Eat a Burger With This Album and You May Swear It’s a Sunday at the Ear Inn

The music of the EarRegulars is so effectively played, so aggressive, and so full of ideas and spirit that the last thing one thinks about when listening to it is trying to pigeonhole it into a specific subgenre.

Aidan Grant
Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri outside the Ear Inn. Aidan Grant

Jon-Erik Kellso and The EarRegulars
‘Live At The Ear Inn’
Arbors Jazz Records
Appearing Sundays at the Ear Inn

Another long-time observer of the jazz scene and I were having an argument. We were listening to one of the increasing number of very young musicians who specialize in the music of the 1920s and ’30s, and she made the point that those players, for whatever reason, feel obliged to dress the part, taking the stage in old-fashioned fedoras and bow-ties. 

I responded with the idea that the younger retro-beboppers essentially also did the same thing, wearing impeccably tailored Italian suits à la ’50s Miles Davis, but she was having none of it; this very minor debate did not reach a satisfactory conclusion.

What I love about the EarRegulars — and their new album in particular — is that they render the above discussion irrelevant. Granted that this is, for lack of a better term, pre-modern jazz, but it’s so effectively played, so aggressive, and so full of ideas and spirit that the last thing one thinks about when listening to it is trying to pigeonhole it into a specific subgenre, along with the costumery that supposedly goes with it.

The only thing that connects this music to your father or your grandfather’s jazz is the title of the band — the EarRegulars — which harkens back to a time when ensembles were allowed to have witty or even punny names. Since 2007, trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso has been leading what is usually a quartet every Sunday evening at the Ear Inn, at 326 Spring St., Manhattan. There’s never a cover charge: in fact, the back of the new CD booklet features a photo of the tip bucket that gets passed through the crowd at least once a set. Otherwise, the price of a burger brings the chance to hear some of the very best players in the city.

The new “Live at the Ear Inn” is only the third official recording of the EarRegulars, following “The EarRegulars” (2014) and “In the Land of Beginning Again” (2015), though the group has been documented extensively by a jazz blogger and videographer, Michael Steinman. The new album is especially welcome in that it’s recorded live: Apparently, they taped two nights’ worth of music this past January, and picked the best 55 minutes.  

The core of the group is the duo of Mr. Kellso and guitarist Matt Munisteri, who are joined by a rotating roster of second horn and usually either Neal Miner or Pat O’Leary on bass. There’s never a piano or a drummer, not least because there’s no room for either instrument in the postage-stamp size space that serves as a bandstand at the Ear. For that matter, there’s no room for them in the music, in that Mr. Munisteri plays enough rhythm and harmony that you never miss them. 

The first three pieces date from the jazz age, starting with “Sleep,” a tune by a lesser-known classical composer that unwittingly became a jazz and dance band standard, not to mention a favorite of tap dancers. It’s a very lively — and completely mistitled — number that sports one of many excellent, expressive trombone solos by John Allred.

The next two tracks find Mr. Kellso declaiming his allegiance to both of the major trumpet avatars of early jazz, Bix Beiderbecke on “I’m Coming Virginia” and Louis Armstrong on “No One Else But You.”   A multi-instrumental virtuoso, Scott Robinson, shines on both of these, playing highly unusual horns: the first features a tárogató, a sort of Hungarian soprano saxophone that we just heard Charles Lloyd play at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the second a bizarre brass-reed hybrid called the normaphone, which actually sounds more like a valve trombone here.

The rest of the album includes Victor Herbert’s posthumous ballad hit, “Indian Summer,” treated like anything but a ballad. “Vignette” is one of the better-remembered tunes by another genre-defying musician, the late Hank Jones, while “I Double Dare You” — with guest reeds Jay Rattman and Evan Christophere — and “Back o’Town Blues” also derive from the Louis Armstrong band book.  

Singer Catherine Russell, whose father composed “Back o’Town” during his tenure as Armstrong’s musical director, sings the latter in such a compelling, declamatory fashion that she steals the show and effectively concludes the album.  

As I’ve often griped in these pages, so many contemporary albums are sabotaged by overaggressive audio processing.  Not so here: Recording engineers Stewart Lerman and Billy Perez — and the Grammy-winning producer, Russ Titelman, credited here as “mastering supervisor” — have captured a marvelously live-sounding representation of the band, complete with crowd noises and side comments by the players. In fact, if you pre-arrange to order a hamburger and a beer via takeout, then you’ll feel like you’re really there.

The New York Sun

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