Tag Archives: The Ear Inn

A SUMMER NIGHT, EIGHT YEARS AGO (June 7, 2009)

Good times, fine sounds.  the calendar says they’re gone; we know they aren’t.

The Ear Inn has been host to gatherings of joyous insight on Sunday nights since July 2007, and I think I was there for the second gathering of The EarRegulars — who may not have been named just yet (Jon-Erik Kellso, Howard Alden, Frank Tate): I was converted rapidly, although going to work with an early teaching schedule has made me at times a lax postulant.

Here’s a delightful interlude from the summer of 2009: SOME OF THESE DAYS, played so buoyantly by Matt Munisteri, guitar; Duke Heitger, trumpet; Harvey Tibbs, trombone; Dan Block, clarinet; Neal Miner, string bass.  And the final minutes of this — with Duke evoking another New Orleans boy who made good — give me chills of the best sort:

You don’t need to climb the Himalayas for spiritual uplift: visit the Ear Inn on Sunday nights; your pilgrimage requires only the C or the 1 train or perhaps an automobile . . . see you there sometime soon!  In the interim, watch, hear, and marvel.

May your happiness increase

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MARA KAYE SINGS LADY DAY with JON-ERIK KELLSO, DAVID SAGER, JOHN GILL, BRIAN NALEPKA, SCOTT RICKETTS, EYAL VINER at THE EAR INN (August 13, 2017)

Mara Kaye is one of New York’s great gifts to the world. Two years ago, she did a concert performance at Joe’s Pub, an evening of songs associated with Billie Holiday.  Here is some of what I wrote, that still rings true.

She is a substantial stage personality.  One way this is expressed is in her nearly constant yet genuine motion, as if her energy is too strong for her to stand still.  It’s not just hair-tossing, but a continual series of dance moves that also look like yoga poses and warm-up stretches, even a jubilant marching-in-place. Often she held her arms over her head, her hands open.  I think it was always exuberant emotion, but it was also her own expression of an ancient and honorable theatrical style . . . so that even the people in the most distant balcony of the Apollo Theatre could see you and join in with the person onstage. And her voice matched her larger-than-life physical presence.  On a Twenties record label, she might have been billed as COMEDIENNE WITH ORCHESTRA, and that odd designation rang true. The comedy bubbled up here and there in speech: she hails from Brooklyn, so that her sailboat in the moonlight was idling along in Sheepshead Bay. But it also emerged delightfully in her voice: I heard echoes of Fanny Brice, of comic Eastern European melodies . . . it never sounded as if she was taking Billie or the music lightly, but as if she was having such a good time that she couldn’t help playing. . . . SHOW in the best tradition — not caricature, but something Louis would have admired immensely.

I’m always glad to see Mara, and when she showed up at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho) on Sunday, August 13, I had hopes she would be invited to sit in with the EarRegulars.  Leader and brass deity Jon-Erik Kellso has the same feelings about this young woman, so he invited her to join the band . . . and these two performances are the result. The EarRegulars, that night, were Jon-Erik; David Sager, trombone (making a guest appearance from his home in a southern town), John Gill, banjo; Brian Nalepka, string bass, with sitters-in Scott Ricketts, cornet and Eyal Viner, to my left, alto saxophone.  The ghosts of Buck Clayton, Lester Young, and Benny Morton were there, and they approved.

Two gorgeous performances: FOOLIN’ MYSELF:

and I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE (during the instrumental portion you’ll see Mara, ever the good jazz citizen, walking around with the tip jar — the tip pumpkin — to help the band:

Music like this, peerless and delicate, improves our world, for these musicians give us love and more.

May your happiness increase!

A SHRINE FOR JOY: DANNY TOBIAS, SCOTT ROBINSON, JAMES CHIRILLO, FRANK TATE: The EarRegulars at The Ear Inn, August 6, 2017

You won’t find 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City, on any ecclesiastical register of shrines, but that’s their omission, one I am working to correct.  On Sunday nights, from about 8-11 PM, joy reigns when the EarRegulars are in their sacred space.  I am not being impious: many nights at The Ear Inn have left me deeply reassured, even consoled, with the feeling that beauty is possible and within our reach if we can only pay attention to it.  For me, it’s about ninety minutes away; for those of you in close connection to computers and phones, it’s even easier to find.

On August 6, 2017, the EarRegulars were Danny Tobias, trumpet; Scott Robinson, taragoto, alto clarinet, baritone saxophone; James Chirillo, guitar; Frank Tate, string bass.

Here are two swinging benedictions for us all.

Irving Berlin’s ALL BY MYSELF:

And a song often turned in to vaudeville patter but with a big swinging heart, BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME:

and it was late in this evening when James Chirillo created this beautiful interlude, if you haven’t already delighted in it:

The moral of all of this, which you are free to accept or reject, is that if each of us felt free to spread joy as generously and without pretension as the EarRegulars do, we would be living in a paradise of our own making now.

May your happiness increase!

A MASTER AT PLAY: JAMES CHIRILLO at THE EAR INN (August 6, 2017)

Drawing by Dan Christoffel

I have been enjoying the art of guitarist / composer / arranger James Chirillo (and I know I have company in this) for some years now on discs, all the way back to 1985, when he appeared as a member of the Loren Schoenberg jazz orchestra then led by Benny Goodman. I browsed his discography and was amazed but not surprised to find how many of my favorite discs he is on, for musicians knew a long time ago that he had a deep yet playful intelligence.

I don’t know when I first encountered him in person (finding him serious, witty, surprising, and kind) but I can say that he allowed me to point a video camera at him a good many years ago, beginning in 2009.  He is a very serious judge of his own work but has been generous and gracious about getting captured and shown off for free, possibly because he understands the depth of my admiration (and, again, I am not alone in this.)

James has always been a peerless soloist — offering delightful surprises mixed in with a fine respect for sound and for melodies — and a wonderful team player, someone who works seriously yet with a light heart to keep the band trotting in the right direction.  I’ve written elsewhere about James’ deadpan penchant for weird notes and tones and spaces, something I cherish, but there is nothing weird about what I can present here.

Often, The Ear Inn, my intermittent Sunday-night shrine, on 326 Spring Street, home of the blessed EarRegulars, has been crowded and noisy.  Although it plays hell with my goals of a) appreciating music in a near-reverent hush and b) recording it for this audience, I understand the throng as a good thing.  People who have read about The Ear in a guidebook that calls it one of the secret New York City places that tourists don’t know about (is that a whiff of irony burning in that skillet?) keep these Sunday soirees going — as they have been for ten years.  But two Sundays ago, The Ear was wonderfully serene, and the band of Danny Tobias, Scott Robinson, Frank Tate, and James (with an early-evening guest appearance by the lyrical violinist Valerie Levy) had a good time in the peaceful admiration and pleasure.

About two-thirds of the way through the evening, after a very pleasing EarRegulars performance of a song had concluded, James turned to the band and to us, and said (low-key, wry yet plainly) that since he hadn’t taken a solo on the previous tune, he was going to take one now, and play something he had worked on, Johnny Smith’s arrangement / recomposition / improvisation on GOLDEN EARRINGS, a composition by Victor Young — the title theme of a 1947 film starring Marlene Dietrich and Ray Milland (an autographed copy of the sheet music is here just because it seems a shame not to share it):

and the movie poster:

Here is James’ tender virtuoso interlude, and it is a marvel — you don’t have to be a guitarist to understand that:

James is also that rare entity, a functioning adult: some hours after I posted the blog, he wrote to me, “Would you be surprised if I told you I consider my performance around a 7.8 compared to Johnny Smith’s 10.0? I’m not trying to be unduly self-effacing, it’s just the fact of the matter.”  I admire someone for whom realistic self-assessment is second nature, no matter that we might disagree about the numbers.

Thank you, Master Chirillo, for offering us, without fanfare, a multicolored respite from this modern world.

May your happiness increase!

THE GRAND ST. STOMPERS: “DO THE NEW YORK”

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Late last year, Gordon Au, — trumpeter, arranger, composer, bandleader, writer, thinker, scientist, satirist, linguist — sent me the digital files for the second CD by the Grand Street Stompers, DO THE NEW YORK, and I wrote back to him, “I am listening to DTNY (three tracks in, so far) and I love the mad exuberance and deep precision of the first track — a Silly Symphony, urban and hilarious and wonderfully executed. It’s a pity that the mobs no longer have transistor radios anymore, because each track could be an AM hit.”

Having listened to the disc several times by now, I stand by my initial enthusiasms.  But I wouldn’t want anyone to think that zaniness overrides music.  The compositions and performances are a lavish banquet of sounds and emotions: you won’t look at the CD player and think, “How many tracks are left?” at any point.

If you know Gordon Au, Tamar Korn, Molly Ryan, Kevin Dorn, Dennis Lichtman, Matt Koza, Matt Musselman, Nick Russo, Rob Adkins (and not incidentally Peter Karl, Kelsey Ballance, Kevin McEvoy, Barbara Epstein) you won’t need to spend a moment more on what I say.  Scroll down to the bottom of this long post and read Gordon’s notes, purchase, download: let joy be unconfined.

But I shall tell a story here.  Jon-Erik Kellso has been a very good guide to new talent: through him, for instance, I heard about Ehud Asherie.  In 2009, I arrived at The Ear Inn for a night of musical pleasure, and Jon-Erik told me he’d just finished “giving a lesson” to a young, seriously gifted trumpeter named Gordon who had wanted to study some fine points of traditional jazz performance practice from an acknowledged Master.  This young man would be at The Ear later.  And the prophesy came to pass.

Gordon’s trumpet playing was deliciously singular: he wasn’t a clone of one player or seven.  Climbing phrases started unpredictably and went unusual places; a solid historical awareness was wedded beautifully to a sophisticated harmonic sense, and everything made sense, melodically and emotionally.  He showed himself a fine ensemble player, not timid, oblivious, or narcissistic. When the set was over, we spoke, and he was genuinely gracious (later, in California, when I met his extended family, I understood why) yet with a quite delightfully sharp-edged wit, although he wasn’t flashing blades at me.

I began to follow Gordon — as best I could — to gigs: he appeared with Tamar Korn and vice versa; he took Jon-Erik’s place with the Nighthawks; he played with David Ostwald at Birdland . . . and soon formed his own group, the Grand Street Stompers.

(Gordon abbreviates “St.”; I spell it out.  My perversity, not his.)

Often I saw, and sometimes I videoed them at Radegast, then elsewhere — as recently as last year, when they did a remarkable session at Grand Central Station, surely their place on the planet.  Thus, as “swingyoucats” on YouTube, I’ve captured the band (releasing them, of course) on video for six years.

They are uniquely rewarding — a pianoless group that expresses its leader’s expansive, often whimsical personality beautifully.  Even when approaching traditional “traditional” repertoire, Gordon will take his own way, neatly avoiding piles of cliche in his path.  Yes, MUSKRAT RAMBLE — but with a Carbbean / Latin rhythm; yes, a Twenties tune, but one reasonably obscure, SHE’S A GREAT GREAT GIRL. Gordon’s compositions and arrangements always sound fresh — and they aren’t pastiches or thin lines over familiar chords — even if I’ve heard the GSS perform them for years.  And there are other wonderful quirky tangents: his love of Disney songs, the deeply refreshing ones, and his devotion to good yet neglected songs — the title track of this CD as well as WHILE THEY WERE DANCING AROUND on the group’s first CD.  And, I think this a remarkable achievement, with Gordon’s soaring lead and a beautifully-played banjo in the rhythm section, the GSS often summons up an early Sixties Armstrong All-Stars, all joyous energy.

A few more words about this CD.  Although one can’t underestimate the added frisson of hearing this band live — perhaps surrounded by dancers or dancing oneself, in a club, perhaps stimulated by ambiance, food, or drink . . . I think the experience of this disc is equal to or superior to anything that might happen on the spot.

Owing to circumstances, the GSS might be a quintet on the job; here it is a septet: trumpet / cornet; clarinet; soprano saxophone; trombone; banjo / guitar; string bass; drums; two singers.  This expansive array of individualists allows Gordon to get a more delightfully orchestral sound.  Even as a quintet, on the job, the GSS is a band and a working band at that: their performances are more than a series of horn solos, for Gordon has created twists and turns within his arrangements: riffs, backgrounds, trades, suets between instruments, different instruments taking the melodic lead — all making for a great deal of variety. Each chorus of a GSS performance feels satisfyingly full (not overstuffed) and delightfully varied.

And now I come to the possibly tactless part of the comparison between studio recording and live performance. With some bands, the studio has a chilling effect: everything is splendid, but the patient has lost a good deal of blood.  And the impolite truth is the a group like the GSS performs in places where alcohol is consumed, so the collective volume rises after the first twenty minutes.  Buy this disc to actually hear the beautiful layering and subtleties of the group that you might not hear on the job.  Or just check it out for the sheer pleasure of it all.

Sound samples, ways to purchase a physical disc or download one (complete or individual performances) here — and Gordon’s very eloquent and sometimes hilarious liner notes here.

Listen, read, enjoy, savor, download, purchase.  As Aime Gauvin, “Doctor Jazz,” used to say on the radio, “Good for what ails you!”

May your happiness increase!

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

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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!

THE SUPERMOON IS GONE. THE GLOW REMAINS.

In the middle of November 2016, we were closer to the moon than we had been since 1948 . . . and we won’t be this close again for a long time, making that huge orb in the sky something to remember.  I hope my readers were able to glance up, whether through their windows or, better, being out in the mystical moist night air, to see this wonder for themselves.  Here is a shot of a Supermoon over Rio de Janeiro.

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The Supermoon made me think of all the music and poetry associated with lunar ecstasies, all the love songs: GET OUT AND GET UNDER THE MOON, MOON SONG, WHEN THE MOON COMES OVER THE MOUNTAIN, MOONLIGHT BECOMES YOU — a very long list.  We love the moon because she is mutable, that is, ever changing, and she reminds us to cling to what brings us joy, because we know that it’s all rapidly moving towards us and away and towards us again. And a phenomenon like the Supermoon reminds us, I hope, of the possibility of joy in our lives.

Of course this post is based in a memorable performance of a memorable song. But first, a four-bar prelude.

Video fetishists, with long lenses and wide-open apertures, will find what follows visually inferior to my best work. I bought my first video camera (a treacherous Sony with many whims) in 2008, and started bringing it to gigs soon after. That camera was not the most sophisticated, so both image and sound are slightly dull.

But not the music, which has an on-the-spot compositional beauty.

Sunday night at The Ear Inn — where the great lunar worshippers gather — with The EarRegulars: Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Neal Miner, string bass; Duke Heitger, trumpet; guests Tamar Korn, vocal; Dan Block, clarinet; Harvey Tibbs, trombone.

“I’ll always remember / That Moonglow gave me you.”  What could be nicer?

May your happiness increase!