Tag Archives: Nick Hempton

SUNDAY NIGHTS AT EIGHT (July 10, 2011)

In the Fifties and Sixties, Sunday night at eight o’clock meant The Ed Sullivan Show — Asian acrobats, stand-up comedians, Phil Ford and Mimi Hines, the Beatles, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Totie Fields, Sophie Tucker, Barbra Streisand, and more.

I no longer have a television set, and almost all the people on that list are now performing on The Other Side.  But there’s something that draws me even more strongly on Sunday nights at eight o’clock.  If you’ve been reading JAZZ LIVES, you might have guessed . . . . it’s The EarRegulars at The Ear Inn (or The Famous Ear) at 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City.

July 10, 2011, at The Ear Inn was especially good — or should I say typically uplifting.  And I have a certain bittersweet exultation about that evening, which I will explain at the end of this post.

The EarRegulars that night were Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Matt Munisteri, guitar; John Allred, trombone; Nicki Parrott, bass.  Old friends and a stellar group, in tune with each other — great soloists but also deeply attentive ensemble players.  I am already heroically impressed by Jon-Erik and Matt, but John’s easy range and melodic playing gets better every time I hear him, and Nicki’s speaking eloquence is ever more impressive.

I felt as if I was among friends — not only the musicians, but Jackie Kellso, Victor Villar-Hauser, John Rogers, Peter Collins, and Peter Jung . . . !

The first set was a lovely mix of “traditional” and “modern,” but I’ll let my readers decide where the boundary lines — if they still exist — can be seen.

The Ear Inn has never gone in for Lapsang Souchong or cucumber sandwiches, but we came close enough with the Jazz Age paean to romance, WHEN I TAKE MY SUGAR TO TEA:

An improvisation on I WANT TO BE HAPPY changes from 1947 or thereabouts, retitled MOVE (is it by Denzil Best?):

Two Italian ladies were celebrating a birthday at a table near the band, so PANAMA (with all its strains intact and a habanera beat) made room for HAPPY BIRTHDAY, seamlessly and hilariously:

Then, a collection of boppish lines on SWEET GEORGIA BROWN chords — DIG (by either Miles Davis or Sonny Rollins) and BRIGHT MISSISSIPPI (by Monk):

And a song I associate with Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, and Richard M. Sudhalter, PARDON ME, PRETTY BABY:

Then it was time for the special guests — as if the ensemble wasn’t heated, subtle, and special enough!  Chris Flory came in and took over the electric guitar, while Matt brought out his fine-toned acoustic; Nick Hempton came in on saxophone, for a Basie classic followed by more BABY songs.

First, NINE-TWENTY SPECIAL:

I FOUND A NEW BABY:

Then, Don Redman’s wooing lament, GEE, BABY, AIN’T I GOOD TO YOU?:

Corin Stiggall took over for Nicki Parrott, and Tamar Korn had a wonderful time with the sweetly sad BLUE, TURNING GREY OVER YOU.  Catch Matt’s own version of Eddie Lang:

Nicki came back in for the last song of the night, LOVER, COME BACK TO ME:

The bittersweet pleasure of this July 10 evening is purely personal: the Beloved and I embark this week for a long stay in California, where we will meet and hear some of our friends and heroes: Marc Caparone and Dawn Lambeth, and nascent cultural critic James Arden Caparone; Rae Ann Berry, Clint Baker, Jeff and Barbara Hamilton, Katie Cavera, Hal Smith, Dan Barrett, Ralf Reynolds, John Reynolds, and I hope many more . . . as well as exploring the Golden State.  But The Ear Inn will have to wait until early September . . . anyone with a video camera want to step in?  No audition required!  Or — much simpler — go and enjoy for yourselves in my stead.

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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)!

BLISS IN THE NIGHT (APRIL 18, 2010)

You know how “the jam session” is handled in films of a certain vintage.  Magically, the cameras take us to a clearly fictive basement club where Art Tatum is playing.  He plays for a few bars, then the door opens and a whole troop of musicians who apparently have unpacked their horns outside on the sidewalk burst in, exchange a few words of greeting, and a whirlwind jam session begins, only to end in two or three minutes.  (The 1947 THE FABULOUS DORSEYS.)

Or there’s the cutting contest between trumpet players, perhaps the Young Cub and the Old Lion, aiming their horns at each other, playing higher and louder.  (The scene here is between Louis and “Red Nichols,” played by Danny Kaye in 1959 THE FIVE PENNIES, is a most benign example, and Louis gets to make some good, albeit scripted jokes.)

But real jam sessions, especially the magical ones that happen during the second set at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street in New York City) have little to do with either fantasy.  For one thing, they are a collection of friends.  In the videos below the two trumpeters (or, to be precise, the trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and the cornetist Marc Caparone) or the two guitarists (Matt Munisteri on electric and Julian Lage on acoustic) and the reed players (Dan Block on clarinet, Andy Farber on tenor saxophone, Nick Hempton on alto) have no aggression in their souls.  No one seeks to play higher, faster, louder.  And those single men — Harvey Tibbs on trombone and Jon Burr on bass — don’t pick fights with anyone.  It’s all congenial. 

Imagined dialogue, overheard in part: “What would you like to play?”  “RITE OF SPRING?”  “Sure.  How many flats?  Your tempo . . . ”  And off they go.  There’s no JATP crowd-pleasing (or crowd-baiting); the music just grows.  The musicians smile at each other.  They listen closely, even if the crowd sometimes doesn’t. 

The second set of Sunday, April 18, 2010, began with a swinging version of AVALON that harked back to the Benny Goodman Quartet — in arrangement only, since the Ear Regulars had cleverly decided that they didn’t need a vibraphone, piano, or drum kit.  But hear how nimbly they negotiate the closing chorus — “they” being Jon-Erik, Harvey, Matt, Jon, and guest Julian Lage, playing somewhere over my left shoulder:

Then Jon-Erik called up the Pride of Paso Robles, California — someone I would give every honor I could — the noble cornetist Marc Caparone, here on a week’s visit to New York City.  Marc should be better known here: he is a plain-spoken but subtle player who favors such delightful left-handers as Henry “Red” Allen and Jim Goodwin.  In his approach, ferocity and delicacy are pals.  Here, he makes the quintet of AVALON a sextet for a lively ONE HOUR, a performance that would have pleased the very finicky Ruby Braff.  His wife, the wonderful singer Dawn Lambeth, watched Marc happily (I was grinning widely from behind my video camera, I assure you):

Each selection seemed to add a new player: next up was the gifted Dan Block, who joined in for a strolling WHISPERING, while Jon-Erik caught his breath:

Tenorist Andy Farber joined in (his back is to the camera, but I didn’t take it personally) for PERDIDO, a song with a historically-established countermelody.  Tizol’s line lends itself to long performances, and this one needed two sections to be visible on YouTube.  What passes for a bandstand at The Ear Inn (flat on the floor, really a space cleared among the diners) was too small for the musicians, so Jon-Erik was now playing somewhat over my right shoulder, with Marc employing a thoroughly Ellingtonian plunger mute. 

Some viewers will be disturbed by the intrusive white piece of paper at the lower right: it is the banner reading TIPS that lets people know what the jar was for.  I preferred to keep on filming rather than miss a note by indulging in feng shui): 

And the conclusion:

To finish, something melodic, a long romp on THREE LITTLE WORDS.  The common language is so well established here that all Jon-Erik had to do was to say to the horns, “A little Lester,” and everyone fell into the riff taken from the 1943 Kansas City Six date for Commodore — you can’t miss it.  And, in true Hollywood fashion, the Australian Nick Hempton appeared, apparently from nowhere, to offer his singular evocation of right-this-minute mixed with 1940 Charlie Parker:

The concluding moments:

I know that the “three little words” of the title are “I love you” — but certainly “The Ear Inn” is a close second.  If you know of another place where such marvels happen on a weekly basis, do write in!