Theater music has greatly enriched the history of jazz. Composers like Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, Kern and Rodgers filled the “Great American Songbook” with music originally written for the theater. For a variety of reasons, these songs have always had great appeal for jazz players: their melodies are widely recognized, their chord patterns provide a stimulating structure for improvisation, and they lend themselves to an almost infinite variety of treatments, limited only by the musicians’ imagination and taste.
As a child, I vividly recall giving my parents’ Broadway Cast albums a spin on the old stereo while poring over the liner notes. It was quite a collection; most of the classics, like “My Fair Lady” and “Fiddler On The Roof”, along with lesser-known gems like “Pins And Needles” and “I Can Get It For You Wholesale”. I also remember sitting at the piano, plunking my way through the Vocal Selections of some of these shows, realizing that, if I learned how to interpret those strange chord symbols written on the sheet music, then I could be free to just play the melody and add the supporting notes of MY choosing. For better or for worse, a jazz musician was born….
In the Summer of 1980, freshly graduated from the New England Conservatory, I was hired as the Musical Director for a new theater company on Cape Cod. My lofty title belied the fact that I was the only musician. The rest of the company consisted of students from the Yale Drama School (including future Oscar-winning Actress Fran McDormand). The season included a production of “The Threepenny Opera”, and I remember being blown away by my first encounter with Kurt Weill’s score. Fittingly for a dark, brash story of beggars, prostitutes and thieves in 19th Century London, the songs of “Threepenny” were nothing like those of “Guys and Dolls” or “No, No, Nanette”. They were dissonant, modal; they had more in common with early 20th Century art songs than Tin Pan Alley.
I tucked the “Threepenny” score into my memory bank, where it rattled around and accumulated interest for many years. Eventually, I thought to myself, “Self, I wonder what would happen if I messed around with some of those ‘Threepenny’ tunes?” So I tracked down the score and started playing through it. The main thing that I wanted to do during this process was to change the pervasive oom-pah/boom-chuck feel into grooves that were more compatible with the small-group jazz that I enjoy playing. I kept the melodies virtually intact, and tweaked the harmonies less than you might expect. The big challenge: What to do with that white elephant known as “Mack the Knife”? After all, versions by Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong are so strongly etched into everyone’s collective brains. My solution: three fairly miniature versions (solo piano, solo sax, solo bass) that sort of serve as palate cleansers; musical sorbet, so to speak. I hope that you enjoy what we’ve done.
Living in Chicago affords me the luxury of having the opportunity to play with many fine musicians. Choosing the right band for this project was no easy task, but I feel quite satisfied that I chose wisely.
Jim Gailloreto can make music on an astonishing variety of instruments, and I don’t get to play with him nearly as often as I’d like. Not only did he testify on the tenor and soprano saxes, but his inclusion of the seldom-heard alto flute (his idea) greatly expanded the overall sonic palette of this music. He plays with lyrical beauty and passionate drive on all three instruments, and his musical suggestions and positive spirit proved invaluable.
I’ve played more gigs with Larry Kohut than with any other Chicago bassist, stemming largely from our long stint at the Gold Star Sardine Bar. As a result, he knows my playing with an almost clairvoyant sense, often seeming to know what I’m going to play before I do. Like many jazz bassists, he is sometimes reluctant to use his bow. Unlike many jazz bassists, however, he really has no good reason for that reluctance, as he sounds great with it. “Legit chops”, as we say in the biz.
Drummer Eric Montzka and I have played together every Thursday night in a quintet for the past few years at Andy’s, the venerable Chicago jazz club. We’ve also played countless other gigs together, many of which I’d rather not discuss. But I can discuss that he has a knack for instantly making creative-sounding music out of material with which he is completely unfamiliar. That’s a helpful quality, since that’s precisely what the case was here. It’s often difficult for me to convey to a drummer what I’m looking for, probably because I’m not exactly sure myself. I prefer someone whom I trust to make good choices, and then say “yes” or “no”. With Eric, on this recording, it was almost always “yes”.
This music was never in danger of being over-rehearsed. Much of the shape and texture of what you hear was determined during the recording sessions, largely due to ideas from Jim, Larry and Eric. All of the music was recorded over the course of two evenings about a week apart in June, 2004. The one exception is the solo bass version of “Mack The Knife”, which was recorded about six months later. The original version was determined to have contained Urdu musings which probably came from a cabby’s radio and leaked their way into Larry’s microphone.
So, I’d like to express my gratitude to these three inspiring musicians who were able to flesh out many of my inchoate notions into the finished product heard on this recording. It was truly a group effort.