Saturday, September 7, 2013

Master of several instruments, Ira Sullivan finally returns to Indiana

The first set Ira Sullivan was supposed to play at the Jazz Kitchen Friday night was delayed by about a half-hour because two members of the band had to fight weekend traffic on the way down from Chicago.

But the cliche "well worth waiting for" applied to the multi-instrumentalist, steeped as he is in bebop stylings of standard fare, dating from his days as a fixture at Chicago's Bee Hive Club in the early 1950s, playing with a host of luminaries who blew through the Windy City..
Ira Sullivan playing flugelhorn, one of his many instruments.

Now 82, he still considers himself a Chicagoan despite long residence in Miami, where every summer he is involved in jazz education. His comments from the stage indicated faith in the likelihood that the music will be handed down to the younger generation in good shape.

Certainly elder statesmen of Sullivan's stature and commitment are needed, and when they can take care of business on the bandstand as well, they confirm the genre's health. In a nod to the vigor of young people, Sullivan jokingly said that a five-minute break between sets should be enough for his younger sidemen to make up for the delayed start. (The two band members from Chicago who made such valiant efforts to get to the gig were the bassist,  Dennis Carroll, and the drummer, Greg Artry.)

The set opened with a ballad, "Young and Foolish," a title the octogenarian announced with a sly smile after having made a strong initial impression with his hearty tenor-sax sound. The performance included an intricate duo with the bassist and ended with the leader quoting "Younger Than Springtime."

A fine deconstruction of another standard followed, after Sullivan jammed a mute into his trumpet bell and charged into something that jelled into "I Get a Kick Out of You." It was taken  mostly lickety-split, but  had some astonishingly precise changes of tempo as band members "read" each other exactly. It was by no means patronizing, of course, but rather a tribute  to the stellar work of Artry throughout the fast-paced number, that this time Sullivan's quote in the coda was "The Little Drummer Boy."

Picking up his 1927 Conn soprano sax, Sullivan made a prayerful showing in the Billie Holiday classic "God Bless the Child." Then he was joined in the front line by his on-the-road assistant Mark Berner on alto flute so that a flute duo could lead a limpid, tender account of Jobim's "Corcovado." Among the reliably effective work done by Steve Allee on piano during the set was the exciting, gradual build-up of his solo on this tune.

After a trio run-through of "Just in Time," which showcased Carroll in a long, thumping, agile solo, Sullivan returned to pick up the fourth instrument of the set: flugelhorn.

To conclude, the quartet  made an inspired run through Horace Silver's "Song for My Father." As on all his instruments, Sullivan displayed a gregarious sound that never became overbearing, chiefly because he does not waste time displaying his chops, but goes straight to the heart of the matter.

In jazz that endures in the listener's memory, that means putting a spacious feeling into the solos, varying phrase length and intensity, and inevitably (in the famous Lester Young formulating) "telling a story." And when you're the leader, it helps if you can also communicate a zest for imaginative interpretation and collegial responsiveness to your mates. For Ira Sullivan: check and double-check.