The young guitarist from Tasmania, Josh Dunn, knows how to make melody come alive and shimmer in front of us. Although many technically-assured guitarists wear the fingerboard slick with their assertive many-noted approach, Josh knows how to let a lovely melody breathe. Here are some recent solo interludes from his YouTube channel. Chimes at sunset. Birdsong at sunrise.
I KNOW WHY (And So Do You):
SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES:
MIDNIGHT, THE STARS AND YOU:
POLKA DOTS AND MOONBEAMS:
THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE:
If you find Josh on a gig, I assure you that you will be rewarded by his subtle approach to Song. And he swings expertly also.
A sweet and hot experience from a world in transition, in parole, as it were. Music beyond compare amidst strollers, chatters, and puppies on leash. Marvelous that it happened, and thrilling that it happened in a time and place that I and the OAO could visit. And we brought back souvenirs for you.
Here’s a rocking Louis performance that continues to inspire: ONCE IN A WHILE, with memories of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, performed on June 6, 2021, at The Ear Out — 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York — by the EarRegulars, who were Jon-Erik Kellso, Puje trumpet; Jay Rattman, clarinet; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Tal Ronen, string bass, and guest Josh Dunn, guitar (Josh takes the first solo, and in the Louis spirit, note Jay’s WEST END BLUES at the end of his solo (2:31)).
ONCE IN A WHILE, indeed, magic filled the air. Thanks to technology (a completely obsolete Panasonic HD video camera and very solicitous RODE microphone on a reliable tripod) it can be revisited at leisure.
For about six months — September 2019 to March 2020 — much longer than one brief shining moment, we had Cafe Bohemia, downstairs at 15 Barrow Street, Greenwich Village, New York City. And on Thursday nights, if I recall correctly, the Cafe Bohemia All-Stars, led by Jon-Erik Kellso (“You know them, you love them.”) took the stage.
Here’s a particularly sinuous and searching WABASH BLUES, performed by Jon-Erik, Puje trumpet; Dennis Lichtman, clarinet; Josh Dunn, guitar; Jared Engel, string bass.
The photograph shows the Wabash River in Indiana.
This memorable performance doesn’t make me want to book a flight to the Wabash River, but it certainly makes me wish that we could have those Bohemia nights back.
There they are, in all their hot pastoral glory: the New York Classic Seven, co-led by Colin Hancock, drums; Mike Davis, trumpet and vocal; with Andy Schumm, piano; Jay Rattman, bass saxophone; Josh Dunn, banjo and guitar; Josh Holcomb, trombone; Ricky Alexander, clarinet and alto saxophone. Their concert — two days ago, Sunday, May 15, 2022 — was made possible by the Tri-State Jazz Society(thanks to Bill Hoffman, as always, for his efficient kindnesses). I am told that the whole concert was live-streamed on YouTube and Facebook, but I wanted to bring my camera and gear there myself, so that the OAO and I could enjoy it hot. As we did.
When an interviewer asked Jelly Roll Morton, late in Jelly’s life, about jazz “styles,” and unrolled a list of them, Jelly was derisive, “Hell, it’s all Jelly Roll style!” Here are two jubilant examples to prove his point: hot music performances of the highest order.
MILENBERG (or MILNEBERG) JOYS:
Joys for sure. Colin told us that this version owed something to the recordings of New Orleans cornetist Johnny DeDroit — wait for the extended ending.
And the closing number of the concert, GOOD OLD NEW YORK (“Knife and fork / bottle and a cork / That’s the way you spell ‘New York’ are some words from the lyrics — true today):
Reiterating the obvious. These are extraordinarily gifted musicians who make music that others say is dead cavort joyously. And although we treasure our Morton Victors in any form, living musicians playing music in real time and space are an immense gift, and such a gift needs to be nurtured. Support jazz societies; make donations if you can’t or won’t be there in person; buy musicians’ CDs; go to concerts and gigs.
Jazz surely is nowhere near dead, but every time an audience member turns away, it gets closer to the morgue.
I could call this post OUTSTANDING IN THEIR FIELD, but that would be wrong.
There they are, in all their hot pastoral glory: the New York Classic Seven, co-led by Colin Hancock, drums; Mike Davis, trumpet and vocal; with Andy Schumm, piano; Jay Rattman, bass saxophone; Josh Dunn, banjo and guitar; Josh Holcomb, trombone; Ricky Alexander, clarinet and alto saxophone. Their concert — yesterday, Sunday, May 15, 2022 — was made possible by the Tri-State Jazz Society(thanks to Bill Hoffman, as always, for his efficient kindnesses). I am told that the whole concert was live-streamed on YouTube and Facebook, but I wanted to bring my camera and gear there myself, so that the OAO and I could enjoy it hot. As we did.
Here’s a hot performance of Tiny Parham’s JUNGLE CRAWL, transcribed by Mike Davis — so authentic, so slippery-lovely. (You know, Dick Wellstood said that the best jazz had “grease and funk.” The white walls of the little hall still gleamed when the concert was over, but a kind of lively unfettered human vitality was in the air:
Someone sitting near me said, when this was all through, “That was awesome,” and I agree. There’s more to come. You can find the whole concert, live-streamed,here — for free, but people who are hep to the jive will find the donation box and toss some love to the Society and their musicians. It’s only right.
And just to reiterate: “Jazz is dead?” “Young people today have no knowledge of the jazz tradition before Coltrane?” Derisive noises from your occasionally-humble correspondent.
Today, Facebook tells me, is Jared Engel’s birthday. As Milt Hinton used to say, “I have shoes older than you,” meaning that Jared is an inspiring Youngblood who has decades to go, bringing joy through music. He did just that about six weeks ago (I’ve already posted music from this concert, but here’s more).
It was a wonderful concert by Jared, string bass, composer, arranger; Vanisha-Arleen Gould, vocal; Gordon Au. trumpet; Sam Chess, trombone; Jonathan Beshay, reeds; Josh Dunn, guitar; Andrew Millar, drums — held in the Flamboyan Theatre of the Soto Cultural Center, Essex Street, New York City, on October 30, 2021, under the aegis of the City Artist Corps Program, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
Here are four more selections, showing Jared’s and the band’s wide-ranging approach to sharing music, creating pleasure, creating thought.
Featuring Sam Chess, RED WING (or THE UNION MAID):
A gorgeous version of WARM VALLEY, a showcase for Jared:
LIMEHOUSE BLUES, showing off Jonathan Beshay:
and finally, a song that could be the concert’s theme, HYMN TO FREEDOM:
Happy birthday, Mr. Jared, Sir. We salute you and your friends (there’s more from this concert to come) and we are happy to share the planet with you.
A wonderful concert by Jared Engel, string bass, composer, arranger; Vanisha-Arleen Gould, vocal; Gordon Au. trumpet; Sam Chess, trombone; Jonathan Beshay, reeds; Josh Dunn, guitar; Andrew Millar, drums — held in the Flamboyan Theatre of the Soto Cultural Center, Essex Street, New York City, on October 30, 2021, under the aegis of the City Artist Corps Program, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
Here’s the first part of three. Let joy be unconfined!
For Hoagy, for Louis, in the name of jubilation, JUBILEE:
Then, a lunar pairing featuring the wonderful singer Vanisha-Arleen Gould, NO MOON AT ALL:
and THAT OLD DEVIL MOON:
Inventive music, played with skill and spice in a lively space for an appreciative audience: if you know of a better universe . . .
But we’re in 2021, in the land of blessed live performance, not simply staring rapt at the blue Decca label, and the expression on Albanie Falletta’s face says it all:
A daring little band — the EarRegulars — performing on June 6, 2021, at The Ear Out, 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City. The core group for this Louis Armstrong classic (written by Terry Shand and Jimmy Eaton) is Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Jay Rattman, clarinet and alto saxophone; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Tal Ronen, string bass. Eminent guests: Josh Dunn, guitar; Albanie Falletta, resonator guitar. Please note the groovy tempo — not too fast — for this playful inducement to public and private displays of affection.
Another musical marvel, I think. Have you been? These Sunday-afternoon sessions will not happen when the frost is on the pumpkin. So get your musical blessings while you may.
I think the great artists have magical transformative abilities. These four can’t make the noisy sidewalk still or silent, but to me it feels as if they are in my — and their — living room. They are having a good time and they make sure we are also. From left, Albanie Falletta, resonator guitar and vocal; Tal Ronen, string bass; Josh Dunn, acoustic guitar; Matt Munisteri, electric guitar. Tal and Matt were part of the EarRegulars that day for the Sunday session in front of The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, New York City): Albanie and Josh were stellar visitors. he fellow in the blue shirt who’s part of the picture, early and late, is Jon-Erik Kellso, bringing the tip bucket around while he’s not playing his Puje trumpet.
Beautiful moments, captured al fresco:
And if you feel compelled to write in to growl about the people passing by, seemingly oblivious while talking, or perhaps the lack of microphones, please lie down until the impulse passes. Celebrate the magic rather than complaining about this imperfect world: magic happens all of a sudden, unpredictably, and vanishes . . . we must cherish it.
Who could resist such a request? Thank you, Sigmund Romberg, of course.
And thank the EarRegulars for this sustained joy from The Ear Out (that’s located on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 3:30 in front of The Ear Inn, 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City).
On July 25, 2021, they were Jon-Erik Kellso, Puje trumpet; John Allred, trombone; James Chirillo, guitar; Neal Caine, string bass, with NOLA guest Shaye Cohn, cornet, joining them. And here’s a masterpiece of chamber jazz, no exaggeration: solos, swing, ensemble telepathy, lyricism:
I’ve posted several other luminous performances from this session, with guests Jen Hodge, Josh Dunn, Rafael Castillo-Halvorssen, and Tamar Korn: THEM THERE EYES, IF I COULD BE WITH YOU ONE HOUR TONIGHT, and ONCE IN A WHILE. They don’t need explication, although they (and this burst of pleasures) remind me of someone from the UK — obviously deep into her own preferred variety of jazz — who used to comment on my postings, “Too swingy.”
She meant it as a criticism: I take it as the highest compliment.
The EarRegulars and friends deserve our most reverent thanks. And our physical presence: every Sunday afternoon from 1 to 3:30, at 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City.
And a self-referential postscript: in some unimagined context, should someone ask me, “Michael, what have you done with your life? I understand you were a college professor for decades . . .” I would point them to videos like this as the achievements I’m most proud of.
They make it look and sound so easy, which is one of the marks of great art — what Castiglione called “sprezzatura,” or an inspired nonchalance. Or, bcause it’s from the Louis book, it translates as “hot cosmology.” An extraordinarily lovely interlude by the EarRegulars plus guests, performed for all and sundry (did the passers-by feel the love as they trotted by?) on Sunday, July 25, 2021, at “The Ear Out,” in front of The Ear Inn, 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City.
The creators — bless them in long meter — are Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; John Allred, trombone; James Chirillo, guitar; with Rafael Castillo-Halvorssen, trumpet; Shaye Cohn, cornet, Josh Dunn, guitar; Jen Hodge (sitting in for Neal Caine), string bass.
And their facial expressions will tell you their communal pleasure in the music they made float on the air.
“Hi, hi!” to quote Louis. Or to quote an enthusiastic friend of mine, “Wow wow wow.” More to come.
By the time I began to attend live jazz happenings in New York City, 1970, the block of Fifty-Second Street once known as “Swing Street” had lost its marvelous coloration: banks and stores now stood where for, about a decade, there had been a line of jazz clubs where one could hear the most magnificent music, with musicians playing not only their own gigs but visiting others’. Ben, Bird, Billie, Big Sid, Bechet, Big T — among a hundred others. All that remained was a few dozen photographs and some record dates that tried to simulate the energies that bubbled up every night.
But in 2007, when Jon-Erik Kellso started a Sunday-night residency at The Ear Inn, 326 Spring Street, often with guitarist Matt Munisteri — the group was not yet called The EarRegulars — those sessions were the closest thing to Swing Street glories that I had ever seen, as the original quartet would delightfully grow with friends coming to add their voices to the swinging choir.
Since May of this year, Jon-Erik has been holding sessions outside The Ear Inn, and they provide the same emotional and aesthetic uplift. The music says in every note: We are not dead. We can still create joy. And we are happy to offer our wise feeling joy to you.
This happened again — most gloriously — on the afternoon of July 25 . . . a fairly quiet time in Soho, with many people having found some way to get out of the city. But those who remained in front of 326 Spring Street will, I propose, never forget what they saw and heard.
And the musicians were similarly transported: watching the performance that follows, please note the facial expressions of the musicians: Jen Hodge’s smile, James Chirillo’s approval, so evident, even behind the double mask. I’ve posted an exuberant sample from that day — the closing performance, THEM THERE EYES, featuring Tamar Korn — and here’s another wonder, James P. Johnson’s IF I COULD BE WITH YOU ONE HOUR TONIGHT:
They make it look and sound so easy, which is one of the marks of great art — what Castiglione called “sprezzatura,” or an inspired nonchalance. An extraordinarily lovely interlude by the EarRegulars plus guests, performed for all and sundry (did the passers-by feel the love as they trotted by?). The creators — bless them in long meter — are Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; John Allred, trombone; James Chirillo, guitar; with Rafael Castillo-Halvorssen, trumpet; Shaye Cohn, cornet, Josh Dunn, guitar; Jen Hodge, sitting in for Neal Caine, string bass. Wondrous lyricism, a great feast of sounds for our ears and hearts.
I feel so much gratitude to them and their peers: I hope you feel it also.
Wondrous music was made (to quote Fratello JLC) in front of the Ear Inn on Sunday, July 25. If you were there, you know. If you weren’t, you can see and hear a sample now — created by the EarRegulars on their penultimate performance of the afternoon, THEM THERE EYES, featuring the regular EarRegulars for the day, John Allred, trombone; James Chirillo, guitar; Neal Caine, string bass, with irregular EarRegulars Tamar Korn, vocal; Shaye Cohn, cornet; Danny Tobias, trumpet; Josh Dunn, guitar.
Leader Jon-Erik Kellso and Rafael Castillo-Halvorsen, guest trumpet, sat this one out to not have an excess of brass – but you can imagine their grins. Oh, my!
Have you been? Joys await for those who can drop in. And there’s Sunday, August 1 . . . .
JAZZ LIVES’ readers are an erudite lot, so they know the story of WILLIE THE WEEPER, a craftsperson with a substance abuse problem, to use 2021 terminology. In the song’s original lyrics, of which there are many variants, Willie was a low-down chimney sweeper with a “hop” (opium) habit, which afforded him the most extravagant dreams. An engaging song even without the lyrics, it made its way into Chicago jazz and thus the larger musical world through recordings by Louis Armstrong and others in the later Twenties. And should you investigate the lyrics, you would find that WILLIE is a surrogate parent to MINNIE THE MOOCHER, a creation that Cab Calloway enjoyed for decades.
The people you see in the photographs above are heroes of mine: they give their hearts to this music, which doesn’t always pay them back generously in currency. They “play their personalities,” as Roswell Rudd told me. They know how to sit up straight and color within the lines when necessary, but they also have huge wandering imaginations that delight and surprise. One of the most delightful of this delightful crew is the quiet subversive Jay Rattman, who brought his clarinet and alto saxophone to yesterday’s heartfelt fiesta. Jay looks prudent, serene: you would have no hesitation about co-signing a small loan for him, or letting him order dinner for the group. Not only would he “help the old lady across the street,” he would even first establish that she wanted to go.
So what happened on WILLIE THE WEEPER — the fourth song of this warm breezy Sunday afternoon — was a wondrous surprise. Jay was surrounded by a mutual admiration society: Tal Ronen, string bass; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet. I don’t know whether Jay was having a good time with the idea of weeping, or of opium dreams, or if he was simply basking in the joy of being outside among friends playing music . . . but his choruses are the most extravagant — and memorable — dreams. He didn’t implode the song, but he certainly tested its durable elasticity. See and hear for yourself:
To quote Jon-Erik, “Fun one, to be sure.” If you haven’t spent a Sunday afternoon in the company of these wonderful creators, I encourage you to do so. When the sun is shining, 1-3:30, in front of 326 Spring Street. And as hot as it was yesterday, the river provided cooling breezes. As did the music — thrilling, mournful, uplifting.
In the past fifteen years of being an involved observer in New York City, I’ve met many musicians. Sometimes the circles I travel in are both small and reassuring. But every so often I’ll come to a gig and there will be someone setting up whose face is unfamiliar, and I will introduce myself, then sit back and be ready to take in the new sounds. More often than not, the experience is a delightful surprise, so much so that I might go up to the person after the set and say, my enthusiasm barely restrained, “You sound wonderful. Where on earth did you come from?”
That was my experience with young guitarist Josh Dunn, whom I hope many of you have met in person as well as through videos — mine and his own. And when he said, “Tasmania,” I had to ask him again. “What?” “Tasmania.” And it finally sunk in — that he had traveled over ten thousand miles (sixteen thousand kilometers) to arrive here, bearing sweet inventive melodies and irresistible swing.
I first met and heard Josh at Cafe Bohemia on November 21, 2019 — where he was quite comfortable in the fastest musical company New York City has to offer: Tal Ronen, string bass; Dan Block, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Danny Tobias, trumpet and Eb alto horn. Hear how he fits right in and elevates the proceedings on LADY BE GOOD:
and a few months later, I had another opportunity to admire Josh’s steady rhythmic pulse, his intuitive grasp of the right harmonies (those chiming chords), and the way his single-string lines never seem glib but always offer refreshing ways to get from expected point A to point B. Here, again — on the last night I visited New York City — he fit right in with the best of them: Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Evan Arntzen, reeds; Sean Cronin, string bass:
And he understands the guitar’s honored and venerable role as a small orchestra, where a masterful player has to keep melody, harmony, and rhythm going on what George Van Eps called “lap piano.” Here’s a wonderful solo by Josh on a Duke Ellington- Barney Bigard composition, A LULL AT DAWN:
I’m inspired by how much music Josh makes ring in the air. But this video of THE GLORY OF LOVE stops abruptly — so be warned — it’s almost painful. I think, “I want to hear more!”:
Because I was impressed by Josh as a player — the evidence is here and on YouTube — and as a person (he’s soft-spoken, witty in an offhand way, and quite modest . . . he’s thrilled to be on the stand with these heroes) I suggested we do an email interview so that more people could get to know him. The results:
I come from an incredibly supportive, but non-musical family background. My family are mostly in medical/health-related fields, and as middle child I felt compelled to get as far away from that as possible, hence traditional jazz guitar. I told my folks I wanted to pick up guitar when I was about 7, I can’t recall if there was any reasoning behind this except that guitars looked cool. I still think they look cool.
For its size, Tasmania is an incredibly vibrant place for the creative arts, including music. I am really grateful that I had opportunities to grow up there, and play with and learn from such terrific musicians. My first guitar teacher in Tasmania, Steve Gadd, introduced me to a lot of the music styles I still listen to, practice, and perform now. However, Tassie is such a small community, and it’s hard to find opportunities to make a living playing music when you live on tiny island at the bottom of the world, especially in a somewhat niche style like traditional jazz.
I grew up listening to jazz and the more I learnt about the music and its history, the more I started to gravitate towards New York. I didn’t initially see myself living here (it’s about as far removed from rural Tasmania in lifestyle and environment as you can find) but in 2013 I received a grant to travel and study in the US for three months, and halfway through I arrived in New York and immediately changed my plans so I could spend the rest of the trip exploring the city. As someone who has learnt this music from afar, it was so exciting to experience jazz as a living music and culture, and it made me want to come and learn more. So from there I applied for the Fulbright and that provided the impetus to move to the US and play music.
An interlude from reading: Josh plays SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES:
So a big part of my informal jazz education before coming to New York was watching the Jazz Lives videos on YouTube, particularly the Sunday nights at the Ear Inn with Jon-Erik Kellso, Matt Munisteri and Company. It was how I learnt a lot of the repertoire, and discovered how this music was actually being played by contemporary musicians today.
Matt’s one of my musical heroes, so when I knew I’d be visiting NYC, I contacted him out of the blue and asked for a lesson. We emailed a little but somehow never quite managed to confirm a time, and I only had a few days left in NYC. So I took the drastic action of working out what approximate neighborhood he lived in from an allusion to a particular local venue in an online interview, and then just spent the afternoon wandering around that part of Brooklyn with a guitar, hoping for the best. Somehow it worked, I ran into him on the street, and we had our lesson, and it was only recently that we talked about how creepy it was to be approached on the block where he lived by a stranger from the other side of the world wanting a guitar lesson. It’s probably commonplace for Matt now, but I get the feeling that in 2013 it was a novel experience him.
You asked me for unusual NYC gig stories — I was hired for a mystery gig a few years back by a singer I didn’t know, I was just given an address, a dress code and a time, and it ended up being a private party hosted by a well known Hollywood actor. Which, as someone who’s only experience with that world was watching rented films while growing up in rural Tasmania, was a bit of culture shock for me.
I have no lofty ambitions of fame or fortune in music (but I admire those that do). The thing I have spent most of my life doing is playing guitar, usually by myself in my bedroom, but also with some of my favorite people in front of an audience. Since moving to the US I’ve somehow been able to turn that into something I get paid to do most nights of the week. So I want to keep learning and honing my craft as a musician, and also to continue making good music with good people. More recently I’ve started keeping a list of notes on my phone whenever I have the thought of “I wish someone had told me that a few years ago,” so maybe down the track I’ll be more involved in teaching in some form, but my main goal is to be in New York playing music.
More recently I’ve been enjoying the challenge of making solo jazz guitar an interesting thing to listen to for people who aren’t solo jazz guitarists. I could see myself pursuing this avenue too.
If you asked me for a compact embodiment of Beauty, as it happens now, I might very well reach for this:
Or if you asked me to define Collective Joy. You don’t see Josh until three minutes’ in, but you certainly hear what he adds is the real thing, and then:
I’ll leave with this. At one of the Cafe Bohemia gigs, I talked with a musician who’d dropped by to admire the band, and I said, “How about that Josh Dunn?” His reaction was immediate and emphatic, “We’re not letting him leave New York any time soon!” My thoughts exactly.
This 1915 composition is not only one but several paradoxes. It’s a multi-strain ragtime composition, not a blues, and it is anything but WEARY. For more about Artie Matthews, who had a rich life when he wasn’t composing, click hereto read an impressive biographical sketch by Bill Edwards.
Appropriately, the gentleman pictured above resembles some of us in early-pandemic, with a bundle of hand sanitizer, wipes, masks, gloves, and angst.
An electrifying performance of the WEARY BLUES is our centerpiece today. It leads us back to mid-March of this year. I won’t write about my experiences as the familiar world constricted, because everyone has their stories. But I am sure that none of your stories has such an inspired soundtrack.
This performance comes from my March 12, 2020, trip to Manhattan. Should I call it my “last” night in the city or my “most recent” one? Both are accurate, but the latter sounds more hopeful. And the music below radiates hope: created at Cafe Bohemia on 15 Barrow Street on that Thursday night by Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Evan Arntzen, clarinet; Albanie Falletta, resonator guitar, Sean Cronin, string bass, and guest Josh Dunn, guitar.
As you drink it all in, please admire the beauties below: a tempo both leisurely and intense, an ensemble that knows all the strains (so beautifully directed by Maestro JEK), eloquent lessons in individual approach and timbre, graduate work in the art of building solos and ensemble playing. Although there are only five players, this performance has all the orchestral density of a composed piece, yet it’s invented in front of our glistening eyes. There was only a small audience at Cafe Bohemia that night for this set — more cautious people were huddling at home or nervous at the grocery store — but now the audience can be world-wide:
What’s the paradox here?
The song is called Weary, but it’s joyously exuberant. Let it be our theme song as we turn aside from weariness to embrace life-affirming emotions.
As 2020 ticks on, I find myself daydreaming about being in JFK, my bags checked, the TSA pat-down concluded, walking towards my gate, knowing that soon I will be on a plane for an eagerly-anticipated jazz festival. Then the emotional mist clears, and I think, “Not yet, even if one is announced,” and I turn my thoughts to the local scene.
This is my local scene: the suburban apartment complex where I’ve lived for sixteen years. I no longer apologize for my nesting impulse, for the fact that I haven’t driven anywhere since March 24 (yes, I do start the car weekly) and that I spend hours in a triangular rotation of computer – kitchen – bedroom. This is as close as I can get to having a bosky dell, a garden, or a backyard, and it’s a consolation. And in this landscape where virus numbers often rise and rarely dip, it’s a good place to spend time.
I also love the song commemorating the pleasures of nesting. You may think of that vintage composition in connection with Al Jolson or Billie Holiday, but the lovely strains I prize happened right in front of my face, ears, camera, and heart on Thursday, March 12, 2020 — the last song of the last set of music I experienced in New York City (at Cafe Bohemia on Barrow Street) — a performance that, to me, would still have been transcendent had the circumstances been mild and predictable.
The noble improvisers here, the official uplifters, are Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Evan Arntzen, clarinet; Josh Dunn, guitar; Sean Cronin, string bass — with delightful visitors Kevin Dorn, drums (wire brushes and snare, to be exact) and Albanie Falletta, resonator guitar:
Why are tears forming in my eyes? They aren’t from despair, but from the effort necessary to sustain hope.
As for The Backyard, masked-and-prudent visitors invited. Transportation’s up to you, but I can provide iced drinks, unhealthy snacks, bathroom facilities, and gratitude. Two days’ notice, please. If I’m out, Maisie will take the message.
Albanie Falletta and Jen Hodge, another night at Cafe Bohemia, creating beauty.
Great art doesn’t need a museum with guards or a concert hall: sometimes it happens right in front of us, and this was one of those moments: my last trip into New York City to be transported by live music before the world we all knew began to distort in front of us, a visit to Cafe Bohemia on 15 Barrow Street in Greenwich Village for the last of the Thursday-night-jazz-prayer-meetings. March 12, 2020.
I’ve posted music and written about that ominous and uplifting evening here and here— and I can still see in my mind’s eye the stairway down into the nearly-empty subway station, the feel of a produce-section plastic bag wrapped around my hand (I hadn’t found gloves for sale yet) so that I would touch as few surfaces as possible. A new world, and not an easy one. But I digress.
The music. The magical transmogrifiers I capture with my camera are — I use the present tense on purpose — Albanie Falletta, voice and resonator guitar; Kevin Dorn, drums; Sean Cronin, string bass; Josh Dunn, guitar; Evan Arntzen, tenor saxophone; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet. The sad text that they make joyous — the great paradox of art — is Einar A. Swan’s 1931 WHEN YOUR LOVER HAS GONE.
That paradox fascinates me. If you look at the individual facial expressions as the alchemists below make their wise feeling ways through this venerable lament, they are not morose. Rather, they are the concentrated faces of people intent on making the result of their work (lifetimes of practice and contemplation) come out right. Were they to “break up their lines to weep,” to quote Yeats, the song would fail as each one retreated into their private universe of grief. And there is always enough to grieve about. But I think of Basie and Jimmy Rushing singing and playing the saddest song with a glint of mischief under their labors, embodying and celebrating the powers of art.
Here I’d like to quote from the unpublished journals of Sammut of Malta:
Nothing is ever strictly functional in music because all music is ornamental.
Music is not necessary for our well-being even if we come to need it on an emotional level. The fact is that if organized sound were never a thing, we’d still be here. But that’s what make something as simple as a triad so amazing. There’s really no practical reason for it to exist. But we wouldn’t want to be here without it. So that’s why I’d suggest there’s never any such thing as JUST A II-V-I progression.
We are such complicated humans and simplistic beasts all at once who can never see past our own noses. So when I hear a bass line—any bass line— I like to remind myself of its ultimate meaninglessness outside of my ears, but it makes it more special for that reason.
Or, as Hot Lips Page once told Steve Lipkins on the band bus, “Look, an Eb don’t mean shit unless you bring something to the fucking note.”
What Albanie, Kevin, Sean, Josh, Evan, and Jon-Erik bring to that Eb and all the other notes in this performance is precious — wafting past us in time, evaporating, but memorable. Bless them for moving us so.
And I will restate some thoughts that are even more pertinent in June:
This should be obvious, but people under stress might forget to look at “the larger picture,” that others have a hard time also. I’ve created this post for free, but what follows isn’t about me or what’s in my refrigerator. The musicians didn’t receive extra money for entertaining you. How can you help them and express gratitude? Simple. Buy their CDs from their websites. Help publicize their virtual house concerts — spread the news, share the joy — and toss something larger than a virtual zero into the virtual tip jar. Musicians live in a gig economy, and we need their generous art more than we can say. Let’s not miss the water because we ourselves have let the well run dry. Spiritual generosity means much more than a whole carton of hand sanitizer, or a really cool leopard-print mask.
What you give open-handedly to others comes back to your doorstep. Musicians remind us that there’s more to live for than lunch, and we must prize them for their pointing this out in every Eb.
Outside the world was getting darker — not just the way the sky looks after sunset. That was March 12, 2020, in New York City. I and others knew it, felt it, although we could have had no idea of what was to come. I had balanced my anxieties (the genetic and parental gift given to me) against the feeling, “You had better do this. It may not come again for some time,” and I am thrilled that I was able to be at Cafe Bohemia, 15 Barrow Street, Greenwich Village for those glorious hours.
Broadway went dark, but my hero-friends lit up the night and lifted our hearts.
Here’s a shining example — 1944 rocking made tangible in 2020 — from the end of that evening’s gig, when Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Evan Arntzen, clarinet and tenor; Josh Dunn, guitar; Sean Cronin, string bass, were joined by Albanie Falletta, guitar and vocals [YouTube didn’t have enough space for me to type her full name in the credits, but there’s only one Albanie] and Kevin Dorn, drums.
More from March 12 here. Take as needed, with a full glass of hope.
For those of us who are paying attention, this is a scary time. But when Jon-Erik Kellso suggested with polite urgency that we might want to join him and the Cafe Bohemia Jazz Quartet on Thursday, March 12 — it seems a lifetime ago — I stuffed a produce-section plastic bag in my jacket pocket (it took a few more days to find gloves) took a half-empty commuter train, got on an even more empty subway, and walked a few quiet blocks to this place, the home of restorative music and friends since last September: Cafe Bohemia at 15 Barrow Street, New York City.
We sensed that the huge dark doors were closing, although we didn’t know what would follow (we still are like people fumbling for the light switch in a strange room full of things to trip over). But music, artistic intelligence, soulful energy, and loving heat were all beautifully present that night. I hope that these video-recordings of these performances can light our way in the days ahead. And, for me, I needed to post music by people who are alive, medically as well as spiritually. So here are three inventive performances from that night. Subliminally, the songs chosen were all “good old good ones” that can be traced back to Louis, which is never a bad thing.
YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY — perhaps the theme song for quarantined couples and families? — with the world’s best ending:
Honoring another savory part of Lower Manhattan, CHINATOWN:
And the oft-played ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, here all bright and shiny with love. Everyone in the band lights up the night sky, but please pay attention to Sean Cronin playing the blues in the best Pops-Foster-superhero-style. This venerable song is often played far too fast, but Jon-Erik kicked it off at a wonderfully groovy tempo, reminding me of Bix and his Gang, and the Benny Goodman Sextet of 1940-41:
If, in some unimaginable future, a brave doctor leans over me and says, “He shouldn’t have gone into the city on March 12, you know,” my lifeless form will resurrect just long enough to say, “You’ve got it wrong. It was completely worth it.”
Bless these four embodiments of healing joy, as well as Christine Santelli and Mike Zielenewski of Cafe Bohemia, too. And here are three other lovely performances from earlier in the evening: I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME, WILLIE THE WEEPER (he was a low-down chimney sweeper, if you didn’t know that), and the MEMPHIS BLUES.
This should be obvious, but people under stress might forget to look at “the larger picture,” that others have a hard time also. I’ve created this post for free, but what follows isn’t about me or what’s in my refrigerator. The musicians didn’t receive extra money for entertaining you. How can you help them and express gratitude? Simple. Buy their CDs from their websites. Help publicize their virtual house concerts — spread the news, share the joy — and toss something larger than a virtual zero into the virtual tip jar. Musicians live in a gig economy, and we need their generous art more than we can say. Let’s not miss the water because we ourselves have let the well run dry.
Spiritual generosity means much more than a whole carton of hand sanitizer, and what you give open-handedly to others comes back to your doorstep.
My parents, generous in all things, also gave lavishly of their own anxieties — “Be careful!” “That’s a very bad idea,” and more. So on the evening of March 12, when I went into the half-deserted city that I’ve been visiting for decades, I heard the dull thrum of fear all around me. The half-empty streets, commuter train, and subway all testified to prudence, caution, fear of the unknown.
But the music I and others (including Matt Rivera, one of the Disciples of Swing) heard that night — and that you will hear now — was a powerful countertruth. “Yes, there is a new toxicity out there — an acronym with a number — that is ready to catch you unaware. But while the music is playing, you are protected. The creativity of these musicians is life-affirming, and vibrating to their sounds means that you are powerfully alive.” I felt that from the first notes of I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME to the end of the second set.
Of course there is room for scientifically-based dissent, but those who need to write in, “You’re going to DIE!” might give voice to such feelings elsewhere.
The creators — the Doctors of Swing in whom I put my faith that night — were, at the start, Sean Cronin, string bass; Josh Dunn, guitar; Evan Arntzen, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet. Their music says “We will go on.”
Here are three beauties, defying the darkness. The first is I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME, played at a lovely tempo thanks to Jon-Erik, who remembered my wish to have it sound like a love song, not a sprint:
Then, WILLIE THE WEEPER, a story about joyous self-medication as needed:
And a mellow MEMPHIS BLUES (where the people smile on you all the while):
There will be more, and I don’t simply mean that I will post music from this night. I envision a future, not too long from now, when live music will be experienced face-to-face. And — lest I forget — this post is in honor of the very-much-alive Jim Wellen, whom I met this morning.
I’ve created this post for free. The musicians didn’t receive extra money for entertaining you. How can you help them and express gratitude? Simple. Buy their CDs from their websites. Help publicize their virtual house concerts — spread the news, share the joy — and toss something larger than a virtual zero into the virtual tip jar. Musicians live in a gig economy, and we need their generous art more than we can say. Let’s not miss the water because we ourselves have let the well run dry.