Tag Archives: Lorna Sass

LORNA SASS’S JAZZ PORTRAITS (June 2009)

People know Lorna Sass’s brilliant photographs of Sicilian wildflowers, Utah rock formations, blossoms in Central Park, and urban landscapes: gargoyles and animals leering from apartment buildings, fences and benches, the architecture we don’t always see.  But how many people know her as a superb jazz photographer, someone who catches sound and emotion while they’re still fresh?  Here are some portraits taken in the last few days.  They resonate.  And if you don’t know Lorna’s fauna and flora, visit www.lornasassatlarge.wordpress.com

Daryl Sherman and Wycliffe Gordon at the Oak Room

Daryl Sherman and Wycliffe Gordon at the Oak Room

Duke Heitger, John Allred, and Ehud Asherie at Roth's Westside Steakhouse

Duke Heitger, John Allred, and Ehud Asherie at Roth's Westside Steakhouse

David Ostwald, Kevin Dorn, Ken Peplowski, Anat Cohen, Duke Heitger, Dion Tucker at Birdland

David Ostwald, Kevin Dorn, Ken Peplowski, Anat Cohen, Duke Heitger, Dion Tucker at Birdland

Ehud Asherie studies Dick Hyman at Birdland

Ehud Asherie studies Dick Hyman at Birdland

EVERYBODY LOVES BENNY

That was the general mood of today’s hour-long conversation sponsored by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.  “Memories of You,” which was a three-way chat among Martin E. Segal (now ninety-three and a Lincoln Center luminary, emeritus) and Phoebe Jacobs (now ninety, and a jazz / show business beacon) — moderated by George Boziwick.  Because both of the participants had known Benny Goodman (“Mr. Goodman” to Ms. Jacobs) as a friend and as a non-musical employer, there were no stories about the King of Swing being a difficult boss or a perfectionistic bandleader.  So we heard about Benny the pioneer against racism, the salmon-fisherman and sports enthusiast, the generous man who paid Teddy Wilson’s doctor bills and sent money to Wilson’s wife for a year after Teddy’s death, the fond parent (daughters Sophia and Benjie were in the audience, as was a youthful Goodman grandson, as was Mercedes Ellington), loving husband, a son devoted to his parents, a thoughtful brother. 

It was as if the afternoon had been arranged to get rid of those wicked stories about Benny’s inability to deal with people — especially his sidemen and women — decently.  And his famous obliviousness was only touched on once, in Phoebe’s story about Goodman’s having his fly open on the Dick Cavett Show.

But several things rescued the afternoon from amiable blandness.  One was watching Segal and Jacobs, people who won’t see ninety again, sharp, witty, and totally in command of their material and of the audience.  Enthusiastic, too, as Lorna Sass’s portrait of Phoebe in full flight proves:

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And Martin Segal, sly rather than ebullient, kept on reminding me of someone.  This photo doesn’t entirely capture the resemblance, but it dawned on me that Segal looked a good deal like a shorter version of his friend Benny:

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Finally, two other highlights — one before the conversation, one after.  When the Beloved and I sat down, an elegantly dressed woman in a dark paisley jacket chose to sit next to us and said that she had met Goodman at a Segal party (she had been Segal’s right-hand woman when he created the Film Society of Lincoln Center).  Sallie Blumenthal, for that is her name, had many charming stories — most of them about the actor Louis Calhern, a generous and gracious man.  We never got back to her Goodman story, but now I know that Calhern was a sweet man who remembered everyone he had ever met. 

After the conversation, we went to the third floor of the library to look at their Goodman memorabilia — a quite impressive collection of things that were almost all new to me: a Gil Evans chart for the song DELIA’S GONE, another, earlier chart with Mel Powell’s name penciled in; photos that I hadn’t seen — all curated by a quietly industrious young librarian whose first name is Jonathan (I apologize for not getting his full name). 

A pleasant afternoon, with all the usual (occasionally venomous and hilarious) Goodman gossip put to rest for a change.  Next week, slightly later in the afternoon, Goodman’s musical legacy — as opposed to his social one — will be celebrated and considered by a sextet of musicians who are unfamiliar to me.  But I’m sure they will swing: Goodman’s music is a powerful inspiration!

Photographs copyright 2009 by Lorna Sass.  All rights reserved. 

WE LOVE GEORGE AVAKIAN! (PORTRAITS BY LORNA SASS)

These four photographs are the handiwork of Lorna Sass.  Camera at the ready, she captured moments in the darkness at Birdland last Wednesday, when we gathered to celebrate George Avakian’s 90th birthday, each photograph a small essay in itself. 

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At first, this might look like a typical study of the band in action, but Lorna captured Randy Sandke’s exultant shout, cheering Anat Cohen on in the midst of her hugh-flying solo.  Jazz camaraderie!

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 Wycliffe Gordon, intense and serene, at one with the music sweeping through him.

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Happy to be here!  Left, Michael Steinman (your humble correspondent); right, George himself.

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I hope with all my heart that George gets whatever he wished for at that moment.  Certainly he’s made so many of our jazz dreams come true.   

Photographs copyright 2009 by Lorna Sass.  All rights reserved.

TELEPATHY AND TUXEDOS!

Last night, the Sunday that began March 2009, the Beloved and I took up our positions at the Ear Inn, close enough to the band to hear some of the muttered in-jokes.  And what a band!  Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, Mark Lopeman on tenor sax, James Chirillo on guitar, Jon Burr on bass — and, after the first number, Dan Block on alto sax.

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That’s the reed and rhythm sections.  Here’s the trumpet section, with friends.  Everyone’s concentrating hard, eyes shut:

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Photographs copyright 2009 by Lorna Sass.  All rights reserved.

You’ll notice that two of the EarRegulars are tuxedo-clad, although with room to breathe.  Not the usual Ear Inn dress code!  We in the fashion world call this Unbuttoned Formal.  Lest you were wondering if this was a new West Village aesthetic, the more obvious reason is that Jon-Erik, Dan, and Mark had just come from an afternoon gig with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks — the Pee Wee Russell Memorial Stomp, or “the PeeWee Stomp” to those in the know.  Dan and Jon-Erik were wearing their Nighthawks regalia.  Where Mark hid his is currently unknown.

I won’t say that the band’s particularly splendid playing last night was due to their clothing, but the situation reminded me of something common in the Thirties and Forties.  Jazzmen spent the evening sitting in a big band, soloing occasionally but more often reading the charts — and then went someplace to blow, to get all of those arrangements out of their system.  Vince, as you know, is no Swing Era martinet, and those charts are a pleasure to play . . . but there was a noticeable absence of printed music at the Ear last night.  No one missed it.

Jon-Erik suggested Fats Waller’s cheerful I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY as an opener.  Was he thinking about his own delightful Jackie, sitting nearby, or Liz, Jon Burr’s endearing partner, or even myself and the Beloved?  Who can tell?  But it’s always a good tune to play, and the streamlined quartet dug in joyously.

For any other jazz group, it would have been a triumphant performance.  For the EarRegulars, who happily set their standards so high, it was only a casual romp, a friendly warm-up.  An appetizer!

Dan Block, his injured finger still bandaged but playing marvelously, came aboard for Carmichael’s ROCKIN’ CHAIR, taken at a less lugubrious tempo than usual.  And it was a stirring lesson in the many shades an improvising ensemble can bring to a piece of music — from intense hymnlike beginnings, with the saxes humming behind Jon-Erik, to a downhome shuffle with hints of rhythm and blues, coming full circle with Jon-Erik’s Braffish cadenza.  We cheered, and the set was still young.

JEEPERS CREEPERS (in Bb) was another subliminal homage to Louis (with thanks to Johnny Mercer).  Here the band rose to new peaks of swinging empathy.  Jon-Erik ended his solo with a sideways homage to the Basie EVERY TUB, and Dan picked up the phrase to start his own solo.  Jon Burr was particularly eloquent, shaping his phrases and leaving elegant spaces in between, and the “telepathy” of my title was at its height, with the two-man sax section answering Jon-Erik in the final ensemble with the wonderful intuition of artists fluent in a shared language.  Everyone in this quintet knows how to respond to each other without taking time to intellectualize.  I thought of the little bands that Hot Lips Page used to lead — trumpet, three saxes, and rhythm — a great compliment to the EarRegulars.

Mark Lopeman shone on a grooving, rhapsodic IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN that showed off his beautiful tone.

Then it was “tempo di jump” once again, and Jon-Erik, feeling cheerful and with good reason, called I WANT TO BE HAPPY.  For the semanticists in the audience, of course the wish expressed in that title would have been a redundancy, but perhaps Jon-Erik wanted to make sure that every molecule in the Ear Inn felt the way he did.  The performance began with a wondrously dissonant introduction by Chirillo — who occasionally delights everyone with thrillingly weird chords and jagged lines that meld Appalachia and Charles Ives — and everyone riffed behind Dan, who was flying.  His Muse was not only Charlie Parker, but Charlie Holmes.  Beautiful solos led into what I think of as Keynote Records-riffs, a shout chorus, an upwards key change (thanks, James!) for another exuberant finish.

The EarRegulars were having too much fun to stop, and it was time to let Phillip DeBucket, who loves to visit at every table,  make his rounds of the Ear, so Jon-Erik called for the blues, which happily took shape as Strayhorn’s THE INTIMACY OF THE BLUES — spiritual, groovy, sad and spirited.

It was a thrilling hour.  Creativity, a common jazz vocabulary, and high-level telepathy were all on display.  Good job!  Well done!  Blessings on all your heads!

REQUIRED READING!

Readers of this blog know Lorna Sass as a fine jazz photographer.  She captures the essence of her subjects and conveys it in a single frame.  Her jazz pedigree is impeccable: she admires the living (Wycliffe Gordon, Jon-Erik Kellso, Kevin Dorn, and others) and the departed (Louis, the Brothers Mills, and the Sisters Boswell).

But Lorna is a woman of many talents.  She’s an established journalist, travel writer, essayist, culinary historian, medieval scholar, and the author of fifteen award-winning cookbooks.  Her specialties are whole grains, quick healthy meals, pressure cooking, and vegan cuisine.  In the picture below, she’s on the left (with red eyeglasses) next to Mollie Katzen.  The night this picture was taken, both of them had won the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award for their new books.  Lorna’s was WHOLE GRAINS EVERY DAY, EVERY WAY.

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Lorna has just started her own blog — LORNA SASS AT LARGE. You can get to it by way of my blogroll.  The web address is http://lornasassatlarge.wordpress.com

Because I admire insightful prose, I’ve been enjoying her essays on Sicily, popcorn, Chinese takeout, and other delicious subjects.  And her wonderful photographs.  She improvises nimbly over the chords and never turns a predictable phrase.

You might work up an appetite while reading her blog, but you’ll leave it feeling satisfied.

And I promise I won’t be jealous if you visit her blog first.

OUR OWN FOUR-DAY NYC JAZZ FESTIVAL

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This remarkable weekend began on Friday night (November 7) at the New York Historical Society on Central Park West, with a free one-hour concert featuring bassist-singer-composer Jay Leonhart, amidst what the MC introduced, somewhat oddly, as “rising stars” Wycliffe Gordon, trombone and vocals, Ted Rosenthal, piano, and Alvin Atkinson, drums. The program mixed several Richard Rodgers classics, “Shall We Dance,” “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top,” Bernstein’s “Cool,” with two Leonhart originals and a closing romp through “Lester Leaps In.”  Rosenthal sparkled; Atkinson swung.

But the high point of the evening was an exploration of what Leonhart called “a jazz prayer,” “Body and Soul.”  That 1930 song can be a problem for musicians, as it has been played so nobly by so many: Coleman Hawkins, Louis, Bird in his first flights, Duke and Blanton, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Lucky Thompson, Sonny Rollins, Billie Holiday, the Benny Goodman Trio, etc.   This performance began with Leonhart’s arco solo and then reached heights with Wycliffe’s plunger-muted, stately exploration of the theme.  Wycliffe knows full well how to honor a melody rather than simply leaping into variations on chord changes).  Waggling his plunger in and out, he mixed growls and moans, naughty comedy and deep sighs, as if Tricky Sam Nanton or Vic Dickenson was playing a hymn.  The solo ended all too soon.

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Not only was the concert free, but the museum was open to all, so the Beloved and I wandered through lovely landscape paintings.  Future Fridays at the NYHS (all beginning at 6:30 PM) will feature The Western Wind (a contemporary classical vocal sextet) on November 14, on the 21, guitarists from the Manhattan School of Music (teachers and proteges); Cheryl B. Engelhardt and Oscar Rodriguez (guitar) on December 5, jazz again on December 12, with Jeb Patton, David Wong, and Tootie Heath, and ending with Latin music on the 19th from the Samuel Torres Group.

We rested on Saturday to prepare ourselves for the exuberances to come.

Sunday afternoon found us at Sweet Rhythm on Seventh Avenue South for the third gathering of Jon-Erik Kellso and Friends: this time bassist Kelly Friesen, drummer Andrew Swann, pianist Rossano Sportiello, and reedman Peter Reardon-Anderson, doubling tenor and clarinet.  Hyperbole is a dangerous thing, but I came away from these two sets thinking that I had heard the most exciting jazz in years.

I so admire Jon-Erik’s ability to shape an ad hoc ensemble into a cohesive one, and he did it through the two sets, creating jazz that was of this time and place, looking back to New Orleans and collective improvisation, forward to contemporary “Mainstream” solos.  If I kept thinking of Keynote Records 1943-46, perhaps that’s because those jubilant performances kept being evoked on the stand at Sweet Rhythm.  Rossano strode and glided, sometimes in a Basie mood (appropriately) on “Doggin’ Around” and “Topsy”; Kelly took the glories of Milt Hinton (powerful rhythm, a huge tone, beautiful arco work on “All Too Soon”) and made them his own, and Andrew Swann, slyly grinning, added Sidney Catlett and Cliff Leeman to his swinging progenitors.  Anderson, twenty-one years old, is someone we can greet at the beginning of a brilliant career (to quote Emerson on Whitman): Zoot Sims and Ed Hall stand in back of his graceful, energetic playing.  Basie got honored, but so did Bing and Louis in “I Surrender, Dear,” and Kellso reminded us that not only is he playing marvelously but he is a first-rate composer: his line on “Linger Awhile” was a memorable hide-and-seek creation.  We cheered this band, and with good reason.

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And the room was full of Jazz Friends who didn’t get up on the bandstand: Bill and Sonya Dunham, Jim and Grace Balantic, Nina Favara, Lawri Moore, Marianne Mangan and Robert Levin.  A righteous congregation!

And the five portraits you see here — from the top, Jon-Erik, Rossano, Kelly, Andrew, and Peter — come from this gig, courtesy of Lorna Sass, jazz photographer.

Perhaps I am a jazz glutton, but those two sets weren’t enough: I walked downtown to the Ear Inn to soak up one more set by the EarRegulars: Jon-Erik, Chris Flory on guitar, Greg Cohen on bass, and Michael Blake on tenor, someone entirely new to me.  (He and Jon-Erik go ‘way back, although they hadn’t played together in years.)  Blake is exceedingly amiable, so we found ourselves chatting at the bar — about small towns near Victoria (Souk for one) and Pee Wee Russell, about the odd and gratifying ways people come to jazz, about Lucky Thompson and jazz clarinet.  Then it was time for the EarRegulars to hit, and they surely did — from a “Blue Skies” that became “In Walked Bud,” to Blake’s feature on (what else?) “Body and Soul.”  Here, backed by the wonderfully sensitive duo of Chris and Greg, he broke the theme into fragments, speculating on their possibilities, becoming harmonically bolder with a tone that ranged from purring to rasping (some echoes of Lacy), exploring the range of his instrument in a delicate, earnest, probing way.  It was a masterful performance, and I am particularly delighted to encounter such brave creativity from a player I didn’t know before.

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Of course, the near-collisions of beauty and contemporary weirdness never fail to amaze.  I was sitting at the bar at the Ear, welcomed there by Victor, who knows more jazz than most critics.  At the bar, to my left, three and sometimes four people were facing away from the band, hunched over their Black Berry or Black Berries, their iPhones, what have you.  Electronically glowing tiny screens, blue and white, shone throughout the club.  I too am a techno-addict — but why go to a bar to check your BlackBerry and ignore the live art being created not five feet away?  To treat Kellso, Blake, Flory, and Cohen as background music seems oblivious or rude.

Monday there was work — but that is always a finite obligation, even when it looms inescapably — but soon I was back in Manhattan, drawn inexorably with the Beloved to Banjo Jim’s (Avenue C and Ninth Street) to hear two groups in one night.  Banjo Jim’s seems ideal — small, congenial, a private neighborhood bar full of young people listening to the music, a real blessing.

The first group was full of old friends — Kevin Dorn’s Traditional Jazz Collective.  This incarnation included Charlie Caranicas on cornet, Michael Hashim on alto sax, J. Walter Hawkes on trombone and vocal, Jesse Gelber on piano, Kevin on drums.  Kevin kicked things off with a romping “I Want To Be Happy,” explicitly summoning up the 1972 New School concert where Gene Krupa, Wild Bill Davison, Kenny Davern, and Dick Wellstood — someone named Eddie Condon in charge — showed what could be done with that simple line.  (I was at that concert, too.)  J. Walter Hawkes, one of my favorite unsung singers, did his wonderful, yearning “Rose Room.”  Barbara Rosene sat in for a thoughtful “Pennies From Heaven,” complete with the fairy-tale verse, and the proceedings closed with a hot “China Boy.”

And then — as if it that hadn’t been enough — the Cangelosi Cards took the stand.  They are the stuff of local legend and they deserve every accolade.  A loosely-arranged ensemble: Jake Sanders on acoustic guitar, Marcus Milius on harmonica, Dennis Lichtman on clarinet, Gordon Webster on piano, Karl Meyer on violin, Cassidy Holden on bass.  They are all fine players, better than many with larger reputations.  I thought I heard a drummer but saw no one at the trap set: later I found out that their singer, Tamar Korn, has a remarkable vocabulary of clicks, hisses, and swishes — she fooled me and she swung.  The group has a Django-and-Stephane flavor, but they are not prisoners of that sound, that chugging rhythm, that repertoire.  They began with “Douce Ambiance,” moved to Harry Barris’s “It Was So Beautiful,” and then Eddie Durham’s “Topsy.”

Early on in the set, it became clear that this band has a devoted following — not just of listeners, but of dancers, who threw themselves into making the music physically three-dimensional in a limited space.  Wonderful inspired on-the-spot choreography added to the occasion, an exultant Happening.

Then Tamar Korn got up to sing — she is so petite that I hadn’t quite seen her, because I was seated at the back of the small square room.  But I heard her, and her five songs are still vibrating in my mind as I write this.  Without attempting to be mysterious in any way (she is friendly and open) she is someone unusual.  Rumor has it that she hails from California, but I secretly believe she is not from our planetary system.  When I’ve suggested this to her, she laughs . . . but doesn’t deny it.

Tamar’s singing is focused, experimental, powerful.  In her performance of “Avalon,” she began by singing the lyrics clearly, with emotion but not ever “acting,” then shifted into a wordless line, high long held notes in harmony with the horns, as if she were Adelaide Hall or a soprano saxophone, then did two choruses of the most evocative scat-singing I’ve ever heard (it went beyond Leo Watson into pure sound) and then came back to the lyrics.

Her voice is small but not narrow, her range impressive.  What I find most exhilirating is the freedom of her approach: I hear old-time country music (not, I must add, “country and western,” but real roots music), blues and bluegrass, the parlor soprano essaying light classics, opera, yodeling, swing — and pure sound.  She never appears to be singing a song in any formulaic way.  Rather, she is a vessel through whom the force of music passes: she is embraced by the emotions, the notes, the words.

And when the Cards invited their friends — that is, Charlie Caranicas, Michael Hashim, and Jesse Gelber — to join them for “Milenberg Joys,” “I’m Confessin’,” and “Avalon,” it was as close to soul-stirring ritual in a New York club as I can remember.  The room vibrated; the dancers threw their hands in the air, people stood up to see better, the music expressed intense joy.  I don’t know whether Margaret Mead had rhythm in her feet, but she would have recognized what went on at Banjo Jim’s.

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I hope to have video, thanks to Flip, to post shortly.  Tune in again!  (And another weekend is coming soon . . . tempus fugit isn’t so terrifying when there are glories like this to look forward to.)

Only in New York, I am sure.

All photographs by Lorna Sass, copyright 2008.

MIDTOWN HEAT: THE GULLY LOW JAZZ BAND

As I’ve written, I have a real need to capture the jazz performances I attend — they are precious to me.  My most recent techno-acquisition was enabled by my close friend Amy King (a brilliant poet and philosopher): it’s a Flip video camera, which I took to Birdland, that jazz club in midtown Manhattan — 44th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues — on Wednesday, October 8.

There, for many Wednesdays, tubaist David Ostwald has led the Gully Low Jazz Band (a/k/a Louis Armstrong Centennial Band) — a sextet devoted to the music of Louis Armstrong, always a good thing.  This version of the band boasted (from the back) the explosive percussion of Kevin Dorn, the only man I know who keeps Herman Hesse, both Lon Chaneys, and Cliff Leeman in exquisite balance; pianist Ehud Asherie, who knows all there is to know about Bud Powell but has become a spiritual devotee of Francois Rilhac, Teddy Wilson, and Donald Lambert; clarinetist Anat Cohen, enthusiastically swinging; Jim Fryer, gutty and sweet on trombone and a wonderfully heartfelt singer; Jon-Erik Kellso, driving and profound, with mute in or naked to the world.

Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian, and photographer Lorna Sass were in the audience — if you needed any more evidence that this was a first-class gig!  Here’s the GLJB doing “Lover, Come Back To Me”:

and a steadily persuasive “Everybody Loves My Baby”:

and here Jim Fryer sings “Dream A Little Dream Of Me,” a song that goes back to 1931 — from the heart:

Jim comes back for one of Fats Waller’s most tender creations, “I’ve Got A Feelin’ I’m Falling:

Finally, a closing blowout on “Swing That Music”!

Charlie Parker told Earl Wilson that music speaks louder than words: how true that was last Wednesday, when these musicians showed off their rare eloquence.

“RIGHT ON IT!”

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.

JAZZ RAPTURE! AT THE EAR INN

Whether it’s collective improvisation or a soaring solo episode, jazz has the power to make us even more glad to be alive. The last two Sunday nights at The Ear Inn were thrilling examples of musical and spiritual energy.

On June 1, the Earregulars were led by New Orleans clarinetist Orange Kellin, who, quietly and without fanfare, recreated the hot Wednesday night band from the much-missed Cajun: banjoist-singer Eddy Davis, Scott Robinson on C-melody sax (atypically, playing only one instrument), bassist Kelly Friesen — who gave way to charter member Debbie Kennedy late in the evening. Pianist Conal Fowkes wasn’t there, but two ringers, both clarinetists, gave a truly international flavor: Motoo Yamzaki from Japan, and Adrian Cunningham for Sydney. Eddy used to call this band “Wild Reeds and Wicked Rhythm,” an apt moniker.

After a rocking medium-tempo “Sunday,” there were lovely ballads: “Prelude to A Kiss,” “I Cover the Waterfront,” “Ghost Of A Chance,” and a Scott Robinson specialty, “A Melody From the Sky,” which brought out the best in the crowd — a tidily-dressed woman at a nearby table half-sang, half-whispered the words to herself, smiling as she did so. (When later I congratulated her on knowing the sweet lyrics, she said, shyly, “Oh, you caught me!”)

Eddy sang one of his favorites, Jerry Herman’s paean to vaudeville, “Two A Day,” as well as asking the audience to join in on “Bourbon Street Parade.” Since the crowd included John Gill and Simon Wettenhall, it was an expertly swinging sing-along. What started out as a mysterious Middle Eastern meditation, rather like “Lena is the Queen of Palesteena,” revealed itself as an early hundredth-birthday tribute to Cole Porter, “I Love Paris,” which kept on threatening to become “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”

Orange, Scott, and Eddy (supported by Kelly or Debbie), musicians and friends, have a special chemistry. It is how brilliant soloists can intuitively sense what the band needs, create it on the spot, and send it forth. Scott and Orange, tussling like terrier puppies in a pet-shop window, worked wonderfully together: less aggressively than Soprano Summit or Sidney Bechet and Muggsy Spanier, but with feeling and drive. Orange’s style seems plain, even homespun: his inspirations are New Orleans Albert-system deities, not Goodman’s legions — but his simplicity is deceptive, for he is really a racing-car driver negotiating a tight turn at high speed. Before we know it, Orange has slyly got it and gone. Scott energized us with his beautiful tone, his yearning phrases, his deep well of feeling. Eddy pushed the band — not only rhythmically, but with his cheerful front-porch singing and his needling “Whaddaya got? Whaddaya got?” to urge his colleagues to pick the next tune.

In the first set, a lengthy, shouting “Diga Diga Doo” let the band testify at length. Eighty years old, the song is not harmonically complex, and its lyrics are all about the “Zulu man, feeling blue,” who sings the title — Eurocentrism in capital letters, at best. But musicians love it because it lacks complexity; its simplicity enables them to wander around in old friends D minor and C7 without fear of bumping into some radical chord change in transit. Scott created pushing riffs behind Orange; the solos hinted at rhythm and blues, George Lewis, and Charlie Parker, all leading to a driving closing ensemble. The quartet had the force and playfulness of a whole jam session — not in volume, but in variety, as the band changed its approach from chorus to chorus, sometimes in the middle of choruses. Doug Pomeroy, who has heard more inspired jazz than most people, turned to me and said, when it had ended, “THAT was worth the trip to Manhattan for me!”

For any other jazz group, that performance would have been the high point of the evening, reason enough to go home and take a well-deserved nap. But the Earregulars topped themselves in the second set with a rendition of “Good Old New York,” a very simple Jelly Roll Morton tune that he recorded at the end of his life, in band sessions that endearingly have their hearts set on jukebox hits — which did not happen. The song’s two ascending phrases, four notes apiece, that make up its opening melody, are infuriatingly catchy. After a pulsing statement of the melody, veering between unison playing and collective improvisation, Scott and Orange riffed energetically behind Eddy’s banjo solo; Scott and Kelly then played an unaccompanied duet, leading to a rocking, nearly ecstatic close.

Last night at The Ear was equally gratifying, with Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Joel Forbes, bass; John Allred, trombone. The quartet seemed a little big band, brass and rhythm sections, compact and wasteless. Kellso’s growls, slides, and muted moans were wonderfully in place. Jon pours his heart into every note: although he moves nimbly at fast tempos, each eighth note is a serious matter, with its own weight. Allred’s style bristles with sharply focused thirty-second notes, but his tone gleams, his blues dig in, his ballads sing. Behind them, Matt and Joel worked in idiosyncratic harmony, truly rocking in rhythm.

Jon started off with the wittily apt “June Night,” but the music truly became electric with a brisk “Smiles,” an almost-forgotten sentimental song circa 1920, that inspired the band into jam-session polyphony, counterlines, and riffs escalating in intensity. He then asked the singer Catherine Russell, seated at the bar, to join them. She chose “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?” — a tune that has had violence done to it by amateurs. Russell is stocky and solid but physically mobile, a playful actress, swaying her body and gesturing as the song indicated. Standing almost in the doorway, she made a spontaneous acting exercise of the lyrics, including the people wandering in and out in her script. It would have been hilarious improvised theatre if she had not sung a word. But Russell’s voice is extraordinary: a huge forceful instrument with power both released and held in reserve. I thought of Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington, but the resemblance was more organic than a collection of phrases copied from records. Singing, Russell can move mountains. But she has more than one approach: on a tenderly sad “I Cover the Waterfront,” with Kellso murmuring behind her, she made us believe the lyrics — honoring Billie Holiday without copying her mannerisms, Then, as if polishing off her imagined homage to jazz singers, she did Fats Waller’s “The Joint is Jumpin’,” with some clever changes to the lyrics. If the joint hadn’t been jumping before, it certainly was now.

The essayist Lorna Sass, whose most recent book won the James Beard Award, said excitedly, “They were cooking!” She knows.

The second set began with a luxuriant exploration of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” complete with verse, and the Earregulars, perhaps still thinking of Fats, went into a slow-drag “Squeeze Me” that suggested the great recording Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, and Kenny Burrell made for Vanguard, with honors going to Matt, whose solo evoked Jimmy Ryan’s 1942 and deep rural folk music at the same time, sometimes in the same phrase. A romping three-trombone “Sweet Georgia Brown,” featuring Allred, Harvey Tibbs, and Matt McDonald followed (Kellso sat happily watching). After a deeply Ellingtonian “Just Squeeze Me,” where the three trombones played choral held notes behind Joel’s solo, Jon called up the singer Tamar Korn, known for her work as part of the Cangelosi Cards.

I’ve written about Korn on a previous posting, when she came to the Ear and astonished everyone with a slow-tempo “Dinah,” so I couldn’t wait to hear her sing “Exactly Like You.” She is tiny and looks doll-like, but she’s clearly a hip urban doll; no Disney figurine, she. While the band played, Korn tapped her foot and wiggled, but in miniature. When she sang, she was intent, still, serious, gathering all her energy in her voice, which was focused but not at all tiny. Her approach is slippery, quicksilver: by the time a listener has said, “Was that a yodel?” or “That’s operatic,” or “She sounds like smeone on the Grand Old Opry,” the phrase is long gone — one runs behind Korn’s voice, trying to catch up with the beauties she has spread before us. “Exactly Like You” was all rocking sincerity: we knew that Mother HAD raught her to be true, and she didn’t need chorus after chorus to prove it. She then surpassed herself with a simple, eloquent, deeply felt reading of “Stardust,” which silenced most of the front room. What she sang transcended the song; we stopped listening to notes and words; we were swept up in her vision of lonely nights and memories. Sitting near me, Joyce Metz turned to her husband Ed (the noted jazz drummer) and lightly struck her sternum a few times with her fist, gently, to say, “That came from the heart.” It certainly did.

A postscript: the Earregulars, even before they had a name, played their first Sunday night gig at 326 Spring Street on June 17, 2007. I don’t know if next Sunday, June 15, is therefore a birthday or an anniversary (correct me, readers) but I hope to be there to join the cheering throng. However, and I find this pleasing, amusing, and just slightly annoying, The Ear Inn has now become so popular that people are calling for reservations.

Reservations?! Indeed!

But you will understand why in the first ten minutes of any Sunday night there.

JIM FRYER AND BRIA SKONBERG: OUR KIND OF MUSIC!

I’ve mentioned the brilliant young hot trumpeter / singer Bria Skonberg and multi-instrumentalist (trombone, trumpet, euphonium, vocals) Jim Fryer in my postings about The Ear Inn — but here are a few more words about this dynamic brass team.

Bruce McNichols, of the Smith Street Society Jazz Band, invited me and the Beloved to a trad jazz party hosted by OKOM (Our Kind Of Music) in Lafayette, New Jersey, on April 22. Such invitations are rare and precious, the weather was beautiful, so with a few instructions to our GPS, we found ourselves at Bill Taggart’s beautiful, sprawling house, and were led down to the basement (the OKOM recording studio) for a jam session featuring Bria and Jim with Herb Gardner on piano, Gim Burton on banjo, and Ed Wise on bass. The set we heard featured sparkling variations on familiar jazz standards: “Margie,” “All of Me,” “Dinah,” “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” and “Buddy Bolden’s Blues.” In it, Bria distinguished herself once again by a brilliant tone and an easy, rangy command of the horn, a wicked dexterity with the plunger mute, and charming, unforced singing. Jim showed off his talents on all his horns and singing, reminding me at points of trombonist Eddie Hubble.

For those who didn’t make it to that particular corner of New Jersey that afternoon, they need not despair: aesthetic relief is at hand, on the compact disc “Over Easy: Bria Skonberg and Jim Fryer’s Borderline Jazz Band,” on OKOM (details are available at www.okom.com., or you can call 1-800-546-6075. It’s an exceedingly uncliched mixture of classics Thirties pops, “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm,” and classic material from “In A Mellotone” to “At the Jazz Band Ball.” The sextet is a truly hot band, subtle and knowing, and you should get to know them as quickly as possible.

Photographs copyright 2008 by Lorna Sass