Late last year, Gordon Au—trumpeter, arranger, composer, bandleader, writer, thinker, scientist, satirist, linguist—sent me the digital files for the second CD by the Grand Street Stompers, Do the New York, and I wrote back to him, “I am listening to DTNY (three tracks in, so far) and I love the mad exuberance and deep precision of the first track—a Silly Symphony, urban and hilarious and wonderfully executed. It’s a pity that the mobs no longer have transistor radios anymore, because each track could be an AM hit.”
Having listened to the disc several times by now, I stand by my initial enthusiasms. But I wouldn’t want anyone to think that zaniness overrides music. The compositions and performances are a lavish banquet of sounds and emotions: you won’t look at the CD player and think, “How many tracks are left?” at any point.
If you know Gordon Au, Tamar Korn, Molly Ryan, Kevin Dorn, Dennis Lichtman, Matt Koza, Matt Musselman, Nick Russo, Rob Adkins (and not incidentally Peter Karl, Kelsey Ballance, Kevin McEvoy, Barbara Epstein) you won’t need to spend a moment more on what I say. Scroll down to the bottom of this long post for links to Gordon’s notes, purchase, download: let joy be unconfined.
But I shall tell a story here. Jon-Erik Kellso has been a very good guide to new talent: through him, for instance, I heard about Ehud Asherie. In 2009, I arrived at The Ear Inn for a night of musical pleasure, and Jon-Erik told me he’d just finished “giving a lesson” to a young, seriously gifted trumpeter named Gordon who had wanted to study some fine points of traditional jazz performance practice from an acknowledged Master. This young man would be at The Ear later. And the prophesy came to pass.
Gordon’s trumpet playing was deliciously singular: he wasn’t a clone of one player or seven. Climbing phrases started unpredictably and went unusual places; a solid historical awareness was wedded beautifully to a sophisticated harmonic sense, and everything made sense, melodically and emotionally. He showed himself a fine ensemble player, not timid, oblivious, or narcissistic. When the set was over, we spoke, and he was genuinely gracious (later, in California, when I met his extended family, I understood why) yet with a quite delightfully sharp-edged wit, although he wasn’t flashing blades at me.
I began to follow Gordon—as best I could—to gigs: he appeared with Tamar Korn and vice versa; he took Jon-Erik’s place with the Nighthawks; he played with David Ostwald at Birdland…and soon formed his own group, the Grand Street Stompers.
(Gordon abbreviates “St.”; I spell it out. My perversity, not his.)
Often I saw, and sometimes I videoed them at Radegast, then elsewhere—as recently as last year, when they did a remarkable session at Grand Central Station, surely their place on the planet. Thus, as “swingyoucats” on YouTube, I’ve captured the band (releasing them, of course) on video for six years.
They are uniquely rewarding—a pianoless group that expresses its leader’s expansive, often whimsical personality beautifully. Even when approaching traditional “traditional” repertoire, Gordon will take his own way, neatly avoiding piles of cliche in his path. Yes, “Muskrat Ramble”—but with a Caribbean /Latin rhythm; yes, a Twenties tune, but one reasonably obscure, “She’s a Great Great Girl.” Gordon’s compositions and arrangements always sound fresh—and they aren’t pastiches or thin lines over familiar chords—even if I’ve heard the GSS perform them for years. And there are other wonderful quirky tangents: his love of Disney songs, the deeply refreshing ones, and his devotion to good yet neglected songs—the title track of this CD as well as “While They Were Dancing Around” on the group’s first CD. And, I think this a remarkable achievement, with Gordon’s soaring lead and a beautifully-played banjo in the rhythm section, the GSS often summons up an early Sixties Armstrong All-Stars, all joyous energy.
A few more words about this CD. Although one can’t underestimate the added frisson of hearing this band live—perhaps surrounded by dancers or dancing oneself, in a club, perhaps stimulated by ambiance, food, or drink—I think the experience of this disc is equal to or superior to anything that might happen on the spot.
Owing to circumstances, the GSS might be a quintet on the job; here it is a septet: trumpet / cornet; clarinet; soprano saxophone; trombone; banjo / guitar; string bass; drums; two singers. This expansive array of individualists allows Gordon to get a more delightfully orchestral sound. Even as a quintet, on the job, the GSS is a band and a working band at that: their performances are more than a series of horn solos, for Gordon has created twists and turns within his arrangements: riffs, backgrounds, trades, suets between instruments, different instruments taking the melodic lead—all making for a great deal of variety. Each chorus of a GSS performance feels satisfyingly full (not overstuffed) and delightfully varied.
And now I come to the possibly tactless part of the comparison between studio recording and live performance. With some bands, the studio has a chilling effect: everything is splendid, but the patient has lost a good deal of blood. And the impolite truth is the a group like the GSS performs in places where alcohol is consumed, so the collective volume rises after the first twenty minutes. Buy this disc to actually hear the beautiful layering and subtleties of the group that you might not hear on the job. Or just check it out for the sheer pleasure of it all.
Sound samples, ways to purchase a physical disc or download one (complete or individual performances) at this link: grandststompers.com—and Gordon’s very eloquent and sometimes hilarious liner notes here: grandststompers.com/album3notes.html.
Listen, read, enjoy, savor, download, purchase. As Aime Gauvin, “Doctor Jazz,” used to say on the radio, “Good for what ails you!”