Tag Archives: Mike Mullens

“THE DAO OF SWING”: THE MICHAEL BANK SEPTET

DAO 3

DAO (or more commonly TAO) is a Chinese word and concept meaning loosely “the way,” “the underlying principle.”  SWING should be a more familiar word to readers of this blog. The title of Michael Bank’s new CD might be read on the surface as “The Way To Swing,”  but it suggests something more profound: that happy unity when the musicians connect with the deeper rhythms of the universe.  An ambitious aspiration, but Michael Bank’s Septet makes it come alive.

I first met Michael at a Sunday brunch gig in Brooklyn, with, among other friends, Jesse Gelber, Craig Ventresco and Kevin Dorn.  In the most unmusical setting (well-fed young couples speaking loudly about their investments, their architect, and their renovations) Michael’s playing always caught my attention.  He had an unerring sense of what to add to the musical conversation.  (Working alongside and learning from Jaki Byard, Dick Katz, Al Casey, and other veterans had affected him, audible through his playing, arranging, and compositions.)

Last year, I heard his Septet for the first time. Most of the group’s repertoire was given over to Michael’s compositions.  Unlike some “originals,” in this century, they had memorable melodies and voicings.  See the end of this post for three examples from that session:.I was delighted to learn that Michael and the Septet had issued a compact disc of his music.  Swing, yes; imitation, no — creative evocation, yes.  When heard casually from another room, the sound might suggest the rocking little band of Johnny Hodges in the early Fifties, but close listening reveals quirky, surprising touches. The Septet is rhythmically rooted in the great oceanic motion of Mainstream, but Michael’s melodic and harmonic language moves easily between Fifty-Second Street and the present, grounded in the blues and mood pieces.  (His compositions are more than disguised reheatings of overplayed chord changes.)  Michael’s skills as an arranger are on display through the disc — perhaps most so in his witty reinvention of WHEN IRISH EYES ARE SMILING — the Celts go uptown.

Michael Bank, piano, arrangements and compositions; Simon Wettenhall, trumpet / fluegelhorn; Kris Jensen, Mike Mullens, Geof Bradfield, Ray Franks, saxophones; Kelly Friesen, string bass; Steve Little, drums.  The songs are ALTAIR / AZTEC 2-STEP / FOR JAKI / MINOR CHANGES / LL3 / ONE NOTE (by Michael’s mentor, Jaki Byard) / BLUEVIEW / WHEN IRISH EYES ARE SMILING.  The players are more than equal to the material: I’d known Simon Wettenhall, Kelly Friesen, and Steve Little before this, but the collective saxophonists are just splendid: everyone understands the tradition but easily moves in and out of it.

Here are three videos from the May 2012 gig:

GOIN’ UP

FOR JAKI

BLUEVIEW

To hear the music on the CD, the usual suspects:  CD BABYitunes, and The-Dao-of-Swing .  Better yet, come to one of the Septet’s gigs.  And one is taking place this Tuesday, September 17 — from 4 to 4:45 PM at the East River Bandshell in lower Manhattan.  Michael will be joined by Simon Wettenhall, trumpet; Noah Bless, trombone; Jay Rattman, alto; Andrew Hadro, baritone; Michael Bank, piano; Matt Smith, guitar; Trifon Dimitrov, bass; Kevin Dorn, drums.

May your happiness increase!

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MODERN SWINGMATISM: MICHAEL BANK’S BIG 7 at SOMETHIN’ JAZZ (May 5, 2012)

I first met pianist / composer Michael Bank about eight years ago and was impressed by his swing playing and his uncliched way of getting from A to B on the most familiar song.  He always swings and he always surprises — but in a sweetly nonabrasive way.  Often I heard him with Kevin Dorn’s bands, and he was not only a fine soloist but a perceptive, supportive ensemble player.  Most recently, I caught him, guitarist Matt Smith, bassist Murray Wall, and drummer Giampaolo Biagi at the Brooklyn jazz club Puppets, where he offered some standards but a number of intriguing originals.

I was delighted to learn that Michael would be bringing his “Big 7” (an octet, if you’re keeping track) to the very pleasant East Side jazz club SOMETHIN’ JAZZ — 212 East 52nd Street, between Second and Third — last Saturday, May 5, 2012.  I knew some of the members already: Simon Wettenhall, trumpet; Murray Wall, string bass; Matt Smith, guitar; Steve Little, drums — and others were very pleasant surprises or affirmations of what I already knew: Sam Burtis, trombone; Mike Mullens, alto saxophone; Paul Nedzela, baritone saxophone.

Michael’s compositions often have elusive names but their melodies don’t run away from the listener.  And to my ears they inhabit a spacious universe that looks back to Willie “the Lion” Smith and off to the left to the Birth of the Cool, visiting the Keynote and the Vanguard studios, saying Hi to the 1938 Basie band and the 1940 Ellington orchestra — but without a hint of archaeology or “repertory.”  Modern swing is what I call it — and I am entirely aware of how those two words are weighted in jazz talk.  All I know is that I was smiling behind my video camera, with a multitude of delightful surprises entering my consciousness, and wanting to tap my foot.  You will hear why!

And — just to state what should be obvious — SOMETHIN’ JAZZ is a wonderful place to hear music.  I encourage listeners in the New York area to find this out for themselves.

The first of Michael’s wittily titled originals is MINOR CHANGES.  What a lovely sound he gets from his players!

Here’s SYNAESTHESIA, with a nice bounce.  If memory serves, that title refers to the magical cross-currents of sensory perception.  Marian McPartland said that to her the key of D was a color — daffodil yellow.  Lucky people who can taste their words as well as simply reading them (something jazz musicians do all the time):

LL 3 — featuring tombonist Sam Burtis, who peeks out from behind his music stand to make rich sounds:

How about something in honor of rabbits, Rabbits, and Rhythm changes?  COTTON TAIL:

One of Michael’s mentors — most rewardingly — was the pianist / composer / thinker Jaki Byard, and this is FOR JAKI:

And the next logical leap was to Byard’s swinging ONE NOTE:

After a break, the band reassembled for Michael’s own take on that March 17 anthem — here called simply IRISH EYES:

TAKING A CHANCE ON LOVE is always a good thing!  Savor the lovely dark introduction:

Ellington’s GOIN’ UP — connected solidly to the previous song by a musical thread:

Michael’s next original is called DIASCHESIS (which — when I looked it up — means “loss of function and electrical activity in an area of the brain due to a lesion in a remote area that is neuronally connected with it).  I have to believe that the title is completely satiric: everything is functioning splendidly in this band!  And I told Michael that I knew big words too — like “delicatessen”:

And here’s a feature for the rhythm section, I HEAR A RHAPSODY:

I had to leave before the final selection was concluded — but it was a rocking blues, both reassuringly familiar and full of surprising curves and angles.

I love and admire this band.  In my ideal world — which isn’t that far from realization — they have a steady weekly gig and I can bring my friends to hear them . . . soon, I hope!

May your happiness increase.