Tag Archives: Sofia’s

“VINCE GIORDANO: THERE’S A FUTURE IN THE PAST”

vincegirodano_poster

About seventy-five minutes into this gratifying portrait of Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, trombonist and keen observer Jim Fryer describes its subject as “an intense man . . . a driven man . . . consumed” by the ideals he’s devoted the last forty years to.  And his goal?  As Vince says in the film, it is “to get the great music out there for the people.”

From his early introduction to the music — the hot jazz 78s on his grandmother’s Victrola — to the present moment, where he is the inspired creator of a ten-piece Jazz Age big band possibly without equal, Vince’s ideal has been complex. Reproduce live the sound, accuracy, and vitality of the music he heard on the records, and add to that repertoire by playing, vividly and authentically, music that never got recorded. His quest has been to have a working band, the contemporary equivalent of the great working bands, sweet and hot, of the Twenties and Thirties, visiting the Forties on occasion. Add to this the constant schlepping (you could look it up) of the equipment for that band; finding a new home after Sofia’s could no longer stay open; finding gigs; keeping this organization running against the odds.  The film wholly captures how difficult Vince’s consuming obsession is to accomplish, and to keep afloat day after day.

Many readers of JAZZ LIVES are fervent Giordanians or perhaps Vinceites, and we crossed paths for years in the darkness of Sofia’s, at the Christmas teas.  I have a long history with this band, going back to a Nighthawks gig in the preceding century, in the eastern part of Long Island, New York, where the night sky darkened, the thunder rumbled louder than Arnie Kinsella’s drum set, lightning flashed, but the band kept playing until the last possible minute before the deluge.  So I’ve experienced Vince’s dedication firsthand.

Here’s the film’s trailer — a delightful encapsulation that doesn’t give away all the surprises:

The narrative follows Vince and the band over two years and more, from Sofia’s to Wolf Trap for PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION with Garrison Keillor, to Aeolian Hall with Maurice Peress for a recreation of Paul Whiteman’s presentation RHAPSODY IN BLUE — the opening clarinet solo brilliantly played by Dan Block — to the Nighthawks’ search for a new home, which they found at Iguana.  The film brings us up in to the present with the New York Hot Jazz Festival and a band led by Nighthawk Dan Levinson (his “Gotham Sophisticats”) as well as a new generation of musicians inspired by Vince, who has shown that it is possible to play hot music at the highest level with accuracy and spirit.

So much credit for this beautifully-realized film, must, of course, go to its intensely-charged subject, the Nighthawks, and their music. But filmmakers Dave Davidson and Amber Edwards are expert visionaries.

Even given this vibrant multi-sensory material, formulaic filmmakers could have created something dull.  They might have been satisfied to simply document performance: aim cameras at the Nighthawks and record what they play, as videographers like myself have done, which would have been accurate but limiting as cinema. Or, given the many people willing to talk about Vince and the Nighthawks, Edwards and Davidson could have given us a pageant of New York’s most erudite talking heads, some of whom would have been happy to lecture us.

Instead, by beautifully combining both elements and adding some surprises, they have created a wholly engaging, fast-moving portrait of Vince, the Nighthawks, and their world.  THERE’S A FUTURE IN THE PAST never seems to stand still, and the cameras take us places that even the most devoted fans have never gone.  We get to peek in at Terry Gross’s interview of Vince, to travel downtown for a Nighthawk-flavored session of the EarRegulars at The Ear Inn and a recording session for BOARDWALK EMPIRE.

One of the film’s most pleasing aspects is candid, often witty commentary from people who know — the musicians themselves. Edwards and Davidson have fine instincts for the telling anecdote, the revealing insight.  We see and hear Jon-Erik Kellso, Dan Levinson, Mike Ponella, Mark Lopeman, Peter Yarin, Andy Stein, Cynthia Sayer, Jim Fryer, and others, people who have worked with Vince for twenty-five years and more, and their stories are as essential to the film as is the music.

Edwards and Davidson quietly capture telling details, visual and otherwise: the box of doughnuts brought on the bus; the rivets on Vince’s aluminum double bass; Jon-Erik Kellso’s hand gestures — contrapuntal choreography — during SHAKE THAT THING; the voices of the Nighthawks joking about being fired as they head into a band meeting.  The film is admiring without being obsequious, so we also see a short, revealing episode of Vince losing his temper. But the details ever seem excessive.  In this era of fidgety multi-camera over-editing, the film’s charged rhythm — appropriately, a peppy dance tempo — is energetic but never overdone, never cleverly calling attention to itself.

There’s vivid photographic evidence of the spectacle at Sofia’s and the Iguana: the tuxedo-clad Nighthawks not only playing hot but enacting it; the dancers jubilantly embodying what they hear in ecstatic motion.  A documentary about Vince would be empty without the music.  I noted SUGAR FOOT STOMP, THE MOON AND YOU, PUBLIC MELODY NUMBER ONE featuring Catherine Russell, WHITE HEAT, SWEET MAN, Kellso burning up the cosmos on SINGING PRETTY SONGS, THE STAMPEDE, ONE MORE TIME, YOU’VE BEEN A GOOD OLD WAGON, even BESAME MUCHO at a rainy Midsummer Night Swing at Lincoln Center.  And the sound recording is just splendid.

One of the secret pleasures of this film, for the true believers, is in spotting friends and colleagues: Matt Musselman, Will Friedwald, Tina Micic, Jim Balantic, John Landry, Molly Ryan, Sam Huang, Chuck Wilson, and a dozen others.  (I know I’ve missed someone, so I apologize in advance.)

In every way, this film is delightful, a deep yet light-hearted portrait of a man and an evocation of a time and place, a casual yet compelling documentary that invites us in.  First Run Features is presenting its New York theatrical premiere at Cinema Village on January 13, 2017, and I believe that Vince and the filmmakers will be present at a number of showings.

May your happiness increase!

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“EACH DAY IS VALENTINE’S DAY”: LARRY HAM, CHRIS HANEY, KLAUS SUONSAARI (Feb. 10, 2012)

Although I am seriously romantic, I am not terribly interested in the flurry of gas-station roses and GMO candy that marks February 14 as Valentine’s Day.  But I do love MY FUNNY VALENTINE, and I thought it very sweetly appropriate that pianist Larry Ham, bassist Chris Haney, and drummer Klaus Suonsaari played it at Sofia’s several nights before it would be the anthem du jour.  Here is their soulful rendition, with Larry’s fascinating harmonies reminding me of Jimmy Rowles; Chris spinning quietly eloquent lines; Klaus making those wire brushes whisper and cajole.  Great music for romantics any day in the year!

Song scholars will know this, but MY FUNNY VALENTINE was originally performed in the Rodgers and Hart musical BABES IN ARMS . . . sung to “Val,” or Valentine — by the young woman who cheerfully enumerates his flaws but wants him to keep them.  I didn’t know that “Valentine” was originally played by Ray Heatherton, famous in my time as someone appearing on children’s records and later as the MC of the Long Island, New York BREAKFAST CLUB.  If only I had known about his past lives when I encountered him in 1974, I could have asked him . . .

This one’s for the Beloved, who occupies the position of Valentine so securely that I cancelled any other auditions shortly after we met . . .

BEAUTY IN THE CORNER: ROSSANO SPORTIELLO and NEAL MINER (Jan. 25, 2012)

Harold Ross, who edited THE NEW YORKER, once wrote, “Talent doesn’t care where it resides.”  I think of jazz improvisation as a secret beautiful art.  Although the players are happy to have a receptive audience, often the audience’s inattention matters not at all, for the players are creating something that we happen to eavesdrop on. 

This was the feeling that the Beloved and I had listening to pianist Rossano Sportiello and string bassist Neal Miner last Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012, at Sofia’s Ristorante (211 West 46th Street).  I had originally entertained thoughts of going there as a civilian — an ordinary listener with nothing more complicated in his hands than his drink, but the music was so quietly eloquent that I started videotaping and then asked permission of Rossano and Neal when they took a breather.

Photograph by Lorna Sass. All rights reserved. Copyright 2012.

Listening to Rossano, one hears his delicate touch, his rhythms (romping or subtle), his orchestral sense of the piano balanced with crystal-clear lines, his unerring ear for what Coleman Hawkins called “the choice notes.”  And Neal Miner embodies swinging persuasiveness.  Bass players usually get less attention than people with shiny horns.  Understandable in a way: the bass is in the lowest register and it stands to the rear of the background.  But the horn players I know admire the shape and scope of Neal’s lines and would be delighted to have invented them. 

On some of these performances, the audience is somewhat interactive.  You’ll hear someone’s comment when Rossano began to play a dreamy Liszt piece, “What is this, classical music?”  Yes, sir.  Classical and classic in the best senses of the words.  And rather than be annoyed at the people who chatted while the music was being created, I would simply hope that they went home subliminally elated by the fine loving sounds.  Maybe, with luck, someone might think, “At that bar there’s really nice background music . . . ” 

Early in the evening, a breezy optimism prevailed — even in the face of current economic reality, as the duo swung into THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE:

A Basie improvisation on I GOT RHYTHM changes that began as JUMPIN’ AT THE WOODSIDE and then went its own merry ways:

Indecision was never so pleasantly propulsive as in this UNDECIDED:

And the unexpected high point of the two sets — Liszt’s CONSOLATION # 3 in Db . . . a sweet musing exploration . . . then Rossano took a breath and turned the corner with Neal — uptown — to STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY:

And this set concluded with Tadd Dameron’s GOOD BAIT:

Talent, taking up temporary residence on 46th Street.  Beauty in the corner.  Much to be thankful for.

A ROBOTIC REMINDER, or DON’T MISS THESE GIGS!

If the mechanical men know about Michael Kanan, Joel Press, Joe Hunt, Lee Hudson, Sean Smith, and the wonderful jazz they will be creating this weekend at Smalls (138 West 10th Street, New York City, Friday night, May 13) and at Sofia’s (211 West 46th Street, NYC, Saturday night, May 14), shouldn’t you?

There will be room for everyone — interplanetary and terrestrial — I guarantee.  Bring your Beloved!

COMING SOON: TED BROWN AND BRAD LINDE (Feb. 5, 2011)

Wonderful things can happen at a jazz gig before a note has been played. 

That was the case when the Ted Brown Quartet performed at Sofia’s on Jan. 13, 2011. 

I had gotten there very early (my anxious parents always left the house too far in advance and arrived everywhere too early) and fell into conversation with a bespectacled young man seated at the bar.  We spoke of the musicians and the music, and he extended his hand and introduced himself.  “I’m Brad Linde,” he said. 

I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t have an instantaneous flash of recognition, but as we talked I thought, “He knows his stuff; he’s a real player with a deep awareness of the music.”  And then I said, “Do you have any CDs out?”  He said, “Yes, one, it’s called FEELING THAT WAY NOW.” 

As they say in the United Kingdom, the penny dropped, and I said — right off.  “My God!  I reviewed that CD for CADENCE and I loved it!”  And everything was hilariously in balance: I hadn’t recognized him but I was able to bring him good news: he had not seen the review.  A delightful interchange, wouldn’t you say? 

And it was even more delightful when young Mr. Linde did two things. 

It was his gentle urging that got Lee Konitz to walk in and sit at the bar to hear the music — making me think that we were in the presence of greatness.

And when Brad took out his tenor, I was warmed by the music he and Ted made — a series of heartfelt, friendly, apparently casual conversations.  Not a Hollywood cutting contest, certainly not Young Warrior overpowering Old: more like father and son chatting about things that mean so much.  (Brad has a loving reverence for his Jazz Fathers — performing with Butch Warren and Freddie Redd, for example!) 

Here’s a sample of what Ted and Brad created on YOU STEPPED OUT OF A DREAM:

I’m writing this post not only to celebrate the cheerful, humble, expert Mr. Linde and his many endeavors — but to let New Yorkers know that more of this splendid music is coming our way in one week. 

On Saturday, February 5, 2011, a quartet of Brad, Ted Brown, bassist Joe Solomon, and drummer Taro Okamoto will be playing from 9:30 PM to 1 AM at Tomi Jazz — that’s 239 East 53rd Street (lower level), between Second and Third Avenues.  646-497-1254 or http://www.tomijazz.com/. for more information.  I have it on good authority that the delightfully gifted tenor saxophonist Lena Bloch, who played so beautifully at Sofia’s, will be there, too.  Perhaps Mr. Konitz will come in and oversee everything as he did, as well. . . .  You come, too!

ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS!  PLEASE CLICK ON THE LINK AND BE GENEROUS!

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FEEL THE WARMTH: TED BROWN AND FRIENDS AT SOFIA’S (Part Two: Jan. 13, 2011)

In reading about tenor saxophonist Ted Brown and his connections to Lennie Tristano and what is characterized as “the Tristano school,” I kept finding the words abstract, intellectual, cool. 

It intrigues me to see those terms used as faint praise, as if anyone who ever had contact with Tristano was suddenly transformed into a snow creature.  I didn’t hear that in Ted’s playing. 

And even though I come from the world of HOTTER THAN THAT and STEAMIN’ AND BEAMIN’ (you could look those up), I heard the music that Ted and friends played on that snowy night as lyrical, song-based, not a series of chilly mathematical puzzles.

The participants that night at Sofia’s (221 West 46th Street, New York City) for these performances were Ted on tenor; Lena Bloch, tenor; Bob Arthurs, trumpet; Michael Kanan and / or Sacha Perry, piano; Murray Wall or Stephanie Greig, bass; Taro Okamoto, Hyland Harris, or Mark Wadsworth, drums. 

Listen and observe for yourself!

Here’s SUBCONSCIOUS-LEE, an improvisation on WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?  — with its eminent creator, Lee Konitz, sitting at the bar, sipping his beer, listening closely to what his friends (Ted, Bob, Michael, Murray, and Taro) were creating.  (Perhaps some of my more “tradition-minded” readers will find the opening chorus a little startling.  Have faith: this music won’t bite you!):

DIG IT!  — now there’s a title to conjure with.  Ted, Michael, Murray, and Taro ride the lovely up-and-down contours of this loping line with grace and wit:

Another apt title — THE THINGS I LOVE — is a sweet saunter through romance and romanticism worthy of late-period Lester Young and his friends Jimmy Rowles, Ray Bown, and  Jo Jones.  These players certainly have heartfelt stories to share with us.  And I thought again of Pete Malinverni’s assertion, “It’s melody, man!”  Yes, it is!:

For I REMEMBER YOU, some new friends came to play: Lena on tenor (two tenors doesn’t have to mean JATP); Stephanie on bass, and Hyland on drums.  Thanks for this memory!:

And the closing music honored Bird — in the same melodic, lazily intense way.  First, YARDBIRD SUITE, with Ted, Lena, Stephanie, Hyland (swinging that hi-hat and brushes in the noble manner), and Sacha:

And, to close off this rewarding evening, SCRAPPLE FROM THE APPLE, featuring Ted, Murray, Michael and Sacha, and Mark.  That personnel listing might seem a mistake, but watch closely.  Sacha is a wondrous pianist (as is Michael) and he had played on YARDBIRD — but you can see him politely hoping that another chance to play might happen before the evening came to an end.  In the most gracious way, the two pianists switch seats slightly more than halfway through the performance — true gentlemen as well as swinging improvisers!:

Abstract, intellectual, cool?  Hardly! 

And I hope to be watching Ted, Brad Linde, Joe Solomon, bass, and Taro create more of the same delicious music on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2011 from 9:30 to 1 AM at Tomi Jazz in New York City: 239 East 53rd Street (lower level) between Second and Third Avenues.  Their phone is 646-497-1254; their website is http://www.tomijazz.com.

REMEMBER: ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS!  PLEASE CLICK ON THE LINK BELOW!

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TED BROWN AND FRIENDS (Part One): SOFIA’S, JAN. 13, 2011

To me jazz is still such a surprising expansive field — a huge meadow, in fact — that there are wonderful players I have never heard. 

I am trying to make up for these lapses, though. 

I confess that the tenor saxophonist Ted Brown, now 82, was only a name on the back of a record cover until he came to sit in on a Joel Press – Michael Kanan quartet gig at the very end of June 2010.  I already admired Joel immensely, and I could add Ted to the list of musicians whose playing spoke to me.

Ted came back to play gigs in New York City this month — the first one on Jan. 12, 2011, at the Kitano Hotel, with Michael Kanan, Murray Wall, bass, and Taro Okamoto, drums.  I hope to have some performances to share with you from that night.

But the next night (it was still dreadfully cold and snowy) Michael surprised all of us by saying that the quartet was going to be appearing at Sofia’s.  I had other non-musical obligations for the evening, which I quickly sloughed off so that I could see this quartet again.  And I am delighted that I did so!

Where the Kitano gig was lovely and serene, Sofia’s was much more like a convocation of friends.  Not exactly a jam session, but a sweet series of “Come on, join us!” as the evening progressed. 

After a first set by the quartet, a number of jazz-pals brought their horns and sat in for a number or two, with fine results.  No one tried to outdo anyone, no solos went on for long, but it gave me the feeling that I do not always have in jazz clubs, “This is the way the musicians would be playing if they were alone!”  A rare sensation.

I wouldn’t presume to point out highlights from each performance, but I would ask listeners to pay particular attention to Ted’s dry, sometimes hesitant, questioning sound and approach.  It isn’t a matter of physical inability: his powers are intact.  Rather it is a kind of focused purity, of paring-away the inessentials in the manner of late Lester Young, not running through long-held figures and phrases but choosing the two notes, perfectly placed, that have greater impact.  Ted’s spaces and pauses are as beautiful, architecturally, as the notes he plays. 

Michael Kanan is, quite simply, a great pianist, someone who nibbles away at the edges of a song — its melody, its harmony, displacing its familiar rhythms, setting up teasing tensions between left and right-hand lines and accents.  He reminds me of Jimmy Rowles, in the surprising, sometimes intentionally asymmetrical castles he builds in the music. 

Murray Wall is at one with the beat: see him rock with what he plays, bringing enthusiasm and precision to those notes, that pulse.  And Taro Okamoto has a ringing sound and great variety, no matter what parts of his drum kit he is experimenting on at that moment. 

And the delightful guest stars were up to their level: tenor saxophonist Brad Linde, a husky other-voice responding affectionately to Ted’s lines; the young trumpeter Felix Rossy (he and his father, drummer Jorge, hail from Barcelona) who recalls a young Miles, bassist Stephanie Greig, energizing the band with her rhythmic propulsion; trumpeter Bob Arthurs, cool yet impassioned.  And more to come!

The quartet began the evening with an easy melodic choice — Gershwin’s SOMEBODY LOVES ME taken at a fast clip:

SWEET AND LOVELY, its harmonies more complex, brought out the inherent striving lyricism not only in Ted but in the other players:

Michael suggested to Ted that they do the latter’s line SMOG EYES (a play on STAR EYES and Ted’s comment on the climatological burdens of Los Angeles, where he had moved from New York City — and an improvisation on the chord changes of THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER YOU):

Then Felix Rossy, tentative in posture but not approach, joined in.  Felix has his back to the camera, but his sound — reminiscent of Tony Fruscella — comes through!  His father told me that Felix was 16 (he’ll be 17 on April Fool’s Day) and when I said to Jorge, “You did a good job!” Jorge grinned and blushed but said, “Thank you, but he did it himself,” which is a lovely compliment to them both.  The quintet embarked on a long exploration of ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE:

Someone suggested LESTER LEAPS IN (the spirit of Pres is never far when Ted is playing) but Michael wanted to make the tempo much less frenetic than it might have been, calling this version LESTER REASONABLY STROLLS IN, with Murray giving his bass over to Stephanie, who plays jauntily:

At Brad Linde’s telephonic urging, a true star walked in — raincoat tightly belted around him, his hair in a near crew-cut, said hello, made himself comfortable at the bar, ordered a Corona, and listened intently.  It was Lee Konitz, whose presence you must imagine through the next performances.  With his august (perhaps austere) presence, the second set ended with RELAXIN’ AT CAMARILLO, the Bird blues, with Felix sitting out, Stephanie remaining:

After a break, Brad Linde joined the quartet for a splendidly evocative YOU STEPPED OUT OF A DREAM — the two tenors graciously making way for one another, their sounds distinct but never clashing:

And the momentum of that DREAM carried them through an equally leisurely investigation of I’LL REMEMBER APRIL:

Then Bob Arthurs took Brad’s place for the Lennie Tristano 317 EAST 32nd STREET (Tristano’s address at the time), an improvisation on OUT OF NOWHERE:

Six more lengthy performances remain in this most fulfilling evening.  Join me for Part Two!