Doin' the Uptown Lowdown
“ These guys are all amazing improvisers who would excel in any creative medium; their chosen one just happens to be traditional jazz. ”
Jazz in July: “Licorice Schticks”
Directed by Dick Hyman
92nd St. Y
July 30, 2003
Pianist/arranger Dick Hyman’s annual Jazz in July series at the 92nd St. Y has grown from its modest roots as one of New York’s first jazz festivals into one of its most revered musical institutions. And for this magic night, Hyman presented traditional jazz fans with the rare chance to catch the four best clarinetists in the country, all on the same stage: Ken Peplowski, Allan Vache`, Kenny Davern, and Evan Christopher. As if that weren’t enough, the backing band would have been a stellar attraction unto itself: Hyman on piano; Jon-Erik Kelso on trumpet; Frank Tate, bass; Tony De Nicola, drums; cornetist Randy Reinhart (pinch-hitting for Ed Polcer); and the great Wycliffe Gordon on trombone. When it comes to authentic hot jazz, there are few better practitioners alive than the 10 gathered for this summit of swinging excellence.
Vache’ was up first, and the night kicked off with a storming “Original Dixieland One-Step,” which stretched out and broke down beautifully, as Hyman showed off his exquisite stride. The band then downshifted into an easy-gaited version of “Moten Swing”, giving Vache` the chance to ooze a little sweetness. Up came Ken Pepolwski, who wasted exactly no time in showing the hall why he is THE MAN. His impossibly swift flurries on “Just One of Those Things” danced like frantic bullwhips, intertwined like wild cobras. Just one of those things, indeed.
Gordon and Tate took over for a wonderfully elastic ‘bone n’ bass duet on “Sweet Georgia Brown.” With boundless imagination, the two pulled and stretched the old warhorse to places it’s never been before. Hope someone recorded it.
Davern was next to shine, with Ellington’s “Creole Love Call.” Ironically, it was trombonist Gordon who best evoked the rough spirit of Bubber Miley — even though Kelso (of Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks) and Reinhart are each deadly with a mute. The growls that Wycliffe was squeezing out of his horn that night are stuck to the back of this neck still. Damn. The winning nugget “Doin’ the New Lowdown” followed, and it was difficult not to be impressed as Davern ascended the same high-note peaks he’s been hitting since his 1954 debut with Jack Teagarden.
Young firebrand Evan Christopher made the bold statement of going outside the canon, selecting tunes from genres that evolved parallel to early jazz: a biguine from French Martinique and a choro by Brazilian legend Pixinguinha. Like New Orleans jazz, both of these styles were originally played by small groups in lowbrow dancehalls, emphasizing polyphonic playing and improvisation. It’s great to see someone pick up on the similarities. Christopher stays in the mid-to-lower registers for a fine and mellow Edmund Hall-ish sound — a refreshing break from the stratospheric fireworks dominating the night.
After the intermission, it was time for some black stick duets. An excellent “Comes Love” found Davern and Peplowksi trading chorus after gorgeous chorus. Christopher and Vache` converged for “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” featuring one of the evening’s highlights: a tandem break where their clear notes spiraled like cool waters, occasionally embracing to conjure the image of a single instrument.
Tony De Nicola is a drummer of such phenomenal, jaw-dropping greatness that he nearly stole the night many a time. His flawless, circular ease recalls the genius of Chick Webb, and he’s clearly attained that master’s profound skill of stopping time to casually drop whole bakeries of rolls in the tiniest between-beat spots. This man is made of swing. Do not miss him.
The ruckus of “That’s A Plenty” gave way to Peplowksi’s unaccompanied, Hyman-arranged version of Cole Porter’s “Everything I Love.” A beautiful piece, it was one of the show’s supremely moving moments and further testament to the maestro’s transcendence. “The Mooche,” with its multi-clarinet chart, was the natural choice to close the night. Seeing and hearing the band and all four featured players lined up and taking those passages was pure, uncut bliss.