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!