynote quartet.  The Aladdins.  TI-PI-TIN.  I FOUND A NEW BABY with Teddy Wilson, twice. The Philo trio with Nat Cole.  A few Helen Humes sides. The only studio recordings beyond Mosaic’s reach are the Savoy sessions.

The joy is not only Lester.  There’s Count Basie, Walter Page, Teddy Wilson, Freddie Green, Jo Jones, Johnny Guarnieri, Doc West, Sidney Catlett, Vic Dickenson, Slam Stewart, Shad Collins, Sweets Edison, Buck Clayton, Eddie Durham, Nat Cole, Red Callendar, Buddy Rich, Buster Bailey, Bill Coleman, Dickie Wells, Joe Bushkin, Benny Goodman, Herschel Evans, Bennie Morton, Earle Warren, Jack Washington, Helen Humes . . . and more.

I’ve read a good deal of discussion of this set, of price, of value — as always! — on Facebook, and I won’t reiterate it here.  I will only say that this box is superb listening, provocative and rewarding music.  And as a wise person used to say, “Amortize!” — that is, instead of buying ten lesser CDs, buy this.  And think of the expense as ten manageable chunklets: that’s what credit cards allow us to do. You will be listening to this music for the rest of your life.

Some, reared on Spotify and Pandora — and the idea that everything should be free — will burn copies of the set from jazz Enablers, will wait for the material to be “borrowed” by European labels.  I think this is at best polite theft, and the sole way that we have of keeping enterprises like Mosaic afloat — and there’s nothing like Mosaic, if you haven’t noticed — is to support it.

For those who have their calculators out, the set is eight CDs.  There are 173 tracks.  The cost is $136.00 plus shipping.  There are only 5000 sets being produced.  They won’t be around in five years, or perhaps in one.  (I paid for my set, if you wonder about such things.)

Thank you, Pres, for being so joyous and for sharing your joy with us.  We mourn your griefs, but we celebrate your delight in sounds.  And thank you, Mosaic, for bringing us the joy in such profusion.

May your happiness increase!

ONE AND ONE (1938)

One of John Hammond’s many good ideas was this two-part (1937/8) small group session under trumpeter Harry James’ leadership, using almost all members of the Count Basie band.  Harry was already a star, he had a deep rapport with the Basie band, and I think this session may have been part of a prelude to Harry leaving Benny Goodman and forming his own orchestra.  Or, more simply, making records equaled fun, money, perhaps fame.

This wonderful session has not received the attention it deserves because of the star system in jazz.  Lester Young is one of my most luminous stars in the musical night sky, but he is not the only one.  This session gives space to musicians less heralded: tenor saxophonist Herschel Evans, who died so very young, and trombonist Vernon Brown.  On other sides, a young Helen Humes sings — beautifully.  I can hear her I CAN DREAM, CAN’T I? in my mental jukebox: how touching she was!

But today our focus is the blues, swung.

ONE O'CLOCK JUMP

The Basie blues-plus-riffs, ONE O’CLOCK JUMP, had been a head arrangement by Eddie Durham and Buster Smith some years before, perhaps 1935.  I have read that the unofficial name for this JUMP was BLUE BALLS, something that was not suitable for the radio audience, although some male listeners would recognize the ailment.

Basie had officially recorded it for Decca in July 1937; Goodman began using it on broadcasts not long after, so it was a piece of common language quickly.

And here is ONE O’CLOCK JUMP, twice.

January 5, 1938, under the supervision of John Hammond.  Harry James And His Orchestra : Harry James, trumpet, arranger; Buck Clayton, trumpet; Vernon Brown, trombone; Earle Warren, alto saxophone; Herschel Evans, tenor saxophone; Jack Washington, alto and baritone saxophone; Jess Stacy, piano; Walter Page, string bass; Jo Jones, drums.

The 78 take:

The “microgroove” take:

I think the tempo is a hair quicker on the second version, although the general outlines of solos and the overall plan of this recording are similar.  But I delight in the intensity and ease of these two discs, and some details stand out immediately: Jo Jones’ accents behind Harry’s solo on each take, for one.  The breadth and passion of Herschel Evans’ sound.  The deep, rich, guttiness of Vernon Brown.  Jess Stacy, for goodness’ sake.

Thank heavens for the recording machine, and for the idea that you could preserve music, reproduce it, sell it, and have it for posterity.  Brunswick Records is as much a wonder to me as is moveable type.  I regret the three minute limit, but these fellows could write an memorable opus in twenty-four bars.

Incidentally, this blogpost is because YouTube gave me an opportunity to present both takes of this recording in sequence, something rarely encountered otherwise.

A postscript: I feel a Vernon Brown blog in gestation — both to celebrate him and to wonder about him.  Until that time, here he is with Goodman, Dave Tough, Harry, Bud Freeman, Dave Matthews, in 1938, live:

May your happiness increase!

“NO, WE’RE NOT THERE YET!”: FOR PARENTS WHO ARE ABOUT TO TAKE LONG CAR TRIPS WITH YOUNG CHILDREN

American blues singer Gladys Bentley (1907 - 1960) poses with bandleader Willie Bryant (1908 - 1964) outside the Apollo Theater where posters advertise a performance by Bryant & his band, New York, New York, April 17, 1936. (Photo by Frank Driggs Collection/Getty IMages)

American blues singer Gladys Bentley (1907 – 1960) poses with bandleader Willie Bryant (1908 – 1964) outside the Apollo Theater where posters advertise a performance by Bryant & his band, New York, New York, April 17, 1936.

This is addressed to parents who are about to be cooped up in a moving metal box for more than a few hours . . . with children . . .  and might need a new song to sing in the car. (I think of Angelo, Gabriella, and Gianluca, whom I already miss fervently.)

Possibly, children of 2016 are too hip to sing along in the car with The Old Folks (“I don’t play with anything that doesn’t have a charger, Mommy!”) but this song — suitable for vegans as well — might find a home.  I’d sing it, and have.

It’s performed by a wonderfully swinging band that few people seem to have heard of.  (Consider this, Laura Windley.)

Between 1935 and 1936, this band — perhaps only for recordings rather than gigging — recorded 22 sides for Bluebird Records, the less expensive Victor Records subsidiary.  Bryant was the main vocalist (on this side he is helped in a charming way [I think of vaudeville or minstrelsy] by trumpeter Jacques Butler).  Bryant had the best people for record dates: Taft Jordan, Benny Carter, Ben Webster, Teddy Wilson, Cozy Cole, Ram Ramirez, Eddie Durham, Edgar Battle.  He was a public figure: first in vaudeville, then a disc-jockey, and in the Fifties the master of ceremonies at the Apollo Theater — also a very engaging singer.

The sometimes garbled lyrics to this song might be a problem: one solution is this Thirties recording from another musical world:

Another is to do it yourself, because the easy rhymes lend themselves to improvisations  such as this: “I don’t like shrimp cocktails / They swim up my nose / But I love bananas / Because they don’t wear clothes.”  (Copyright reserved 2016 The Jazz Lives Foundation.)

For the Francophones in my audience:

Or this — presented as the lyrics sung by Billy Cotton:

Standing by the fruit store on the corner,
Once I heard a customer complain:
You never seem to show
The fruit we all love so.
That’s why business hasn’t been the same.

I don’t like your peaches; they are full of stones,
But I like bananas because they have no bones.
Don’t give me tomatoes; can’t stand ice-cream cones,
But I like bananas because they have no bones.
No matter where I go,
With Suzy, May, or Anna,
I want the world to know
I must have my banana.
Cabbages and onions hurt my singing tones,
But I like bananas because they have no bones.

Now I don’t care for muffins; I don’t like buttered scones,
Ah, but I like bananas because they have no bones.
I don’t like giggling flappers; I don’t like ancient crones,
But I like bananas because they have no bones.
And fig leaves and bearskins
That you girls often trip on,
Why not have banana skins?
They’re easy things to slip on.
I can’t bear tax collectors, especially one who phones,
But I like bananas because they have no bones.

I don’t like a crooner; of the blues he moans,
But we like bananas because they have no bones.
I don’t like politicians; they’re human gramophones.
We like bananas because they have no bones.
I never cared for drink.
To me it seems so sinful.
Though when you come to think,
Bananas get a skinful.
I don’t like the bagpipes and I can’t stand saxophones.
We like bananas because they have no bones.

BANANAS cover

For those who are not utterly depleted by all these good spirits, here is a later (1945) Bryant effort, featuring Tab Smith,Chuck Wayne,  and Taft Jordan.  The tempo may be too slow for a long drive — Bryant is in a Big Joe Turner mode — but the song is a useful counting song as well as a paean to healthful exercise and long-term committed monogamy:

Keep singing.  Even if you’re not in the car.  It makes ALL hard journeys easier.

May your happiness increase!

EASY DOES IT: MATTHIAS SEUFFERT, ENRICO TOMASSO, MARTIN LITTON, HENRI LEMAIRE, MALCOLM SKED, RICHARD PITE at WHITLEY BAY (Nov. 9, 2014)

Jake Hanna said — more than once — “When you get too far from Basie, you’re just kidding yourself.”

Reedman Matthias Seuffert knows this well, and put his knowledge into action at the 2014 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party, with a delightful set of Basie music. Matthias diverted us with his tenor saxophone and clarinet; Enrico Tomasso played trumpet; the rhythm section, essential, was Martin Litton, piano; Henri Lemaire, rhythm guitar; Malcolm Sked, string bass; Richard Pite, drums.

EASY DOES IT:

Eddie Durham’s TOPSY:

THESE FOOLISH THINGS:

COUNTLESS BLUES, in honor of the 1938 Kansas City Six:

BLUE LESTER:

SHOE SHINE BOY:

BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL, for Herschel:

and moving into the Fifties, FLIGHT OF THE FOO BIRDS (don’t let all that manuscript paper seem intimidating):

“Easy does it” isn’t just a bumper sticker or a catchphrase: it’s a way of life both inside and outside jazz.  What would happen if we tried to live the Basie way? Worth considering.

And on a more pragmatic note, each of the musicians seen in the videos will be playing at the 2015 Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party — November 6-8.  I’ve already started to look into airplane tickets and fares . . . a sign of great moral commitment to this Party.  If you’ve never been there, and you can get there, and you don’t . . . why, you’re just kidding yourself.  Where have I heard those words before?

May your happiness increase!

SWINGTIME IN SOHO (Part Two): JON-ERIK KELLSO, DAN BARRETT, CHRIS FLORY, JOEL FORBES at THE EAR INN (Sept. 14, 2014)

Here is the first part of a delightful swing interlude, scored for four masters, at the Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City) on September 14, 2014.

The Masters were (and are) Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Dan Barrett, trombone; Chris Flory, guitar; Joel Forbes, string bass.  Here are the three remaining etudes from the set I recorded:

TOPSY (Eddie Durham’s irresistible minor rocker):

AS LONG AS I LIVE:

SWINGIN’ THE BLUES, which brings back the Famous Door and lives up to its name:

Great things happen at The Ear Inn on Sunday nights.  Here’s your proof.

May your happiness increase!

WORTH THE WAIT, WITH JOYOUS SURPRISES: THE EarRegulars’ FIRST CD!

The exclamation point in my title — something I use rarely — should tell you how I feel about a major Current Event.  The EarRegulars have finally released a CD, and it’s a beauty.

EarRegulars logo

For this disc, the ER are Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone, tárogató, cornet; Matt Munisteri, guitar (vocal on BABY); Greg Cohen, string bass. The session was recorded (beautifully) by Marco Birkner in Berlin, Germany, on March 23, 2014.  The disc — produced by Jon-Erik for his own gen-ERIK Records — is a delightfully minimalist production: artwork by Stephen Gardner on the cover, and a photograph of the EarRegulars in concert at the Bohém Ragtime and Jazz Festival in  Kecskemét, Hungary, taken by József Hervai.

No rhapsodic / analytical liner notes (which I would love to have written), no credits for hair stylist and divine inspiration.  Just the music, about an hour’s worth: DO YOU EVER THINK OF ME? / AUNT HAGAR’S BLUES / GOOD OLD NEW YORK / THANKS A MILLION / I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES / I’M SORRY I MADE YOU CRY / BABY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME? / SOME OF THESE DAYS.

Fifty-five minutes and seventeen seconds of superb collective improvisation and lovely melodic playing by one of the most satisfying bands we’ll ever hear. Head arrangements rather than transcriptions, joy rather than routines.

One of the great pleasures of living in New York, for me, has been the ability to get regular infusions of the EarRegulars at the Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho) on Sunday nights.  I’ve been there as often as possible since the group came together in the summer of 2007 — which makes it a very durable group by this century’s standards — enjoying myself tremendously.

Although I couldn’t swear to the ideological bent of the group, it is a truly democratic enterprise, not two horns out front with supportive rhythm players. No, the lead is always passed around from horns to guitar to string bass, and a lovely momentum is always sustained by riffs, backgrounds, trading choruses, swapping melody and improvised counterpoint.  An EarRegular performance — live or on disc — is like a small hip concerto, lyrical and hot, with many surprises, and the results are always both surprising and satisfying.  If you require famous antecedents, think of the Bechet-Spanier Big Four, the Braff-Barnes Quartet, Soprano Summit, the grouping of Buck Clayton, Lester Young, Eddie Durham, Walter Page . . . but the EarRegulars have been around to be their own standard of excellence, their video presence spread around the world.

On this disc, they are singularly inspired.  Often, a group that plays spectacularly in an informal setting finds the air of the recording studio a little chilly, and one can hear it in the performances: what was intense and natural in person becomes slightly less comfortable in a room full of microphones, someplace unnaturally still.  It didn’t happen for this recording.  I think that the wonderful exploratory spirit (“Let’s take some chances; let’s have fun; let’s not plan too much!”) that sustains Jon-Erik, Matt, Scott, and Greg was in the air.

The four players are involved in uniquely satisfying playground antics — improvisations that always land in surprising places without a hint of the formulaic.  And the songs are a lovely bunch, varied in tempo and approach. (Matt, one of the best singers I know, lends his own touch to a wistful BABY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME.)

I’ve been hesitant to write about this disc for fear of descending into apparent hyperbole, so I will say only this.  I’ve played it more than a dozen times, and each time I find myself smiling and even a little startled — “Wow, what are they doing now!”  I don’t think I will ever grow tired of it, and it far surpasses my expectations.  And I’ve been waiting for this disc almost since the group’s inception — most pleasures that have seven years of anticipation behind them are bound to be slightly disappointing, but not this session.

Let’s assume for a moment (unthinkable to me, but I must imagine it) that you’ve never heard the EarRegulars.  Here’s a sample:

How can you get one or more of these discs?

Don’t push; don’t crowd, please.

Ideally, one could come to The Ear Inn on a Sunday night and greet Mr. Kellso before or after the music starts with a handful of the appropriate currency. He and Mr. Munisteri might even autograph one for you. The price for a copy in person would be $15 USD. But if that’s inconvenient, there’s an online rescue: a reliable eBay seller (I can vouch for him myself) has them here — with postage, the total is $15.97 per disc.  A small price to pay for such pleasure.

Of course, you might like to visit The EarRegulars’ Facebook page. But   nothing will equal the pleasures of this particular disc, I assure you. Speaking of pleasure, though, and The EarRegulars have a new YouTube Channel to go with the new video and new album: find it here.

May your happiness increase!