Tag Archives: Valerie Levy

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!

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EAR’S MORE! (June 27, 2010)

I am quite nostalgic about this session at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street)– the last time I saw The EarRegulars in New York City before leaving for England.  The august and esteemed personnel was Harry Allen and Scott Robinson on tenor saxes, James Chirillo on guitar, and Greg Cohen on bass.  Later in the evening, sweet-toned and sweet-natured Valerie Levy unpacked her violin, and young tenor man Evan Schwam joined in the happiness.  Here is some more of the music captured that night.

First, a slow-drag BABY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME? that really asks the question with some sincerity:

Another query that might be emotionally relevant follows — WILL YOU STILL BE MINE?

BLUE SKIES gets a winsome treatment here, led by Valerie:

WHERE OR WHEN is a lovely Rodgers and Hart song that doesn’t get played all that much as a  jazz instrumental; here it is in a lengthy, leisurely version, with Valerie staying on and Eric joining the fun:

And the conclusion (for the literal-minded, it’s “WHEN”):

Finally, a romping BROADWAY — music for Three Tenors:

What fun!  And credit goes to Jon-Erik Kellso, punster / wordplayer extraordinaire, from whom I stole the idea for the title.

TENORS OF THE TIMES (Part One): June 27, 2010

The EarRegulars were an all-reed edition (no brass need apply for that one Sunday) last week, June 27, 2010: Greg Cohen, bass; James Chirillo, guitar; Harry Allen and Scott Robinson, tenor saxophones.  There were no JATP antics that night; rather, the four musical lines reminded me greatly of beautiful vines, creating a tapestry of lovely sounds and responses. 

Here are three selections from the first set.

One is a haunting TOO LATE NOW, which could never be with these players:

Then, a song much beloved of Kenny Davern and Benny Goodman, Isham Jones’ ON THE ALAMO:

Finally, STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY (in two parts):

And its conclusion:

There’s more to post from this particular evening, including uplifting visits from violinist Valerie Levy and tenorist Eric Schwam.  Then, two glorious nights with Michael Kanan, Joel Press, Neal Miner, Pat O’Leary, Joe Hunt, and Ted Brown – – but such pleasures will have to wait — I’m off to the 2010 International Whitley Bay Jazz Festival, where I don’t expect to do much more than listen to music, chat, grab a hurried meal or two, and sleep.  Oh . . . and videotape, of course! 

To be continued . . .

COMING SOON: TENORS BLOSSOMING

It might seem to some loyal readers that this blog has already gone on vacation — not so.  I have been busily listening and video-recording without time to post the results, but wonderful music is on the way. 

For whatever reasons (cosmic alignment, good fortune) there has been a splendid confluence of tenor saxophone majesties in the New York City area. 

On Sunday, June 27, the EarRegulars (renamed “the Irregular EarRegulars” by bassist Greg Cohen) were Greg, saxophonists Harry Allen and Scott Robinson, with young Eric Schwam sitting in, guitarist James Chirillo, with a guest appearance by violinist Valerie Levy.  On Tuesday, June 29, piano master Michael Kanan organized a session at Smalls featuring one of my heroes, Joel Press, on tenor and soprano sax, with bassist Pat O’Leary and drummer Joe Hunt.  The next night, Wednesday, June 30, Michael, Joel, and Joe Hunt reassembled at Sofia’s and were joined by bassist Neal Miner and — for one set — the legendary 82-year old Ted Brown, also on tenor. 

No histrionics or walking the bar — just swing, deep feeling, and thoughtful musical conversations.  Stay tuned!  Coming soon to a computer near you!

JAZZ BRILLIANCE AT THE EAR INN

Sunday, September 6, 2009, was my first visit to The Ear Inn after a summer’s hiatus. 

The music I heard there was uplifting, with a Labor Day holiday weekend version of the EarRegulars: cornetist Dan Tobias, alto saxophonist Michael Hashim, gutiarist James Chirillo, and bassist Frank Tate — with violinist Valerie Levy sitting in for two songs in the second set. 

I brought my video camera, as I had done at Whitley Bay, to capture the proceedings in cinematographic splendor.  And I did, although less than splendidly.  The Ear is rarely brightly lit (although occasionally strings of tiny white bulbs come to life, suggesting Christmas for non-sectarian audiences) but that night the ambiance was especially murky.  So the videos that follow are occasionally blurry and consistently grainy. 

Mea cinema culpa, I say.  Readers who object to having their jazz turned noir (Dan’s shirt was a series of vivid pastels) should avert their gaze.  But the music is so restorative that I hope they can listen while doing something else.*

About the band.  Dan Tobias is a wonderful, intuitive player, someone who would have been welcome on Fifty-Second Street or at a Keynote Records session.  He has a glowing tone but can also growl and soar, although he usually takes the compact middle-register paths of Buck Clayton and Bobby Hackett.  This night he reminded me of Roy Eldridge, of the Thirties Ellington and Basie brass, of Joe Thomas and Shorty Baker.  Need I say more?  Dan is also a genial ad-hoc bandleader: almost every number ended with a series of Kansas City riffing outchoruses created on the spot.  Michael Hashim has spectacular technique and musical wit.  His bubbling personality has so many sides that it’s like a full sax section on the gig.  There’s the Johnny Hodges balladeer; the rhythm and blues crowd-inciter; Pete Brown’s love-child; the King of Arpeggios.  He only got paid once on Sunday, a pity.  James Chirillo’s solos are full of brilliant tumbling lines (yet every note rings and has a purpose), happily weird dissonances, a sonic spectrum that goes from pastoral whisperings to twangy Fifties chords to hints of electronic music.  He’s never predictable, and his rhythm is a wondrous force.  Frank Tate was there two years ago on the EarRegulars’ first gig.  Frank can walk the chords with a resonance and rightness that suggests Walter Page, and his melodic inventions catch the ear (fitting for someone who learned a great deal from playing alongside Bobby Hackett).  When the music heats up, many bassists get carried away: Frank swings hard but is the epitome of steadiness. 

Let’s start with IF DREAMS COME TRUE — the property of Billie Holiday, also James P. Johnson, Teddy Wilson, and Buck Clayton — here a trotting conversation among friends:

A Duke Ellington medley is often formulaic, stringing together “greatest hits” as Duke himself did — almost as if to get it over so that the crowd would go home happy they had heard SATIN DOLL.  This version is anything but cliched; it begins with DO NOTHIN’ TILL YOU HEAR FROM ME, where Hashim does Hodges perfectly, then the quartet gets serious for Danny’s SOLITUDE, full of mournful growls (bringing together Arthur Whetsol and Clark Terry), and James’s pensive WARM VALLEY brings everyone together in a deliciously hymning way:

Jazz musicians keep coming back to Irving Berlin’s melodies, even those that seem most simple, and ALL BY MYSELF (a favorite of Kenny Davern) should be played more often — especially as it is here:

Performed as an unstated homage to Bix (catch the first chorus) and to Eddie Condon (throughout), SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL is one of those happy oddities that blossomed through Twenties and Thirties pop music — a song that should properly be melancholy but is a real romp.  Notice James’s brilliant introduction, and Danny’s invitation to the ball game:

On a “gal” kick?  Who knows, but the next tune called was the old favorite MY GAL SAL:

Another “Dixieland” tune, BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME, is fun to play, even if the band neatly sidesteps the stop-time patter vocal chorus:

Valerie Levy, a classically-trained violinist who’s also got a great deal of experience playing the American Songbook (and who also happens to be Mrs. Chirillo), joined the band for a lovely EMBRACEABLE YOU:

I try to request songs infrequently, but my restraint gave way.  Not only did I ask Danny if the band would play I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME, but I pushed presumption to its limits by asking for a slow-medium tempo.  Danny agreed, and I got to record this wonderful performance:

I remember Davern calling I WANT TO BE HAPPY at the extraordinary concert Hank O’Neal put on at the New School in 1972 (the other participants: Condon, Wellstood, Davison, and Krupa) and Davison leering at the crowd, “Don’t we all!”  We still do:

Finally, for this post, POOR BUTTERFLY, a sideways memory of the suffering operatic heroine:

Some band! — even through the murk and blur.

*If anyone can recommend a hard-drive compact video camera that functions well in low light, I would be grateful.  I’m using a Sony DCR SR 220. . . .