NOAHJAZZ - NB PONTIFICATES

MY REFLECTIONS ON MUSIC, LIFE, FOOD AND WHO KNOWS WHAT ELSE . . .

the Cast of “Ripples” Part 4: Jazz Samaritan Alliance

One of the core ensembles on Ripples, the Jazz Samaritan Alliance, was borne out of a simple desire for community and collective action. In 2012 I set about assembling a collective of like-minded peers committed both to quality music and the responsibility to use music as a force for good.

Saxophonist Jimmy Greene (click here) is one of the short list of people directly responsible for my becoming a jazz musician (you can thank or curse him accordingly). I’ll write more about that when his own new album drops, but here I will simply say that at the most formative point of my adolescent decision-making about a life path, he showed me both how inspiring this music can be and how dignified a musician can be as a human being. That was well over 20 years ago, and he has yet to let me down on either front. If you can tell me a story of him either being mean to someone or sounding lousy on a gig, it’ll be the first story of either type I’ve ever heard.

I met Jimmy in 1991, and the second time we played together (which I did with my fingers poking through a cast on my broken left wrist) a couple other young musicians came to play, including alto saxophonist Kris Allen (click here). I had already heard Kris by then and was frankly puzzled by how a 15 year old kid could play with such sophistication. I’m still puzzled, but getting to know what a smart, hard-working and soulful person he is, it kind of makes sense. His depth of knowledge and virtuosity might lead you to expect a myopic “jazz nerd” (and don’t get me wrong, I love geeking out with Kris and Jimmy about this record and that bass player and so on), but he is a deep human being and one of the first people I turn to when I need real lucidity.

Vibraphonist Chris Dingman (click here), meanwhile, is to me emblematic of the best-case-scenario for a liberal arts-educated jazz musician. When I first heard him, he was an undergraduate at Wesleyan . . . and I thought he played both vibes and drums okay (though I was impressed by the percussion ensemble arrangement/transcription he did of Bobby Hutcherson’s “Ice Cream Man”). After he graduated in 2002 I started to get to know him and found him to be a really thoughtful, soulful young man with a lot of musical potential. And my goodness did he then work hard to develop that, having already broadened both his mind and his musical point of reference at Wesleyan. Every time I heard him he was becoming more lyrical, more swinging and more proficient, and by the time he finished his stint at the Thelonious Monk Institute, he was downright commanding as a player and a composer. When I composed my Know Thyself suite, I didn’t necessarily need vibes, but I DID need Chris.

Finally, I first heard about drummer Johnathan Blake (click here) in the late 1990s when he was just beginning college and pianist (and sometimes teacher of mine) Sumi Tonooka, a longtime colleague of JB’s brilliant violinist father John Blake, Jr., told me about him. I had the opportunity to play with him on a gig at a truly bizarre venue, a largely-deserted bar attached to the seedy hotel at a small airport in NJ right outside of Philly. But none of that mattered because of this young whippersnapper swinging like crazy. I gave him a ride to North Jersey after that and was struck the whole way by the energy of warmth and humility that came forth throughout. Now that he’s an A-list player, juggling gigs with Kenny Barron and Tom Harrell and Dr. Lonnie Smith and many others, that warmth and unassuming nature are, if anything, larger.

Are you noticing a trend here? Indeed, these are all top-shelf players, excellent composers (all bandleaders in their own right) and thoughtful, caring human beings. They all approach their music with the same impeccably high standards with which they love their wives (and in most cases kids – Dingman’s the youngest and most recently married, so we’ll cut him slack on that front – kidding, kidding!). Working together on ideas for putting forth music that impacts social causes has been illuminating ‘and inspiring and it almost wouldn’t matter if the unit didn’t become a performing ensemble . . . except that it would be squandering the partnership of such fabulous musicians (frankly, I almost feel like a mascot surrounded by such great players, but that’s what practicing is for).

They played their hearts out on three songs on Ripples: “Lester,” “Peeling the Onion” and “Motherless,” along with two shorter fragments with smaller incarnations. Bassist Linda Oh joined us for two of those tracks and some guy named Kenny Barron came and played piano on “Lester” as well (with me on organ on all three of those tracks as well as slide guitar on “Peeling the Onion”). I don’t really know how to articulate the vibe in the studio that day, so I will simply encourage you to check out those tracks and hear for yourself. I look forward to the fruition of the other projects we’re hatching up, and in the meantime I’m very excited to have two Jazz Samaritan Alliance gigs to celebrate the CD, on 3/13 at the Jazz Gallery in NYC and on 5/9 at Firehouse 12 in New Haven. Come on out :)

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