The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis, just returned from a six week world tour that took the band down under to Australia and New Zealand before wrapping up. The ambassadors of jazz are not taking it easy, however, since getting back to their hometown; tenor saxophone player, Walter Blanding Jr. performed three two set nights last weekend, with his band, and last night, JLCO’s other sax great, Sherman Irby and Momentum kicked off a three day residency at Dizzy’s Club Cocoa Cola. An accomplished bandleader and saxophonist with the sweetest tone, Irby has also distinguished himself as a talented composer and arranger. Momentum is a natural extension of Irby’s vision as a leader, as he presents original compositions written with this specific band in mind. Joining Irby will be trombonist and fellow JLCO member Vincent Gardner, plus a highly prestigious rhythm section of Eric Reed (a former member of the JLCO), Willie Jones III, and Gerald Cannon. As Momentum pursues the almighty power of swing in these performances, audiences will hear the musical legacies of the all-time great jazz quintets.
After performing every night and rehearsing all day, plus jet lag, these pros don’t let fatigue keep them from what they love and do best, perform for jazz loving audiences the world over. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will be performing three nights in April, from the 14th through the 16th, backing vocalist Kate Davis for “World on A String: Swinging Songs of Broadway” at Rose Theater at Lincoln Center, a production that will pay tribute to Broadway’s brightest lights. Irby will be arranging a few songs for World on A String, as well as working on arrangements for his Momentum performances at Dizzy’s. After the shows this weekend, the musician will be at work arranging “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers, as well as “You Can Drive a Person Crazy” from Company (Sondheim).
The twelve songs that Irby arranged for the shows at Dizzy’s were composed while he was on the tour, and as of last week he was still arranging and learning how to play them. “We always write when we are on tour because we have so many projects going on; I have my laptop with a computer keyboard and a music keyboard, and I sit there and write on the road.” Irby is also finishing work on a ballet that was premiered a few years ago; “I’m writing that at the same time; we premiered the first act in 2013, danced by Hope Boykin of Alvin Ailey; she created her own dance group and performed it with us with a jazz orchestra.” Included in the sets at Dizzy’s is trombonist Vincent Gardner’s meditation on artist Sam Gilliam’s painting Blue Twirl, which was composed a few years ago.
Laughing, Irby explained that “it is one thing to write all these tunes, then you have to learn how to play them; it’s not second nature because writing is one brain and playing is another.” He went on to say “You write the chord changes the way you like to hear things, movements that you like to hear, songs that you like and like to play; those become the basis of solo changes that you do. When you get into your writing head, you try to write something that is interesting and melodic, you sit down and take the time to do it and then create somewhat of a challenge too, and make it swing. Sometimes your technique is not up to what you write so you have to work on that in order to play what you write.”
Irby says that he starts at the first measure and goes from there. “I don’t have everything worked out. Then it starts to flow and before you know it I have a tune. Sometimes I just start playing it on the keyboard and moments just start to happen. Then the melody starts to come and I start writing it down.” Irby avoids creating something that, in his words, is too heady, by making sure it is something that he can sing, chord changes that make sense; if it doesn’t swing, all it is is just some technical garbage for me. My main goal is to have that groove that is the basis for jazz. A telltale sign of the music is the blues and the soul in the music; if you can feel those blues in those lines, whether it’s written music or the way that you solo, then that is jazz, and usually when people hear that, and it’s really swinging, then they say they like it cause they can feel it.” No matter what, Irby is always looking for a certain groove, that’s the basis of the music, and when it’s not there,” Irby trails off. “Rock and Roll has its own groove, Rhythm and Blues has its own groove, and you can tell what it is just based upon the groove.”
Irby loves “Springtime for Hitler” and says the first thing that he will do in arranging it and putting his own stamp on it, is to figure put how to make it swing. “I do that for every arrangement that I do for the big band, first and foremost, how can I make this swing? And then I form a basis around that. The beautiful thing about ”Springtime for Hitler” is that Mel Brooks wrote it in the style of a song from the “American Song Book” a form that we are familiar with.” The rhythm section of Momentum is the same band that Irby played with on his debut album from 1996, Full Circle, and JLCO’s Gardner is a new addition to the band. “There’s something about that trombone alto combination, which I’ve never heard before, we seem to have a fate; it’s a different kind of sound, and I hope people come out and enjoy it.”
That different kind of sound was clear last night, at the first sold out set at Dizzy’s, when Gardner took the stage with Irby and the two had a unique conversation between two horns that brought down the house. With the city’s lights as a backdrop, and traffic swirling around Columbus Circle five floors below, Sherman Irby and Momentum, to use the sax great’s own words “dressed the blues in its finest clothes”. And here’s a shout out to Mel Brooks, Irby is hoping he will swing by to hear his swinging version of Sprintime for Hitler next month at the Rose Theater.
Sherman Irby & Momentum
Saturday, March 26 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 27 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.
Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola
10 Columbus Circle
New York, N.Y. 10019