Tag Archives: Joel Helleny

A FEW WORDS FOR MAT DOMBER

I just received word that Mat Domber, who founded Arbors Records in 1989, died peacefully this morning — with his beloved wife Rachel at his side.  Mat had been ill for some time, but you hardly knew it: when I last saw him, at a Harry Allen Monday night function at Feinstein’s last June, he was cheerful, amused, and gracious as ever.

When the history of any art form is written, it invariably concentrates on the artists who are seen as the prime movers — and logically so.  But artists need patrons and friends and people who help them communicate their vision.  Mat Domber was a stellar example.  Other jazz fans delight in the music; some throw parties for their friends, or concerts.

Mat and Rachel decided that the music they loved wasn’t getting recorded . . . and thus he put his business acumen and his musical taste into play — at first, relying on Rick Fay and Dan Barrett for musical guidance, but eventually building up a roster of players and singers he knew were first-rate.  If you go to your CD shelves at this moment, chances are some of the most gratifying discs there are on the Arbors label.

I list some of the players who might otherwise have had fewer chances to express themselves: Rebecca Kilgore, Ruby Braff, Ralph Sutton, Dick Hyman, Kenny Davern, John Sheridan, Scott Robinson, Jon-Erik Kellso, Duke Heitger, George Masso, Bob Wilber, Ehud Asherie, Johnny Varro, Dan Block, Marty Grosz, Eddie Erickson, Jackie Coon, Warren Vache, Nicki Parrott, Rossano Sportiello, Peter Ecklund, Bucky Pizzarelli, Aaron Weinstein, Harry Allen, Bob Haggart, John Bunch, Derek Smith, Keith Ingham, Ellis Larkins, Bobby Gordon, Ken Peplowski, Randy Sandke, Randy Reinhart, Joel Helleny, Howard Alden, Joe Wilder, Jerry Jerome, Flip Phillips . . . you can add other names as well.

Mat was a delight to be with — someone who enjoyed the company of the musicians after the session almost as much as he enjoyed the sessions.  And he made Arbors parties and festivals and happenings for all of us to enjoy.

There will be other things to say about Mat, but I will end this by saying that Ruby Braff and Kenny Davern, two of the most exacting men in the world of jazz, relied on him.  He will be missed.  JAZZ LIVES sends its deepest sympathy to Rachel and the people who loved Mat Domber.

May your happiness increase.  

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KENNY DAVERN, REMEMBERED

First, some comedy.  The last time I saw Kenny Davern in action was at Sunnie Sutton’s 2006 Rocky Mountain Jazz Party — only a few months before his death.  At the dinner for musicians and friends the night before the party started, Kenny took a napkin off one of the tables, draped it over his arm, and transformed himself into an elderly, mournful New York Jewish waiter, asking each table, “Is anything all right?”

Then, in the middle of a set, he told one of his many jokes.

Jake always wanted to be a professional actor and appear on Broadway, but the fates are against him.  Finally, his agent gets so tired of Jake’s begging, whining, and pleading that he arranges — as a favor — for Jake to have a one-line walk-on in a production far from Broadway.  Jake’s line?  “Hark!  I hear a cannon roar!”  Jake is thrilled and spends every minute before the production practicing in front of the mirror.  “HARK!  I hear a CANNON roar!”  “Hark . . . I HEAR a cannon ROAR!”  The big night comes, Jake is pinned into his costume and stands muttering his one line in the wings.  He’s pushed out on stage; the cannon fires a thunderous blast, and Jake says, “WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!”

But Davern was much more than a comedian, although his timing was impeccable — combined with his mobile face, his vocal inflections.

The Davern we remember is the peerless clarinetist, with a heroic top register and a lustrous chalumeau sound — with plenty of “grease and funk,” to quote Marty Grosz, in between.  Luckily for us, a great deal of Davern’s best playing is documented on Arbors record sessions.  (One of my favorites is EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE, with a front-line of Dan Barrett and Joel Helleny.)

Even though at times I thought I knew what Kenny was going to play next — what variation on a Jimmie Noone passage he was going to use for those particular chords — he never coasted, even on the thousandth version of A PORTER’S LOVE SONG TO A CHAMBERMAID.

I had seen him several decades earlier — in the very early Seventies — when his partnership with Bob Wilber was beginning.  Soprano Summit was a high-intensity group, and when its two horns got going on the closing ensembles of something like EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY they had the force of the great Spanier-Bechet Hot Four.  I also remember Davern as a regular member of the Sunday jam sessions put on by Red Balaban in 1972 — when Kenny was primarily playing the straight soprano with operatic (if not dangerous) focused intensity.  I remember his overwhelming less assertive trumpet and trombone players — as if saying “Get the hell out of my way, if you please.”

Courtesy of Bob Erwig, here is Kenny’s performance of TRAV’LIN’ ALL ALONE from the 1989 Bern International Jazz Festival — backed by Howard Alden, Milt Hinton, and Gus Johnson — where Kenny is ardent without being shrill, powerful while playing quietly.  No wonder John L. Fell, who knew about such things, called Davern “the Coleman Hawkins of the clarinet.”  We miss him.

And one more Davern-sighting.  In 1972, friends and I saw Kenny and company at a Sunday afternoon jam session at Your Father’s Mustache and we then went downtown to The Half Note where Ruby Braff was leading a quartet — possibly with Dill Jones, George Mraz, and Dottie Dodgion.  The door opened during a set break and Davern walked in.  I was excited and envisioned a wonderful jam session.  My exuberant college-age self got the better of me, and I greeted Davern with an enthusiastic “Kenny!” then realized that I had perhaps overstepped myself and retreated into a quieter, “Mister Davern.”  With his usual glint of a half-smile, he looked at me and murmured, “Oh, pardonnez-moi,” and turned away.  I’m still decoding that one.

“SEARCH ENGINE TERMS,” February 2010

When you have a blog — this one or any other kind — you find out the words and phrases that people have used on Google or other search engines to come to your blog.  Sometimes the journey is a straight line (the most frequent searches are for “Louis Armstrong,” “Billie Holiday,” “Frank Sinatra,” “Joel Helleny” and so on).  But occasionally imagining the original impulse in the searcher’s mind and trying to reconstruct the journey from idea to JAZZ LIVES is both difficult and hilarious.  Witness these recent examples of inexplicability:

First, we have the MIS-SPELLERS:

“man city blue blowers”

Phonetic-ese for MOUND CITY (St. Louis) which makes for a particularly testosterone-heavy group of comb-and-tissue players; men whose kazoos are formidable instruments.

lester young, lady be god

Perhaps the deification of Billie Holiday by Lester Young?

meaning atterly deplorable

Here, I don’t know if the writer was looking for a defintion of the phrase or saying that my blog was atterly, atterly to be deplored. 

was is billie holiday’s nationality

Was American, korrekt?

talk less – miss holiday

1)  I can’t say; my lips are sealed.    2)   If you don’t say anything, they take away your sick days at work?

jazz pianist and singer black overweight

I assume that someone here was thinking of Fats Waller but couldn’t recall the name, or was shy about typing in his name for fear of causing offense: the computer would shut down because of such offensive language.  One never knows, do one?

jazz vocal shout face

My first thought was that someone was looking for a Google Images piece of clip art — a singer whose face was showing the joyous possibilities of shouting in rhythm.  But then I said, “No!  Someone’s looking for information on the almost-unknown hot singer SHOUT FACE, who made three records with Billy Fowler and his Howlers in Atlanta in 1927.” 

It’s all a mystery!

“SUNDAY”: HONORING JOEL HELLENY

This performance — faster than usual, happily so — took place last night, Sunday, June 21, 2009, at The Ear Inn.  Wedged into their usual corner were that night’s brilliant edition of The Ear Regulars: Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Harvey Tibbs, trombone; Dan Block, clarinet; Jon Burr, bass.  The song — written by (among others) Jule Styne in 1927 — is usually taken at an easy lope, but the Regulars tore through it as a change of pace. 

To look at this band, you’d think them entirely involved in giving and receiving pleasure: they listen in a kind of rapture to each other’s solos; they construct witty, pointed, empathic backgrounds and riffs.  And the communion, creativity, and joy we sense are obviously coming from deep inside them, individually and collectively.  But there’s a paradox at work in this performance: everyone on this bandstand had only learned that day of the death of trombonist Joel Helleny — someone they had all respected, played alongside, and known.  One way to handle their grief might have been to refuse to play, to go off somewhere to grieve in solitude.  But these artists chose to heal themselves by offering their energies as only they could.  Their spirit and their choruses healed us.

MOURNING JOEL HELLENY (1956-2009)

The news of anyone’s death reminds us of how insufficient language really is.  I learned of trombonist Joel Helleny’s death last night at The Ear Inn. 

Helleny was one of those musicians I didn’t have the good fortune to hear in perfomance, which means I missed a thousand opportunities, because he performed with Dick Hyman, Buck Clayton, Randy Sandke, Frank Wess, Benny Goodman, Scott Hamilton, Warren Vache, Roy Eldridge, Vince Giordano, Eddy Davis, Jon-Erik Kellso, Marty Grosz, and many other luminaries.  But I heard him subliminally on the soundtrack of two Woody Allen films, and I have a good number of CDs (Arbors, Concord, Ney York Jazz, Nagel-Heyer, and others) on which he shines.  This morning I was listening to his work on Kenny Davern’s EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE (Arbors) and marveled once again: he could do it all: purr, shout, cajole, sweet-talk or say the nastiest things . . . all through his horn. 

He played beutifully; he had his own sound.  And he’s gone.  

Marty Elkins knew him well, and wrote to say this:

I got the news from Murray Wall. We were both old friends of Joel’s, and we are very sad about his death. Joel was a super smart, very talented guy, at the top of his field back in the 80’s and 90’s – doing gigs with Dick Hyman, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra (where he was a featured soloist), he was a member of George Wein’s New York All Stars and played on sound tracks for Woody Allen films, among other credits. He even toured with the OJays. He was a very loyal and devoted friend, also one of the only people who talked faster than I do!

He and I were really close around the deaths of our parents in the 90’s – providing a lot of support for one another. Joel was an only child and really attached to his folks.  He leaves a lot of saddened friends and an empty space in the jazz community. He will be remembered.

 But if you never heard Joel play, all this might seem only verbal gestures.  Here’s Joel in what I believe is a 1992 television appeance with clarinetist Walt Levinsky’s “Great American Swing Band,” including trumpeters Spanky Davis, Randy Sandke, Glenn Drewes, and Bob Millikan; trombonists Eddie Bert and Paul Faulise; reedmen Mike Migliore, Chuck Wilson, Frank Wess, Ted Nash, and Sol Schlinger;  pianist Marty Napoleon, bassist Murray Wall; drummer Butch Miles. 

Joel Helleny will be remembered.