Tag Archives: Michael Blake

POST-GRADUATE SWING SCHOOL at THE EAR INN (Dec. 11, 2011)

The students were arranged in a neat row at the bar (and a few sat at tables); the Visiting Professors began the seminar.

We weren’t taking notes, but we were learning a great deal last Sunday night, Dec. 11, 2011, at The Ear Inn, 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City.

The EarRegulars that night were Matt Munisteri, guitar; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Jon Burr, string bass; Harry Allen, tenor sax; and sitting in for the Official Christmas Song, Michael Blake; tenor sax.

What did we learn?  A great deal about love for melody and respectful although playful melodic embellishments.  We filled our mental notebooks with observations on the state of twenty-first century Swingmatism, and Einstein’s Law of Time as it applies to the elasticticity of the beat.  We observed the sweet variations of Medium Tempo, and once again had an opportunity to revisit the philosophy of Oran Thaddeus Page, who uttered the timeless words, “The material is immaterial,” as well as his observations on the necessity of having his livelihood remain serene.

I wish all the Jazz History students in the known world could attend these seminars at The Ear Inn, and the people currently squabbling in the blogosphere about what to call this music (How about “Music”?) and who owns it . . . could study what we studied.

Of course, I have provided an online study guide below.

Very few bands play WHAT’S THE USE?; very few players know it, and it got a divine performance from the EarRegulars.  I think it was originally a rather sad love ballad written by Isham Jones; I first heard it on a red-label Commodore 78 that featured Bobby Hackett, Pee Wee Russell, and Eddie Condon.  Here is it, reimagined for us:

That Irving Berlin fellow wrote mighty good tunes — no postmodern irony, no hip posturing.  He celebrates love and faithfulness — as do the EarRegulars, as a nice rocking tempo, with ALWAYS:

More Berlin!  Shades of Louis and the Mills Brothers, of Ruby Braff, early and late, inhabit MY WALKING STICK:

Michael Blake (tenor sax on the right) joined in for another Berlin classic — a song ennobled by Bing, Louis, and Connee: WHITE CHRISTMAS:

Someday we will speak nostalgically of the great Sunday evenings at The Ear Inn!  I hope they go on and on: there is no need to graduate from the University holding classes at 326 Spring Street.

This post is affectionately dedicated to Ace Irwin, formerly an aerospace engineer, a theatrical set designer, and artist who is enjoying the sounds with all his heart in Mendocino, California.  He loves to listen to the EarRegulars and is someone who understands the various scenes at The Ear Inn, although he’s never been there.  It’s an honor to send this music across the continent to him!  I’ve never met Ace, but knowing that he is on the other end of the cyber-pipeline warms my heart.  (How do I know about him?  His daughter is one of my warm-hearted Ear Inn pals, and she speaks of her father with affection and gratitude.  Good deal!)

I keep JAZZ LIVES going for all the people I might never meet, the lovely men and women who might or might not ever get to New York City or the California festivals that have been so festive.  This blog is for the Beloved (of course), for Aunt Ida and Boris, Eric and Noya, Bill and Melissa, Ricky and Clint, Hal and James Arden . . . the list could be very long.  You, you, and especially you!

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THE EARREGULARS AT “THE FAMOUS EAR” (June 12, 2011)

I had a minor jazz-history epiphany last Sunday at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City) early in the second set, when past and present coincided.

The Ear Inn, for those who have never been there, isn’t a huge space (it is New York real estate) but everyone gets comfortable. 

The second set at the Ear began with that Sunday’s edition of the EarRegulars: charter members and co-founders Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri on trumpet and guitar, respectively; Greg Cohen on string bass; Michael Blake (a risk-embracer who loves Lester Young) on tenor saxophone. 

Here, they embark on RIFFTIDE, a variation on LADY BE GOOD chord changes that began with Coleman Hawkins and ended up in the hands of Thelonious Monk as HACKENSACK:

For good reasons, musicians often come to the Ear — not only to sit in, but to enjoy the sounds.  Last Sunday the musicians were bassist Jon Burr and singer Lynn Stein, reed master Dan Block, then (slightly later) tenorist Nick Hempton and drummer Dan Aran (toting a snare drum).  The observant Nan Irwin was there, also, keeping everyone reasonably honest. 

Michael Blake thought aloud about a great tune whose title he couldn’t quite remember — one of those riffy Basie things connected (like so many jazz classics) to trains — and Jon-Erik or Matt remembered it, 9:20 SPECIAL.  They invited Dan Block to join them, and the two tenors had much pleasing interplay:

Then, Jon-Erik invited Nick and Dan to join in, and what marvels ensued!

The first was a long, swaying WABASH BLUES — with Jon-Erik using both his metal mute and an empty beer glass to make growling, hallooing, far-away Cootie Williams musings.  That interlude (Beery or Hoppy?) lasted only a minute, but it was remarkable and remains so now.  And the ensemble swelled and reinvented itself throughout:

And that nifty swing tune of Edgar Sampson’s, beloved by stride pianists and bands, by James P. and Billie, Lester and Dick Wellstood, a masterpiece of quiet optimism, IF DREAMS COME TRUE:

For a finale — JUMPIN’ AT THE WOODSIDE — where Jon-Erik, for a moment, becomes a hilarious three-man Basie trombone section:

At some point during those final three performances, I looked at the bandstand, saw the musicians and their instruments — trumpet, guitar, bass, drum, and three tenor saxophones jammed in (my choice of words is no accident) shoulder to shoulder, having a good time.  

I thought, “Where have I seen this before?”  And — as my UK friends might say — the penny dropped. 

Basie.  1938.  The Famous Door.

Some will know the story of that Fifty-Second Street paradise.  A small club with a low ceiling, it had been host to a variety of bands in the middle Thirties but — with no air-conditioning — had always closed in the summer.  John Hammond, always full of ideas, paid for the installation of an air-conditioning system so that his favorite band, led by one Bill Basie from New Jersey, could play there in the summer.  The Basieties had to play softly at first, but it’s clear from the radio airshots that exist — not enough for my taste! — that they had a wonderful time and made irreplaceable music.

Here’s a photo essay from the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University(photographs from the Frank Driggs Collection) of that musical splendor.  Look for Herschel Evans, short-lived and insufficiently-photographed:

http://newarkwww.rutgers.edu/ijs/cb/famousDoor.htm

Yes, the physical resemblance between The Famous Door and The Ear Inn is not exact, but the two places share the same ebullient spirit, with brilliant musicians improvising at the peak of their powers in a small space. 

Henceforth, I dub 326 Spring Street THE FAMOUS EAR.  It well deserves the new name!

And to finish the thought: the EarRegulars continue to swing as beautifully and as joyously as the 1938 Basie band.  No doubt about it!

P.S.  If you’re reading this in real time (however you wish to define it) you might want to know that The EarRegulars will be celebrating their fourth anniversary of steady Sunday-night gigs at The Famous Ear this Sunday, June 19, 2011.  Gifts, please!  (I meant their gifts — not that people have to show up with trinkets, although trinkets might be pleasant, too.)

P.P.S.  On June 12, I was able to savor Abigail Riccards and Michael Kanan, creating music with delicacy and strength — then I drove from Brooklyn to Soho to capture these five performances, hilariously creative.  This, to me, says only one thing:  JAZZ (emphatic pause) LIVES (exultant exclamation point)!

“LIVE” AT SMALLS JAZZ CLUB

Although occasionally jazz clubs are uncomfortable — hard seats, noisy patrons, people jammed in — they provide an immediacy of experience that is unmatched by even the finest compact disc or video clip.  But you would need to live in or near an urban center (in my case New York City), have an independent income, be able to be in two or three places at once, and have a strong immune system to experience even one-fourth of what is happening any evening (and some afternoons).  And you’d have to be nocturnal — with the opportunity to sleep during the day, as many musicians do.

In the belief, perhaps, that if you offer something for free, people who love it will then follow it to its source, the people who run Smalls Jazz Club (on West Tenth Street) have been offering live video and “archived” audio of jazz performances at http://www.smallsjazzclub.com/index.cfm?itemCategory=32321&siteid=272&priorId=0&banner=a.

What does that mean?  As far as I can tell, you could sit in front of your computer, click on the address above, and get to see and hear — in real time — what the musicians are playing at Smalls.  True, the video is somewhat limited in its visual range; the image is small.  And it can’t be recorded for playing at a later date.  

But it’s vividly there, and for free.

And the other half of the birthday-present-you-didn’t-know-about is that the site is also offering audio of past performances (by those musicians who don’t object to having their work distributed in this fashion).  I didn’t check everyone’s name, but I saw dates were available featuring Dan Block, Ehud Asherie, Jon-Erik Kellso, Randy Sandke, Terry Waldo, Orange Kellin, Joel Frahm, Ari Roland, Stepko Gut, Matt Musselman, Will Anderson, Dmitry Baevsky, Lee Konitz, Teddy Charles, Jesse Gelber, Charlie Caranicas, Kate Manning, Kevin Dorn, Danton Boller, Joel Forbes, Lee Hudson, Rob Garcia, Howard Alden, Neal Miner, James Chirillo, Chris Flory, Eddy Davis, Conal Fowkes, Scott Robinson, Steve Ash, John Bunch, Jay Leonhart, Dick Hyman, Ethan Iverson, Olivier Lancelot, Sacha Perry, Rossano Sportiello, Mark Lopeman, Michael Blake, Harry Allen, Andy Farber, Tad Shull, Grant Stewart . . . and these are only some of the names on the list I know.  So many pleasant hours of listening await you!  And everyone hopes that you will someday go to West Tenth Street and climb down the narrow stairway to Smalls.

NOT SO NICE, 2009

World traveler Bill Gallagher sent along his photograph of the latest Nice Jazz Festival lineup:

Nice 2009

Some of my readers will rejoice at the names of venerable jazz players Rollins, Corea, and Burton; others will be pleased to see younger players. 

It must mark me as someone of a nearly-extinct generation when I write that I miss the old days.  European friends, over the years, sent me on-location tapes from Nice festivals in the Seventies, featuring Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, Sweets Edison, Bill Coleman, Vic Dickenson, Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson, Joe Venuti, Jo Jones, Sir Charles Thompson, Mark Shane . . . proving that swinging jazz was what prevailed. 

Now they’ve been replaced by  James Taylor?

Of course, many of the players at Nice in the Seventies are now dead.  But there are five or six dozen younger musicians — from Kellso to Caparone, Block to Blake, Dorn to Nick Ward . . . who would show anyone that jazz existed before Madeline Peyroux.

WHAT BEN RATLIFF WON’T SAY

The posting below found its way into the JAZZ LIVES mailbox, thanks to John Herr:

ben-ratliff

January 12, 2009
Talk to the Newsroom:
Ben Ratliff, Jazz and Pop Critic
Ben Ratliff, music critic, is answering questions from readers Jan. 12-16, 2009. Questions may be e-mailed to askthetimes@nytimes.com.
Mr. Ratliff has been a jazz and pop critic at the New York Times since 1996.
Born in New York City in 1968, he grew up in London and Rockland County, N.Y., and studied Classics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings” (2002), “Coltrane: The Story of a Sound” (2007) and “The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music” (2008).
Among hundreds of reviews, reported stories and obituaries in these pages, he has written about Duke Ellington, Slick Rick, Shirley Caesar, Dorival Caymmi, Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, Johnny Paycheck, Cat Power, Slayer, Donald Lambert, the Stooges, Tito Puente, Miley Cyrus, Prince, Gal Costa, Bo Diddley, Bebo Valdes, the Texas A&M University Marching Storm, community singing in East Lansing, Mich., the praise-rock house bands at the High Desert Church in Victorville, Calif., and much else.

Why Isn’t Jazz Audience Bigger?

Q. Why isn’t there more of an audience for “straight-ahead” jazz? Or put in a different way, how come established jazz artists who have been active since the ’50s or early ’60s are given only niche status (or no visibility at all) by the media? Do you feel the media plays a role/responsibiltiy regarding the public awareness of such artists as Freddie Hubbard, Barry Harris, Cedar Walton, for example? Why is it that the general (U.S.) public have no awareness or appreciation of this genre?
— Paul Loubriel

A. Paul: This is a big question. I’ll try to hit some parts of it but I probably won’t answer it to your satisfaction.
In the last 60 years, people almost completely stopped dancing to jazz, and far fewer people grew up with pianos in the house. I think that has a lot to do with why jazz is no longer the popular vernacular art it used to be. When you dance to music (in all ways — partner dancing, stepping, headbanging — just reacting to music with your body) or when you play it, then you own it. A lot of people born since 1960 don’t feel that they own jazz.
Absolutely, the media plays a role in why the average person doesn’t know who Cedar Walton is. But I think the mainstream media — obviously we’re not talking about jazz magazines like Downbeat, which has Benny Golson on the cover this month (a good example of the kind of artist you’re talking about) — doesn’t, by definition, deal with the kind of art that post-bop mainstream jazz has become, which is an art of tradition and very slow refinements.
Mainstream publications, generally, want to run music stories about what’s new or radically different, or about trends. (This could get into a larger issue about the shallowness of the general perception of “news.”) With classical music, they put a lot of stock in premieres or big, notable new compositions. In jazz there are few premieres and few big, notable new compositions. One has to sniff out what’s interesting, however it presents itself: it could be a one-night gig attended by 15 people or a sold-out run.
As for the general public, they’re not buying albums as much anymore, and as much as jazz is a recordings medium at all, it’s still an album art.
I believe that jazz needs more jazz clubs (with small cover charges), because it’s still a social music. The way to know about Cedar Walton in 2009 is to go see him at the Village Vanguard.
By the way, I see that The Times has mentioned Cedar Walton 247 times, in reviews and articles and listings, since 1980. Not too bad.
*****************************************************************************************
Here’s the email I sent to Mr. Ratliff:

I’m happy that the Times has mentioned Cedar Walton 247 times.  But there’s a wide range of creative improvisation going on not too far from the Times’s offices that never gets mentioned: consider Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri at the Ear Inn on Sunday nights (8-11), where the regulars and visitors include Michael Blake, Scott Robinson, Steven Bernstein, and others.  If “the media” define Jazz as no longer newsworthy, then people who love Jazz come to reject “mainstream” media and turn to smaller magazines and weblogs. 
Sincerely,
Michael Steinman

P.S.  Come down to The Ear Inn on a Sunday night and I’ll buy you a drink.

 (I didn’t mean this facetiously: I would stand Mr. Ratliff a second drink or even a Cobb salad if he showed proper appreciation of the music . . . and wrote about it.)

I don’t mean to demonize the media or Mr. Ratliff, but his apparently candid answer has some large omissions in it. 

The standard argument has a good deal to do with the aging of the jazz audience.  Newspapers and magazines rely on advertisting to support themselves, and their research has shown, on whatever evidence, that the 18-35 group spends the most money.  That group has little or no knowledge of jazz, so it stands to reason.

But that argument isn’t entirely true.  Jazz clubs in New York are often full of people who have years to go before they apply for Social Security. 

When anyone goes to the opera, there are many white-haired people in the audience, the house is full, and the Times provides full coverage of, say, a Renee Fleming performance. 

The answer, for better or worse, is money.

Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center take out substantial advertising in the paper (with full-color glossy advertising supplements) and run weekly ads in the Arts section — so there’s a substantial amount of money changing hands.  In addition, when Ms. Fleming has a new CD, Decca or EMI or London takes out a full-page ad in the Sunday Arts section.  

The Ear Inn or Smalls doesn’t have that kind of advertising budget, so I am not surprised that Times critics don’t make their way down to those clubs to hear Kellso or Ehud Asherie. When I was trying to get more publicity for the Cajun jazz club, now demolished, I wrote directly to Nate Chinen, asking him to come down and hear the music — Kellso, John Gill, Kevin Dorn, Eddy Davis among others — and he never responded. 

I said above that I am not surprised.  But I am disappointed in the lack of candor displayed by Mr. Ratliff and others.  When I read a “jazz magazine” and see an ad for Victoria Vocalist on page 8 and a glowing review of Victoria’s new CD on page 9, my innate skepticism springs to life.  Whether the ad came first or the review is not entirely the question, but their proximity removes the possibility of objectivity.  (Only those jazz magazines that either have no advertising or, like Cadence, keep the two entities separate, can aspire to honest objectivity.)

So all I would like someone from the Times to do — it doesn’t have to be Mr. Ratliff — is to say, candidly, “Look.  We don’t review jazz of the type you admire because we haven’t found a way to make sufficient income from it.  We used to be able to make money from it — in the Seventies, when the Newport Jazz Festival concerts took place in New York, they took out ads in the paper, and they were reviewed.  Now we can’t.  Rather than say that we need to review ONLY those artistic performances that pay for themselves, we’ll just say that the audience has changed, people no longer have pianos in their house, and so on.  It sounds so much nicer.”

In the Fifties, when record company executives used to pay disc jockeys to spin their new records on the radio, it was called “payola” and it created a scandal.  The word fell out of use some time ago, but the concept, I fear, is still thriving.  A pretense of journalistic objectivity is not the same thing as objectivity.   

 

WHEN DREAMS COME TRUE

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.

cork-1108-ear-inn120708007

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.

cork-1108-ear-inn120708008

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.

cork-1108-ear-inn120708006Harvey 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.

cork-1108-ear-inn120708010

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!