TOOTS THIELEMANS & KENNY WERNER AT SCULLERS


Yeah, right. Effortless mastery. Yeah. Right. Effortless mastery – that’s what you had up there on the bandstand at Scullers on March 31st, when Kenny Werner and Toots Thielemans were at Scullers. Separately and together, they have such command over their instruments that their ideas go directly from their ears and minds to their instruments, which is a musician’s dream come true. After playing together many years – I recognized songs they’d recorded in 2002 – the duo has a refined musical synergy, with dynamics, harmony and rhythm articulated as one. They understood each other so well musically during the show, it was sometimes hard to tell if Werner anticipated what tensions to play behind Thielemans, or if Thielemans found the notes that belonged where Werner was headed.

The romantic melodicism and nimble fills in Thielemans’s playing matched his equally expressive body language. He swayed, hunched and raised his shoulders, frowned, grinned, mugged, and knocked himself upside the head with his harmonica (“These things, they’re all no good”). Or he’d shoot a look of mock befuddlement at Kenny Werner’s pianistic romps.

Kenny was certainly dancing around those keys, with an orchestrator’s ear on synthesizer, and an accompanist’s sensitivities on the piano behind Toots’s lines, which have a very vocal quality. Both lyricism and bebop coursed through Werner’s ideas, as he varied attack, phrasing, and accent to match the mood.

There were some nice musical twists to what was pretty much an evening of standards. After “Autumn Leaves” opened on a mournful harp cadenza, Werner spiced things up with dissonances and accents, sounding at times like a guy temporarily off his meds. A quote from “La Marseillaise” seemed to sneak in at the end of the tune. “I Loves You Porgy,” introduced with lush synthesizer harmonies accompanying Toots, moved to a 6/8 motif reminiscent of the vamp opening Miles Davis’s “All Blues. ” After modal allusions to “Summertime” and “Footprints,” “Porgy” resolved on attenuated tensions.

Both Werner and the audience forgave Toots for initially drawing a blank when Kenny called “Blue in Green.” Playing the progression didn’t help, either, so Werner took the direct approach, shouting out the title. Then everything fell into place. Hey, when 89, you’re entitled. Once into the tune, Toots locked into its musical and emotional core with one of the most moving solos of the evening.

Young alto saxophonist Grace Kelly joined the duo in an unannounced cameo, as the baton was extended to another generation on a stage that represented over six decades of playing. As for Mr. Thielemans, he was “discovered,” he said, 61 years ago. “Jazz is a virus,” Toots mused, “that you can pick up anywhere.” He was bitten quite young by that aural-borne pathogen, after listening to Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers. He still has it. To show that the affliction hasn’t done him or Kenny Werner any harm, they encored with one of Pops’s hits, “What a Wonderful World.”

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BOSTON MUSICIANS SWING IN SALUTE TO DICK NASH

Dick Nash (left), Benny Goldstein (center), and John DeMasi (right) at the "Bash with Nash" at the Continental, Saugus, 3/20/2011. In background, Ron Plourde (d) and Dave Landoni (b).

Well, alright. Okay. You win. I’m in love with Dick Nash. And so were a whole room full of folks, musicians and fans alike, who came to the Continental in Saugus recently to celebrate his career at the “Bash with Nash” jam. Now 83, but still but still blowing warm, precise, seamless tones out of his horn, the Boston-born Nash was Henry Mancini’s first call trombonist and a sought-after player in TV, film and studio work for several decades. His fruitful association with Mancini produced some beautiful ballad solos on “The Days of Wine and Roses,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and “Peter Gunn.”

When Nash comes to town, John DeMasi, local trombonist and Nash’s former college mate at Schillinger House – precursor of Berklee, that is – organizes a jam with his talented colleague. Happily, this year’s get-together revived the weekly Sunday afternoon jam series the Continental, beginning on May 1st during Boston Jazz Week, with the Steve Hershman Trio from 3:30-7:00.

A CHAT WITH DICK NASH

“I met Hank when he was an orchestrator,” Nash told me. When Mancini, after moving up through the ranks, recorded the Oscar-nominated music to his first film, “The Story of Glenn Miller,” he had Nash solo on the ballad “Too Little Time.” Ironically, Mancini’s critique of his playing on that tune helped Nash develop the signature smooth tone that Mancini was to use him for repeatedly in the future.

“I had just finished playing,” Nash told me, “when Mancini came over to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, ‘Dick, can you warm it up a little?’”

He definitely did, and he definitely still is. Nash attributes his technical skill to study with John Coffey, then bass trombonist with the BSO, who trained many NEC and Berklee students. The young Nash trained alongside many classical players, but with a different regimen.

“He asked me what I wanted,” Nash recalled, describing his lessons with Coffey. “I told him studio work in Hollywood. And he set me on that course, concentrating on how to put air into the horn for a big sound, how to get the right slide movement, the tonguing.” Nash not only kept his chops up, he passed on the gauntlet to his son Ted, saxophonist and composer whose career led from his first composition at 15, “Tristemente,” picked up by Louie Bellson, to his current gig with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis.

THE JAM

So that’s the background. Let’s zone back in on the jam itself. Not surprisingly, horns predominated, backed by a hand-picked local rhythm section – the tasteful Steve Hershman on piano; Dave Landoni on bass, and drummer Ron Plourde, who has a solid understated swing feel. The unquestionable highlight was a “battle of the trombones” soloing and trading on C Jam Blues and Back Home in Indiana. Nine trombonists fanned out around the bandstand to Dick Nash’s left and right – Dan Walker (bass trombone), John Pierce, Fred Schmidt, Fred Bachelder, Mike Strauss, Bob Valentine, John DeMasi, Wayne Branco, and one other fine player whose name I didn’t know but would like to.

Trumpeter Tony Lemmo and tenor saxophonist Benny Goldstein, both long an integral part of this scene, joined Nash and DeMasi for several tunes. On alto saxophone, reeds musician Jim Repa stood out for lyricism and chops. Veteran area vocalists took the mike, notably Alana Manning (impeccably phrased, Carmen McRae-influenced singing) and Suzanne Perel (equal parts jazz and R&B). Suzanne chose Billie Holliday’s sultry “Fine & Mellow,” and her husband, trumpeter Phil Person took a clean, well-crafted solo behind her. Guitarists Mark Michaels and Binney Stone stood up (and plugged in) to be counted. Pianists were also represented, including Jack Senier, Alana Manning’s favored accompanist, and the dynamic Ferdinando Argenti. Joining in on flute on the closing tune “Take the A Train,” Stephanie Stone was the lone female instrumentalist in this historically male-dominated scene.

EPILOGUE

“I have such nostalgic feelings about Boston,” Nash told me, recalling gigs at the Totem Pole just outside the city, where, as Nat Hentoff once wrote, there were times “when the music and the dancers fused.” Curiously, there no dancers on the floor during the jam, even though this was foot-tapping, finger-popping swing, with many fans there who undoubtedly grew up with the music or were turned on to it by subsequent jump swing revivals. Sure, it’s true that jazz lost of a good deal of its entertainment cachet when big bands were superseded by other forms, and its audience sat down to listen.

But swing was meant for dancers.

There are still plenty of dancers out there, as I found out when a “midi duo” – female singer/piano player and singer/saxophonist, set up after the jam. Accompanied by a track of the Joe Williams song I started off by quoting, through a PA that made it difficult to hear your interlocutor, they started a steady stream of tunes, including some of the same ones that we’d just heard live in the jam. Drawn like a magnet, dancers filled the floor, to music out of a box, “played” by two front people whose expertise may mostly have been in programming. State of the art, I guess…

TONES ON THOSE BONES
VIDEO LINKS TO THE “BATTLE OF THE TROMBONES” AT THE JAM:


 

C-Jam Blues:
Video 1

Indiana:
Video 2

(Dick Nash shares the bandstand with Boston area trombonists, including Dan Walker, John Pierce, Fred Schmidt, Fred Bachelder, Mike Strauss, Bob Valentine, John DeMasi, and Wayne Branco)


Videos by Jesse Waldman

 

 

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