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!