Thursday, June 25, 2015

DM Jazz Eight works at finding a local niche for the little big band

DM Jazz Eight: Moving smartly into Rich Dole's arrangement of a Johnny Hodges number.
Hearing the first set of the eight-month-old ensemble co-led by Gene Markiewicz and Rich Dole Wednesday night offered indications of bright promise at the Jazz Kitchen.

The DM Jazz Eight is an octet (duh!) with this instrumentation: two saxes, two trumpets, one trombone, and the conventional rhythm section (piano, bass, drums). The band largely uses a book left by former Indianapolis valve-trombonist-bandleader Phil Allen, supplemented by several Dole arrangements.

I came in as the band was setting out with Duke Ellington's "In a Mellotone," creating a relaxed groove featuring something that immediately appealed to me: trumpeter Larry McWilliams plunger-soloing crisp phrases behind the ensemble.  He has the perfect instincts for this kind of texture, and something similar came through later as the band played Dole's arrangement of Johnny Hodges' "Fur Piece."  Another Hodges piece arranged by Dole, "Monkey on a Limb," displayed the balance and verve of the ensemble especially well.

Other members of the band besides the three already mentioned: trumpeter P.J. Yinger, saxophonists Jim Farrelly and Tom Meyer, bassist Fred Withrow, and (sitting in for regular Gary Walters), pianist Sean Baker. All soloed from time to time, and the solos were compact and often telling. The co-leaders had a few good displays; I particularly found Markiewicz a compelling percussionist in Latin rhythms: the Theme from "Black Orpheus" by Luis Bonfa and Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" were sufficient evidence Wednesday night.

Dole and Markiewicz told me during the break that they hope to keep the band going in various venues. They find educational work especially compatible. Club engagements in the area are pretty much restricted to the Kitchen (where they were appearing for the third time); the venerable Chatterbox Jazz Club downtown has too small a stage to accommodate eight players.

They told some amusing stories about mixed success in playing for dancers, who can be mighty particular. It's a tough gig for jazzmen; often the particular gift of the best Swing Era bands — almost a lost art now — was their ability to suit the tastes of both listeners and dancers. The best in the business, which  I was fortunate enough to hear once, was the Count Basie Band, fairly late in the leader's career. The venue, of the sort that once was the bread-and-butter of touring bands throughout the land, was a popular roadhouse/dancehall in Holly, Michigan, in the 1970s. I was on assignment from the Flint Journal.

Count Basie almost drummed me out of the press corps.
The Basie ensemble was essentially playing a dance gig, but (let me shout it) it was also COUNT BASIE AND HIS ORCHESTRA!  There was plenty to enjoy from the comfort of one's seat. Of course, the band, with the leader's understated prodding from the keyboard, unfailingly drew a crowd onto the dance floor; it was irresistible. Even my wife and I — inveterate non-dancers — got out there.

During the break the Count consented to a group press interview. And there I made my most embarrassing interview mistake ever. I forget the exact context, but in response to something Basie said, I brought up the name of Dickie Wells as though he was on the bandstand that night.

The Count looked at me levelly and said softly:  "You leave this interview right now." (Awkward pause.) "Dickie Wells hasn't been a member of this band since the 1940s. It's Al Grey now," he added, referring  to the trombonist who was doing great work with the growling, gutbucket, plunger-muted solos that Wells had long ago set the pattern for with Basie.

Incredibly, I didn't move. Was I paralyzed by fear, or was I calling the great Basie's bluff? What if I had exceeded the Count's unspoken time limit for following his instruction to leave?  He could have stood up and declared: "The interview's over." The eyes of my colleagues would have directed so many daggers at me I would have resembled a clothed St. Sebastian.

That didn't happen, fortunately.  My momentarily shaky knowledge of Basie history  — and my failure to leave — turned out not to be a fatal error. The Count graciously continued the interview, and (thankfully) didn't make a point of ignoring me.

Greatness tends to exist on more than one level.