Tag Archives: jazz ballads

“DU HOLDE KUNST”: MICHAEL KANAN and PETER BERNSTEIN at THE DRAWING ROOM (Feb. 12, 2012)

Last Sunday, February 12, 2012, I was privileged to be one of a hushed audience witnessing deeply moving improvisations.  The explorations were created by pianist Michael Kanan and guitarist Peter Bernstein, and these duets took place at Michael’s new venue, “The Drawing Room,” 70 Willoughby Street, Brooklyn, New York.*

I don’t use “Du holde Kunst” — a phrase by Franz von Schober that begins Schubert’s “An die Musik” — “To (the Art) of Music” — lightly.  I knew “holde” as “holy,” although others translate it as “lovely,” “gracious,” “hallowed.”  The source material for the duo improvisations was clearly secular — themes by Van Heusen, Gershwin, Arlen, and others.  But it was clear from the first notes played by either man that we were in the presence of something far from the ordinary.  The audience heard it; you will too.

The music enacted a wonderful paradox: two individualists, each going his own way but intuitively connecting, commenting — creating a synergy that was more than simply adding one instrumental voice to another.  Peter and Michael both spun out clear, translucent lines — but their combination had an orchestral density, although never loud or overly assertive.

Although their approach was serious, even reverent, they are truly playful musicians — you will hear many in-jokes and commentaries, puckish exchanges that made audience members around me smile.

Hear, savor, admire.

IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU

COME RAIN OR COME SHINE

EMBRACEABLE YOU

YOU STEPPED OUT OF A DREAM

SOFTLY, AS IN A MORNING SUNRISE

WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?

*The Drawing Room is a large quiet airy room with a fine piano and breathing space.  Michael plans to have events like this one several times a month; the admission price was only $10; I found parking, and the subway stop is just a few hundred feet away.

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BEAUTY IN THE CORNER: ROSSANO SPORTIELLO and NEAL MINER (Jan. 25, 2012)

Harold Ross, who edited THE NEW YORKER, once wrote, “Talent doesn’t care where it resides.”  I think of jazz improvisation as a secret beautiful art.  Although the players are happy to have a receptive audience, often the audience’s inattention matters not at all, for the players are creating something that we happen to eavesdrop on. 

This was the feeling that the Beloved and I had listening to pianist Rossano Sportiello and string bassist Neal Miner last Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012, at Sofia’s Ristorante (211 West 46th Street).  I had originally entertained thoughts of going there as a civilian — an ordinary listener with nothing more complicated in his hands than his drink, but the music was so quietly eloquent that I started videotaping and then asked permission of Rossano and Neal when they took a breather.

Photograph by Lorna Sass. All rights reserved. Copyright 2012.

Listening to Rossano, one hears his delicate touch, his rhythms (romping or subtle), his orchestral sense of the piano balanced with crystal-clear lines, his unerring ear for what Coleman Hawkins called “the choice notes.”  And Neal Miner embodies swinging persuasiveness.  Bass players usually get less attention than people with shiny horns.  Understandable in a way: the bass is in the lowest register and it stands to the rear of the background.  But the horn players I know admire the shape and scope of Neal’s lines and would be delighted to have invented them. 

On some of these performances, the audience is somewhat interactive.  You’ll hear someone’s comment when Rossano began to play a dreamy Liszt piece, “What is this, classical music?”  Yes, sir.  Classical and classic in the best senses of the words.  And rather than be annoyed at the people who chatted while the music was being created, I would simply hope that they went home subliminally elated by the fine loving sounds.  Maybe, with luck, someone might think, “At that bar there’s really nice background music . . . ” 

Early in the evening, a breezy optimism prevailed — even in the face of current economic reality, as the duo swung into THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE:

A Basie improvisation on I GOT RHYTHM changes that began as JUMPIN’ AT THE WOODSIDE and then went its own merry ways:

Indecision was never so pleasantly propulsive as in this UNDECIDED:

And the unexpected high point of the two sets — Liszt’s CONSOLATION # 3 in Db . . . a sweet musing exploration . . . then Rossano took a breath and turned the corner with Neal — uptown — to STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY:

And this set concluded with Tadd Dameron’s GOOD BAIT:

Talent, taking up temporary residence on 46th Street.  Beauty in the corner.  Much to be thankful for.

OUR IDEAL: MICHAEL KANAN and PETER BERNSTEIN at SMALLS (March 31, 2011)

Pianist Michael Kanan and guitarist Peter Bernstein created great beauty at Smalls (183 Tenth Street) last Thursday night. 

They are both intuitively gracious players, so the two chordal instruments (each its own orchestra) never collided, never seemed to overpower each other.  It was a sweet dance, a conversation, rather than a cutting contest — with lovely sonorities.  Michael and Peter decided at the start of the night to alternate song choices: one of them would begin a song and the other would fall in — a delightfully playful collaboration.   

The music they made was harmonically and emotionally deep yet it felt translucent, open. 

Hear MY IDEAL or the second set’s BALLAD MEDLEY.  Brad Linde, sitting next to me for a few numbers before going off to his own gig with Ted Brown, thought of Bill Evans and Jim Hall.  I thought of the Pablo duet of Jimmy Rowles and Joe Pass, CHECKMATE, of Tatum and Debussy, of a reverence for melody and harmony.  But to burden this music with words would be wrong.  Listen!

THE NEARNESS OF YOU:

YESTERDAYS:

MY IDEAL:

LULLABY OF THE LEAVES:

PANNONICA:

WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?:

WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS:

NOBODY ELSE BUT ME:

BALLADS (Gone With The Wind, Too Late Now, Moonlight in Vermont):

DEWEY SQUARE:

An honor, a privilege to hear this music!

SOMETHING TORCHY

The Beloved and I made our way uptown on a very cold Friday night (January 29, 2010) to Roth’s Westside Steakhouse to hear the chamber jazz duet of trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and pianist Ehud Asherie, both well known to readers of this blog.  Perhaps everyone there had read in the papers that the economy had grown, because the air was loudly festive, although no one’s birthday was being celebrated. 

Our waiter, a dramatic fellow with a dramatic upsweep of hair (“Pomade,” he told the Beloved) went around being cheerful.  One memorable exchange was: “Having a good time?” he inquired of a table of diners.  “Yeah, fine,” one of them said.  “Well, keep having a good time!” he countered.  David Mamet has nothing to fear.

In the midst of this, Jon-Erik and Ehud went about their work: medium-tempo James P. Johnson, a little Fats Waller, some Edgar Sampson. 

The enthusiastic woman to our left (who occasionally applauded in the middle of a four-bar exchange) leaned forward in the middle of the set and asked the duo, “Can you play something torchy?” a request that caused some discussion and thought.  Jon-Erik and Ehud settled on this Frank Signorelli-Matty Malneck composition, I’LL NEVER BE THE SAME (originally called LITTLE BUTTERCUP when it was an instrumental).  That song, not incidentally, was first associated with Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti; later, Billie Holiday and Lester Young.

I am sure that the management at Ruth’s has informed the busboys (they look grown-up to me) that an uncleared table will be dealt with severely, so the staff makes frequent — if not incessant — visits to diners, taking a bread plate away here, a knife there.  Perhaps it’s an unspoken law in the restaurant trade that a table almost devoid of utensils makes diners go home or makes them order dessert and coffee and then go home.  I don’t know.  But in the middle of this seriously lovely performance, a gentleman came to remove some plates and assorted debris and lingered in front of my camera long enough for it to lose its grip on reality.  Hence a brief out-of-focus interlude, but the microphone continued to work.

These capers aside, I’LL NEVER BE THE SAME is a wonderful, serious lesson in deep-down melodic playing and subtle, touching embellishment — much more difficult than ripping off harmonically-adventurous scalar lines over shifting polyrhythms.  And this kind of playing is second nature to Jon-Erik and Ehud.

MARTY GROSZ LIKES IT HOT!

Since the mid-Seventies, when I first saw him as an integral part of Soprano Summit, Marty Grosz has been one of my heroes — although I know he would have something mildly comic to say about this.  I find his particular brand of hot jazz exquisitely moving in every meaning of that word: his ballads get at the heart of the lyrical sentiment allied to the jazz he loves, and his swinging creations have their own delightful momentum.

Thus I was once again thrilled to see him at the 2009 Jazz at Chautauqua — allotted a brief set (among several) on Saturday afternoon to pay tribute to one of his heroes, the singer / musician Red McKenzie.  People either adore McKenzie or his particular brand of “hot” and Irish sentimentality eludes them entirely.  But Red worked with the best musicians, got jobs and record contracts for them as well (if memory serves, he not only got Eddie Condon that pioneering 1927 date but also took Jack Kapp down to to the Apex Club to hear Jimmie Noone).  Although Marty is, in person, reasonably unsentimental, McKenzie’s brand of feeling appeals to him — balanced against the prevailing strain of mockery that has some of its roots in his own worldview and some in the music of Fats Waller.

This afternoon, Marty was surrounded by his greatly talented friends: Vince Giordano, keeping the beat and playing lovely melodies on bass sax and string bass; Andy Stein, doubling violin and baritone sax; Dan Block, alternating between clarinet and bass clarinet, and James Dapogny, calling up several dozen pianistic worlds with ease.  They performed three numbers in honor of Red McKenzie.  Each one has a certain on-the-spot quality (head arrangements getting worked out then and there) which leads to occasional tentativeness, but I didn’t care then and I don’t now.  As if to follow suit, my cinematography is much more experimental than usual — which is a polite way of saying that I found myself hemmed in between the light on top of the piano and a music stand . . . but there are some (to me) rewarding closeups, and I captured musicians smiling at each others’ solos, always reassuring.

‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS began the set . . . with some stern leadership about when to stop (when the lyrics say “Stop!”) but no one was hurt.  And Dan Block swung out on his bass clarinet:

Then, a real jewel, even with a slightly uncertain beginning — I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME, a song that gets performed at a quick bounce these days but began life as a yearning ballad.  And Dan Block throws himself into it body and soul:

Finally, FROM MONDAY ON, a cheerful remembrance of McKenzie, early and later:

As a coda: I would have my readers listen closely to the interplay within this group — Andy Stein’s lyrical baritone and pizzicato violin passages; Vince’s wonderful bass playing and lyrical bass sax solos; Dapogny’s “Spanish tinge” Morton-inspired passage on the first song; Marty’s delightful stage presence, and Dan Block, who has music flowing through him as if it were his soul’s electrical current.  A priceless band, I think, with each of its members an anointed prophet of Hot.