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Loren Schoenberg -- Writings

Jazz U.K. Column - March 2005

A night out on the town with Dan Morgenstern (whose new collection LIVING WITH JAZZ is a must for anyone interested in reading some of the best writing ever about the music) in late January included visits to two clubs that are keeping pre-40’s jazz alive in New York. Every Tuesday, Birdland hosts David Ostwald’s Gully Low Jazz Band, whose repertoire is made up exclusively of songs associated with Louis Armstrong (remember him?). They have appeared in the UK at both the Brecon and Nairn Festivals. Osti (as he is known) plays the tuba, supporting the ensemble at all tempi so effortlessly that you would think he never takes a breath. He is also not above taking occasional liberties with the programming constraints, even venturing into repertoire that he posits Armstrong "might have played." The rest of the band are all first-call players. The night in question it was the peppery Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, trombonist Dion Tucker (how nice to hear a player in his 20’s who really gets the idiom), clarinetist Dan Levinson, whose steady evolution on his horn is a cause for wonder, in the front line. Howard Alden defied the odds and made wonderful music on the banjo (he tosses off things you never imagine could be done on the instrument technically and idiomatically) and drummer Ali Jackson, Jr. who never ventured into the usual slam-bang "trad" stuff one is frequently subjected to in similar settings. He also played at a restrained dynamic level yet with no loss of intensity that let you hear what his rhythm section mates were up to. The small but select audience included legendary record producer George Avakian and author David Margolick.

It was just hop, skip and a jump to the Times Square Grill, where Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks are featured on Monday and Tuesday evenings. The band manages to satisfy those hungering for the period elements of pre-Swing era jazz, with the radio microphones, megaphones, painted bass drum, and a general frenetic feeling that sometimes feels like an old movie that was undercranked or being played back too rapidly. But that’s just the surface. Underneath it roils a hot jazz band, firmly anchored in the leader’s aluminum (or aluminium as the leader is wont to call it) bass, tuba and driving bass saxophone. Giordano is a true leader in the sense that every band he puts together, and there have been many, all sound the same. They capture the rhythmic essence of a style that has all but gone out of jazz since Alf Landon was presidential timber. It swings to be sure, but from an on-top-of-the beat posture. Kellso and Levinson were here too, and contributed inspired solos. Kellso in particular has mastered the elusive and almost extinct art of the 8 and 16 bar solo. What a pleasure it is to hear an immaculately sculpted musical epigram in the midst of an ensemble chorus! The set’s highlight was Jimmy’s Tiger, one of the many times that Jimmy Dorsey recorded his famous alto/clarinet Tiger Rag showpiece, this version done during a European jaunt. Here it was arranged for three reeds who managed the by no means easy feet with aplomb. Among the listeners was noted Broadway historian Robert Kimball and classical music host Lloyd Moss.

Hopefully Ken Burns’s Jack Johnson documentary (did you know that the fighter played the bass?) will be seen soon in the UK, if it hasn’t already. It tells a story with many threads that connect to precisely what it was that made the men who created jazz so extraordinary in their time and place. It also amplifies the experience of hearing these two bands that are maintaining styles that are decidedly of the past, but with the immediacy of the present.