Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bill Kirchner: Old Friends – New Music

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Bill Kirchner has been a friend to Jazz in many ways and for many years.

For not only is he a Jazz musician, composer, educator and writer, he is also the editor of the esteemed – The Oxford Companion to Jazz [2000] – one of the best compilations ever assembled of knowledgeable essayists writing on the subject of Jazz.

Bill has two, new recordings out and both are available for purchase as Mp3 downloads though via the following links:

To purchase "Old Friends," click on this link:

To purchase "One Starry Night," click on this link:

Bill has kindly granted us copyright permission to reproduce on these pages Larry Kart’s fine descriptions of the music on both of these recordings.

We have also embedded two Sound Cloud audio tracks into the feature so that you can listen to examples of the music on each of Bill’s new recordings.

© -  Larry Kart/Bill Kirchner, used with permission, copyright protected, all rights reserved.

“At one point Bill Kirchner played a good many of the reed and woodwind instruments with much skill -- sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, alto flute, and piccolo. But in recent years the soprano saxophone has become his instrument of choice and eventually also of near necessity, and it is on soprano that one will hear him solo on this duo concert that Bill and one of his favorite musical partners, pianist Marc Copland, gave on September 23, 2008, in New York City at The New School, where Bill also teaches.

The setting was a compact, wood-paneled, lecture hall-recital room (l was there), with fine acoustics (or it seemed to me) and a lovely piano for Copland to play. Full of friends, many of them musicians, the audience was attentive to say the least, and there was a great deal for us to pay attention to.

I said above that Bill’s focus on the soprano was a matter both of affinity and “near necessity” because of circumstances that he describes in the liner notes to his 1997 album “Some Enchanted Evening” (A-Records): “In 1993, it was discovered that I had a life-threatening spinal tumor. I underwent two operations to remove it, but as a result was left largely paralyzed on my right side. I learned to walk again, and have gradually regained most of the use of my right hand.... Happily, I have begun playing the soprano saxophone in public, thanks in part to the ingenious Perry
Ritter, who rebuilt my horn so that I can use alternative fingerings.”

That no allowances need be made for Bill’s latter-day soprano playing is obvious from this concert; these are among the most striking recorded improvisations on this tricky instrument, which in the modern era is too often played so as to be thin and piping in tone. There is, by contrast to this unfortunate norm, a top, middle, and bottom to Bill’s sound, and he can vary its breadth and volume for expressive purposes in virtually any register. Is his sheer facility, his ability to place a great many notes in tight places, quite the same as it once was? Probably not, though he always was a lyrical player, not a flashy one. In any case, as I believe I said to him
a few years ago, kidding on the square, “Now you get to play only the good notes.” Further, there are the words of his former teacher Lee Konitz when they were playing together not long ago: “You can always simplify." “One of the profoundest things any improvising musician has ever said, to my knowledge,” Bill adds.

If only, but not only, because of the duo format, Copland is quite prominent here. (The Copland-Kirchner partnership goes back to 1976, when both men were living and working in Washington, D.C. They both moved to New York in the early 1980s and have continued to work together frequently.)

Originally an alto saxophonist, talented enough to be hired by Chico Hamilton, Copland underwent a quite unusual conversion in his mid-20s, from altoist to pianist. As he told Gene Lees in an interview: “When I was coming up as a saxophonist, the ideal was to burn out -- to play really intense. All of a sudden here was this Impressionist-lyrical thing going on inside me that I had known nothing about.... It was so strong that it took me all the way over, not so much because I wanted to play piano -- although I grew to love it -- but because I had to do something with that feeling.”

What Copland has done with that feeling is to become a simply ravishing and quite individual jazz pianist -- technically, harmonically, in terms of both long-range “orchestral” thinking and quick-witted response. He’s in the line of Bill Evans, but speaking as someone who found Evans (and finds many of those he influenced) to be rather formulaic at times, the sheer freshness of Copland’s ideas, the unapologetic emotional openness of his

“Impressionist-lyrical thing” is a delight. Another thing, and far from a little
thing -- he really swings; does so, as does Kirchner here, even when the time feel is more or less rubato. I think, in addition to the usual sources, that this has a lot to do with Copland’s harmonic thinking -- “coloristic” though they may be, his choices there always have clean, lucid rhythmic implications (those bass lines!), and serve to guide the speed and “plane” with which the performance advances through time.

Because there are only two musicians involved, and their thinking is so clear, I won’t try to verbally mirror that much of what I think is happening during these seventy-seven-or-so minutes of music-making. But I do want to focus on some passages that seem to me to be at once representative and remarkable.

On the first piece, Bruno Martino’s “Estate,” note how fluid yet “right there” the time feel is; the virtual outburst of lyricism that comes from Copland at the 7:19 mark and then leaps back to life at 7:52; the delicacy of Bill’s thread-like oscillation between two adjacent notes at about 11:29, and his almost fierce power in the passage that follows.

“Autumn Leaves” is a piece, says Bill, “that Marc and I have played every few years for over thirty years; it's ‘our song.’ Funny story -- in 1981, we did a duo concert at one of the Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C. [The late jazz critic] Martin Williams was in the audience, and afterwards he complimented us on our arrangement of ‘Autumn Leaves.’ I thanked him while resisting the temptation to ask, ‘What arrangement?’ We were just playing the tune.”

Well, yes, literally, but also no. An arrangement for saxophone and piano that lasts for more than fourteen minutes and hangs together as this performance does would be difficult to envision. For instance, check out what happens at the 10:24 mark, as Bill enters after Copland’s solo. Holding a single note (a concert G-flat) for what seems an eternity while Copland dances above and below him, highlighting the way that held note alternately clashes and blends with the harmonic framework of the song, this to me is Bill in excelsis, a sterling example of Konitz’s dictum: “You can
always simplify.”

Speaking of Williams, in his book “Where’s the Melody?” he famously answered that common-at-one-time question with something like, good jazz improvisers tend to make up melodies that are better than those of the songs they started out from. And better, longer melodies, too. Unless I’m imagining things, on “I Fall In Love Too Easily,” the improvised melodic line that Bill begins at about the 2:56 mark remains essentially unbroken until 4:31 rolls around -- and that, believe me, is a long time to sustain a meaningful melodic arc at this ballad tempo. And don’t miss the child-like
Ravelian quality of the coda that Bill and Marc devise.

Miles Davis’ “Agitation” is the most overtly swinging performance here – a virtual surf ride -- while the misterioso reading of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” is a particularly fine example of Copland’s aforementioned way of turning harmonic choices into rhythmic ones. And Johnny Mandel's "Keester Parade" is here approached by both players with a delicious, droll slyness--quite unlike the mini-big band fervor, topped off by a hellacious shout chorus, of bass trumpeter Cy Touff's original 1955 octet recording. (I should mention that “Keester Parade” is not Mandel’s only venture into verbal trickery; he also gave us “London Derriere.”)

My favorite performance of this evening, though, if I had to chose one, would be the duo’s version of Victor Young and Ned Washington’s “My Foolish Heart” -- a song that I believe Bill Evans introduced to the jazz repertoire, and bless him for that. From the tender hesitation that Bill introduces into the opening melodic line to the final near unison pianosoprano restatement of the theme, this is, indeed, music of the heart.

Larry Kart, author of “Jazz In Search of Itself” (Yale University Press)

BILL KIRCHNER, soprano saxophone

1) Estate (Bruno Martino/Bruno Brighetti) 13:45
Universal Music Publishing Ricordi SRL, ASCAP
2) Autumn Leaves (Joseph Kosma/Jacques Prévert/Johnny Mercer) 14:33
Morley Music, ASCAP
3) I Fall In Love Too Easily (Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn) 11:09
EMI Feist Catalog Inc./Music Publishing Co. of America, ASCAP
4) Footprints (Wayne Shorter) 11:19
Miyako Music, BMI
5) My Foolish Heart (Victor Young/Ned Washington) 11:40
Anne Rachel Music Corp./Catharine Hinen/Patti Washington Music, ASCAP
6) Keester Parade (Johnny Mandel) 8:00
Marissa Music, ASCAP
7) Agitation (Miles Davis) 6:16

East St. Louis Music Inc./Jazz Horn Music Corp., BMI
Recorded at The New School Jazz Performance Space,
New York City, September 23, 2008.
Recording Engineer: Christopher Hoffman
Mastering Engineer: Malcolm Addey
Cover Photo: Ed Berger
Graphic Design; Javier Chacin and Judy Kahn

“Something that should become quite apparent as one listens to these performances is the sheer, securely grounded intelligence of Bill Kirchner’s musical thought, his learned though utterly natural and relaxed craftsmanship. Taught directly by such celebrated arrangers as Rayburn Wright and Mike Crotty (who arranged “I Concentrate On You” for the Nonet) and by example and assimilation by such figures as Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer (Bill was a frequent sub with Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra at one time), Ellington, Strayhorn, Gil Evans, Eddie Sauter, Gary McFarland, and Mike Abene, Bill simply (or not so simply) knows a great deal about voicing, instrumental colors and blends, linear logic, long-range form, contrapuntal possibilities, you name it. And he knows these things not only in take-it-apart-and put-it-back-together analytic terms but also in the collective, on-the-stand, “let’s get it done” sense that brings jazz, one of the quintessential performance arts, to life.

Consider, for example, the rather bright tempo chosen for the first piece of the Chicago concert, Sergio Mendes’ “So Many Stars.” Right for the tune itself, it’s also perfect for the first tune of a set. Pushed close to the limit, bass trombonist Douglas Purviance’s solo is truly inspired, as is that of pianist Marc Copland (Cohen at that time); and the from-the-first-note briskness of the performance “sells” the band as a whole immediately, which is of the essence when one is leading a non-big-name ensemble and facing an audience of 60,000.

“The chart,” Bill adds, “is in a quasi-rondo form, and alternates between a vamp and the song form with chord changes. Douglas solos on the vamp, Marc on the changes.”

Also, don’t miss the purity of tone and agility of Bill’s piccolo work in the ensemble toward the beginning of “So Many Stars,” with the flutes of Ralph Lalama and Glenn Wilson. It’s one of those details that distinguishes his arranging, exquisite in concept and execution but always in service of the piece’s storytelling flow.

Bill’s chart on Andy LaVerne’s aptly titled “Maximum Density” is another gem. Dig Copland’s coat-of-many-colors comping behind Lalama’s probing, serpentine solo, Ron Vincent’s intensely propulsive yet transparent drumming, and the way the ensemble at first steals in toward the end of Lalama’s stint and then briefly, kaleidoscopically erupts -- as J.R. Taylor once said of another Kirchner arrangement, “The band seems to swell to twice its actual size.”

Years ago, I mentioned to Bill how much I liked Lalama’s solo on “Brother Brown,” one of the tracks from the Nonet’s 1982 album “What It Is To Be Frank” (Sea Breeze). Agreeing that it was exceptional even by Lalama’s high standards, Bill said something like, “Yes, I set it [the chart] up so Ralph would play that way.” The tone with which this was said is tricky to convey, but in addition to some wry pardonable pride, it basically was an expression of the genuine pleasure Bill took in having showcased so effectively a fellow musician he deeply admired. The bandleader’s genetic makeup at work. And another little, or not so little, point about band-leading: Bill gives his soloists just the right amount of solo room -- when they do play, they get to play.

To Sheila Jordan’s portion of the program. Still quite active today, almost 25 years further on, Jordan was in particularly exuberant form on this night -- stimulated by the size and enthusiasm of the audience (she works it like a show-biz master) and of course by the sounds of the Nonet behind her. Judd Woldin and Robert Brittan’s “Whose Little Angry Man Are You?” from the musical “Raisin” (based on the late Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun”) is a seldom-heard song that Jordan has made her own – dig her flowing, saxophone-like phrasing and her unique scat-singing style, which seems akin to the sound of Native American vocal chants, as though there were tuned drums in her chest and throat. Some of Jordan's ancestors, in fact, were members of the Cherokee Nation.

Next is “Quasimodo,” Jordan’s expansive ode to her idol Charlie Parker, with an initial glimpse of Parker’s version of “Embraceable You,” the song on which his “Quasimodo” is based. There’s a remarkable, whip-like snap to Jordan’s phrasing here, and Bill Warfield’s cup-muted trumpet solo is drenched in the bebop ethos. Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate On You” is a song that Jordan was born to sing, and it features a brilliant trumpet solo by Brian Lynch. Kirchner emphasizes how important it was for the band to get the rhythmic feel of this Mike Crotty chart just right for Sheila. “If it wasn’t ‘in the pocket,’ it wouldn’t have worked for her.”

We finish with another Porter song, “You’d Be So Nice to Come To,” which begins with Jordan's Native American-like scatting -- here almost shocking in its emotional immediacy, with bassist Mike Richmond virtually singing alongside her. Then comes a pleading, preaching solo from baritone saxophonist Glenn Wilson, propelled by Vincent’s cooking drums; more of Jordan’s scat-singing (hers is essentially vocal invention, I think, not an attempt to imitate an instrumentalist); and finally a glimpse of the leader’s soprano saxophone, entwined with Jordan’s voice, the only solo spot that Bill affords himself. A magical night -- I was there.”

Larry Kart, author of “Jazz In Search of Itself” (Yale University Press)

BILL KIRCHNER, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, flute, clarinet, piccolo
RALPH LALAMA, tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet
GLENN WILSON, baritone saxophone, flute
BILL WARFIELD, trumpet, flugelhorn
BRIAN LYNCH, trumpet, flugelhorn
DOUGLAS PURVIANCE, bass trombone

1) Opening Announcements 0:44
2) So Many Stars (Sergio Mendes/Alan & Marilyn Bergman) 7:41
Spirit Two Music Inc./Threesome Music Co./W B Music Corp., ASCAP
3) Maximum Density (Andy LaVerne) 6:23
Kranmars Music, ASCAP
4) Whose Little Angry Man (Judd Woldin/Robert Brittan) 5:47
EMI Blackwood Music, Inc., BMI
5) Quasimodo (Charlie Parker/Sheila Jordan) 10:34
Songs Of Universal Inc., BMI
6) I Concentrate On You (Cole Porter) 8:11
Chappell-Co. Inc., ASCAP
7) You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To (Cole Porter) 12:23
Chappell-Co. Inc., ASCAP
8) Band Credits 0:19

So Many Stars and Maximum Density arranged by Bill Kirchner.
Whose Little Angry Man, Quasimodo, and You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To
arranged by Bill Kirchner and Sheila Jordan.
I Concentrate On You arranged by Mike Crotty.
Recorded at the Chicago Jazz Festival,
Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois, September 4, 1987.
Mastering Engineer: Malcolm Addey
Graphic Design; Javier Chacin and Judy Kahn