The way art is perceived, explained, and marketed can be distant from the art itself. Some critics and fans pounce on an artist, decide that (s)he does one thing superbly, and make that an identity. Dick Wellstood = Stride Pianist. Vic Dickenson = Dixieland Trombonist. Gerry Mulligan = Modernist. And so on. However, artists find these identities imposed by others are rather like clothes two sizes too small. Happily, through the history of jazz we find musicians who can and want to do more than their “role” asks of them.
One such person is the reed virtuoso, composer, and singer Evan Arntzen.
Evan Arntzen, photograph by Tim Cheeney
This modern age being what it is, I believe I first encountered Evan through video and compact disc before I met him face-to-face in New York, but I admired his deep swing, cheerful musical intelligence, and deep feeling in all the media I saw and heard. And since I’ve had many more opportunities of late to savor his work because of the Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet, I have come to value him all the more. He can easily play alongside Terry Waldo in the darkness of Fat Cat, read the notes flying by as a member of Vince Giordano’s Nighthawk rhythm section, fit right in with the EarRegulars . . . as well as being a shining light of a dozen other bands, including his own (one such aggregation was called the Scrub Board Serenaders and may now be called the Animule Dance). And he’s a compelling singer (hear I’LL GET BY) that had he been born decades earlier, we’d be reading about girls swooning at the Paramount. This new CD, recorded in France in January 2017, is a marvel because it shows how well he can be himself in many ways, all rewarding.
Here’s Chris Smith’s venerable BALLIN’ THE JACK from this CD:
Some of you might think that is heretical, and you are welcome to do it, because it doesn’t follow the paths you hear in your head, those strictures created by famous records — but it sounds like fine inventive witty music to me. I know, as do you, how BALLIN’ THE JACK is “supposed” to sound — a performance should, by the laws of whatever Deity you like, start with an ensemble version of the last eight and then go right in to it. None of this Fifties television mood-setting vamp, no Second Line beats, no exploration, right? I much prefer these four fellows finding joy in the mildly unexpected and sharing it with us.
“La Section Rhythmique” is not simply your average pianoless trio, but a small stellar musical attraction on its own, lyrical, inquisitive, and impassioned. They know the past but they live in the present, which I commend.
And this quartet creates immensely pleasing variations on the familiar — Evan’s sweetly intense vocal on MISTER JELLY LORD (is it sincerely audacious or audaciously sincere?); a hip serpentine line on I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU called HALF EYES (wordplay worthy of Mel Brooks); a clarinet-guitar duet on ISN’T IT ROMANTIC, taken a little faster than usual, perhaps in the name of Modern Romance; a glorious TICKLE-TOE that summons up, without imitation, the blessed Lester Young – John Collins live version; a tender PLEASE that begins with a questing improvisation, perhaps to keep the listener from falling into complacencies; a LITTLE WHITE LIES that tips its 1945 fedora to Don Byas; AFTERTHOUGHT, a happy improvisation on a jazz standard with a similar title that works its way in from the outside; I’LL GET BY that so tenderly explores this dear song in a multiplicity of ways, vocally and instrumentally; a TWELFTH STREET RAG that would have made Milt Gabler very happy; the concluding LOTUS BLOSSOM, deeply reverent, quietly emotional.
Evan, in addition to his other talents, is a marvelous bandleader, someone devoted to getting the most out of the other people on the stand. A musician with a much more limited vision would see himself as The Star and the others as The Supporting Cast, thus performances would be Ensemble-Solos-Ensemble or some other formula. Evan is untrammeled by conventions unless the conventions work in gratifying ways: like my hero Ruby Braff, he views a quartet as four equal voices, with imaginative possibilities resounding. If you sit down with one track that especially pleases you and chart who’s-doing-what-now for the three or four minutes, you will be pleasantly astounded at the richness and variety.
If it isn’t clear by now, I think this disc is a treasure.
You can buy a digital download ($10), an actual disc ($15), and hear sound samples here. Although it’s only by purchasing the disc — how archaic to some! — that you can read the typically splendid notes by Dan Morgenstern.
May your happiness increase!