I’m thrilled to announce the release of my first CD on Cellar Live, Birdhoused. I’m joined by the stellar lineup of Marquis Hill (trumpet), Nick Mazzarella (alto), Joel Adams (trombone), Clark Sommers (bass), and Dana Hall (drums and percussion).
The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Chicago is legendary, one of the most storied rooms in the jazz world. Fans rhapsodize about Al Capone and the secret tunnels underneath the club, admire the art deco design flourishes, and glance sidelong at Big Al the bouncer, intimidating with his red leather motorcycle jacket and eye patch (though that’s gone these days). Musicians, while not immune to those charms, love the club for different reasons. Dave Jemilo, the owner for the last 30 years, is chief among these. He loves and respects the music and the musicians. In a business rife with skulduggery, he’s a standup guy, a real mensch. So is Big Al, for that matter, and the rest of the staff and regulars. Playing the Green Mill is a homecoming for those of us who have been part of that family for years. Add to this the excellent sound on stage and an audience that thrills to the blood and sweat of a hard driving band and you have a perfect storm.
So when Cory Weeds called me with the idea of recording a live album in Chicago for Cellar Live, the Green Mill was the hands down choice. The quintet had a weekend booked there just prior to the recording session, so I knew we’d have a chance to work out new music on the bandstand. The maze of scheduling usually involved in making a record resolved itself quickly, with only a few bumps along the way. Marquis Hill made it to town through a blizzard (literally) of airline cancellations and far flung connections. Nick Mazzarrella had filled in for Joel Adams once or twice, and I figured, why not both? Dave Jemilo generously opened the club for us to record in the middle of a blustery March day with our studio audience of Canadian jazz fans and friends.
Our last record, Our Roots, reimagined the music of Lead Belly, Blind Willie Johnson, and the Georgia Sea Island Singers; roots music from the rural South. The material here may seem far removed at first blush, but it’s still about influence and lineage. The first three pieces are arrangements of somewhat lesser known works by 20th century composers spanning popular, jazz and classical genres.
Curtis Mayfield, the architect of Chicago soul, speaks of a city divided in the lyrics of “The Other Side of Town.” As the bridge modulates to a major key in a soaring, uplifting gesture on the original recording, Curtis sings “depression is part of my life,” one of the most bittersweet pairings in popular music.
“Constellation” is my deconstruction of Charlie Parker’s seemingly simple riff on Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose.” After the layered, polytonal introduction of Bird’s theme, Clark Sommers enters with an additive 5-4-3 rhythm, expanding the standard 8 bar phrases to 12 bars and framing an explosive solo from Marquis Hill before the main statement of Bird’s melody. Nick Mazzarrella and I explore both the new structure and the old before the ensemble returns with the theme.
While Hungarian composer Györgi Ligeti was fascinated by African polyrhythm and jazz, his “Sonatina” has little to do with with either. Our version of the impressionistic chorale serves as a platform for Dana Hall to explore percussive sonorities and as an introduction to “Nephila,” inspired by the great Canadian jazz composer Kenny Wheeler. “Fearful Symmetry” pays tribute to yet another iconoclast, coupling Olivier Messiaen’s love for symmetrical scales and rhythms with impressions of Moroccan music that Dana and I have been intrigued by recently.
I was fortunate to study with one of musical heroes, Charlie Haden, at CalArts in the 90s. I first heard Charlie on a Keith Jarett record, Shades, dug out of the recesses of my parents’ record collection from behind more frequently played sides like Roberta Flack or Blood, Sweat and Tears. “Solid Jackson” is my attempt to capture a little of the lyrical, rubato feeling of Jarrett’s American quartet as well as a remembrance of Charlie. “Solid Jackson” was sort of Charlie’s version of “right on,” and his enthusiastic delivery was infectious.
Two tunes inspired by saxophonists round out the set. “Birdhoused” is just what the title says- stolen from Bird. It began its life as a Charlie Parker blues (I’ll leave it to the listener to descry which one), then suffered the indignity of having its rhythms and pitches displaced in relationship to each other and put through a couple other filters. The end result is a 16 bar expansion of the original blues form with mostly 3 bar phrases. Chicago jazz people of a certain age will also recognize a tip of the hat to saxophonist Fred Anderson, who owned a club called the Birdhouse before he opened the more widely known Velvet Lounge.
Clifford Laconia Jordan recorded his own “Laconia” in the 1950s, but I couldn’t resist reusing his mellifluous middle name for this tribute to my fellow Chicago tenor. The fundamental rhythm of Clark Sommers’ bass line is a mirror variation on a typical West African bell pattern, creating a palindromic clave that’s likely a hanging offense in Cuba. Dana and Clark navigate it eloquently.
Every time we finish a weekend at the Green Mill, I’m left feeling that the band reached peaks unobtainable in the rarified atmosphere of the studio and wishing that we’d captured those moments with all of their inevitable imperfections on something higher fidelity than a smartphone. We finally did, and you hold the results in your hand. Or in your smartphone. Either way, I hope the music transports you to Chicago and the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, where Big Al just took your money and told you to sit down, shut up, and listen to the music. Down a shot of Malört, have a couple two three beers and stay awhile.