Although I never met Frank Sinatra, he has been an important part of my family history: my uncle and namesake, Ted Nash, was Sinatra’s primary tenor sax soloist in the 50s; My father, Dick Nash, played the famous trombone solo on I’ve Got You Under My Skin
; and my sister, Nikki, was on Sinatra’s touring production team in the 1980s. The closest I got to Frank was playing opposite him at Radio City Music Hall in 1985, with the Benny Goodman Band. (This was a few months before Benny’s death.)
On Saturday night I got a chance to recognize both this iconic singer and my family by performing three songs as part of the “Sinatra at 100” concert at Symphony Space. I was honored to be one of approximately 35 artists invited to pay tribute to Ol’ Blue Eyes, performing exactly 100 songs between us. (For a complete list of artists click here http://www.symphonyspace.org/event/8909/Music/frank-sinatra-at-100
I chose three songs that (on the original recordings) featured a solo by my uncle: Lean Baby
, A Million Dreams Ago
, and Just One of Those Things
. I wasn't familiar with the first two, and transcribed them from Frank's 1954 Capitol Records release, Swing Easy
Hanging out in the green room prior to going out on stage for my fifteen minutes was an interesting experience, including a tap dancer stretching, an actress worrying about her makeup, and someone who was a friend of someone who asked me who I was and when I answered said "Oh, you're one of the cats!" I'm convinced she never had heard of me.
Finally, the cute clipboard-armed production girl came to get me, all professional smiles, and brought me backstage to be on deck as Russ Kassoff finished a feature with his trio. As I climbed the four steps to enter the backstage area, I passed by and quickly met Tony Danza, who exuded a genuine enthusiasm at our meeting, a nice energy I carried with me on stage.
The MC introduced me. The applause was generous as I found myself center stage facing face a very large house of Sinatra fans. Then it hit me: these people probably know everything about Frank’s music; every nuance of his recordings, every tempo and feel. Maybe they would be disappointed to hear renditions of their favorite songs played by a tenor saxophonist.
I turned to the band and counted off Lean Baby
, which I arranged to have a group vocal intro - "Do, do do-do, do-oo-oo." The house trio, now in their sixth marathon hour, embraced this with surprising optimism and willingness. We swung our way through the opener then slowed things down for A Million Dreams Ago
, a very sweet song I would definitely play again. We closed with an uptempo version of Just One of Those Things
, which gave everyone in the rhythm section a little taste. We ended by vamping out, building the energy to high point and ending on a sharp bang.
In addition to the applause from the audience, I heard some strong “yeahs” from stage left, and as I walked off I saw it was Tony Danza, "Yeah, man, great. Great to meet you." Big smiles. He was introduced by the MC and a moment later was on stage, charming the audience just as much as he he charmed me during that short meeting.
My Uncle talks about Sinatra in his (as of yet unpublished) memoirs. Here is a short quote about the end of a party Sinatra had hired him to play at his house:
“After showing them all out, Frank came over as we were packing up and loosened his tie. (I think we were the only three people on earth to ever see Frank with a loosened tie.) I think one of his innermost desires was to prove to the world that a kid from Hoboken, New Jersey could do it with class - hence the tie. Not wanting the evening to end right there, he went into the kitchen, poured out three drinks, and handed me a ripe nectarine. For the next hour, the four of us sat around telling big band stories.”
I boarded our tour bus this morning at 6:00 and after getting settled in for a long ride I reflected on the past four days in Santa Fe. I am sure I was Native American in another life, because just looking at the turquoise jewelry, Navajo baskets and brightly colored, hand-woven rugs, makes me feel, strangely, at home.
It was very unusual to be in a city for four days with only one concert, and I took advantage of the free days by exploring this quaint, quirky town. I started by walking with no particular objective and found myself in a square eating Frito-pie from a street vendor. In a small paper bowl a man, perhaps 65, with leathery skin, emptied the contents of two small bags of Fritos™, added grilled chicken, then topped it with a creamy mix of roasted corn and green chili. Obscenely delicious, and I will probably never have it again.
Next stop was the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, where I enjoyed, in particular, the work of artist Meryl McMaster. (Her web site: http://merylmcmaster.com/home.html
The next evening, after enduring (and, I admit, occasionally laughing at) twenty minutes of corny one-liners from Brad, the limo driver, photographer Frank Stewart (another one-liner specialist) and I were delivered at the beautiful home of Pam and Randall Onstead for a reception and fundraising event for JALC. When I walked in the front door I heard some very swinging flute and upon entering the room I saw it was Ali Ryerson, who I had met and heard for the first time almost fifteen years ago at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Joined by a local piano trio, she sounded great.
Wynton and drummer Ali Jackson arrived some time later. Wynton was invited to say a few words to the crowd of casually dressed, mostly wealthy New Mexicans. His fifteen minute speech was text book in how it expressed the importance of jazz, and culture in general, and the need to continue to support the many educational programs offered by Jazz at Lincoln Center, while embracing everyone in the room and making them feel part of something special. It was honest, insightful and artful.
Wynton sat in with Ali Ryerson and her group on some blues and later invited her to join us the next night on our concert, which she did, and sounded relaxed and expressive on my arrangement of Chick Corea’s Windows. It was a nice concert over all, presenting a real cross-section of the band’s diverse repertoire.
The final day of our residency in The Land of Enchantment was one of those special days, one that will go down in the history books. Victor Goines and I were picked up in front of the hotel by clarinetist Eddie Daniels, who moved to Santa Fe more than twenty years ago. Eddie, coming straight from his tennis lesson, drove us twenty minutes to his beautiful home where the three of us spent a solid two hours playing clarinets, alternatively comping for each other on the piano, playing tunes, trading fours, creating counter lines, and having absolute musical fun. We then repaired to his kitchen for some of his signature margaritas and were joined by his lovely wife, Mirabai, for a home-cooked meal.
Next stop: Midland, Texas.
From 1975-1977 I played lead alto with the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Star Band, performing in the hot, outdoor September sun on the Lyons Stage to a crowd of thousands of jazz fans. Yesterday, exactly forty years later, I returned to the Lyons Stage to play with the band, but this time as a guest soloist. Wynton and I joined the band playing “Una Muy Bonita,” an arrangement I did of the Ornette Coleman classic. Seeing and hearing these talented kids put their youthful spirit and energy into the music brought back so many memories and feelings from a time when my brain and soul soaked up everything musical around me.
And there was so much to soak up back in the mid-late 70s. Appearing at the Festival then were Bill Evans trio, Dizzy Gillespie Quartet, Horace Silver Quintet, The Heath Brothers, Joe Williams, Paul Desmond Quartet, not to mention the guests that played with the All-Star band: Clark Terry, Benny Golson, George Duke, Chuck Mangione and Pat Williams, to name a few.
After we finished Una Muy Bonita yesterday, I stayed back stage to listen to the rest of the group’s performance. I ran into Darlene Chan, the stage manager. We gave each other a hug and laughed, remarking on how we had first met forty years ago an that exact stage. She was stage manager then and I was an enthusiastic teenager. Darlene commented that we had come full-circle. I looked out at the band, still performing their set, and wondered which one of these youngsters would return to Monterey in forty years to be standing where I am now, thinking the same thing.
Here’s a video showing the highlights of the 1975 Festival.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g45LxdnAwoE
Jazz at Lincoln Center hosted its first jazz summer camp this year, which took place for two weeks in July at the estate of the world-renowned musician and conductor, the late Lorin Maazel. It was a life changing experience for both students and faculty. I wish the Maestro could have been there to share this camp with us, the first jazz education program to take place at the estate, which normally focuses on classical forms.
I’ve never had roommates before, but living with eight other people - sharing a bathroom and kitchen - reminded me that I never went to college (and never had roommates). It was everything I imagined living in a frat house might be, except that I’m over fifty. Maybe that’s why it actually went so well: all the inhabitants were experienced, respectful and clean. And could cook.
Of course, I can’t speak for the residences that housed the forty-two students who were in attendance for this very intense fourteen days that included workshops, classes, private lessons and performances. The focus of the camp was more about playing in ensembles and preparing for live performances, rather than say, advance theory and improvisation, or composing and arranging.
It was life changing for me because I learned and gained so much from the experience of mentoring the young musicians, whose ages ranged from fourteen to eighteen. Seeing these young, eager minds and souls assimilate in a very short time a pile of new information and turn it into very high level performances was nothing short of inspiring.
Last week my quintet performed at Dizzy’s for three nights of music that was a bit of a retrospective. Warren Wolf (vibes), Steve Cardenas (guitar), Ben Allison (bass) and Matt Wilson (drums) helped indulge me in a journey that embraced “my mythology” - the music and experiences that have shaped who I am both musically and personally.
The program included film music (my father and uncle were prominent studio musicians); my first composition (which I penned at age fifteen and three years later recorded on a Louie Bellson record); movements from original long-form works; and songs by other musicians that inspire me.
This was the first time we five had ever played together, and it was magic. The combination of the coolness of the vibes with the varied attitudes of the guitar, mixed with flutes, saxes and clarinet, created a colorful and evocative front line that was supported and further uplifted by the groovy and creative interpretations of Ben and Matt. The quintet did everything I had hoped for and more.
The performance was lived-streamed and I am hoping it will be archived for future viewings.
Colorado is like a planet of its own. The air is thinner, the trees are greener, the people are nicer. It makes anything you do feel like you are doing it in some otherworldly place. Like you’ve passed through the Looking Glass.
The first few days of our “Blue Engine” tour took place in this idyllic state, starting off with Breckenridge, which, at 9,600 feet elevation is like base camp to Everest. Climbers usually have a few weeks to acclimate, but we jumped right in, playing a full concert the day we arrived. Cats in the band were struggling with reeds that wouldn’t speak, and having to take more breaths during long phrases. The next morning the band had what felt like a collective hangover.
Our second concert was in Aspen, which is a little down the hill. At 8,200 feet the band was still gasping a bit, but I think overall the band sounded better. During the day Elliot and I played tennis, which made my lungs feel like they were going to explode.
Aspen is a popular retreat for celebrities and rich business folk. The drive to the venue takes us past a tiny airport lined with private Lear Jets and later through quaint neighborhoods where modest homes start at around three million dollars.
We have played here several times over the years. In fact, during my first year with the band (1998) we were rehearsing in the conference center at the hotel, preparing for our concert which took place in a huge tent (the concerts have since moved to a beautiful performance space, whose design recalls the tent of earlier years). During this rehearsal things got heated between a couple (former) members of the band and words were exchanged, some of which were of such extreme passion and expression that Wynton had to call an immediate break and ask our student audience to kindly leave.
Our concert here the other night felt better than in Breckenridge, although those of us using reeds were still having sound issues. Despite this we did manage to get a few sweet notes through the horns. After the concert, the very suave actor Robert Wagner came backstage and enthusiastically complimented us.
Next was our return to Denver’s Botanic Garden. The audience, many in shorts and T-shirts, were spread out with lawn chairs, plates of food and jugs of wine. Despite being an outdoor gig we felt intimate and connected to this enthusiastic audience. After our set closer, a ripping version of Dizzy’s Things to Come our long walk back to the main building had us squeezing through cheering and high-fiving fans. A couple rain drops appeared, and despite the insistent ovation, I assumed we wouldn’t do an encore and went to use the restroom, which was a bit of a walk. When I came back to the green room I saw a couple cats putting their horns away and I began to do the same. Boss Murphy, our tour manager, always cool, approached me and said they were looking for me on stage. It was decided we were doing an encore after all, a piece that featured a smaller band. When I arrived at the Garden and made my way back through the crowd, people yelled “There he is. He’s here” and applauded as I stepped up onto the stage where the band was waiting.
Our last concert in Colorado was in Boulder and at just over a mile elevation, the band was well acclimated. This was clearly one of the best, most swinging concerts we have played in a while. We performed a complete range of material, from Duke to some of our band members’ original compositions. Everyone played inspired solos and the ensemble was tight and loose at the same time.
Leaving Colorado felt a little like coming back Planet Earth.
Author John Steinbeck said of Monterey, CA it “is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”
I experienced many of these things returning to my home state last week to be the Artist in Residence at the Monterey Jazz Festival Jazz Summer Camp. I will never forget it.
First, the setting: coastal California is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Every time I come here I ask myself why I live any where else.
Second, reliving my youth: during my three years in high school I played lead alto in the Monterey Allstate Jazz Band (now called the Next Generation Band), an experience that had a tremendous affect on my development as a musician. It was amazing to get the opportunity to give back to this program that not only had me in a youth band that included fellow students Eric Marienthal, Joe Alessi, Randy Kerber, Steve Bernstein, Larry Lunetta, Larry Koonse (Google them), but great guest artists like Clark Terry, Benny Golson, Chuck Mangione, George Duke, Pat Williams, to name few. Check out my blog about Benny Golson here
and Clark Terry here
Third, a wonderful faculty: working alongside these great musicians and teachers was like stepping into someone’s living room during a party that had been going on for some time, but where you didn’t feel like an outsider.
Forth, the students. Seeing them light up is what it’s all about. It’s what makes 12-hour days of masterclasses, rehearsals, workshops and performances worth every intense minute. And I’m not going to lie: I was exhausted at the end of these four days.
One young alto saxophonist, Marina Panzetta, caused me to smile ear-to-ear when she performed my arrangement of Ornette Coleman’s “Una Muy Bonita” along with her band mate Alili Bradley on trumpet. They brought a beautiful spirit to this difficult piece of music and a willingness to try things they had never explored before. Check out this video of us playing this piece at the concert and my trading phrases with Marina.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=laLHkIGstdg
Marina and her family were in NY these past few days and stopped by to check out our Jazz at Lincoln Center rehearsal yesterday. A completely synchronistic moment occurred when Wynton called Una Muy Bonita, preparing for a set of Ornette’s music we will perform next week in Colorado.
Tim Jackson, director of the Monterey Jazz Festival, asked if I would sit in on Una Muy Bonita with the honor band at this year’s festival in September. I am so excited to play again with this great group and in particular with Marina, who will be a senior year next.
This weekend I will be performing with one of the most iconic musicians of all time. Wayne Shorter has contributed more to shaping the direction of jazz music with his composing and playing than just about anyone in the history of jazz.
Wayne Shorter is the guest with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra this weekend, performing new arrangements by the members of the orchestra of compositions by Mr. Shorter spanning 50 years. At 81 years old he looks and sounds easily 15 years younger. He certainly hasn’t lost that distinctive, soulful sound that has graced some of the most revered recordings of all time.
It has been more than inspiring hearing Mr. Shorter in person after only hearing his recordings all theses years: it has been an education. Hearing him in close proximity I am learning so much about music and being a musician during these rehearsals.
I did an arrangement of Diana (pronounced “Gee-onna” Wayne corrected) from the 1974 release Native Dancer. It was a difficult piece to reimagine for a big band: finding a balance between the transparent sound and subtle implications of the original recording and the density (and sometimes lesser flexibility) of the big band was a challenge. But, as with all new arrangements, we are finding a way to let the music take shape during the rehearsal process. Mr. Shorter himself has been more than flexible. His ability to be truly in the moment is having a great affect on all of us.
Last night was the final concert of a month-long tour that took me through seven countries, four climates and a three ounce deodorant stick.
Entering our third week tour meant saying good-bye to the lovely country of Panama and hello to shorter visits to two other wonderful places: Peru and Chile.
First I want to say one thing about Peru: Mangoes. Well, okay two things: pisco sours. A couple of these local beverages had me quite animated at our promoter-hosted dinner the night we arrived in Lima. The restaurant was set at the base of the remains a 2,000 year old pyramid, and the view was stunning (which had nothing to do with the effect of the indigenous drink).
The highlight in Peru was the education we did and the enthusiasm of the students, one who followed us around, riding on the bus, asking questions, pulling out his horn while we we set up for an afternoon concert for young people.
In Santiago, Chile, I did a masterclass at a local music school, and the instruments arrived just moments before. I walked several blocks in 90-something degree weather to the concert hall to grab my alto, and then several blocks in the opposite direction to get to the school. Sweaty and late, I walked into a small, stuffy room packed with about forty or so students of various ages, wide-eyed and expectant. With no time to check if my reed was working I pulled out my horn and played “Take the A Train” with a group of teachers. The reed was gone, and I could barely get a sound. I spoke for a few minutes about improvisation while I soaked a new reed in a glass or water. With this fresh cane I continued the workshop, jamming on a few tunes with the students.
It was painful we were in Buenos Aires for only 16 hours. This is such a great place and deserves a few days to explore. I remember dancing my first tango here years ago in a late night tango club, an experience directly responsible for the formation of my group Odeon, which fuses aspects of tango, Klezmer and second line grooves with modern jazz.
The last week of this tour took place in Brazil. Coming to São Paulo is always as much a reunion as it is a gig. Over the years I have met so many soulful musicians and people here and coming back is an opportunity to reconnect.
Some of my favorite experiences have been playing with the Jazz Sinfonica Orquestra. This symphony orchestra includes a full big band, and under the baton of João Maurício Galindo presents guest soloists on orchestrations of the guest’s original music. Like many great things, they are suffering economically. But this strain doesn’t affect the passion and feeling with which the musicians play.
This was evident the other day when I invited Ali Jackson and Greg Gisbert down to one of their rehearsals. We smiled ear to ear listening to them play through a program of choros. The musicians in the orchestra certainly have the discipline needed to play in any classical orchestra, but they bring something extra - this thing you can’t really write out or teach; a feeling, a spirit.
Over the years I have gotten to know Vinícius Barros, a percussionist from the Orchestra. When I got to town I reached out and invited him to our concert at Sala São Paulo. I told him to bring a few “toys.” Backstage I introduced him and his shoulder bag of percussion instruments to Wynton who invited him to join us on our closing number. Vinicius rose to the occasion elevating the groove on the tambourine and later taking an expressive solo on the cuíca.
Collaborating with musicians from other cultures has always been something that enriches all of our lives and creates lasting memories. Our experience in Recife, Brazil was the full embodiment of this collaboration. After dinner the night we arrived in this large port town (sometimes referred to as the Brazilian Venice) we walked down cobble-stoned streets to check out the rehearsal of a local frevo band. Frevo is a particular style of music that originates in this region of Brazil. It's very fast and technical; like choros on speed. We joined the musicians and marched in the streets, playing loud and ignorantly, sweating like pigs by the end. A crazy, musical riot.
The climax of our visit here was last night’s outdoor concert where the Spok Frevo band, considered one of the most important frevo groups in Recife, opened for us and then joined us on the last tune, an original composition by the band leader, alto saxophonist Maestro Spok. Due to just a short run-through at sound check, this technically challenging piece had the JLCO a bit out of our comfort zone musically, but right in the middle of it culturally and spiritually.
As great as this month has been, it’s time to come home...
A confluence of events - social, political, logistical and spiritual - caused us to postpone our long-anticipated residency in Caracas. While we were changing planes in Panama City, our layover turned into a five hour opportunity to reevaluate our situation, based on the intel that was coming our way.
Obama released a statement that outlined the growing hostilities between the US and Venezuela. There had already been a strong anti-American sentiment, but now a iffy situation had turned into something potentially dangerous and full of negative political implications.
Out touring staff did an incredible job dealing with last minute decision. At 1:30am we pulled our bags off the plane and went to the first hotel that could accommodate us, a Hard Rock Hotel. The net morning we had a meeting to discuss what would become of the next few days. It was decided we would stay in Panama and create a residency. We reached out to our friends Ruben Blades and Danilo Perez. Within 24 hours we had arranged up a schedule that included masterclasses, workshops, a concert for kids, two nights in a club and even a brunch at the American Embassy (who also came through with money to pay for a large part of our hotel expense).
The whole experience has pulled the band together in the way that difficult situations often do. While there existed the option of sending people home for five or six days, it was the overwhelming sentiment among the band we stay together and go through this as a group, and search for alternative gigs and educational opportunities - not necessarily to raise money (it will be impossible to make up the huge losses incurred) but to complete what our mission has always been: to bring soul, spirit and connection in the form of performances and teaching to places on the world that don't ordinarily have the chance to experience them.
As we get ready to board our plane to Lima, Peru, I reflect on the past week, and it’s clear this was meant to happen. It was no coincidence we ended up here.