Tag Archives: the Ear Regulars

HAPPY NEW EAR! (Jan. 2, 2011)

One of the regular features of JAZZ LIVES is my reporting on what delights occurred at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City) on the preceding Sunday night.  Saying that I have a good time would be an understatement.   

But even I — expecting the finest kind of jazz synergy on a regular basis — was astonished by what happened on January 2, 2011.

The EarRegulars and their friends created extraordinary music last Sunday night as 2011 took hold.  I had the privilege of watching individual creative impulses coalesce into something larger, something casually magnificent — all only a few feet from my camera.      

If this seems overstatement, a kind of “witness to history” pronouncement appropriate only to breaking news, the music will explain my feelings.  I’m delighted to present some of the evening’s many highlights. 

The EarRegulars, for the first set, were a quartet of friends: Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Nicki Parrott, bass; John Allred, trombone; Matt Munisteri, guitar. 

They began with OH, BABY! — a song beloved of Jazz Age Chicagoans and of Eddie Condon and friends.  Because of the season, this performance was full of sly references to wintry / holiday tunes, causing Matt to say it should have been called OH, BROTHER!  But now that I am safe from FROSTY THE SNOWMAN for another eleven months, I didn’t mind.  See if you can catch all the in-and-out jokes.  And see if you can keep from laughing at the musical frolics:

Another good old good one, AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL, reminiscent of Bix as well, could easily have been the title for this posting.  Enjoy the conversational games played so well by these four brilliant improvisers:

To cool things off a bit, Jon-Erik asked John to choose one with a trombone lead, and John suggested the timeless “rhythm ballad” THESE FOOLISH THINGS, a performance full of quiet feeling:

Early on in the evening, there were intimations of a jam session to come.  I had spotted trombonist Emily Asher sitting at one table, then saxophonist Lisa Parrott, then trumpeter Bria Skonberg.  To my right appeared (like a belated holiday gift) the cornetist Dan Tobias, who was invited to join the festivities for a romping FROM MONDAY ON:

When the first set had ended, even more musicians came in, among them the ever-faithful Dan Block, clarinet at the ready.  I chatted with another clarinet wizard, Pete Martinez, about the Albert system, Johnny Windhurst, Eddie Condon in the 1950s, Skeets Tolbert and his Gentlemen of Swing, and TISHOMINGO BLUES.  Where else but at The Ear Inn?

Later, Howard Alden came in — first to listen — and I eventually noticed the broad back of someone I didn’t recognize, but when he began to play wire brushes on the paper-covered table, I knew that he knew: it was Chuck Redd!

(In the break, the actor James Gandolfini had come in, had a drink or two, and decided not to stay — a grave mistake.  When Jeremy Irons had visited The Ear Inn some years back, he had the good sense to stick around for The EarRegulars!)

The second set was masterfully orchestrated by Maestro Kellso, who invited these friends up one at a time.  It swelled into a thirteen-piece ensemble for AFTER YOU’VE GONE (which — if you’re keeping score — began with the last eight bars — more accurately, the last sixteen played double-time, says Jon-Erik).  And please note how each jam-session performance levitates itself on a flying carpet of Kellso-driven riffs, some from Basie, some from Louis, all in the grand tradition:

Then, a more moderate approach to WHEN I GROW TOO OLD TO DREAM, an unlikely prospect for both players and audience.  In F, please:

Seeing the three trombones, Jon-Erik suggested TIGER RAG — an ecstatic romp presented here in two parts, because I couldn’t bear to lose even the final thirty-five seconds:

The last little bit (good to the last drop!):

Writing about this experience two days later, I don’t think that this music — simultaneously ecstatic and expert — needs much explication.  But more was going on at The Ear Inn than musicians stopping by to play a chorus or two. 

It was the creation of an inspired, mutually supportive community, nothing less. 

Jon-Erik, Matt, Victor Villar-Hauser (behind the bar but so much more than a mere pourer of libations), and the owners of The Ear Inn have all worked without calling attention to themselves to make 326 Spring Street on Sunday nights a remarkable place. 

It’s that rare spot where jazz musicians know they will be allowed and encouraged to play their own music with their peers.  Those of us who value such an unusual occurrence come to the Ear as if on a pilgrimage  — and the musicians feel the same way.  (In the audience but not playing were Chuck Wilson, Barbara Dreiwitz, and many others.)

And there’s more. 

In our time, where texting offers itself as equal to experience, the creation of such a community is both beautiful and special.  The sense of separateness that underlies much of our daily life disappears while the music is playing. 

Here we are!” say the musicians.  “Come with us!”  The smiles of the players and the observers light the dark room.  And a singular cohesiveness blossoms, a solace we seek all through our waking hours without knowing it.

As the new year begins, may we all embody our work as beautifully as these musicians do.  May we  all wear our accomplishments with such easy grace.   

And while writing these words, I felt for a moment, “I have witnessed something that will never come again,” but who knows?  There’s always next Sunday at The Ear Inn, which is hopeful and uplifting. 

Eight o’clock (really seven-thirty or earlier if you like sitting). 

You come, too. 

Bring your appreciative self and something for the tip jar.  The EarRegulars will supply the joy.

A DOWNTOWN PILGRIMAGE (May 30, 2010)

My Sunday-night trips downtown to the Ear Inn (in Soho, Greenwich Village, New York City, 326 Spring Street) are really spiritual pilgrimages in search of the right sounds to heal any of the non-musical affronts of the preceding week.  These quests let me watch artists at play, hear them improvise delightfully, to feel joy — things not to be taken lightly in this world.

Fortunately for me, the trip to The Ear is less arduous than the one Chaucer’s pilgrims had to undertake: they didn’t have the benefit of the C or the number 1 train.   

The healers I went to see last Sunday night (May 30) weren’t Doc Cooke and his 14 Doctors of Syncopation.  They were The Ear Regulars (or the EarRegulars — scholars differ on this): Danny Tobias, cornet; Chuck Wilson, also sax; James Chirillo, guitar; Murray Wall, bass.  Later on in the evening other swing gurus joined: Dan Block, clarinet; Pat O’Leary, cello and bass; and newcomer (from County Mohan, Ireland — although he’s been here for ten years), Tony Steele, bass.  

They began the evening with the most encouraging welcome: LINGER AWHILE:

And then, a slow-rocking SOMETIMES I’M HAPPY:

LINGER AWHILE made me think of the precious 1943 recording by Dicky Wells; SOMETIMES reminded me greatly of all the Keynote Records sessions — Danny’s lyrical motions and subtle (almost invisible) bandleading, his riffs and encouragements, always create the best small-band-Swing.

A tender but gutty CREOLE LOVE CALL followed:

Please notice James Chirillo’s wonderfully dissonant surprises [Charles Ives meets Teddy Bunn meets Herb Ellis]; Chuck Wilson’s speaking melodic style, Murray Wall’s lovely pulsing beat and singing solos.

Dinner for the band and conversation amongst everyone followed; then it was time for the second set.

A deliciously slow-motion EXACTLY LIKE YOU led off (proof that almost all great melodies can benefit from being played slowly):

An eager BEALE STREET BLUES:

A two-part version of AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ brought Pat back with his cello, alongside Tony Steele on bass:

And the riffing conclusion with Pat O’Leary’s cello commentaries:

LOVE ME!:

OR LEAVE ME!:

And the evening closed with a brisk, brief, speedy CHINA BOY — the original band plus Dan Block:

Feeling lost?  Downtrodden?  Does your clothing suddenly seem heavy on your shoulders?  A trek to ask the Sage for guidance won’t be necessary.  Come to the Ear Inn or any of the other jazz spots I’ve been featuring.  I predict an immediate emotional uplift in a few hours.

“OH, SISTER! AIN’T THAT HOT?” (The Ear Inn, May 23, 2010)

Befire we begin our almost-weekly celebration of high incendiary art in the West Village (that’s The Ear Inn, 326 Spring Street in New York City, Sunday 8-11 PM), a little history.

The title I’ve chosen for this blog refers back to a spirited song first made famous in jazz circles through a 1928 recording by Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra.  Later, Eddie Condon, who had an ear for good, nearly forgotten songs, brought it back through a 1940 Commodore recording that featured Pee Wee Russell and Fats Waller (transparently incognito as “Maurice,” his son’s given name).  Bob Wilber and Kenny Davern resuscitated it once more in performances as Soprano Summit and Summit Reunion.  Marty Grosz loves the song and has performed it at Chautauqua and with Frank Chace.  But it’s far from a part of the standard “traditional” repertoire, so I was delighted to hear the Ear Regulars begin their first set last Sunday, May 23, with it.

But here’s the history.  I searched for a copy of the sheet music online (wanting, among other things, to see how the cover artist handled this exuberant there) — with no success.  But the YouTube channel of “victrolaman” turned up something even better, perhaps more authentic: the 1923 Edison recording with vocal by Vernon Dalhart.  Some of the lyrics are slightly hard to follow, but the general idea is quite clear — a song celebrating just how good the music is!

History class concluded; everyone gets an A; have a wonderful summer!

Back to the present or at least the recent past.  Most ad hoc groups begin their first set of the night with something familiar, not too complicated — perhaps SUNDAY — but The Ear Regulars are more ambitious.  So even I, with nearly three years’ happy experience of watching them in action, can’t predict what Jon-Erik or Matt is going to pull out of their imaginary song-files.  I was thrilled to hear them launch into this song.  By the second chorus, this band was in overdrive or turbo-charged or whatever automotive metaphor might appeal:

And the answer to the title’s somewhat rhetorical question was, of course, “Yes!”

For contrast, the Regulars proceeded to make the very familiar ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET seem new and lively:

Harking back to the Thirties (to Billie and Lester, perhaps even to James P. Johnson), they then explored IF DREAMS COME TRUE:

They were taking their time, thankfully, so here’s the conclusion:

One of the band’s friends, the most gifted guitarist Julian Lage, came in at the start, and the Ear Regulars are very well-schooled jazz hosts, so they invited Julian to join the fun, which he did on a slow, rocking WABASH BLUES.  Please pay special attention to the ringing dissonances with which Matt begins his solo: he has an IMAGINATION, he does:

And here’s the second part, just as groovy, beginning with Jon-Erik’s plunger-muted magic:

They decided to finish the set with STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE, a tune “all the musicians love to jam,” here in two parts:

And the conclusion:

I couldn’t stay for the second set, but was very pleased to have been there for this musicale.  Everyone was individually inspired, and inspired by their colleagues on the stand.  

If I haven’t gone on at length about Kellso’s intensity, Scott’s ability to play any instrument marvelously and his urging playing, Matt’s wise risk-taking, Neil’s lovely sound and solid tempo, Julian’s delving and swooping melody lines . . . it’s because I think all of that should be evident to anyone watching one of the performances above.

BUILDING CASTLES IN THE EAR (May 16, 2010)

Some people think that jazz performances are primarily strings of solos, and this is occasionally true.  But one of the deep pleasures of listening to this music is in the three-dimensional shapes that performances can take.  This kind of immediate, impromptu architectural construction can happen at a jam session, where the players don’t know each other well, or it can be the happy collective invention of a working band. 

In either case, while a listener is absorbing the movement from one chorus to the next, it’s easy to visualize a jazz cathedral being built.  Everything adds to the larger structure: notes and lines aren’t there solely for their own evanescent purposes, but they also function as parts of something far larger that is getting created before our ears and eyes.

This happened all through the night at last Sunday’s session at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street) by the Ear Regulars, who were (in the first set) Matt Munisteri (guitar) , Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet), Pete Martinez (clarinet), and Greg Cohen (bass).  For the second set, they were joined, off and on, by Dan Block (tenor), Alex Norris (trumpet), and Adrian Cunningham (clarinet).  To my ears, everyone played brilliantly — but a good deal of the credit for the lovely architectural shapes goes to Jon-Erik, who has quietly taken on the mantle of his and my hero, Ruby Braff — not only as a peerless player, but as a wondrous sensitive on-the-bandstand subtle orchestrator, making performances shapely and varied.  Pete Martinez was in burning form — his tone and attack on his Albert system clarinet is one of the marvels of the age.  Greg Cohen created one eloquent solo after another (no one has told him that the string bass is supposed to be less than orchestrally grand!) and providing fine support.  Matt Munisteri, once again, came through as one of the hardest-working men in music: never letting up, never coasting, either in rhythm or in fluid, tumbling lines.   

I’ve included a number of performances that particularly struck me as having an architectural glory.  See if you don’t agree!

Early on in the first set, they took on the pretty pop song (circa 1935) that everyone associates with Fats Waller, although he didn’t compose it.  (Later, Ruby Braff took it on, most deliciously.)  Its title is properly optimistic: I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES:

Then, a tongue-twisting novelty number identified firmly with Louis — who gave up on the lyrics early on in the performance.  I’M A DING DONG DADDY FROM DUMAS (“and you oughta see me do my stuff”):

And the concluding section:

Returning to Louis’s Hot Seven, here’s WILLIE THE WEEPER (whose lyrics describe the dream that Willie — he was a chimney sweeper — had.  I think Willie was under the influence of some illegal but highly uplifting substances, but since the Ear Regulars don’t favor us with a vocal chorus, you’ll have to investigate the text on your own).  Non-guitarists like myself might find Matt’s playing on this track unusual, but (as Jon-Erik pointed out) he’d broken a string and soldiered on heroically anyway.  Nothing stops our heroes!

In the second set, Dan Block brought his tenor sax, and they launched into a rollicking MAHOGANY HALL STOMP, complete with flourishes:

And (with trumpeter Alex Norris — he of the full, round tone — added) I’M CONFESSIN’, full of feeling:

If the Landmarks Commission only knew what beautiful structures were being erected on Sunday nights . . . !

MOTHER’S NIGHT AT THE EAR INN (May 9, 2010)

Does Mother’s Day come to a halt at 6 PM?  Obviously not at The Ear Inn, the last place I’d expect to find observance of such synthetic “holidays.” 

The Ear Regulars showed up last Sunday night fully prepared to do honor to dear old Mom.  Co-founders Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri were there with bassist Pat O’Leary and a new face — Ohio trombonist Jim Masters, who’s done time in the Buddy Rich band and (more serenely, I’d wager) in the Widespread Jazz Orchestra alongside such New York stalwarts as Michael Hashim and Jordan Sandke.  Jim played beautifully, suggesting a modern combination of Urbie Green and Vic Dickenson, a lovely mixture. 

To the music:

The holiday brought up the idea that the members of the ensemble had once been newborns, thus suggesting I FOUND A NEW BABY.  (What the subliminal connection to other songs played that night, I NEVER KNEW, and JUST LIKE THAT, might be, I leave to readers):

Later, the much-hoped for second-set jam session developed: Chris Flory sat in for Matt, and Dan Block unsheathed his mighty alto saxophone for a sweet IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN:

And they continued with PLEASE DON’T TALK ABOUT ME WHEN I’M GONE:

Mother’s Night at The Ear concluded with a sweet paean to pastoral life by Jon-Erik, Matt, Jim, and Pat: LAZY RIVER:

As Louis would say, “Oh, mama!”

P.S.  I was seated at the bar between two fascinating individuals: to my right, the jazz photographer John Rogers, whose work you’ve seen in a variety of places (http://johnrogersnyc.com/about.html) .  To my left, a visitor from the UK — boppish trumpeter by night / sociology professor by day John Macnicol.  An entertaining pair to sit between!  And deep in The Ear, banjoist / singer / composer Eddy Davis held court at the bar, grinning and listening intently.   

And they (unlike some of our younger colleagues) didn’t feel it necessary to talk over the music . . . or to talk through it and then yelp “Woohoo” at the end of a performance they had heard little of.  Alas.  The music prevails, of course.

THE SECOND SET (THE EAR INN, April 25, 2010)

I have had a great deal of pleasure listening to jazz in many places, but the second set at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street in New York City) on a Sunday night when The Ear Regulars are playing is a true oasis.  

After their set break, the musicians are content, relaxed.  Their tempos rock; their music is stirring.  And there are usually some sterling additions, surprise guests who bring their horns and their talents.

Last Sunday, April 25, 2010, the Ear Regulars were Jon-Erik Kellso, Matt Munisteri, Harry Allen, and Neal Miner.  “Some band!” as Charlotte would say. 

They played a stellar set, which I captured in a post here, logically called THE FIRST SET (https://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2010/04/26/the-first-set-the-ear-inn-april-25-2010/).

Even better, some official Ear Pals came in: Andy Farber with his tenor sax; Danny Tobias and his cornet; Chris Flory (without a guitar but ready to borrow Matt’s), and Jim Whitney (ditto for Neal’s bass). 

In another world, the combination of two tenors, two trumpets, and a rhythm section might have stirred up competition.  But not here.  High notes and long solos aren’t the rule at these sessions; no, they are much more like a group of friends having a good time. 

The original quartet started off the second set with a leisurely saunter through a Ben Webster line (a composition twice removed?), DID YOU CALL HER TODAY?  In the interests of full disclosure, I must say that Ben is supposed to have substituted another verb in the title.  CALL is based on the chords of IN A MELLOTONE, which is based on ROSE ROOM.  The source of ROSE ROOM is yet untraced:

Beginning with Neal, here’s the second part:

Continuing the Ellington-out-of-Riff mood, Jon-Erik called for THE JEEP IS JUMPIN’, a Johnny Hodges version of I GOT RHYTHM — and invited Andy and Danny to the bandstand:

Here’s the rocking last chorus:

Jon-Erik passed the scepter to Danny, who called one of his favorite songs, THIS CAN’T BE LOVE:

Keeping the amorous subtext going, someone (was it Chris Flory, now ready to play Matt’s guitar?) suggested COMES LOVE, a favorite of Kenny Davern and Bob Wilber’s.  Jim Whitney had taken over on bass for Neal:

Here’s the conclusion:

Finally, the group (with Chris on guitar but Neal back on bass) romped through LINGER AWHILE, a song that makes me think of a Dicky Wells record with Lester Young, Bill Coleman, Ellis Larkins, Freddie Green, Al Hall, and Jo Jones on board:

I couldn’t linger for too long, but I can’t wait until next Sunday.  You come, too!

THE FIRST SET (THE EAR INN, April 25, 2010)

It was just another extraordinary Sunday night at The Ear Inn on 326 Spring Street.  The Ear Regulars — Jon-Erik Kellso, Matt Munisteri, Harry Allen, and Neal Miner — embodied all the jazz anyone could ever want in about an hour.  Bix and Louis floated by; King Oliver looked in the doorway; Don Byas and Count Basie sat a spell; Billie, Lester, and Ben made themselves to home. 

And in the corporeal audience, New York Times jazz critic Nate Chinen and his wife Ashley sat close to the band, Nate taking notes and feeling the rhythms, Ashley smiling. 

Many bands play ROYAL GARDEN BLUES fast and faster; the Ear Regulars looked back to the easy stroll of a Basie small group.  The first few seconds of the video are disconcertingly blurry, but they improve and the music is always in sharp focus:

SOME OF THESE DAYS is a finger-waggling song — “You know, you do that one more time and I’m gone!”  This band doesn’t have it in its collective heart to be threatening, but they certainly had fun with this melody:

Then it was time for a pretty song of romantic jubilation, at “rhythm ballad” tempo, I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME:

LIMEHOUSE BLUES is too interesting a song (especially with its dramatic verse) to be consigned to oblivion, so the Ear Regulars make a point of bringing it out regularly:

What would life be like without a beautiful ballad by Harry Allen?  Here. his choice was the ruminative, sad SEPTEMBER SONG:

Showing us once again that “the material is immaterial,” the Ear Regulars launched into one of the oldest “songs to blow on,” TEA FOR TWO, with delicious results:

The music was wonderful — you couldn’t miss it — but just as delightful was that Nate, bless his heart, wrote it up for the Times in a way that showed that it does mean a thing . . . and he felt the swing.  Here ‘t’is:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/arts/music/27kellso.html

BLISS IN THE NIGHT (APRIL 18, 2010)

You know how “the jam session” is handled in films of a certain vintage.  Magically, the cameras take us to a clearly fictive basement club where Art Tatum is playing.  He plays for a few bars, then the door opens and a whole troop of musicians who apparently have unpacked their horns outside on the sidewalk burst in, exchange a few words of greeting, and a whirlwind jam session begins, only to end in two or three minutes.  (The 1947 THE FABULOUS DORSEYS.)

Or there’s the cutting contest between trumpet players, perhaps the Young Cub and the Old Lion, aiming their horns at each other, playing higher and louder.  (The scene here is between Louis and “Red Nichols,” played by Danny Kaye in 1959 THE FIVE PENNIES, is a most benign example, and Louis gets to make some good, albeit scripted jokes.)

But real jam sessions, especially the magical ones that happen during the second set at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street in New York City) have little to do with either fantasy.  For one thing, they are a collection of friends.  In the videos below the two trumpeters (or, to be precise, the trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and the cornetist Marc Caparone) or the two guitarists (Matt Munisteri on electric and Julian Lage on acoustic) and the reed players (Dan Block on clarinet, Andy Farber on tenor saxophone, Nick Hempton on alto) have no aggression in their souls.  No one seeks to play higher, faster, louder.  And those single men — Harvey Tibbs on trombone and Jon Burr on bass — don’t pick fights with anyone.  It’s all congenial. 

Imagined dialogue, overheard in part: “What would you like to play?”  “RITE OF SPRING?”  “Sure.  How many flats?  Your tempo . . . ”  And off they go.  There’s no JATP crowd-pleasing (or crowd-baiting); the music just grows.  The musicians smile at each other.  They listen closely, even if the crowd sometimes doesn’t. 

The second set of Sunday, April 18, 2010, began with a swinging version of AVALON that harked back to the Benny Goodman Quartet — in arrangement only, since the Ear Regulars had cleverly decided that they didn’t need a vibraphone, piano, or drum kit.  But hear how nimbly they negotiate the closing chorus — “they” being Jon-Erik, Harvey, Matt, Jon, and guest Julian Lage, playing somewhere over my left shoulder:

Then Jon-Erik called up the Pride of Paso Robles, California — someone I would give every honor I could — the noble cornetist Marc Caparone, here on a week’s visit to New York City.  Marc should be better known here: he is a plain-spoken but subtle player who favors such delightful left-handers as Henry “Red” Allen and Jim Goodwin.  In his approach, ferocity and delicacy are pals.  Here, he makes the quintet of AVALON a sextet for a lively ONE HOUR, a performance that would have pleased the very finicky Ruby Braff.  His wife, the wonderful singer Dawn Lambeth, watched Marc happily (I was grinning widely from behind my video camera, I assure you):

Each selection seemed to add a new player: next up was the gifted Dan Block, who joined in for a strolling WHISPERING, while Jon-Erik caught his breath:

Tenorist Andy Farber joined in (his back is to the camera, but I didn’t take it personally) for PERDIDO, a song with a historically-established countermelody.  Tizol’s line lends itself to long performances, and this one needed two sections to be visible on YouTube.  What passes for a bandstand at The Ear Inn (flat on the floor, really a space cleared among the diners) was too small for the musicians, so Jon-Erik was now playing somewhat over my right shoulder, with Marc employing a thoroughly Ellingtonian plunger mute. 

Some viewers will be disturbed by the intrusive white piece of paper at the lower right: it is the banner reading TIPS that lets people know what the jar was for.  I preferred to keep on filming rather than miss a note by indulging in feng shui): 

And the conclusion:

To finish, something melodic, a long romp on THREE LITTLE WORDS.  The common language is so well established here that all Jon-Erik had to do was to say to the horns, “A little Lester,” and everyone fell into the riff taken from the 1943 Kansas City Six date for Commodore — you can’t miss it.  And, in true Hollywood fashion, the Australian Nick Hempton appeared, apparently from nowhere, to offer his singular evocation of right-this-minute mixed with 1940 Charlie Parker:

The concluding moments:

I know that the “three little words” of the title are “I love you” — but certainly “The Ear Inn” is a close second.  If you know of another place where such marvels happen on a weekly basis, do write in!

SWING IS HERE (at THE EAR): April 18, 2010

Eddie Condon told the story of how, when you did or said something that Fats Waller approved of, his response was “Fine!  Wonderful!  Perfect!” 

That’s how I felt last Sunday night at The Ear Inn. 

And since it would be greedy of me to keep all that pleasure for myself, here are three performances from the first set. 

The Ear Regulars, that Sunday,  were co-founders Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri, with charter members Harvey Tibbs, trombone; Jon Burr, bass. 

Let’s start off at the top — a grieving, steady exploration of Ellington’s SOLITUDE, where Jon-Erik’s feelings are so intense that they need to be harnessed inside a plunger mute:

Then, a romp on ORIGINAL DIXIELAND ONE-STEP, full of surprising twists and turns:

And a song that only The Ear Regulars play (even though Louis did it beautifully in 1929), DALLAS BLUES:

Fats would be as happy as I was.  And this was only the beginning of a glorious night in jazz.  More to come!

“CRAZY RHYTHM” AT THE EAR INN (April 11, 2010)

One bright shining moment — that went on at a high level for nearly nine minutes last Sunday, April 11, 2010, at The Ear Inn.

The Ear Regulars that night were guitarist Matt Munisteri; bassist Pat O’Leary; trombonist John Allred; tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, whizzing through a fast CRAZY RHYTHM — a pop hit of perhaps 1927, made lively again in the next century.  (Catch the hilarious reference to SONNY BOY almost at the end.)  Great soloing, great ensemble playing: hot jazz, caught live!

EASTER SUNDAY AT THE EAR INN (April 4, 2010)

No, there were no large Easter bonnets at The Ear Inn, and no one conducted an egg hunt.  But the holiday was somewhat whimsically celebrated in the choice of repertoire, as you will observe.  

Jon-Erik Kellso was celebrating his own Easter down in New Orleans, so his place was ably taken by trumpeter Charlie Caranicas, who had with him clarinetist Pete Martinez, bassist Pat O’Leary (who referred to himself as “the Keister Bunny,” make of that what you will), and co-leader / co-conspirator Matt Munisteri.  It was Matt’s idea, I think, to begin the evening with (what else?) the Irving Berlin hymn to trust — or is it precariousness?  Anyway, the Ear Regulars began their first set with a jogging I’M PUTTING ALL MY EGGS IN ONE BASKET.  It might be poor advice for the distribution of funds in your 401K, but that never seemed to bother Fred Astaire:

More literally, the holiday theme (and the homage to Berlin) continued with EASTER PARADE — a song that Eddie Condon, my hero, used to play at the start of his springtime Town Hall Concerts.  (I have a splendid version with Stirling Bose, Miff Mole, Pee Wee Russell, and Sidney Catlett in the ensemble.)  Here’s a version for the twenty-first century, no less splendid:

Matt ended the Berlin medley, commenting wryly that the composer had wedded the spiritual and the commercial in American music, with a medium-tempo trot through RUSSIAN LULLABY, a song Louis associated with the Karnofsky family, and one I associate with Ruby Braff, Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, Sir Charles Thompson, and Walter Page.  Here, I associate it with Matt, Pat, Pete, and Charlie:

In the second set, the wonderful reedman Andy Farber joined in, on tenor — and in keeping with the theme of Easter bunnies, someone suggested COTTON TAIL — majestically lithe and limber here, Peter eluding Mr. McGregor one more time:

These four performances find a splendid quartet and quintet of jazz players who know the common language, who laugh at the same in-jokes, who rock fervently, whose solos have melodic shape, who sing songs.  Happy Easter!  Let jazz happiness reign through the land, not only on Spring Street in downtown New York City.  I’m only sorry that no one thought of I CAN’T GET STARTED.

LOCAL HEROES: THE EAR REGULARS (March 21, 2010)

Why do some combinations of musicians coalesce memorably, and others not?  I suspect that it is a matter of forces the players themselves can’t explain.  They can tell you in detail why things don’t work: someone’s tired or annoyed; X dislikes that tempo; Y can’t stand the song; Z doesn’t feel well. 

But when all the stars are in alignment, the music is uplifting.  And the players look contented when they hear their colleagues; the smiles you see at the end of a song add up to a contented glow around the band.

This unpredictable magic happened on Sunday, March 21, 2010, at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, New York City). 

Two of the Ear Regulars were the valiant co-leaders: guitarist Matt Munisteri and trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, brave and true, who have led their little band on Sunday nights for thirty months now, a delightfully consistent series of small-band jam sessions.  One of the horn players, clarinetist Pete Martinez, had played there a week ago in concert with trombonist Harvey Tibbs.  And Scott Robinson has been a Regular, off and on, since the start — but this time he was featured on bass sax (with a surprise appearance on piccolo late in the evening). 

Were they especially happy to be playing together, although they knew each other from other appearances?  Was pleasurable anticipation, soon realized, in the air?  I don’t know.  But on this Sunday, the Ear Regulars reminded me of the great New York sessions of my youth — small groups featuring Ruby Braff, Vic Dickenson, Bobby Hackett, Milt Hinton, and others — lyrical, singing hot jazz.

Here are nine performances from this wondrous constellation of players, with guests coming by.  I know that the videos aren’t the same as being there, but perhaps if you raise the volume and get in the groove, you’ll catch the fervent spirit.  And I know it wasn’t just my happy hallucination: you can ask Jackie Kellso, Kevin Dorn, Doug Pomeroy, Molly Ryan, Dan Levinson, Barbara Rosene, and the elated Friends of The Ear whose names I didn’t catch. 

After a spirited warmup on THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE, Jon-Erik did something unusual by suggesting an even faster CHINA BOY.  It summoned up the drive of the Bechet-Spanier HRS session, with a good deal of Adrian Rollini added, as well as some Quintet of the Hot Club of France flavoring from guitarist Julian Lage:

Then, the Ear Regulars decided to try that very pretty Arthur Schwartz song, I GUESS I’LL HAVE TO CHANGE MY PLAN (associated in my mind with Bobby Hackett and Jack Teagarden), happily asking Scott to take the melody statement, a splendid idea:

Do you associate LOUISIANA with Bix, Bing, or Lester and Basie?  Whichever version you prefer, this one rocks:

I don’t know who thought of CREOLE LOVE CALL, but any time Jon-Erik takes out his plunger mute, I listen attentively to the secret messages he’s sending:

And the set closed with a minor romp, BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME, which gave Pete another chance to sear us with his lovely exuberant upper register:

After a break for dinner, it was time (however late) for a sensitive reading of Walter Donaldson’s AT SUNDOWN, at a lovely ballad tempo:

Cornetist John Bucher had come in when the second set started, and Jon-Erik invited him aboard for I NEVER KNEW, with closing riffs reminiscent of the 1933 Chocolate Dandies record:

Guitarist Dave Gross joined in for the final two numbers: a beautifully articulated IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN:

Finally, after some discussion, the Regulars chose WHISPERING to end the evening:

This music speaks for itself.  If you’ve never been to The Ear Inn on a Sunday, you’re denying yourself rare pleasure.

PERFECT SWEETNESS (March 14, 2010)

Last night at The Ear Inn, I kept thinking of Emerson’s lines from “Self-Reliance”:

It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great person is one who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

I saw this acted out in front of me for two joyous sets of jazz, as Pete Martinez, clarinet; Harvey Tibbs, trombone; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Neil Miner, bass, pretended that a noisy crowd and a rainy night didn’t exist. 

They didn’t glower at the young woman near me, talking loudly to her friend while she twiddled away at her glowing BlackBerry; they took no notice of the man at the bar (I couldn’t see him) whose dialogue with his buddy was unceasing and tediously vulgar; they improvised singly and collectively as if none of this mattered.  And it’s a tribute to their love of their art and their focus that it didn’t. 

Matt was exhausted, having just flown in from Zurich with no sleep; Harvey was continually trying to find a place to play and not get entangled in the parade of oblivious people in the narrow corridor in front of the band; Pete was placed by the door, which opened and shut more than I would have liked.  Only Neil had a small sanctuary, and he was pressed in among pipes and a low ceiling. 

Here are three performances by an even-tempered, good-humored, spiritually uplifted and uplifting quartet — another casually brilliant version of the Ear Regulars, keeping their independence while improvising collectively, offering us perfect sweetness.  I know some of the people in the room heard it; I hope that even the talkers got some subliminal blessings from this group.

Here they do that most brave thing — a rhythm ballad which, you’ll notice, didn’t keep the level of conversation down.  It’s I COVER THE WATERFRONT, perhaps appropriate to the rain and the Ear’s proximity to the river. and a quiet homage to Billie, Louis, and Lester:

In the second set, someone called for ‘DEED I DO, always a bright message of affirmation:

And, right after it, a “Dixieland classic,” a “good old good one,” JAZZ ME BLUES, neatly and comfortably sitting somewhere between 1927 and 2010 in the place where Bix and Don Byas trade solos:

Inspired jazz conversations throughout — as well as Pete’s bright-yellow hot sound, echoing Ed Hall but not copying him, as well as Harvey’s old-time-modern approach to his cumbersome horn.  Matt didn’t let tiredness get to him, spinning out long, ringing solos, and Neil reminded us, once again, of the beauties of the acoustic string bass in this idiom. 

Emersonian, and transcendental, too.

A CURE FOR MARCH 1: A NEW ORLEANS JAM SESSION!

March first is the middle of nowhere.  Spring is still three weeks away.  The Valentine’s Day candy has been eaten and the flowers are gone.  You can’t wear your purple Mardi Gras beads to work for too long a time, or else your co-workers make jokes.  It’s snowing, or it’s going to snow, or there’s dirty snow piled up somewhere. 

And it’s a Monday, no less.

But relief is at hand!  The Sidney Bechet Society is hosting a concert at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in downtown New York City on March 1,  2010.  The leader is clarinetist Orange Kellin — a New Orleanian in many ways, including spiritually.  He’ll be joined by Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Scott Robinson, reeds and more; Matt Munisteri, guitar / banjo and more (do I detect a definite trend towards the Ear Regulars?  Always welcome!), Ken Salvo, guitar (taking a Monday-night holiday from Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks), Kelly Friesen, bass; Ricky Gordon, washboard and percussion (he’s from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra); Ruth Brisbane, vocals.  Hot breezes to counteract the chilly winds of March.

Practical details?  

The concert is on Monday, March 1 at 7:15pm.  The Lucille Lortel Theatre is at 121 Christopher Street in New York City.  Tickets are $35 at the box office or Ticket Central (212) 279-4200: www.ticketcentral.com

GROOVIN’ AT THE EAR INN (January 31, 2010)

That title isn’t to be taken lightly, for several times last night when The Ear Regulars (with guests) got together to play, they hit a real groove.  Not too slow, not too fast.  But I thought of the Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet, or the Buck Clayton Jam Sessions: musicians who know deep down what it means to choose the right tempo for the right song, to patiently, humorously let things build, to listen to each other.  The result was that often the room was both hushed and exuberant.  It was annoyingly cold outside in New York City last night, but The Ear Inn was spiritually warm — the kind of place I hated to leave even when the music was over.

Here are four performances from the evening’s jazz festivities.  The Ear Regulars (regular fellows all) were particularly lyrical: Jon-Erik Kellso, Matt Munisteri, Dan Block, and Pat O’Leary.  Eloquent, concise storytellers all — people who know what it is to sing on their instruments.

You might notice an occasional blurry passage (visually, not audibly): either my camcorder was overwhelmed by emotion or it needs an appointment with the autofocus doctor.  But the music comes through vibrantly, which pleases me greatly.

This post starts with a song that people know (through Louis, Jack, Billie, and others) — a Harold Arlen cri de coeur — but few people play: I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES:

Then, a song that’s even more obscure in this century — perhaps because its period “ethnic” lyrics produce justifiable discomfort (although I miss Louis and Lips’ versions): CHINATOWN, MY CHINATOWN:

The Ear Regulars expanded nicely: Conal Fowkes took over the string bass while Pat O’Leary treated us to his exceptional jazz cello playing.  An extraordinary string section!  Watch their hands, please. 

Anat Cohen came in and played her part while seated on a barstool.  Andy Farber (sounding sweetly like Hilton Jefferson) added his alto sax.  And they embarked on a sweetly hot I FOUND A NEW BABY (in two parts):

They were romping, although not accelerating:

Clarinetist Frank Perowsky joined them for the final ensemble — a lengthy, swaying version of the blues line RED TOP (in Db, or “dog flat”) that wasn’t a moment too long, although it ran sixteen minutes.  I was in the middle of a four-piece reed section: a clarinet to my right (Anat), one to my left (Frank), two saxes in front of me — rather like living in a Fifties demonstration-of-stereo record.  And, there was more from that world-class downtown unbuttoned string section!

The second part:

I haven’t written much about the music.  As Charlie Parker told Earl Wilson, it speaks louder than words.  The music I heard last night at The Ear Inn transcended words: it wasn’t a matter of volume.

It was an honor to be there, and that’s no stage joke.  Thanks to everyone — and to Phillup de Bucket, who has a cameo in CHINATOWN, to Vlatka Fowkes, Beverly, Karen, Randi, and Katy; to Victor, the epitome of musical Hip; to the friends of hot jazz who made the place so convivial.

“HOT” on SPRING STREET (Nov. 22, 2009)

Last Sunday at The Ear Inn, November 22, 2009, the compact, eloquent quartet — The Ear Regulars or the Earregulars, depending on what region you come from — performed two lovely Ralph Rainger ballads, PLEASE and WITH EVERY BREATH I TAKE.   (In case you are new to this scene, The Ear Inn is at 326 Spring Street in Manhattan and the Sunday music goes from 8-11 PM.)

That quartet?  Jon-Erik Kellso, Scott Robinson, Matt Munisteri, and Pat O’Leary.

But there was a good deal of exciting Hot being played that night as well.  “Hot,” as I don’t have to tell this audience, was the name of a certain kind of exciting improvisation when jazz was young.  It didn’t have to be fast or loud, but it did have to be focused, intense, rhythmic.  The Earregulars know how to GET HOT without raising their voices.   

After a brief discussion, Jon-Erik called “a good old New Orleans tune,” I’M SORRY I MADE YOU CRY — which I always remember in the version by the Capitol Jazzmen (1943) with Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Noone, Joe Sullivan, and even Billy May capably playing the jazz. 

This version was neither lachrymose nor apologetic: it was the musical equivalent of, “I’m really sorry.  I won’t do it again.   Have a Boddington?” 

Then, a wonderful pop / jazz tune (from Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer), TOO MARVELOUS FOR WORDS, which doesn’t get played enough, although both Lips Page and the elder Teagarden recorded it splendidly:

And, finally, a lengthy, driving SUNDAY — long enough to require two parts for YouTube, but attentive viewers will hear that Jon-Erik begins the second segment with a quotation from another song from the same era, MY MONDAY DATE.  Fun with calendars!

And the conclusion:

I’ve heard versions of this quartet before at The Ear, and have always come away deeply impressed.  The horns beautifully complement each other: Scott takes surprising, winding solos that balance Earl Bostic, Lester, and outer space, while Jon-Erik digs deep and always finds quietly impassioned things to say.  Matt shines in the darkness, whether he’s finding ringing single-note lines or rocking the band chordally, and Pat O’Leary keeps time so beautifully (no small feat) and plays eloquent, stirring lines.  At once, they sound like the entire history of swinging jazz AND like themselves — two simultaneous noble accomplishments.

SINGING PRETTY SONGS at The Ear Inn (Nov. 22, 2009)

Jon-Erik Kellso already has a deep repertoire of songs, as listeners know.  I was especially delighted when he decided to add Ralph Rainger’s PLEASE to his list, which he did last Sunday night (November 22, 2009) at the Ear Inn.  The EarRegulars were an especially compatible quartet: Jon-Erik on trumpet, Matt Munisteri on guitar, Scott Robinson on tenor sax, and Pat O’Leary on bass. 

In the darkness, occasional clamor, and pedestrian traffic of the Ear, I managed to capture the first set.  I’ll save the medium and uptempo improvisations for a future post. 

But I want to share two beauties with my readers.  One is Jon-Erik’s tender reading of PLEASE, first muted, then open — singing pretty songs!  And listen to Matt and Pat, particularly eloquent at this tempo.   

Then, coincidentally, Scott had brought a lead sheet for another Rainger song associated with Bing Crosby: WITH EVERY BREATH I TAKE, which he performed in a trio setting.  (Later, Scott reminded me that the version he was awed by was not Bing’s, but Ben Webster’s — on THE WARM MOODS Reprise recording, where Ben is surrounded by a small, perfectly attuned and limber string ensemble.)

It takes splendid technique and endurance to play many choruses at a fast tempo.  However, it takes a rare emotional and artistic maturity to play just a chorus or two of a lovely ballad.  As Lester Young is supposed to have said to Sonny Stitt, parading every lick he knew at a dazzling tempo, “That’s very nice, Lady Stitt.  But can you sing me a song?”

Hats off to Jon-Erik, Scott, Matt, and Pat — players who sing!

(Jon said that he and Matt envision a Bing-inspired evening in the future, including such rarities as SUSIANNA.  I’ll be there!)

Postscript: Here’s the link to an impressive video of Jon-Erik performing Henry “Red” Allen’s composition SINGING PRETTY SONGS with Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rz3BYzzy7HE

“SUNDAY”: HONORING JOEL HELLENY

This performance — faster than usual, happily so — took place last night, Sunday, June 21, 2009, at The Ear Inn.  Wedged into their usual corner were that night’s brilliant edition of The Ear Regulars: Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Harvey Tibbs, trombone; Dan Block, clarinet; Jon Burr, bass.  The song — written by (among others) Jule Styne in 1927 — is usually taken at an easy lope, but the Regulars tore through it as a change of pace. 

To look at this band, you’d think them entirely involved in giving and receiving pleasure: they listen in a kind of rapture to each other’s solos; they construct witty, pointed, empathic backgrounds and riffs.  And the communion, creativity, and joy we sense are obviously coming from deep inside them, individually and collectively.  But there’s a paradox at work in this performance: everyone on this bandstand had only learned that day of the death of trombonist Joel Helleny — someone they had all respected, played alongside, and known.  One way to handle their grief might have been to refuse to play, to go off somewhere to grieve in solitude.  But these artists chose to heal themselves by offering their energies as only they could.  Their spirit and their choruses healed us.

OUR NEW YORK JAZZ HOLIDAY (June 7-10, 2009)

It wasn’t really a holiday.  I still had to get up and go to work, which I proudly did, even when mildly wobbly.  The Beloved had her deadlines to meet, too. 

But last Sunday – Wednesday were a jazz feast in New York City, and (remembering my loyal readers who don’t always get to the same gigs we do) I brought my trusty video camera.* 

I won’t rhapsodize about the music.  As Charlie Parker told the terminally unhip Earl Wilson, “Music speaks louder than words.” 

The week began on Sunday (that’s The Ear Inn calendar rather than the Julian or the Georgian) at 8 PM, when New Orleanian Duke Heitger joined Jon-Erik Kellso, Matt Munisteri, and Neal Miner for hot, soulful jazz.  Here, from the first set, is a rollicking yet serious WEARY BLUES:

Those who know their Hot History will already be aware that Duke comes from a musical family (his father, Ray, is a splendid clarinetist) but that Duke himself was inspired to dig deeper and soar higher by his exposure to another Michigander, Maestro Kellso.  So this was a playing reunion of two friends, brotherly improvisers. 

The second set at the Ear usually brings surprises.  Trombonist Harvey Tibbs had joined the band at the end of the first set, and he was joined by Dan Block on clarinet and the truly divine Tamar Korn, who sings with the Cangelosi Cards. 

Tamar’s final song (of three) was a genuinely ethereal MOONGLOW — and even the rocking head of the woman in front of me couldn’t distract me from the beauty Tamar and the band created.  Not only did Tamar become one lonely Mills Brother; she became Eddie South; she sang most touchingly.  And, in the middle, Jon-Erik and Duke growled, moaned, and plunged; then Harvey and Dan summoned up the ghosts of Lawrence Brown and Barney Bigard.  When it was all over, Jackie Kellso turned to me and reverently said, “That has to be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard,” and I wasn’t about to argue with her. 

Monday found the Beloved and myself dressed up for a visit to the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel — where singer / pianist Daryl Sherman was performing a centennial tribute to Johnny Mercer with the help of Wycliffe Gordon, James Chirillo, and Boots Maleson.  Daryl, bless her, gave my favorite unknown Mercer song its “live premiere,” as a sweet duet with Wycliffe.  THE BATHTUB RAN OVER AGAIN, for that’s its name, has never been performed much — but its classic debut was on a 1934 Decca session where Mercer himself sang it (he was a wonderfully wry singer) with the help of Jack Teagarden, Sterling Bose, and Dick McDonough.  The recording’s hard to find but it is a prize, as is this performance, impish and sweet at the same time.  (Matilda, the Algonquin’s resident cat, now thirteen, was snooty as always to us, but beauty is its own burden, even if you’re a Ragdoll.  Perhaps especially so?)

Tuesday found us uptown at Roth’s Westside Steakhouse for a duet session by Duke and pianist Ehud Asherie.  They began with a dreamily romantic YOU TOOK ADVANTAGE OF ME at a slow tempo, which suggested to me that the advantage-taking was something sought after.  Without imitating anyone, Duke evoked Ruby Braff and Bobby Hackett; Ehud’s stroll had the leisurely pace of great slow-motion stride playing. 

Then, the duo performed one of my favorite 1939-40 Basie classics, Lester Young’s dancing TICKLE-TOE, with true gliding style.

Duke and Ehud then decided to explore ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE (thought by some to be the sole property of “modern” jazzmen — how wrong such narrow thinking is!) — complete with its lovely verse.

Trombonist John Allred, who had been waiting for his steak to arrive, decided to jump forward to dessert, so he joined Duke and Ehud for a rousing TEA FOR TWO:

Duke and Ehud then created a sprinting version of James P. Johnson’s RUNNIN’ WILD:

After dinner, John came back for a jubilant THEM THERE EYES:

 On Wednesday, I met the Beloved at Birdland (which could be the title of a good Thirties pop song) for a special assemblage — David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band (David, Anat Cohen, Dion Tucker, Kevin Dorn) plus guests Duke Heitger and Dick Hyman.  Here they are for a beautiful, hymnlike reading of Ellington’s SOLITUDE.  Duke’s Louis-lyricism and Hyman’s chiming chords are specially moving here:

Clarinetist and prankster Ken Peplowski had been in the club (before the music began) for an informal photo shoot, and he came onstage to join them for a frisky version of Don Redman’s HEAH ME TALKIN’ TO YA (or YOU, for the formal):

 

More to come!  Watch this space! 

*The asterisk is to remind any cinematic auteurs that my cinematography is at best functional: the music’s the thing, no matter how many people walk through my shot or sit in front of my lens.  I haven’t managed to make any dark, cluttered, noisy club into an ideal set, but I keep trying.