One of the great pleasures of living close to New York City is the ability to hear Jon-Erik Kellso. I’ve been following him around since our first meeting in autumn 2004, and he’s nearly used to me by now. Given his many gigs before the pandemic — with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, as leader of The EarRegulars at the Ear Inn, stints at Sweet Rhythm, Birdland, Bourbon Street, and two dozen other places in the city — you would think I would have gotten my fill, but no. He is subtle, imaginative, and consistent. He “comes to play.”
Even given the deflation of the recording industry, Jon-Erik has continued to appear, but of late he hasn’t always had the opportunities to record as a leader. A new CD on the Jazzology label (JCD-408) is a stellar example of his ease and passion. Recorded in New Orleans, it’s a quartet with Jon-Erik, Evan Christopher, clarinet; Don Vappie, guitar; Peter Harris, string bass: no gimmicks, no jokes, just deep music.
People with ears and feelings can purchase a CD or download the music here.
May I offer you a taste? Why, you’re welcome:
This music, so refreshing to the spirit, has many antecedents. As jazz performance became more a product for audience consumption, certain conventions emerged and solidified. (Small bands, I mean: big bands are another matter entirely.) One was a balance between horn players and rhythm sections, which we hear on recordings from the late Twenties onwards: two or three horns, three or four rhythm players at least. Over there, it’s trumpet / trombone / saxophone / clarinet / piano / guitar or banjo / string bass or tuba / drums . . . add thirty years, and it’s trumpet or trombone / saxophone / piano / bass / drums. Recognizable formats, recognizable styles. But, whether out of necessity or caprice, players tried out different combinations of instruments to see what would happen, and the results were always intriguing. Or, perhaps these arrangements were pragmatic: the club didn’t have a piano or the drummer got a better gig that night. Or it was a summer gig on someone’s porch, perhaps a band playing tunes in between innings at the ballpark.
I think of two most rewarding ensembles: the quartet that George Barnes and Ruby Braff had for a few years, and of course Jon-Erik’s EarRegulars, the latter of which I continue to document here with gratitude. Of course, there were earlier improvisations on this theme, the most notable of them being the Bechet-Spanier Big Four in 1940.
This CD resembles the Big Four outwardly: trumpet, clarinet, acoustic guitar and string bass. But there is one marvelous difference. The HRS session had at times the flavor of a cutting contest, perhaps arm-wrestling — exhilarating but also combative. (Muggsy’s style has been called “punchy” so many times that it requires an act of will to find other adjectives.) But music made by people who like and respect each other has a singular flavor: call it swinging camaraderie. As Mike Karoub pointed out recently, it is the difference between the Buck Clayton Jam Sessions and Jazz at the Philharmonic, meaning no disrespect to the latter (and noting that Buck played in JATP memorably). SWEET FRUITS, even when the tempos are quick, is a delightful conversation where no one pounds the table.
Mind you, the music swings like mad — this isn’t jazz to nap by — but it is friendly, the kind of music that shows the listener it’s possible for people to play nicely, to blend their singularities into something lovely without obliterating their identities. Definitely music for 2020. And beyond.
I trust readers have gathered that I approve of this CD. And I think its virtues — the surprising-but-reassuring playing by all four gentlemen, the way the rhythm rocks, the wonderfully varied repertoire (Louis, Fats, Duke, Billie, Bechet, Hodges, Morton, Berlin, and more) and the beautiful recorded sound, a special gift for people like me who often hear Jon-Erik in places where rapt silence is not the norm. Jon-Erik is a fine writer, and his compact pointed annotations are another pleasure.
Here’s how Jon-Erik closed, after thanking the people who “made this possible”:
Lastly, thanks to YOU! Especially if you paid to hear this! In an age where music is too often devalued and pirates abound, your support of music is a deliberate choice for which we are grateful.
When you purchase this CD, you, too, will be very grateful. And the link is here.
May your happiness increase!