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Bill Kirchner: Finding Music's Intimacy

R.J. DeLuke By

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I think jazz is going to remain a CD-based music, to a certain point. I think jazz listeners still want to hear albums. They're not like pop listeners that just want to download tunes. —Bill Kirchner
The extremely accomplished Bill Kirchner—composer, arranger, saxophonist, writer, editor, teacher—enjoys a career anyone would be proud of. He's played with important musicians, led outstanding groups and had his arrangements played by top-shelf musicians and bands. In 1996, he won a Grammy for Best Album Notes for the revered Columbia/Mosaic re-issue Miles Davis and Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings.

Many of the accomplishments came about despite severe physical setbacks. In 1993, he was found to have a life-threatening tumor on his spinal chord. Two major surgeries removed it, but left Kirchner with no feeling in his right hand and only two working fingers on that hand. There is also chronic pain. It stopped his playing for a few years, but with uncanny perseverance, he returned to playing a soprano sax with specially designed keys. His career continued.

And now he's created another shining point in his career with the recording of a 2014 concert that took place at the New School of Jazz performance space in in New York City, where he has been a teacher for many years. The all-ballad, two-CD recording An Evening of Indigos (Jazzheads) was released this year.

"I've been pretty lucky with having some of the best nights of my career recorded well and worthy of release," says Kirchner about his recording career in general. "That doesn't always happen. This is the ninth record I've done as a leader. All of them I'm quite pleased with. I think every release as a leader has something to recommend in it. There's nothing that's a throwaway."

But this one marked a challenge, for Kirchner, who in recent years is very selective about the live appearances he chooses because of the physical demands.

"Live concerts are always a crap shoot in the best of circumstances," he says. "There was a certain amount of risk involved. Before we did this, I found myself at a couple points thinking, 'Do I really want to do this?' It was an all-ballad evening. I decided to go for it. Everything came off beautifully... You reach a certain point in your career where if you know the people you're working with and you know their capabilities and you know your own capabilities, there are certain times when the best thing to do is pull out all the stops."

The result is a collection of original music and standards, brought to life by Kirchner's soprano with Carlton Holmes on piano, Jim Ferguson on bass and Holli Ross on vocals. Ferguson also does some singing. Songs include "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," "He Was Too Good To Me" and a medley that teams "Close to You" with "Save Your Love For Me." Also originals "Theme for Gregory," "Since You Asked," When You Are Old" and more. The music is played with emotion and soul. The intimacy of the evening is unmistakable, but something that Kirchner carefully tried to set up. He accomplished his mission.

"I decided I wanted to focus on a lot of original songs I had written over the years, some of which had never been played in public before. I got two of the best singers I know and a wonderful pianist and we did it. It came off great. Better than I had dared dream it could, as far as doing something in a live setting like that. It has the vibe of a studio date almost, as far as the polish of everything goes," he recalls with understandable fondness.

"We had a wonderful audience and they were totally into it. The premise I put in the program was: Don't talk between tunes. Everything you needed to know was in the program. I wanted to segue from one tune into another without interruption. I wanted to set up a mood and keep it."

He decided not to use a drummer. "I didn't think there would be much for a drummer to do, frankly, except stir the soup. Play brushes and play time. It was basically a ballad thing. Everybody's time was so strong, I didn't think we needed a drummer."

While "Theme for Gregory" is a song from years ago that has been recorded, two tunes were written in early 2014 and hadn't been played in public, "The Inaudible Language of the Heart" and "When You Are Old." "Foolish Little Girl" was written in 1980, but never played before. As far as the band, Holmes played with Kirchner's nonet in the late 1980s and early 1990s and also played the last concert the nonet did in 2001. Ferguson, who came in from Nashville specifically for the gig, had played a few times with Kirchner. They melded, listening to one another, reacting and simplifying. The music bares the thoughtfulness and emotions of the compositions.

"It's pretty deep. It really is," says Kirchner reflecting on the accomplishment. "It was a very emotional evening for everybody. The musicians and the audience."

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