October 24, 2013

Musical Time Travel

I’ve stated before that my performing repertoire and listening habits can hardly be considered current or up to date. My role as Jazz Archive Director at Hamilton has strengthened my enjoyment of jazz music and personalities from the past — the swing era and the soloists from the 30’s and 40’s. My “songs for gigs” list reflects this obsession and my “current tunes” are now mostly from the 50’s and 60’s.

My passion for this music was reinforced and well-satisfied during the last three weekends. The annual Fallcoming concert at Hamilton for the last five years has featured a group led by pianist Dick Hyman. This year’s members included guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, trumpeter Randy Sandke, drummer Jackie Williams, and bassist Jay Leonhart. Jazz fans will raise their eyebrows at such an impressive cast of characters.
For Fallcoming Jazz ‘13 we tried something different than the normal organized jam session format. A number of years ago, a Dick Hyman CD entitled “From the Age of Swing” came to my attention. I fell in love with the creative arrangements for a four-piece rhythm section and four horns, consisting of alto and baritone saxes, trumpet and trombone. Mr. Hyman’s charts captured the feel of the early big band era, and his imaginative writing was a joy to hear and play. The quintet was augmented by Syracuse trombonist Greg McCrea, Hamilton student Deanna Nappi on baritone sax, and myself on alto sax. Here’s a YouTube link of the first tune we played on this concert.
We played the Hyman charts on September 27, and I found myself immersed in musical heaven. Randy on trumpet faithfully reproduced the approach and sound of Joe Wilder, the trumpeter on the original recording. The rhythm section provided an indescribable bed of swing, demonstrating the power of organized simplicity, and it wouldn’t have happened without the 4/4 chordal strumming of Bucky Pizzarelli, who also was on the 1999 recording. Guitarists describe this as “Freddie Green,” the style of strumming that Mr. Green provided for the Count Basie Orchestra for nearly 50 years.
Here’s a description of that style from Bucky, taken from his 2003 interview:
Bucky Pizzarelli
MR:    Is there some distinguishing thing about what Freddie Green did that’s possible to verbalize?
BP:    It’s very hard to describe what he did but he played a 4/4 beat with an accent on two and four, and he just kept chunking away. And if you study the music of Count Basie, the rhythm section never played figures with the band. When they played eighth-quarter-eighth, you know, they just kept chunking away through the whole thing. And it works better that way. The minute everybody’s doing the same thing it doesn’t work. It’s like a drummer hitting figures with the brass section. It’s terrible.
Jay Leonhart, Bucky’s rhythm section-mate at Fallcoming, described the specifics that make it work:
Jay Leonhart
JL:    I’ve heard Bucky, and who else, James Chirillo … the two of them, they’ll take the third and the seventh, right in the middle of the strings, right in that nice middle range around middle C, which on the piano would be — and they’ll just sit and play the third and the seventh. It’s either a minor third or a major seventh. Or maybe a sixth if they want to get adventurous. And they can just sit there and play like that. And the only notes coming out of the guitar are the relevant ones. And they’re not doubling the third, like making Bach turn over in his grave ... It’s so defined and clear. And as a result their chops are good because they’re not making a lot of moves and they’re not trying to play six notes with every … they can concentrate on the time, and they do. And that’s the way Bucky plays. Yet he’s a grand soloist when he plays songs by himself, he can really play the guitar. He’s not just a two, three and seven guy. He can really play the guitar.
This steady pulse allows everyone in the band to play less, and we know less equals more. It was a memorable moment, transporting me back to the time when this style was the popular music of the day. Mr. Hyman skillfully led the 8-piece ensemble, which had only engaged in a run through of the charts. As an added bonus, Deanna, one of my students, acquitted herself with great skill on the baritone saxophone. The biggest difference from actually performing this music during its original lifespan was the setting. If we had been performing in 1937 in a dance hall, the success of the band would have been determined by the number of dancers on the dance floor. This music has now been elevated to an art form worthy of a seated audience in a concert hall setting.
The next weekend I traveled to SUNY Fredonia, for another round of nostalgia. The annual Fredonia Jazz Ensemble reunion concert took place on Friday evening. In similar fashion, an all-too-brief rehearsal preceded a concert by members of the original members of the Fredonia Jazz Ensemble from the classes of the 1970’s. This weekend is always a mix of music and camaraderie, reconnecting with musicians from those brief college years who shared a love for big band music. At the time, we took pride in the fact that we were operating outside the conventions of the music program. In the mid-70’s jazz had not been embraced by the majority of music schools, and the jazz ensemble was a student-directed affair. Our repertoire this night consisted of familiar big band fare, but from the bands that thrived after the swing era. Material from Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis bands provided plenty of challenge. Most of us playing that night had harbored fantasies of getting a call to join one of these groups and abruptly leaving our studies in avid response.
As an incentive for my own writing, I always compose a new work for this weekend, and I can be confident that it will be played well and with great spirit. My new piece, “Angelica,” was received a good deal of praise, making it worth the time and effort.
The last step on my time travel took me back even further. I got a call to play a dinner dance entitled “A 1920’s Jazz Gala.” While my musical tastes have traveled backwards, the 1920’s was pushing it even for me. A fair amount of research was required for this Great Gatsby-era gig. It was an authentic recreation of a 1920’s speakeasy with period clothing encouraged for all attendees; a non-alcohol event in the spirit of prohibition. This time the songs included tunes you would find in dusty sheet music archives: “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “The Charleston,” and “3 O’clock in the Morning.” My current quartet rose to the occasion. The drummer brought vintage drums and the required whistles, woodblocks and cowbells that were so much a part of this upbeat small-band jazz. I was happy to see a number of college and high school students among the attendees, illustrating the fact that some eras carry a magical aura all their own. Here’s a photo of our group from this nostalgic evening.
(L-R) Monk Rowe, Tom McGrath,
John Hutson, and Sean Peters
The three consecutive weekends provided a welcomed musical challenge and a personal sentimental journey.