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.