Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Session strutter's ball

Over my time spent in New York, and I guess my life in general, the allure of jam sessions has worn off. For all the great musicians I've met and played with, there seems to be a growing amount of vibe and ego, and a dearth of the willingness to make music (or as Matt Wilson calls it, "allowing"). New York sessions can suffer from this especially, with people sounding like they're auditioning more than communicating with their de facto bandmates or the audience.

Last year, I went to the Evolution session at Zinc Bar, hosted by pianist Orrin Evans. My lasting memories of that session were of Evans' fantastic musicality, and of him hilariously aborting an attempt to play "Inner Urge" in 7. Since Evans is at the Vanguard this week with Steve Wilson, saxophonist Tivon Pennicott was hosting in his stead, with a trio of electric bassist Spencer Murphy and a drummer whose name I didn't properly catch but whose playing I really enjoyed. [Sidebar: it's still rare for me to see a drummer play left-hand lead, and it opened up his figures in a really intriguing way.] All I could think of calling were Dilla beats, given the presence of electric bass. We agreed upon "My Funny Valentine," trying to do it in some kind of pocket, but we couldn't really agree on the harmonic rhythm. The bass amp crapped out just before the piano solo, so I initiated an improvised vamp and called the top of the form when the technical difficulties were sorted. Tivon rushed up and played the head out. Based on this less-than-ideal showcase, pianist Benito Gonzales (who played before me) reminded me to check out Kenny Kirkland.

I had never been to Smalls over all these years, but fellow jazz Tweeter/blogger/musician Kevin Sun told me he was playing the late-night set, so I walked through the Village from Zinc to the renowned basement hang. Lots of young musicians were up front waiting to participate in the round robin. As I got on the piano bench, an elder trumpeter took out his horn and called "Days of Wine and Roses." The bassist, in no uncertain terms, felt it was a corny tune and didn't want to play it, causing the trumpeter to exclaim, "Fuck all y'all!" and leave, along with a bunch of the crowd. The bassist was calling tunes such as "Inner Urge" and "Lazy Bird" (which I should know but don't), and we finally settled on "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise." Mr. Bass Man was fiddling with his amp through the whole tune, turning the majority of the song into a G pedal. I basically laid out the whole tune, as the guitarist took up all the sonic space available for comping. Afterwards, the bassist was still shooting off his mouth, and said, "Man, what does being an elder even mean?"

I grew up at The Rex jam sessions, in Toronto, and it was always made clear that the opportunity to play with older musicians is one to seize, and one to cherish while you can. Apparently, the trumpeter had played with Sun Ra back in the day. If a cat like that calls "Days of Wine and Roses," the only questions should be "Which key?" and "What tempo?" It reminded me, in a way, of the infamous John Patitucci master class at McGill, and reinforced the lack of session etiquette young cats can have. At least, it's a different session etiquette than what I'm used to. In Montreal, there's certain regulars at sessions who are not up to par, but we let them have their piece. At worst, it's a half-hour of our lives we won't get back. Big deal. I've initiated early heads-out at the behest of jam session hosts and for the mercy of the music, but very rarely, and it's never been to the point where the host starts conducting the session. When Pennicott started dictating solo order during "Sophisticated Lady," cutting off the flautist (who sounded good!) to usher in the guitarist, I just sighed. This is why I stopped going to sessions in New York - I'd rather spend my drink minimum money in a more convivial way.

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