Gabriel Evan Does John Kirby (& Others)

TCHAIKOVSKY: Waltz of the Flowers. VASQUEZ: Rumba Azul. RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Arabian Nightmare. EVAN: South 5th Street. Negotiations of South Williamsburg. TRAD.: Diane [Tropical Moon]. ROBINSON-CONRAD: Singin’ the Blues. ELLINGTON: Jubilee Stomp. JOHNSTON: Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes. MANCINI: Lujon. SHAVERS: Effervescent Blues. BLANC-HERNANDEZ: Rumba Tambah / Gabriel Evan Orchestra: John Zarsky, tpt; Evan, a-sax/s-sax; Joe Goldberg, cl/t-sax; Joe Kennedy, pno; Ben Fox, bs; Michael Voelker, dm/perc / self-produced CD, available at

Here’s a new CD, scheduled for release on April 30, that pays homage, for the most part, to one of the most original, innovative yet sadly underestimated small bands of the late 1930s-early ‘40s, the John Kirby Sextet. I first encountered this astonishing group back in the mid-1970s when I picked up a 2-LP set devoted to their radio transcription discs of the period 1941-44 and was immediately hooked. The Kirby band consisted of six virtuoso musicians—trumpeter Charlie Shavers, only 19 years old when he joined them in 1938; clarinetist Buster Bailey, who along with Benny Goodman had studied his instrument with Franz Schoepp, first clarinet of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; alto saxist Russell Procope, who later went on to a long career as a member of Duke Ellington’s orchestra; pianist Billy Kyle, the man who could “make the piano smile,” later known for his work with Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars; Kirby himself, who had played bass with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra for several years; and drummer O’Neill Spencer, undoubtedly the least-known member of the group, whose fleet, virtuosic yet understated playing was ideal for this band. I wrote an extensive appreciation of them way back in April 2016, the early days of this blog.

And now here is a sextet led by New York-based saxophonist Gabriel Evan which, in at least half of this album, pays tribute to the Kirby band. But I’m a bit offended that their music is referred to in the publicity sheet as “bug music” and “cartoon music.” Yes, one or two of Kirby’s numbers were featured in cartoons, but this wasn’t the reason the band played them. Within each tight, brilliantly-conceived Kirby arrangement were innovative solos, particularly by Shavers who in 1938-39 sounded more like Dizzy Gillespie than Dizzy himself did in that period. Yes, their music was meant to be entertaining, but it was also jazz-conceived. The Raymond Scott Quintette was much more geared towards cartoon entertainment than the Kirby band.

Interestingly, the CD starts off with a number that I would have sworn was recorded by Kirby, Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers in swing tempo, but I checked my collection and it isn’t so. The one number Kirby recorded from the Nutcracker was Bounce of the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Evan band simulates the tightness of the original Kirby Sextet, but with trumpeter John Zarsky fluffing several notes in the introduction to this tune it’s hard to compare him to Shavers, one of the greatest virtuoso trumpet players of his time, although Zarsky almost redeems himself by going into an extreme upper register that Shavers never had. But perhaps the biggest difference between these two groups is that the Evan band plays with a rather stiff concept of swing. Even a brief listen to any one of the Kirby Sextet’s dozens of original recordings will show you that their sense of swing was looser and more relaxed. But I’m not blaming Evan too much. Most modern jazz musicians, though brilliant in many ways, simply don’t know how to swing. The feeling for a swing beat has since gone the way of the dinosaur in jazz, although many modern-day jazz groups can stomp in the style of pre-swing jazz.

The genuine Kirby numbers reproduced here in this set are Arabian Nightmare, Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes and Effervescent Blues. Even contributes two originals, South 5th Street and Negotiations of South Williamsburg, and there are new arrangements of Duke Ellington’s 1928 Jubilee Stomp and the Frank Trumbauer version of Singin’ the Blues which, although attributed in the booklet to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, was not one of that group’s collaborative efforts (as were Tiger Rag, Ostrich Walk, Livery Stable Blues etc.). It was actually written by the band’s second pianist, J. Russel Robinson, with lyrics added by Con Conrad.

Interestingly, Evan’s own South 5th Street is looser and more swinging than some of the Kirby tributes, and on this one clarinetist Joe Goldberg finally gets a solo. His playing here is looser and bluesier, albeit less virtuosic, than Bailey’s own playing. He reminded me of Joe Marsala, who led a small band that played a sort of hybrid of Chicago jazz and swing at the Hickory House in New York (a band remembered for its many black players at a time when few besides Benny Goodman went for racial integration, plus Marsala’s wife, Adele Girard, the greatest jazz harpists who ever lived).

The one number that puzzled me by its inclusion was Diane [Tropical Moon], which is NOT the more famous “Diane” song from the ‘30s that everyone knows. It’s a somewhat intricate arrangement but, again, it doesn’t swing and there seemed to me nothing in it reminiscent of jazz. Yet Evan’s arrangement of the Trumbauer recording of Singin’ the Blues certainly does swing, much more so than the original—except for Bix Beiderbecke’s solo, of course, which as usual is played virtually note-for-note here. (And why not? You can’t improve on perfection, and this was one of Bix’s two or three most perfect solos on record.) I certainly hope that no one calls this performance bug music or cartoon music.

The Evan band, as I might have predicted, gets the 1920s feeling of Ellington’s Jubilee Stomp down perfect, although it’s not quite as fiery a performance as the one by a little-known band called the Bratislava Hot Serenaders, in my view one of the greatest re-creators of ‘20s jazz that ever existed. The highlight of this track is Joe Kennedy’s piano solo.

Evan’s original Negotiations of South Williamsburg is next, a strange, slow number in the minor with an almost Klezmer feel to it. I really liked this one; it was entirely different from all the other music on the set and, except for the Klezmer clarinet, closer in feel to a real Kirby performance than some of the others. At 1:41 the tempo increased substantially and the band played in a somewhat loose groove. Very nice. Another surprise on the album was Lujon, a Henry Mancini tune I’d never heard before., taken at a nice, relaxed tempo with a bit of the Latin “exotica” one heard throughout the late 1950s-early ‘60s (i.e., Martin Denny)—but again, to me honest, it wasn’t a jazz performance.

After a pretty nice romp through Charlie Shavers’ Effervescent Blues, the CD concludes with another non-jazz piece I’d not heard before, Rumba Tambah, and this one DID sound like cartoon music to me.

A mixed bag, then. A few nice tributes to earlier jazz greats, a couple of interesting originals, and a few ditzy rumbas that, to me, didn’t have a place on this album.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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