Ah, yes - the final week of a six-week tour. These past few days have found us in Italy, probably our least visited of the bigger European countries in general. Wynton says it’s because the people here expect or desire more avant-garde jazz, but judging from the response we have had here it’s easy to say that just isn’t true.

Although we haven’t been playing much in the way of avant-garde music, we do include in our repertoire some pretty nontraditional compositions, like Vincent Gardner's Blue Twirl, inspired by the artwork of American painter Sam Gilliam, or Wynton’s Tree of Freedom, from his Vitoria Suite, or my Pollock, from Portrait in Seven Shades. What I love about our programming is that we will play one of these and then follow with something like Snake Rag from the 20s, and it makes sense, feels right.

We have been playing all outdoor venues, and most of them are set among ancient Roman ruins that are in better shape than some modern theaters we’ve played in. Since our concerts start typically at 10:00 PM there is no way to get to bed “early” (even if you wanted to) so much of the catching up on sleep is done on the bus, with several seven and ten hour rides. My seat on the bus is between two band members who have no trouble catching up, and whose adenoidal expressions are so extreme that even my Bose “Quitecomfort 15” noise canceling headphones do nothing to eliminate the vibrations that shake my seat like a bed you put a quarter in.

A couple days ago we played in Ravello - a town known for its lemons the size of Voit tether balls. From these they make their famous Lemoncello, a liqueur I had to try. And try again. (And again.) The climb up to Ravello was a bit disconcerting, but the payoff was enormous: the sweeping views of the Amalfi Coast are breathtaking. I mean, literally jaw-dropping. Our driver, a man in his thirties with greased-back hair, sunglasses, and a two-day shadow, provided warning honks as we navigated around sharp turns, many of them ignored by oncoming commercial vehicles, causing temporary impasses that were resolved by both backing up some and repositioning to squeeze by, practically scraping the short rock walls separating the road from a quarter-mile plunge into basil farms and olive groves below.

The high point of our two-day stay in Ravello was the afternoon party thrown by Jonathan Rose (of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall fame) in the villa he rents every July with his lovely wife. We enjoyed roasted peppers, various salads, octopus in olive oil, handmade brick oven pizza, local wines, and the aforementioned Lemoncello while taking in views of the Adriatic Sea.

Of course an experience like this has to be balanced out, and that happened the next day in Callabria. Although the concert was great, the hotel was a dive. My room was a cross between a dorm and hospital room. With no Internet to connect with what was happening in the world, and basically in the middle of nowhere, and being tired of computer chess, and being that it was the siesta, and being tired as hell, I decided to use the hour and a half we had after checking in until leaving for the venue to take a nap. As soon as I put my head down on the pillow one of our more diligent band members decided to use this time to practice. With walls the thickness of a wedding invitation, sleep was impossible. So I decided to use this opportunity to assess the contents of my suitcase. I don’t know why I pack so much. I never unpack in hotels (who does) and rarely venture past the first couple layers to see what else I have in there. Besides, there are no irons on the room, so just about everything is wrinkled beyond use. Then the practicing stopped. I quickly abandoned my explorations, and jumped back in the bed. Too late - the practicer had already fallen asleep (couldn’t have been more than a minute) and the decibel level of his prodigious snoring rivaled that of the instrument he had been playing. E la vita.

I write all this from the train which is zipping up the Mediterranean. Next stop: Atina
 
 
We are now one week into our second leg of this six-week tour. I am writing this in the Madrid airport as we wait to board our plane to Niza (Nice). The economy is really hurting here in Spain, but it’s great to see people coming out to our concerts. Hopefully, we are lifting their spirits a little, helping them to take their minds off hard times, if only for a couple hours.

With the exception of our performance in Valencia, all our concerts are outdoors, which means sound checks in the blazing sun, reeds drying out, hot brass in your hands, expanding bass strings, trouble hearing each other on stage, battles with intonation. But somehow we get it together. Perhaps because of these obstacles we try a little harder, and the end result is some pretty swinging sh**!

Our programming has been interesting, a kind of toggle between old and new, historic and contemporary. We will play a movement from Wynton’s Vitoria Suite, and then follow with Snake Rag from the 20s, and it doesn’t feel strange. While I tend to favor the more modern pieces in our repertoire, I get so much enjoyment hearing the band play these classics with both respect and modern breath.

It seems that whenever we come to Spain it is festival time, which also means the running of the bulls in Pamplona. When you come down to breakfast in the morning the hotel invariably has the TV on to some news channel, and it’s the same image you have seen year after year - narrow European streets filled with people, some more brave (stupid?) than others, making sharp turns, opening up into longer stretches where the bulls gather speed, people grabbing the horns and running along as long as possible, until literally diving to the side to avoid getting trampled by the bulls right behind them. Then the news program will change stories and you will be watching an update of the Tour de France. Something with a completely different energy, but sharing a similar sense of urgency. I have an idea - why not combine the two sports? Have the bulls chasing the bikes through the streets. “Toro de France,” perhaps?

Gotta get on a plane...