Billy Mintz

It’s amazing how a fairly run of the mill show can turn into one of the best shows of your life.

Tuesday, as per usual, I went down to the 55 bar for Dave Binney’s bi-weekly show. Dave’s not in town this week, and neither is Danny, but the remaining members of the band always put on a great show.  This week, Eivind and Jacob came up with the names of two people they’d like to play with more, Ellery Eskelin and Billy Mintz.

I feel like people are at least somewhat aware of Ellery, who plays modern music with an incredibly informed tenor sound, echoing Don Byas, Benny Carter, Chu Berry, and all of the other sax legends that you don’t hear anymore.  Every time I hear him play, I think that he is the person who best understands Coleman Hawkins playing in the scene today (Sonny Rollins and Frank Wess are of course the notable living exceptions).  His ideas come out with such a flow, just as Hawk’s did. The powerful tone, of course, as well.  He’s also one of the last modern tenor players who’s not afraid to play standards, which of course I appreciate.  He’s shot up to the top of my favorite tenors in New York lately.

Billy Mintz is relatively unknown outside of New York, though.  He was West Coast for a while, playing as a studio musician, and then transitioning into a hyper-accurate fusion player, and finally a free musician.  I’ve seen him play a number of times, and have been riveted every time.  His free playing shows a level of economy that I’ve only ever seen in two other drummers, Victor Lewis and Paul Motian.  He can refuse to hit the drum for so long that the tension outweighs whatever madness is going on in the rest of the band, although the continuity of his ideas is never lost.  However, if he gets in the right mood, he can become one of the most swinging drummers in New York, right up there with people like Andrew Cyrille and Billy Hart.  I always say that if he wanted the gig in Barry Harris or Frank Wess’ bands, he could easily have it.  He seems to be comfortable in his avant-garde setting, however.

I went into the show knowing that it would be a solid outing, but not expecting it to blow my hair back.  I had just come from a great Billy Hart Quartet concert (where they played Lennie’s Groove, a tune that I can remember practicing for hours in my basement, trying to figure out not only how to play in 5/4 over a B minor vamp, but also just how to get my fingers around the melody.  Funny story: Ethan played it with both hands.  Wish I had thought of that…), and had tickets to the sure-to-be-fantastic Paul Motian tribute on the 22nd, so I was more looking for a solid middle to the week.

What I got was one of the most cohesive, innovative, and swinging groups I’ve seen in New York.  Billy, it turns out, came to play that night.  He came out swinging, laying in the pocket on every tune, and phrasing things like only a drummer his age can.  With his fusion past, however, he was ever so comfortable with the complex tunes of Jacob and Eivind, many with mixed-meter hiccups and other tricky foundations.

With a drummer playing like that on the gig, it’s so easy to just fall into a relaxed groove, playing whatever comes to mind without needing to worry about anything.  Ellery, however rose far above the call to action, and played three or four of the best solos I’ve heard all year.  The highlight was on “Just One of Those Things”, where he played about ten choruses of dynamic, unrepetitive tenor(said Jacob Sacks “That was one of the best eighth-note-based solos I’ve ever heard”) .  I was reminded of Sonny Rollins or Hawk, who have that ability to just keep playing, keeping the ideas, and phrasing fresh, while always weaving in and out of the band.  I kept thinking as I was listening to him how different he sounded than other tenor players in town, almost completely devoid of Wayne and Trane, indeed, devoid of any of that early 60s sound that is the spinal cord of modern jazz.

Although people I’ve heard in New York sometimes have similar influences, almost none of them would feel as comfortable in this context, at the intersection of swing tradition, the avant-garde, and the complex modern music of 35 year old Brooklynites.  The people most comfortable in that setting seem to be Ellery’s age; Tom Rainey, Jeff Lederer, Tony Malaby, and Ralph Alessi all come to mind.

Another highlight was the Monk tune “We See” and of course, Eivind’s disco-ish straight eighths tune.  Jacob and Eivind of course deserve to be mentioned.  Both, despite their forward reaching solo projects are, to me, one level more old-school than many of their contemporaries.  They still know all of the old tunes, they still write swinging originals, and they still play the shit out of the music.  They have a level of understanding and passion for the old guys that goes beyond nodding your head in agreement every time Philly Joe Jones is mentioned.  There are not many guys like that around, that are as dedicated to pushing the music forward as they are to being informed by its past.  On top of that, there’s no better ensemble player than Jacob, and Eivind makes every band he plays in feel amazing, so I really never lose with these guys.

I doubt they’ll ever record—indeed Jacob didn’t even record the gig for himself—but it was a gig I’ll always remember, one of those magical nights where everything just fell into place on a pickup gig.  It’s a strength of the music that I often forget, but whenever it happens, it reaffirms my love of the music.  Only in New York.  Only Jazz.

“Ooh, that’s a good one to transpose, because it goes almost everyplace.” —Barry Harris to me, on the subject of “Just One of Those Things”



~ by Martin Porter on March 23, 2013.

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