Tag Archives: Smalls

“THAT AMAZING MUSIC”: PHILLIP JOHNSTON and the SILENT SIX at SMALLS (November 27, 2018)

Phillip Johnston and friends create music that’s unpredictable but rooted, surprising but deeply immersed in his own versions of the jazz tradition.  I had the good fortune to sit right in front of his Silent Six (a whimsical monicker) at Smalls in Greenwich Village last November, and can share with you a number of wonderful highlights.

He began the evening by discussing his recent joyous study of the music of the Twenties and Thirties, focusing on Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Don Redman, and you will hear compositions by Louis and the Duke below, elevated by the same exploratory imaginative spirit that animated their creators.  (Sometimes we forget that POTATO HEAD BLUES was a brand-new tune in 1927, rather than a hallowed artifact of Hot.)

Phillip described the compositions and arrangements of that period as “that amazing music,” completely modern, larger than categories.  Hearing the Silent Six, you realize that he is also (without being immodest) describing what it does in this century.

The Silent Six is Phillip Johnston. soprano and alto saxophone; Joe Fiedler, trombone; Mike Hashim, baritone saxophone; Neal Kirkwood, piano; Dave Hofstra, string bass; Rob Garcia, drums. Philip originally formed the NYC-based Six to perform live in WORDLESS!, his multi-media film/music/lecture collaboration with Pulitzer-Prize winning illustrator and graphic art historian Art Spiegelman that had its 2013 debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and continues to tour worldwide.

And now for some music from Smalls.  Attentive listeners will hear deep roots: blues, shuffles, variations on familiar harmonic patterns, all performed with vigor, looseness, and wit — over irresistible dance rhythms, the result a series of surprises that immediately become comfortable.

Louis Armstrong’s POTATO HEAD BLUES:

Ellington’s AWFUL SAD:

Phillip’s DUCKET’S GOT A WHOLE IN IT (identified as a “deep shuffle”):

and his own LATER:

Phillip’s HOFSTRA’S DILEMMA (for stalwart string bassist Dave):

TEMPORARY BLINDNESS:

PLANETELLA ROCK:

Phillip also has two new CDs for us — DIGGIN’ BONES and THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED.  You can read reviews of them here.  Learn more / buy DIGGIN’ BONES here; for more about ACHMED, visit here.

This post is for Maurice Kessler, gig-friend extraordinaire.

May your happiness increase!

 

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HIP LYRICISM: AI MURAKAMI Quartet live at Smalls (August 26, 2018): AI MURAKAMI, GRANT STEWART, MICHAEL KANAN, PAUL GILL

I first encountered the splendid drummer Ai Murakami when a copy of her debut CD came into my hands.  Her playing impressed me deeply — not only the sounds she created at the drum set, but the ways in which her melodic impulses shaped the quartet’s performance.  And I wrote about the CD here.

When Ai and friends they take the stage at Smalls on Sundays, they are characterized as “bebop” players.  But for me, bebop is a music of sharp turns and occasional hard edges.  Ai’s imagination makes bebop a little softer, more cushiony.  I don’t mean limp, but she created an encouraging space for lyrical, arching melodic lines from any or all of the players.  And she adores melodic material, whether it’s by Jerome Kern or it’s a racing late-Forties line.

Here are some delightful performances from the Sunday afternoon at Smalls, August 26, 2018 — where Ai is joined by Paul Gill, string bass; Grant Stewart, tenor saxophone; Michael Kanan, piano.  Four melodic, exploring heroes.

Richard Rodgers’ FALLING IN LOVE WITH LOVE (who can hear this without hearing Larry Hart’s vingary lyrics?):

Irving Berlin’s wonderful THE BEST THING FOR YOU:

I’LL NEVER BE THE SAME (once known as LITTLE BUTTERCUP) so tenderly introduced by Michael:

Tadd Dameron’s THE SCENE IS CLEAN:

Jerome Kern’s I’M OLD-FASHIONED, beginning with a lovely piano solo:

Finally, Bud Powell’s WAIL:

I think that the people who watch, savor, and learn from these videos understand the principles on which I operate, but I would like to make one explicit.  My gratitude to these and other musicians for allowing me to video their performances and share the results — for free — with a larger audience.  A great gracious kindness on their part.

May your happiness increase!

DAN BLOCK AND HIS MÖBIUS TRAVELERS at SMALLS, PART THREE (February 3, 2017): DAN BLOCK, GODWIN LOUIS, ADAM BIRNBAUM, JENNIFER VINCENT, ALVESTER GARNETT

I offer here the final segment of a glorious evening that also happened to be Dan Block’s birthday.  But rather than waiting for cake and gift cards, Dan bestowed presents on us.

The Mobius Travelers (my band name, not Dan’s) are Dan Block, clarinet and tenor; Godwin Louis, alto saxophone; Adam Birnbaum, piano; Jennifer Vincent, string bass; Alvester Garnett, drums, who convened for an ecstatic musical evening at Smalls (West Tenth Street, New York City) on February 3, 2017. The imaginative premise: revitalize obscure Swing Era compositions and arrangements by (among others) Mary Lou Williams, Benny Carter, Billy Moore, Fletcher Henderson, Edgar Sampson.

Here are the selections performed earlier in the evening, and some words in addition.

Now, the three closing performances — full of juice and surprises.

CANCER, from Mary Lou’s “ZODIAC SUITE”:

PUDDIN’ HEAD SERENADE, Mary Lou’s creation for the Andy Kirk band:

And to close, Benny Carter’s BLUES IN MY HEART, that segues into a let’s-celebrate-the-leader HAPPY BIRTHDAY, a riotous ending to a memorable evening.

May your happiness increase!

DAN BLOCK AND HIS MÖBIUS TRAVELERS at SMALLS, PART TWO (February 3, 2017): DAN BLOCK, GODWIN LOUIS, ADAM BIRNBAUM, JENNIFER VINCENT, ALVESTER GARNETT

I will indulge myself in a slight repetition of the first part of this blogpost, which you can read and hear here.  It explains the beautiful image above.

Dan Block, one of the most consistently inspired creators I know, respects the music of the Swing Era and knows it deeply, but has chosen his own path through these two polarities. It’s hard to explain verbally, but it works in the same way the Möbius strip does: one reveres the original but opens it up innovatively (the artists we respect now were in some way all radical innovators) before returning home to the Palace of Swing. Dan and his comrades: Godwin Louis, alto saxophone; Adam Birnbaum, piano; Jennifer Vincent, string bass; Alvester Garnett, drums, did this ten times at an ecstatic musical evening at Smalls on February 3.

The three performances I’d already posted were HARLEM CONGO, NIGHTFALL, and BUGS PARADE.  And here are four more uplifting explorations.  I thought these performances were explosions of sensory pleasure when I heard and recorded them on the spot; they reveal more each time I listen.

Mary Lou Williams’ WALKIN’ AND SWINGIN’:

And the 1934 Henderson romp, which I think featured Red Allen, among others:

Edgar Sampson’s BLUE LOU:

and, finally, for this segment, a masterful reconsideration of DON’T BE THAT WAY that, to me, owes more to Lester’s 1938 solo than to any big-band (possibly industrial) version:

A wonderful musical intelligence and deep feeling here, for which I am immensely grateful.

May your happiness increase!

DAN BLOCK AND HIS MÖBIUS TRAVELERS at SMALLS, PART ONE (February 3, 2017): DAN BLOCK, GODWIN LOUIS, ADAM BIRNBAUM, JENNIFER VINCENT, ALVESTER GARNETT

mobius_strip

Photograph by David Benbennick, c/o Wikipedia

The image above is of a Möbius strip: it has only one side and you keep traveling around it without beginning or end.  You could look it up, as Ring Lardner wrote. It is artifact, concept, and metaphor all in one.

How does this relate to music?  First, a sample: BUGS PARADE, composition and arrangement by Billy Moore, recorded by the 1940 Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra:

It’s 2017.  How would a group of living musicians deal with this work of art?  One approach would be to attempt to reproduce it exactly: transcribe the recording, rehearse it with a select group of musicians — the same number and instrumentation — so that one could hear it live.  Hard work with often beautiful results.  Another approach — at the other end of the spectrum — would be to shatter the original through mockery, to draw an unflattering caricature of the original.

Dan Block, one of the most consistently inspired creators I know, respects the music of the Swing Era and knows it deeply, but has chosen his own path through these two polarities.  It’s hard to explain verbally, but it works in the same way the Möbius strip does: one reveres the original but opens it up innovatively (the artists we respect now were in some way all radical innovators) before returning home to the Palace of Swing.  Dan and his comrades: Godwin Louis, alto saxophone; Adam Birnbaum, piano; Jennifer Vincent, string bass; Alvester Garnett, drums, did this ten times at an ecstatic musical evening at Smalls on February 3.  Here are three glorious examples — which also stretch the boundaries of the 78 rpm disc above.

HARLEM CONGO, associated with Chick Webb:

Benny Carter’s lovely NIGHTFALL:

And, yes, the aforementioned BUGS PARADE:

You will notice I haven’t said anything about the players or the performances. This band is explosively energized and deeply lyrical, often at the same time.

A postscript: I hope no one feels compelled in the name of red-label Columbias and sunburst Deccas to write in, “I like the originals better.”  Consider that Dan’s reinventions are meant to honor the original lively and lyrical spirits of these Thirties recordings: otherwise why spend the time creating his own tributes? They are not desecrations in any way.

A more cheerful postscript, Dr. Eugenia Chang’s Möbius bagel and lox:

May your happiness increase!

THE JOEL PRESS QUARTET at SMALLS: MICHAEL KANAN, LEE HUDSON, FUKUSHI TAINAKA (July 3, 2016): PART TWO

It’s been a true privilege to hear, converse with, and video-record the inventive and durable saxophonist Joel Press for the last five years (and since I met Michael Kanan through Joel, it has been a double blessing).  Of course, the person behind all of this was the irreplaceable Robert D. Rusch of CADENCE, a true benefactor.

Joel was most recently playing a gig in New York City on July 3, 2016, at Smalls — with a quartet of Michael, piano; Lee Hudson, string bass; Fukushi Tanaka, drums.

JOEL by Herb Snitzer

Here are five evocative performances from that evening: GONE WITH THE WIND, SOFTLY AS IN A MORNING SUNRISE, FOOLIN’ MYSELF, NOSTALGIA, and YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME.

And — by popular demand — four more delights: BLUES, WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?. BODY AND SOUL, IT’S YOU OR NO ONE.  Please note that every note has substance and emotional meaning, and the quartet makes even the most familiar line or standard seem lively and poignant.

BLUES:

WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?:

BODY AND SOUL:

IT’S YOU OR NO ONE:

Thank you, Joel, Michael, Lee, Fukushi, and Smalls.  We are in your debt.

May your happiness increase!

THE JOEL PRESS QUARTET at SMALLS: MICHAEL KANAN, LEE HUDSON, FUKUSHI TAINAKA (July 3, 2016): PART ONE

I’ve been fortunate enough to know, hear, and admire the Swing Explorer — saxophonist Joel Press — for a decade now.  It happened, as many good things do, utterly by surprise, but through the quiet guidance of a good friend.  The good friend is Robert D. Rusch, the creator of CADENCE, that rare thing, a candid jazz magazine.  In 2006, I was reviewing CDs for CADENCE, and one called HOW’S THE HORN TREATING YOU? arrived in the mail — with this cover portrait (by Herb Snitzer) of a man I’d not known:

JOEL by Herb SnitzerI was moved and delighted by Joel’s easy yet searching approach to melody and swing: new and yet affectionately connected to the great traditions.  To explore Joel’s many worlds, one place to start would be here.

A decade later, more or less, we found ourselves in friendly proximity: Joel on the bandstand at Smalls, me with a video camera as close as I could get without posing a fire hazard.  The other members of this compact inventive ensemble are Michael Kanan, piano; Lee Hudson, string bass; Fukushi Tainaka, drums.

Here’s a still photograph of that world, taken for us by Chihiro Tainaka, with the back of my head accurately and mercilessly rendered for posterity.  Two seats to my left is the warm and thoughtful Maya Press, beaming love at her father.JOEL PRESS Smalls 7 3 16 Chihiro Tainaka

But you can’t play a picture, any more than you can eat the recipe.  So — with Joel’s approval — I present five performances from that night at Smalls, with some more to follow.  His soft tone, love of melody, and caressing swing are still gloriously intact, and his colleagues on the bandstand are the most subtly intuitive conversationalists one could want.

GONE WITH THE WIND:

SOFTLY, AS IN A MORNING SUNRISE:

FOOLIN’ MYSELF:

NOSTALGIA:

YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME:

I wanted to call this blogpost PRESS ONE FOR SWING.  Now you know why. More to come.

May your happiness increase!