Drawing by Dan Christoffel
I have been enjoying the art of guitarist / composer / arranger James Chirillo (and I know I have company in this) for some years now on discs, all the way back to 1985, when he appeared as a member of the Loren Schoenberg jazz orchestra then led by Benny Goodman. I browsed his discography and was amazed but not surprised to find how many of my favorite discs he is on, for musicians knew a long time ago that he had a deep yet playful intelligence.
I don’t know when I first encountered him in person (finding him serious, witty, surprising, and kind) but I can say that he allowed me to point a video camera at him a good many years ago, beginning in 2009. He is a very serious judge of his own work but has been generous and gracious about getting captured and shown off for free, possibly because he understands the depth of my admiration (and, again, I am not alone in this.)
James has always been a peerless soloist — offering delightful surprises mixed in with a fine respect for sound and for melodies — and a wonderful team player, someone who works seriously yet with a light heart to keep the band trotting in the right direction. I’ve written elsewhere about James’ deadpan penchant for weird notes and tones and spaces, something I cherish, but there is nothing weird about what I can present here.
Often, The Ear Inn, my intermittent Sunday-night shrine, on 326 Spring Street, home of the blessed EarRegulars, has been crowded and noisy. Although it plays hell with my goals of a) appreciating music in a near-reverent hush and b) recording it for this audience, I understand the throng as a good thing. People who have read about The Ear in a guidebook that calls it one of the secret New York City places that tourists don’t know about (is that a whiff of irony burning in that skillet?) keep these Sunday soirees going — as they have been for ten years. But two Sundays ago, The Ear was wonderfully serene, and the band of Danny Tobias, Scott Robinson, Frank Tate, and James (with an early-evening guest appearance by the lyrical violinist Valerie Levy) had a good time in the peaceful admiration and pleasure.
About two-thirds of the way through the evening, after a very pleasing EarRegulars performance of a song had concluded, James turned to the band and to us, and said (low-key, wry yet plainly) that since he hadn’t taken a solo on the previous tune, he was going to take one now, and play something he had worked on, Johnny Smith’s arrangement / recomposition / improvisation on GOLDEN EARRINGS, a composition by Victor Young — the title theme of a 1947 film starring Marlene Dietrich and Ray Milland (an autographed copy of the sheet music is here just because it seems a shame not to share it):
and the movie poster:
Here is James’ tender virtuoso interlude, and it is a marvel — you don’t have to be a guitarist to understand that:
James is also that rare entity, a functioning adult: some hours after I posted the blog, he wrote to me, “Would you be surprised if I told you I consider my performance around a 7.8 compared to Johnny Smith’s 10.0? I’m not trying to be unduly self-effacing, it’s just the fact of the matter.” I admire someone for whom realistic self-assessment is second nature, no matter that we might disagree about the numbers.
Thank you, Master Chirillo, for offering us, without fanfare, a multicolored respite from this modern world.
May your happiness increase!