Tag Archives: Steve Little

THE RIGHT TIME: The GREG RUGGIERO TRIO (MURRAY WALL, STEVE LITTLE) at MEZZROW, October 1, 2018

The three serious-looking fellows below (from left, Murray Wall, string bass; Steve Little, drums; Greg Ruggiero, guitar) make wonderful music.  Greg’s new trio CD, IT’S ABOUT TIME, gentle explorations of great standards, is proof enough (read more here).

From left. Murray Wall, string bass; Steve Little, drums; Greg Ruggiero, guitar. Photograph by Gabriele Donati.

To celebrate the new CD, Greg, Steve, and Murray had a lovely session at Mezzrow (163 West Tenth Street, New York City) on October 1 of this year.  As befits a trio’s numerology, here are three selections showing the compact unhurried lyricism this group creates.  They know how to swing, how to leave space, how to play pretty, to create phrases to ring in the air: masters of their sonorous craft.

GONE WITH THE WIND:

I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS:

I’VE GROWN ACCUSTOMED TO HER FACE:

We could easily grow accustomed to this trio.

May your happiness increase!

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“IT’S ABOUT TIME”: GREG RUGGIERO, MURRAY WALL, STEVE LITTLE

From left. Murray Wall, string bass; Steve Little, drums; Greg Ruggiero, guitar. Photograph by Gabriele Donati.

Maybe you wouldn’t connect those mostly-somber faces with a new CD of gorgeous music, but trust me. Perhaps this will help:

The roots of this delightful effusion of thoughtful, swinging adult music go back a few years.  When I heard IT’S ABOUT TIME (Fresh Sounds / Swing Alley) for the first time, recently, I wrote this to Greg (who has a substantial sense of humor) as the possible opening lines of my planned blogpost: I’ve never met them, but I am seriously grateful to Camille and Lenny Ruggiero. For one thing, they are the parents of the wonderful guitarist Greg Ruggiero, so you may draw your own inferences. But there’s another reason: Greg says that “for the past twenty years they have asked me to record a Standards album.”

That CD is here, and it’s called IT’S ABOUT TIME, and it’s a honey.

I checked with Greg to be sure his parents wouldn’t mind seeing that in print and he wrote back, The CD release party is October 1st at Mezzrow. The folks are coming, maybe you can meet them then!

The Mezzrow schedule (they’re on West Tenth Street in New York City) has tickets for sale here for the two October 1 shows; I know this because I bought some.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, or of ourselves here.  As a title, IT’S ABOUT TIME might refer to Greg’s parents’ two-decade long wait, but the title speaks to something fundamental about this CD, and about the music that Greg, Murray, and Steve make as a trio and on their own.  “Time,” to them, is more than what someone’s Apple watch might say: it is their visceral connection with rhythm, with the deep heartbeat that we feel from the Earth and also from the Basie rhythm section.  Fluid but unerring; sinuous but reliably trustworthy.  They live to swing, and we can rely on how well they do it, and how well it makes us feel.  Greg, Murray, and Steve are also reassuring in their love of melodies, and of melodic inprovisations.  This isn’t — to go back some decades — “Easy Listening,” but it certainly is easy to listen to.

The repertoire is classic; the approach melodic and emergized.  GONE WITH THE WIND is light and quick, a zephyr rather than a lament.  APRIL IN PARIS doesn’t lean on the Basie version, but is a series of sweet chimes: I never got the sense of “Oh, this is APRIL IN PARIS again, for the zillionth time.”  Sincerity rules, without drama.  Steve starts off I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS with a small explosion, heralding a romp rather than a nap, and the trades between him and the other two members later in the performance have the snap of Jo Jones.  Greg’s POLKA DOTS AND MOONBEAMS is respectfully tender but it never bogs down under the weight of the hoped-for pug-nosed dream, and Murray’s solo seems so easy but is the work of a quiet master.  WHERE OR WHEN asks the musical question lightly and politely, without undue seriousness but with playful trades with Steve.  IF DREAMS COME TRUE is easy in its optimism, and it avoids the cliches attached to this venerable swing tune.

It’s lovely to have a CD (or a gig) include a blues — some musicians shy away from them for reasons not clear to me — and this one has a strolling THINGS AIN’T WHAT THEY USED TO BE, fun in itself but also a nod to the most famous association on Steve’s vita, his time with Ellington.  (Yes, he taught Bert and Ernie how to swing, but that’s another matter.)  Gershwin’s LIZA, which is often played at a burning tempo, is a saunter here; DON’T BLAME ME is more cheerful than usual — perhaps this trio hasn’t been blamed for anything wicked recently?  I’d believe that — and the disc closes with a just-right TANGERINE.  Juicy, fruitful.

Greg’s playing is a delight, mixing single-string explorations with chordal accents for variety.  He doesn’t overpower the listener with Olympian slaloms on the fretboard, but plays the song as if he were speaking affectionately to us.  Murray Wall is one of the great warm exponents of logical improvisation, and Steve Little’s brushwork is a swing school in itself.  (You won’t miss a piano.)  The result is kind to the ears, with breathing room and ease — at times I thought these tracks a series of witty dances (there is plenty of good humor in this trio, although no joke-quotes).  Delightful dance music even for people like me, who spend more time in a chair than they should.  In the best way, this is an old-fashioned session, with musicians who know that there is life in the Great American Songbook, and that it is spacious enough to allow them to express their personalities.  But there’s a refreshing homage to the melodies, first and last, that’s often not the case with jazz recordings.

You can hear substantial excerpts from the CD here, and download the music as well.  You can purchase the CD here, and visit Greg’s website and Facebook page as well, all of which should provide entertainment and edification for these shortened days and longer nights.

Of course, the best thing for people in the tri-state area to do would be to show up at a Greg Ruggiero gig, such as the CD release one at Mezzrow, and buy discs there.  But I don’t want to tell you what to do . . . or do I?

May your happiness increase!

JON DE LUCIA OCTET and TED BROWN: “LIVE AT THE DRAWING ROOM” (October 22, 2016)

Although this CD is rather unobtrusive, no fuss or ornamentation, it captures a truly uplifting musical event, and I do not write those words lightly: music from tenor saxophonist Ted Brown, a mere 88 at the time of this gig, and a splendidly unified, inventive ensemble.

I’ve only known Jon De Lucia for a few years, but I trust his taste completely, and his performances always reward me.  Now, if I know that one of Jon’s groups is going to perform, I head to the gig with determination (and my camera). He asked me to write a few lines about this disc, and I was delighted to:

Some jazz listeners disdain “West Coast jazz,” “cool jazz,” or any music in the neighborhood of Lennie Tristano (not just East 32nd Street) as so cerebral that it’s barely defrosted. Jon De Lucia’s Octet shows how wrong that perception is: this music is warm, witty, embracing, not Rubik’s Cube scored for saxophones. Rather, the playful, tender spirit of Lester Young dances through everyone’s heart. This impassioned group swings, even when the players are intently looking at the score. For this gig, the Octet had a great spiritual asset in the gently fervent playing of Ted Brown, a Sage of melodic invention. Also, this session was recorded at one of New York City’s now-lost shrines, Michael Kanan and Stephanie Greig’s “The Drawing Room,” a sacred home for all kinds of music. I am grateful that Jon De Lucia has created this group: so delightful in whatever they play. You’ll hear it too.

Here’s what Jon had to say:

Saxophonist Jon De Lucia met the great tenorist Ted Brown in 2014, and got to play with him soon after. He was and is struck by the pure lyricism and honesty in his improvising. One of the original students of forward thinking pianist Lennie Tristano in the 1940s, Brown, along with Lee Konitz, is among the last of this great school of players. Later, when De Lucia discovered some of Jimmy Giuffre’s original scores from the Lee Konitz meets Jimmy Giuffre session of 1959, which Brown and Konitz both participated in, he knew he wanted to put a band together to play this music with Ted.

Thus the Jon De Lucia Octet was formed. A five saxophone and rhythm lineup with unique arrangements by the great clarinetist/saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre. The original charts featured Lee Konitz on every track, and the first step in 2016 was to put a session together reuniting Brown and Konitz on these tunes. An open rehearsal was held at the City College of New York, Lee took the lead and played beautifully while Ted took over the late Warne Marsh’s part. This then led to the concert you have here before you.

De Lucia steps into Lee’s shoes, while the features have been reworked to focus on Brown, including new arrangements of his tunes by De Lucia and daughter Anita Brown. The rest of the band includes a formidable set of young saxophonists, including John Ludlow, who incidentally was a protege of the late Hal McCusick, who also played on the original recording session of Lee Konitz meets Jimmy Giuffre, and plays the alto saxophone, now inherited, used in the session. Jay Rattman and Marc Schwartz round out the tenors, and Andrew Hadro, who can be heard to great effect on “Venus De Milo,” plays the baritone. In the rhythm section, Ray Gallon, one of NYC’s most swinging veterans on the piano, Aidan O’Donnell on the bass and the other legend in the room, the great Steve Little on the drums. Little was in Duke Ellington’s band in 1968, recording on the now classic Strayhorn tribute …and His Mother Called Him Bill, before going on to record all of the original Sesame Street music and much more as a studio musician.

The show was sold out at Brooklyn’s now defunct Drawing Room, operated by Michael Kanan and Stephanie Greig. Along with the music previously mentioned, De Lucia had recently acquired some of the original parts from Gerry Mulligan’s Songbook session, which featured Konitz, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Allen Eager in another great sax section recording, this time arranged by Bill Holman. Here the band plays “Sextet,” and “Venus De Milo” from that session. Brown, here making the band a Nonet, plays beautifully and takes part in every tune, reading parts even when not soloing. Not included in this CD is an extended take of Konitz’s “Cork n’ Bib” and Giuffre’s piece for three clarinets, “Sheepherders.” Possible bonus releases down the line!

Since this concert, the Octet has taken on a life of its own, covering the repertoire of the original Dave Brubeck Octet, more of the Mulligan material, Alec Wilder, and increasingly De Lucia’s own material. De Lucia continues searching for rare and underperformed material, rehearsing regularly in NYC and performing less regularly. 

Earlier in this post, I wrote about my nearly-obsessive desire to bring my camera to gigs, and this session was no exception.  However, I must preface the video below with a caveat: imperfect sight lines and even more imperfect sound.  The CD was recorded by the superb pianist Tony Melone — someone I didn’t know as a wonderful live-recording engineer, and the sound he obtained makes me embarrassed to post this . . . but I hope it acts as an inducement for people to hear more, in delightfully clear sound:

If you gravitate towards expert warm ensemble playing, soloing in the spirit of Lester, a mixture of romping swing and tender introspection, you will applaud this CD as I do.

You can buy it here, with digital downloads available in the usual places.

May your happiness increase!

WARM SOUNDS IN MOTION: JON DE LUCIA OCTET in RECITAL: JON DE LUCIA, ANDREW HADRO, DAN BLOCK, RICKY ALEXANDER, JAY RATTMAN, STEFAN VASNIER, AIDAN O’DONNELL, STEVE LITTLE (City College, May 3, 2018)

I abandoned my adult responsibilities last Thursday to hear the Jon De Lucia Octet at City College, and I am so glad: this performance was an oasis.

Jon’s group, in existence for slightly more than two years, is a flexible, swinging chamber group devoted to the music-for-saxophones of Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, Jimmy Giuffre, Ted Brown, Bill Smith, Alec Wilder, the Dave Brubeck Octet, and Jon’s own arrangements and compositions.  I’ve been following Jon and the Octet around New York since their inception, and have always felt rewarded.  Here is a sample from March 2017.

Perhaps it no longer applies, but it used to be fashionable to characterize such music as “cerebral,” to some, a euphemism for chilly aural architecture, jazz drained of untidy emotions, art from the neck up.  Not true for the Octet, which is a warm, mobile band, always with a generous offering of improvised solos.  You’ll hear and see for yourself.

If you have an established prejudice against what is perceived by some as “cool,” please take a visit to PRESERVATION, DREAMILEE, DISC JOCKEY JUMP . . . . and then re-assess.

At this too-brief concert, the players were Jon, alto saxophone and clarinet; Stefan Vasnier, piano; Aidan O’Donnell, string bass; Steve Little, drums; Jay Rattman, tenor saxophone; Dan Block, alto saxophone and clarinet; Ricky Alexander, tenor saxophone; Andrew Hadro, baritone saxophone.

Gerry Mulligan’s DISC JOCKEY JUMP, originally composed by young Mr. Mulligan for the Gene Krupa ensemble, then arranged for saxophones a decade later by Bill Holman:

Jerome Kern’s PICK YOURSELF UP (I think of Fred Astaire pretending to be clumsy) arranged by Jon:

The Gershwins’ TREAT ME ROUGH, from GIRL CRAZY, arranged by Dick Hyman for a Trigger Alpert record date:

PRESERVATION, by Ted Brown, a sinuous improvisation on Lester Young’s TICKLE-TOE, arranged by Jon:

The gorgeous PRELUDE, by Dave Van Kriedt, originally for the Dave Brubeck Octet:

DREAMILEE, Lee Konitz’s solo / variations on I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, arranged by Jon:

PRELUDE TO PART FIRST, a Baroque jazz fantasy by Jon, which I associate with his new  Bach Shapes book:

Cole Porter’s very pretty LOOKING AT YOU (I think of Lee Wiley’s 1940 recording with Bushkin and Berigan) arranged by Jon.  Dance music for very hip couples:

and a memory of a vanished New York City subway-system entrance machinery, TURNSTILE, again composed by Mulligan and arranged by Holman:

Jon’s Octet — with the splendid Ted Brown — will be releasing their debut recording, a live performance from their first recital — on Neal Miner’s noble Gut String Records — this summer.  Expect to hear more about it here.

May your happiness increase!

ADVENTURES IN THE LAND OF GOOD SURPRISES: THE MICHAEL BANK SEPTET at SHRINE (August 1, 2017)

I first encountered the pianist-composer Michael Bank sometime in late 2004 or early 2005, at a Basque restaurant called BAR TABAC in Park Slope, Brooklyn, when he was pianist in a little band that had some of my — now lasting — friends in it: Kevin Dorn, Craig Ventresco, Jesse Gelber, among others.  When I heard Michael play — evoking Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller, and his own original thinking — I was impressed, and when he introduced the band’s version of ALL OF ME by quoting Teddy from PRES AND TEDDY, I went over to him at the set break and said, having introduced myself, “Excuse me, what the hell was that intro figure you did on ALL OF ME?” and we established its provenance (I am afraid I showed off by telling him I’d gotten Teddy’s autograph on that album) and I knew he was someone to pay attention to.

But I knew only a fraction of the totality of Michael Bank, and my admiration grew when I heard him lead his Septet.  The official press release calls this band “a four-horn group in the mainstream jazz tradition,” but that is a serious understatement.  For this gig, the Septet is Tony Speranza, trumpet;  John Ludlow, alto saxophone; Matt Haviland, trombone; Frank Basile, baritone saxophone; Ben Rubens, string bass;  the esteemed Steve Little, once again playing a set of drums not his own, with one happy exception being a beautiful snare drum lent for this gig by our friend Kelly Friesen.

Michael is an intriguing composer of originals that sound, at first, familiar, but then take their own twists and turns: not into dissonance, but into surprising melodies and voicings.  I think of his compositions as beginning in the 1951-55 Johnny Hodges band book and then deciding to move around by visiting Jaki Byard (a model and mentor to Michael), and going their own ways.  What underpins all of this is Michael’s delighted commitment to a rocking swing motion rooted in Ellingtonian momentum.  The Septet’s modernism is curious and amiable; the dissonances or unusual voicings do not treat the audience unkindly.  One could dance to this band, and that impulse comes from the Septet’s roots as a backing band for The Silver Belles, a veteran tap dance troupe. But like Ellington, Michael sees the beauty in simple forms: he loves the blues and how they can be asked to soar; he doesn’t find the Past something to be rejected but he conceives of ancient inspirations in his own ways.

Having taken the wrong subway line (Michael suggested that this post should be called TAKE THE 2 TRAIN, which amused me but would require too much explanation) I went up hill and down dale to be at this one-hour gig at the Shrine Music Venue at 134th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, but I was seriously rewarded for my aerobics with music that balances lightness and density.

Here are four extended highlights of this all-too-brief gig:

FALL AND RISE:

THE AZTEC TWO-STEP, which is its own kind of choreography:

Jaki Byard’s ONE NOTE:

TAKE THE “A” TRAIN:

I know it is hard to keep a band together without regular gigs, but I certainly think that Michael’s Septet is eminently worthy of a comfortable venue, a nice piano.  If you swing it, they will come.  Or perhaps.

May your happiness increase!

DREAM AND REVELATION: MORE FROM THE JON DE LUCIA OCTET at THE TEA LOUNGE (May 29, 2017)

Photograph by Richard Daniel Bergeron

More fun and expertly played music — wonderful in ensemble and solo — from the Jon De Lucia Octet, performing on May 29, 2017, at the Tea Lounge on Union Street in Brooklyn, New York. For this performance, they were Jon, alto, clarinet, flute; John Ludlow, alto; Jay Rattman, tenor, bass clarinet; Marc Schwartz, tenor, clarinet; Brad Mulholland, baritone, clarinet; Reuben Allen, keyboard; Aidan O’Donnell, string bass; Steve Little, borrowed drums.  On SELDOM THE SUN, a piece by Alec Wilder for his Octet, special guest Alison Mari on oboe/English horn joined in.

Here is THE SONG IS YOU from the same performance.

And more.

PICK YOURSELF UP (always good advice):

Jon’s composition and arrangement, PRELUDE TO PART FIRST:

Jimmy Giuffre’s arrangement of the Van Heusen beauty, DARN THAT DREAM, for saxophones only:

Alec Wilder’s SELDOM THE SUN:

REVELATION (incomplete through the failure of the incautious videographer, who is contrite even now):

Jon’s thoughtful, emotionally deep, and deeply swinging music pleases me more than I can say here . . . but you know it, he knows it, and I do, too.

May your happiness increase!

“THE SONG IS YOU”: JON DE LUCIA’S OCTET at the TEA LOUNGE (May 29, 2017)

Photograph by Richard Daniel Bergeron

Jon De Lucia’s little orchestras delight me, so I follow them whenever I can.  No matter how many players are gathered, there’s always shifting timbres, beautiful ensemble textures, a range of energies from serene to soaring. Here’s one gorgeous romp from his Octet’s most recent appearance: Jimmy Giuffre’s arrangement of THE SONG IS YOU. Properly speaking, I think the title should be corrected to THE SONG IS US, but the composer had never heard this octet in action.

Incidentally, should any more “traditionally-minded” readers be tempted to turn away from this dangerous venture into mid-century Modernism, I urge you to courageously listen: there’s an irresistible momentum, and even a passage of collective improvisation (let’s call it a little jam session) sure to delight even the most seriously loyal archaeologist.

For this occasion, the Octet was Jon De Lucia, alto, clarinet, flute; John Ludlow, alto; Jay Rattman, tenor, bass clarinet; Marc Schwartz, tenor, clarinet; Brad Mulholland, baritone, clarinet; Reuben Allen, keyboard; Aidan O’Donnell, string bass; Steve Little, borrowed drums.  Later in the evening, this Octet played two pieces from the Alec Wilder Octet with special guest Alison Mari on oboe/English horn.

The occasion was also to celebrate the release of Jon’s book, Bach Shapes (Bach Shapes), certainly worth a look, even for those of us whose saxophone careers are not yet fully in motion.

And speaking of “in motion”:

I promise to share more music from this delightful evening.  The Octet does my heart good, and I hope yours as well.

May your happiness increase!