Shadow Classic: Black Talk! by Charles Earland

CHARLES EARLAND: Black Talk!

(Prestige, Recorded 1969)

When organist Charles Earland snagged a day in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio with his sextet in December 1969, he was already participating in a rapidly evolving jazz debate – about whether, and how, to embrace the songs and rhythmic styles of rock and R&B. He ’d been a regular in the band of alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson for more than a year, contributing a crisp, rhythmically percussive approach that made Donaldson’s bands stand out among the many groups slinging instrumental blues and sassy-backbeat soul jazz.  The purists called what they did selling out. The younger musicians regarded it more as an inevitable step, an engagement with the modern world. (Versions of this debate persist….).

Like Donaldson, Earland recognized the ear-candy value of material that was familiar to ordinary listeners, not just jazzheads. The covers on this record – “More Today Than Yesterday,” “Aquarius,” and “Eleanor Rigby” (which is significantly and satisfyingly overhauled as “Black Talk!”) – fit that mold, and advance the debate ever so slightly. The spry arrangements provide excellent platforms for soloing: Check trumpeter Virgil Jones peering through the mists on “Aquarius,” and Earland swinging fiercely on “More Today.”

The track that destroyed me on this wasn’t a cover, however. It’s the effortlessly flowing tavern blues called “The Mighty Burner,” after Earland’s nickname. Here is a means of teleportation back to the no-artifice jazz playing that happened in small lounges throughout urban America in the 1960s: Once the comfortable medium tempo is established, Earland just snaps off chorus after chorus of vital and wonderfully melodic improvisation. He’s not trying to change the world – he’s just rolling through some blues, having fun, playing the kinds of lines he knew could connect with people who don’t have advanced music-calculus degrees.

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Audio from last week’s Jazz Casual….

so we’re slowly getting settled into the Tuesday routine for Jazz Casual, and last week for the first time I was able to have a recorder going…..if you’re curious about what’s happening at Milkboy Philly, please click here and check us out!

The band: Ryan McNeely (guitar); Tom Moon (tenor); Mike Frank (electric piano); Mike Boone (bass); Eli Sklarsky (drums).

The tune is a great gem “Ho Ba La La,” one of the few written by the amazing singer/guitarist Joao Gilberto. Please enjoy!

Things Learned at Jam Sessions, V. 1

Sometimes jam sessions have the temperament of an old-fashioned Wild West shootout, with hyperskilled musicians doing everything they can to stun and/or dazzle everyone within earshot. That energy, once unleashed, can be viral: One extravagant “lookie-at-what-I-can-do” solo sparks another even more flamboyant one, resulting in an endless Faster! Louder! death spiral.

Usually when this happens I sit down – I’m not wired for “faster,” never have been able to make my fingers go that way. The other night at Milkboy Ardmore, during a boisterous cluster of tunes at Mike Frank’s Monday night session, somebody suggested Benny Golson’s challenging “Along Came Betty.”  It’s often played at a comfortable medium swing tempo, but Jason Shattil, the phenomenally gifted pianist, wanted to take it up. Way up. We were into it before anybody could protest, shuttling along through Golson’s twisty post-bebop lines at near breakneck speed. When it came time for me to solo, I jumped in with my two left feet, rattling off chromatic lines that did not always land where they were supposed to. It was an unforgiving tempo, the kind that forces you to be “on” from the first note. All I had in my holster was variations on the theme of clutter.

Then Jason played. His first chorus was incredibly serene – and at the same time completely locked in. He approached the demanding tempo as though ambling down a country lane. As he navigated, he made everything sound easy: There was no frenzy in the cool-headed, wonderfully interconnected melodies. His improvisations grew more complex as he went along, but he never lost the easygoing aspect. For me, that was a huge lesson: Sometimes the way to engage listeners is to step back and take it easy. Even if things are moving at 100 mph. Especially then.

There are, of course, endless chances to apply these lessons. Tonight, we’ll do our best at Milkboy Philly’s weekly Tuesday happening, Jazz Casual. Music starts around 8:30 in the beautiful upstairs room, and tonight we’ve got Philadelphia legend Mike Boone as the special guest on bass! Also on board: Mike Frank (electric piano), Ryan McNeely (guitar), Eli Sklarsky (drums). Please come and sit in! Ballad players welcome!

 

A Different Kind of X Factor

Out of the spectacular disarray of the modern record business, several abiding truths have emerged, and a few have even taken root as gospel. One has to do with the primacy of the live experience: How, regardless of the genre, there is a certain “thing” that happens when a group of musicians gather to chase ideas together. At the risk of sounding New Age squishy, you could call it an “energy.” If at this juncture you require an illustration of this, track down anything from the new Miles Davis Quintet Bootleg Series Vol. 1, Live In Europe 1967. It’s frightening and intense and completely riveting. (I’ll scribble more on it in a subsequent post….).

In a sense, this energy is the eternal live-music holy grail, and it happens at all levels and in any size venue. You’re walking by a bar no bigger than a railroad car, and before you even process what song is being played, you can tell that some music of substance is going on – and you’re drawn to discover what the musicians are in the process of discovering. It seems effortless but is rarely accidental. There are environmental variables, and attitude variables, and also technical hurdles; sometimes even the most skilled players end up crashing and burning, while beginners stumble into greatness. There is, though, one X-Factor that seems to be a constant throughout many of these situations: Open-mindedness. Some players radiate the willingness to explore and try stuff, and just by their openness, they create conditions that are favorable for creativity. Possibilities seem to open up when they are involved. They lift everyone on stage up. People begin to listen at a deeper level. Connections just happen.

If there’s an aesthetic goal of Jazz Casual (the Tuesday night session at Milkboy Philly), it’s to develop a setting where those connections are possible. Even if it means playing very much in a back-to-basics temperment – especially if that’s what prevails. The & Friends band is wired that way, and so are the guests we’ve lined up. Last week, the pianist Mike Frank – a firestarter who is integral to an array of musical endeavors in Philly right now – tossed out ear-stretching, endlessly surprising ideas. This week, we’re lucky to be joined by vibraphonist Behn Gillece, who participated with Mike Frank and I in the Moon Hotel Lounge Project experiment. Behn plays a regular Tuesday thing at Small’s in NYC — we’re lucky to get him! — and leads a ferocious band of his own. You might have seen him accompanying Melody Gardot, among others. As I’ve learned hearing him play in many different contexts, Behn has a gift for sneaking subtle colors and shades into the musical landscape, responding in ways that seem to gently open up possibilities.

Check him out tonight at Jazz Casual! He’ll be playing with TM, Ryan McNeely (guitar), Mark Pryzbylowski (bass), Eli Sklarsky (drums) and some special guests! Begins shortly after 8 pm at Milkboy Philly, 1100 Chestnut St., Philadelphia. 215.925.MILK.

And then tomorrow at: www.behngillecejazz.com/

 

The Very Thought of You

so the other night at the first-ever Jazz Casual, we were joined by Pete Gaudioso, a great Philly drummer who has also become a mesmerizing singer. He did a version of Ray Noble’s 1936 standard “The Very Thought of You,” one of those great songbook tunes that hasn’t been over-exposed. (Though, sadly, Rod Stewart did take a chainsaw to it for one of those depressing latter-day records of his.)

I’ve had the song in my head ever since Tuesday night, and just did the obligatory YouTube search for some nice versions. There are hundreds, but these two just completely tore me up — the Nat King Cole for his easygoing, confessional phrasing, the Shirley Horn for the incredibly demanding glacially slow tempo.

Nat King Cole:

Shirley Horn:

Does a nightclub event need a mission statement?

No, really.

It’s not a joke question. In recent years I’ve become a convert to the notion of the “mission statement,” that succinct attempt to capture often elusive, abstract goals in words. Before starting on just about any kind of project, I usually make lists of objectives and all that, trying to stay away from the squishier ideas that might come under the heading “Hopes and Dreams” in favor of more concrete measurable goals. So now, as we’re gearing up for the start of Jazz Casual, I find myself wondering if there’s benefit to generating a mission statement for it.

I can hear the derisive laughter from the oldtimers at the bar already: “You overthink everything! Just play music! Make people happy! Go exploring with some friends and see what happens!”

I hear that too. So….mission statement? And if so, what might it be?

BTW, Jazz Casual with TM and Friends begins Tuesday 9/27 at 8 pm at Milkboy Philly, 1100 Chestnut St., Philadelphia. 215.925.MILK. http://www.milkboyphilly.com. Come hear Mike Frank (keys), Ryan McNeely (guitar), Mark Pryzbylowski (bass), Eli Sklarsky (drums) and guest luminaries from Philly music!

Lamenting the Facebook “Invite” System

OK, so as is evident by these posts, we’re in the midst of spreading the word about an event.

It’s natural to think that since Facebook traffics in “friends,” we should use their system to invite folks.

First problem: After being very careful about filling out the form, I discover that some of the key information — like who’s in the band and what time the event runs — didn’t make it.

That info, in bold for emphasis:

Tom Moon & Friends

Ryan McNeely (guitar); Mark Przybylowski (bass); Eli Sklarsky (drums).

With special guests: keyboardist extraordinaire Mike Frank (Fractals) and vocalist/drummer Pete Gaudioso.

Next problem: It’s impossible to simply invite one’s entire friend list. you have to go through and select/deselect each.

More absurd problem: For some reason, Facebook doesn’t let you do a recurring invite. Which means that my once-patient friends will now suffer through a series of potentially irritating updates regularly. It’s true that our info will change with different guests and themes and stuff, but still. There ought to be a system for weekly events like Jazz Casual. Or maybe there is and I don’t know it…..