Please note that my title isn’t “If . . . . ”
The ideal jazz club experience, if you were to take fabled movies as a guide, is an exuberantly chaotic spectacle. One trumpet player vanquishes another by playing higher and louder; two drummers pound away in grinning synchronicity; musicians magically get together in thunderous ensembles. Everyone knows what the song is and what key they are playing in; musical routines miraculously coalesce without rehearsal. Inevitably the audience is on its feet, cheering. Long live the new king of jazz! Everybody join in! (Consider, if you will, “Second Chorus,” “The Glenn Miller Story,” or “The Five Pennies,” and other deliciously unreal episodes.)
I doubt that many of these fanciful scenes ever happened away from the soundstage. Even if they did, hey aren’t my idea of pleasure. Everything is too loud, and the movies assume that everyone in the crowd is hip, attentive, listeners unified into an appreciative community. I wonder if this audience ever existed, although in Charles Peterson’s glorious photographs of 52nd Street jam sessions, no one is texting or even reading a newspaper.
For me, the ideal scenario is quieter: a small audience, paying attention, in a quiet club — quiet enough so that I can hear the music. And the improvising shouldn’t be self-consciously exhibitionistic, one player trying to outdo another. My dream, rarely realized, needs an intuitive connection between players and audience. It happened often in the sessions Michael Burgevin led at Brew’s, featuring Joe Thomas, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Sam Margolis, Jimmy Andrews, Kenny Davern, Dill Jones, Rudy Powell, Herb Hall, Marshall Brown, Wayne Wright, and others.
Last night (Sunday, December 7) was frigid and the winds were unkind — perfect weather fo staying indoors. But I made my way to the Ear Inn to hear the EarRegulars. Because Jon-Erik and Jackie Kellso are off somewhere around the Mexican Riviera, the Regulars were led by the brilliantly soulful guitarist Matt Munisteri. He arrived first, his hands cold, looking harried but greeting me pleasantly.
Next in the door was the fine, surprising tenor saxophonist Michael Blake, whose playing I had appreciated greatly on the only other occasion I had heard him — also at the Ear. Bassist Lee Hudson and trombonist Harvey Tibbs completed this quartet. Matt, Harvey, and Lee have all played together at the Ear and I would imagine other places, so they know and respect each other.
Michael, about whom I wrote some weeks ago, fit in immediately. By his playing, I would guess that he isn’t one of those deeply archival types who thinks, when someone mentions a song title, “Oh, yes, Billie recorded that with Bunny and Artie in 1936. In two takes.” But when either Matt or Harvey called Walter Donaldson’s IT’S BEEN SO LONG as their first tune, I could hear Michael listening intently for the first few measures, perhaps to remind himself. Then he, like Lester, leaped in. His jazz radar is exquisite. Someone said of Milt Gabler, the Saint of Commodore Records, that he “had ears like an elephant.” Michael deserves the same accolade: he is a peerless ensemble player, finding countermelodies, call-and-response, and harmony parts while everything was moving along at a brisk tempo.
Harvey Tibbs, resplendent as always in white shirt, was in execptional form as well: several songs began with trombone-guitar duets, beautiful vignettes. Like Michael, Harvey can fit himself into any ensemble, galloping or loitering. He has a wonderful musical intelligence, which he displayed on James P. Johnson’s OLD FASHIONED LOVE, which had a truly churchy ambiance to start — helped immeasurably by Matt’s delicate single-note lines, music for a troubadour under his Beloved’s balcony. Lee Hudson kept lively, limber time, saving himself for an intense solo on WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS in the second set.
A lively JUST YOU, JUST ME followed James P.’s paean to the more seemly days of yore; here, Blake exploded into his solo, sounding at times like a supercharged Lester Young with modern sensibilities. Michael’s tone is often consciously dry instead of pretty, and he approaches his lines in a sideways fashion (his phrases begin and end in surprising places). A phrase might have an audacious shape — a Slinky tumbling down an irregular staircase — but each one landed without mishap. I could hear the whole history of jazz tenor in his work — not only Lester, but Lucky Thompson and Al Cohn, Sonny Rollins as well. He and Harvey took off on a song I didn’t expect — JAZZ ME BLUES — their version harking back not to Bix but to Glenn Hardman or to some imagined jam session in the afterlife, with Bird sitting amidst the Dixielanders at Copley Square. Although Tom Delaney’s Twenties classic is full of breaks, Blake bobbed and weaved in the ensembles. A moody WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE? followed — suggesting that the four players were really considering that question on the tiny square of floor they claim as the Ear’s bandstand. Finally, in deference to inescapable holiday music, someone called for a Bird-and-Diz version of WHITE CHRISTMAS, and it joyously closed the set.
A long pause for the quartet’s dinner ensued, but a noble visitor, his tenor saxophone at his side, joined them: none other than Dan Block. The two players had a good time, playing their solos while standing at the bar, one listening deeply to the other, or forming a loose circle.
Harvey, perhaps, called for the Basie classic 9:20 SPECIAL to begin the second set, then they all became optimistic (the only way to face the economic news) with WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, then, in honor of the gales outside, a trotting GONE WITH THE WIND. They ended with a jubilant IF DREAMS COME TRUE, where Blake got so caught up in the vehemence of his double-time phrases that he was almost kneeling on the floor as he soloed.
It was an extraordinary night of music. Perhaps it would have seemed insufficiently dramatic for the movies, but my jazz dreams came true for a few hours.
P.S. The delghtful jazz singer Barbara Rosene was also in the audience. Her new Stomp Off CD, “It Was Only A Sun Shower,” is perhaps her finest recording to date. A new one is in the works, devoted to naughty double-entendre songs from the Twenties, where the He-Man (whether Handy or Military) always stands at attention, can trim any girl’s garden and make her coffee boiling hot. What delights await us!