“It’s quarter to three, there’s no one in the place….”
It was just the four of us, fairly late Wednesday night – John Loach and his trumpet, John Alcorn singing without a mic, Mark Eisenman at the keys and me on bass – huddled around the piano at Loach’s place in a tight circle, playing a few “good old good ones”, the songs of our lives, making music for our own pleasure. It was all about the mood and the moment and this surely was an after hours, jazz one. There was no audience (save for Patti Loach padding about in the kitchen), no requests, no money, no sound-system or wires, no pressure. Just four guys who love to play together, picking bits of music from the air and sending them back out, the songs and sounds drifting into the silence of the night and fading, never to return.
Our little jam session hadn’t been planned at all and that’s partly why it was so satisfying. We’d gathered earlier at the Loaches’ house to mix 23 tracks we’d recorded there last October over three nights, with Warren Vache on cornet and Reg Schwager on guitar, Loach at the dials. I don’t often say this because it isn’t often true, but I really felt back then that we’d caught lightning in a bottle those three nights, especially the last one. The playing seemed very spontaneous and effortless, the result of good musical chemistry, intent listening, superior songs, parked egos, a relaxed atmosphere in a studio just made for making music, i.e. the Loaches’ music room.
So we drank a little wine and listened to the tracks, making suggestions here and there, tweaking things a little…….The bass quieter at times, and the guitar up. Warren needed to be brought out of the mist in some places, God, he can play softer than a Maltese cat can walk. His playing suggests all the best mainstream jazz trumpeters – Buck Clayton, Ruby Braff, Roy Eldridge, Bobby Hackett, Joe Thomas, Bunny Berigan, but luckily, it all comes out sounding just like Warren Vache. Alcorn is hyper-critical about his singing and wants to do a lot of vocal editing, fortunately he can do this on his own at home.
These are details though, small things, the big picture here is rosy, the important things are all in place on these takes. A nice range of good tunes and tempos, some serious swinging grooves, eloquent, lyrical solos and classy singing, lots of those sparks of interplay and felicitous turns of phrase that catch your ear. After a couple of hours we were about done and everyone was happy and satisfied, it would seem we have a good record, maybe two, in the can. For once, maybe listening to ourselves had inspired us, and John Loach snatched this out of the air, saying casually, “Whaddya say we grab another glass of wine and play a few tunes?”
I didn’t have to be asked twice, I went to the dining room where the “house bass” rests on a stand, a Czech instrument John Loach bought a few years ago with just this kind of moment in mind. I’ve played this bass often and have come to really enjoy it. It has some sound, plays easily and sings well in the room – but best of all, I don’t have to schlepp it there.
Merv was already at the piano, fooling around with Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere”. He and I warmed up by reviewing it, stopping and starting here and there to remember its little details. We then launched into the head and played the built-in shout chorus, not blowing on it, a case of “for no reason at all in C-minor.”
Loach and Alcorn joined us for a medium “I Thought About You”, that spacious gem of a tune that we’ve all done countless times, yet never tire of because its harmonic rhythm is so elastic and welcoming. We just kind of dialed in, there was nothing to prove, yet everyone listened and gave their best as the spell of making music fell upon us. Loach with a mute in, his pure, silver tone singing as he played little fills behind Alcorn and then a graceful, tasty solo. Merv, the “Kosher Count”, with his tensile lines and spring-loaded comping giving us as much bounce to the ounce as we could handle. And Alcorn, standing no more than three feet away, singing toward us into the air so that we heard the true timbre and inflection of his voice. There’s nothing like being able to hear everyone so well, so up close like this. It feels like a jazz cocoon and invites listening, relaxation and interplay. There was no strain, no veil between us, we were having a musical conversation. This is what jazz can be, when all the players listen and there’s give and take. It sets you free and this freedom is what we all strive for in jazz but so seldom achieve.
I suggested “I Concentrate On You” next, I like the way Alcorn sings it and the song’s been much on my mind lately. This was maybe thoughtless on my part though, it’s a very complicated, detailed tune for jamming like this. It handcuffed Merv a bit at first, he knows the song but hadn’t played it for a while. He found his way in a typically smart and practical fashion, by listening hard and playing sparsely at first, but still swinging, still contributing rhythmic momentum. This give-it-up teamwork is what makes him one of my very favourite people to play with.
It was maybe time for a ballad, we picked “My Old Flame” in F. As we started, I began thinking ahead to the end of the bridge, sensing a possible train wreck in the offing. Merv and I have played the tune often and in the last two bars of the bridge, he uses a series of chromatically descending chords in eighth notes that he’d heard from Hank Jones. They work beautifully with the melody but can be a bit surprising if you don’t know they’re coming, which Alcorn didn’t. As this approached, I knew Merv was going to play them and almost whispered “don’t”, but I couldn’t help myself, I wanted to see what would happen. Alcorn often lags behind the beat on purpose, but as if sensing what was coming, he sang the melody here perfectly straight and in tempo, which made the whole thing work, phew. Afterward though, Alcorn asked, “What did you guys do there? How did you come up with those chords?!?” Merv beamed and answered, “Hank Jones, I only steal from the best” and we all broke up. This is how information is spread in jazz – on the fly – and one of the satisfactions of playing for a long time is building up a glossary of these inside moves, to be ready…. Readiness is all.
I think it was Loach who suggested “All Of Me” next, a song I’ve always loved, but feel is often played too fast. I mentioned this and Alcorn was all over it, saying that a lot of singers do it like a glee-club party tune, proceeding to imitate this and breaking us up. He said people miss the sadness in the song, as in “Take my heart, I’ll never use it” – there’s some of pain there. We played it at a medium-down bounce and everyone had at it, Loach with particular eloquence. We were deep in the land of jazz now – take me home, daddy.
It’s funny, I’ll remember this little session for the rest of my life, yet some of the details have already faded, even now I don’t remember if we did a couple more tunes, or what they were. I have no idea how the music sounded – I was far too busy having fun playing for that – but I know it was genuine and pure and felt awfully good. To me, if music feels good, then it is good. Nobody was trying to make history here, we didn’t care and that’s the whole idea. You play in the moment and then it’s gone, but the feeling of it stays with you for a long time.
It was ironic, we’d begun by listening to a recording we’d done almost a year ago, and it had led us to play this off-the-cuff music which would just dissolve. This is the paradox of jazz….. To play it well, musicians must absorb its history and traditions, mostly by listening to records, which have a kind of retroactive permanence which is illusory. They last forever and seem to be carved in stone, yet the performances they capture are often just as impromptu and immediate as what we had just finished playing. All jazz, even the recorded stuff, starts off in the present, that’s where it lives and how it’s best played and heard, casually and in the moment.
Merv had an early morning the next day and it was now about midnight, so he bid us goodnight and left. Alcorn and I repaired to the Loach’s sumptuous deck for a cigarette and some more wine, and before John Loach joined us, Alcorn said, “You know….I wish I could just do that for two or three hours every night, just sing with some good players, nice and easy like that, no worrying about sound-guys or set lists, cover charges, the audience or if they’re enjoying it, getting paid or any of that stuff, just ……make some music.”
“Up among the stars we’ll find, a harmony of life to a lovely tune…”
It rocked me, he’d taken the words right out of my mouth. If there is a Heaven, maybe it’s not a place like we envision, but a state where everyone goes to where their heart’s desire is, gets to do what they love best, relives their fondest memory or moment. The way I’m going, I’ll probably never get there, but my fondest wish would be to play music like this forever, free and unencumbered, with players who get it like these men. Probably will never happen, but in the meantime, I’ll settle for these fleeting moments of real jazz, a kind of heaven on earth to me.
“So make it one for my baby, and one more for the road………”
© 2013 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.