Lew Soloff was a great trumpeter who was the epitome of a cross-over musician. He made everyone around him sound good…a real team player.
YOU KIDDING ME?
BUT AS I WENT THROUGH MY MUSICAL RITES OF PASSAGE DURING THE EARLY 1970S, MY REFERENCE POINTS FOR THE ARTISTRY OF TRUMPET MASTER LEW SOLOFF WERE FORGED IN A MUCH MORE OBSCURE CONTEXT…DURING THE MANY TIMES I MADE THE TREK FROM LONG ISLAND TO A FUNKY-BUTT CLUB ON MANHATTAN’S LOWER EAST SIDE–TO IMMERSE MYSELF IN THE MUSIC OF MY NEW FOUND HERO, DRUMMER ELVIN JONES.
THERE WERE NIGHTS AT SLUGS, LOCATED ON EAST 3RD STREET BETWEEN AVENUES B AND C, WHERE I WAS LITERALLY THE ONLY LISTENER IN ATTENDANCE. I’D ORDER A MUG OF WHITE WINE FOR A BUCK, AND POSITION MYSELF DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF ELVIN’S BASS DRUM, AND JUST GLORY IN THE LUMINESCENCE OF HIS CONCEPTION, AS MISTER JONES AND BASSIST GENE PERLA KEPT SAXOPHONISTS DAVE LIEBMAN AND STEVE GROSSMAN PULSATING ON TECTONIC PLATES OF RHYTHM.
BOTH RESPONDED WITH SUCH UNBRIDLED PASSION AND VIRTUOSITY THAT I NEVER EVEN REMOTELY SUSPECTED THAT THIS REPRESENTED, FOR ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES, AMONG THEIR VERY FIRST BIG-TIME PROFESSIONAL GIGS (ALTHOUGH DAVE HAD TOURED WITH TEN WHEEL DRIVE AND APPRENTICED WITH ANOTHER LEGENDARY DRUMMER, PETE LAROCA, WHILE STEVE TOOK OVER THE SAXOPHONE CHAIR FROM NO LESS AN ICON THAN WAYNE SHORTER, IN THAT MILES AT THE FILLMORE EAST ENSEMBLE WITH CHICK COREA, KEITH JARRETT, DAVE HOLLAND AND AIRTO).
NEVER MATTERED TO ELVIN, GENE, DAVE AND STEVE IF THERE WERE ONE PERSON IN ATTENDANCE OR A HUNDRED. THEY PLAYED AS IF THEIR LIVES DEPENDED ON IT; AS IF THIS WAS THE LAST GIG THEY WERE EVER GOING TO PLAY. THEY WERE INSPIRED BY THE MUSIC ITSELF, REFLECTING THAT SEARCHING TRADITION AND TOTAL SPIRITUAL COMMITMENT OF THE LATE JOHN COLTRANE.
THERE IS SOMETHING ABOUT THE SOUND AND FEEL OF A GREAT TRUMPET PLAYER AND A MASTER DRUMMER, THE INTERMINGLING OF ALL THAT BRASS AND BRONZE, THAT IS SINGULAR TO JAZZ: THINK CLIFFORD BROWN AND BOOKER LITTLE WITH MAX ROACH; THINK LEE MORGAN AND FREDDIE HUBBARD WITH ART BLAKEY; THINK MILES DAVIS WITH PHILLY JOE JONES AND TONY WILLIAMS. ELVIN WAS OFTEN INSPIRED TO CALL OUT THE TRUMPETER’S NAME (“YEAH, LEW, BABY!”) WHEN IN THE THROES OF THEIR CONVERSATIONAL COMMUNION, AND THE WHOLE BAND SEEMED TO DERIVE A SIGNIFICANT BOOST TO THEIR ALREADY FORMIDABLE LEVEL OF PASSION, WHEN LEW CAME BY TO JOIN THEM.
FROM BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS TO ELVIN JONES?
NOT AS MUCH OF A STRETCH AS YOU WOULD THINK FOR A MUSICIAN’S MUSICIAN SUCH AS LEW SOLOFF, WHO CAME OF AGE AMONG A GENERATION OF PLAYERS WHO TOOK PRIDE NOT ONLY IN THEIR BEBOP ARTISTRY, BUT IN THEIR ABILITY TO BE TRUE WORKING MUSICIANS IN THE BEST SENSE OF THAT TERM; TO MAKE GIGS, AND TREAT EACH ONE AS SPECIAL, BE IT SOME LIGHTWEIGHT CATSKILLS HANG, A HUMBLE BAR MITZVAH OR A JINGLE DATE, LET ALONE THE FORMIDABLE READING DEMANDS OF A BROADWAY SHOW, A SYMPHONIC WORK OR A BIG BAND.
SURE, LEW SOLOFF GARNERED A LOT OF ATTENTION FROM HIS WORK IN ONE OF THE FIRST SUCCESSFUL CROSSOVER/JAZZ-ROCK GIGS WITH BLOOD SWEAT & TEARS. BUT HE COULD ALSO BE CALLED UPON TO PLAY “LEGIT” TRUMPET IN THE CLASSICAL SENSE, TO BRING A COMMANDING PRESENCE TO BOTH LEAD AND ENSEMBLE FUNCTIONS IN A TRUMPET SECTION, AND TO SOLO WITH INSPIRATION AND AUTHORITY IN JAZZ-ROCK, MODERN JAZZ AND CLASSICAL SETTINGS.
AS SUCH, OVER THE YEARS, HE MADE A SIGNIFICANT CONTRIBUTION TO THOSE WONDERFUL GIL EVANS BIG BANDS THAT USED TO HOLD COURT AT SWEET BASIL IN THE VILLAGE, TO JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER ENSEMBLES. YOU NAME IT. LEW SOLOFF WAS A PRO’S PRO, AND A TRUMPETER PLAYER’S TRUMPETER. HE COULD BE JUST AS FORCEFUL OR AS INVISIBLE AS THE MUSIC REQUIRED.
LEW SOLOFF DIDN’T NEED TO BE A LEAD DOG JUST TO PULL THE SLED.
I LAST HEARD LEW SOLOFF LIVE IN JANUARY OF 2014, WHEN HE LENT A BRILLIANT TOUCH OF VOCALIZED COUNTERPOINT TO THE ARTISTIC CONCEPTION OF VOCALIST TESSA SOUTER’S VERY ORIGINAL APPROACH TO A CHAMBER-STYLED ENSEMBLE DOWNTOWN AT THE 55 BAR IN SHERIDAN SQUARE.
(LIVING AS I DO NEAR THE GEORGE WASHINGTON BRIDGE, EVERYTHING IS NECESSARILY DOWNTOWN.)
LEW WAS…WELL, LEW WAS LEW, ABLE TO TEMPER HIS CONCEPTION TO THE DEMANDS OF THE MOMENT, WITHOUT HOLDING BACK, YET NEVER OFFHANDEDLY IMPOSING HIS EGO ON THE MUSIC. WHATEVER WAS REQUIRED, BE IT HEAVY OR LIGHT, LEW HAD THE SKILL AND THE KNOWLEDGE AND THE SENSITIVITY TO MAKE THE MUSIC COME OUT RIGHT.
SO FOR LEW TO LEAVE US SO SUDDENLY, A YOUNG MAN OF 71, FROM A MASSIVE HEART ATTACK, IS AS STUNNING A LOSS AS WHEN HIS OWN MUSICAL COLLEAGUE, PIANIST MULGREW MILLER, SUCCUMBED TO A STROKE, AN EVEN YOUNGER MAN OF 57, BACK IN THE SPRING OF 2013. YOU DON”T REPLACE CATS LIKE THAT.
[SIGH. I RECKON WE’RE ALL PLAYING WITH THE HOUSE’S MONEY.]
IT WAS BACK AROUND 1998-1999, THAT THE NOTED PIANIST, CLUB-OWNER, RACONTEUR AND TIRELESS ADVOCATE FOR MODERN JAZZ, THE ESTIMABLE LORD TODD BARKAN, ENGAGED ME TO DO THE LINER NOTES FOR ONE OF LEW SOLOFF’S ALL-TOO INFREQUENT RECORDINGS AS A LEADER, A SESSION WHICH TODD HAD CO-PRODUCED: WITH A SONG IN MY HEART.
IT FEATURED AN ENSEMBLE ONE MIGHT LIKEN TO THE THE FAMED MURDERER’S ROW OF THE 1927 NEW YORK YANKEES, VERILY, EACH MAN A DUDE: PIANIST MULGREW MILLER, BASSIST GEORGE MRAZ AND DRUMMER VICTOR LEWIS.
I THUS ENJOYED THE PLEASURE OF AN EXTENDED HANG WITH LEW SOLOFF: BOTH TO REPRISE HIS COMING OF AGE AS A MUSICIAN, AND TO BRING INTO FOCUS THE MUSICAL VALUES WHICH SHAPED THE ENSEMBLE CHARACTER OF THIS ELEGANTLY UNDERSTATED AND VERY SOFTLY FOCUSED RECITAL, IN WHICH, BY AND LARGE (THE TITLE TUNE TAKING ON A MORE FORCEFUL APPROACH), BALLADS AND LEW’S HARMON MUTED TRUMPET DEFINED THE RECORDING’S SOUND SIGNATURE.
(UPON REFLECTION, ENGAGING LEW IN THE INTERVIEW PROCESS WAS ANALOGOUS TO THE GIVE AND TAKE, THE CALL AND RESPONSE ONE MIGHT ENJOY IN PLAYING WITH HIM ON A BANDSTAND–RIGHT UP THERE WITH OTHER CHERISHED MEMORIES OF ENGAGING GIANTS THE LIKES OF SONNY ROLLINS, HERBIE HANCOCK AND CLARK TERRY.)
WHILE WHAT FOLLOWS, IS A DISTILLATION OF CONVERSATIONS RELATING VERY MUCH TO A SPECIFIC PROJECT, AT A PARTICULAR TIME AND PLACE, IT NEVERTHELESS AFFORDS US THE OPPORTUNITY TO TAKE THE MEASURE OF A VERY SWEET MAN, AN ALL-AROUND MUSICIAN AND A TRUMPET MASTER OF THE VERY HIGHEST ORDER.
* * * * * * * * *
With A Song In My Heart is a summit meeting of jazz virtuosos, so confident in their mastery, that they’re able to strip away all artifice and zero in on the liquid cherry center of collective improvisation: tune and tempo. This is a session that invites you to immerse yourself fully in its lyric details, or to daydream away to its deep, easygoing grooves. With A Song In My Heart sings and swings, and Lew Soloff chairs this recital with the elegance and tranquility of a horn player for whom the trumpet’s technical challenges have long ago been surmounted.
On With A Song In My Heart, Soloff plays with such grace and ease, with an economy of means and such a real sense of nuance and shading, that it puts me in mind of another paradigm of brass refinement, Clark Terry—the Johnny Hodges of the trumpet. Soloff’s devotion to the music so transcends the technical challenges of the instrument, it’s tempting to overlook how hard it is to make it look so easy. Indeed Soloff plays like a man with nothing to prove, save for his deep devotion to the virtues of a song-like tone and a beautifully sculpted phrase.
Soloff’s Harmon-muted ruminations are so richly adorned with timbral and textural details, so lovingly punctuated by shrewd syncopations and telling silences, that one is reminded anew of the trumpet’s capacity not simply for brash rhythmic excitement but for sublime, voice-like melodic invention.
“And there are many ways of doing it. There are people who play a lot of notes, and there are people who don’t play a lot of notes. But I have a particular fascination with the people who don’t. Like, what is that quality that makes them so special? And that’s the thing about this record that I like so much.”
Which is why, in a sense, With A Song In My Heart represents the artistic apex of a long, circuitous creative arc—the culmination of Soloff’s life-long fascination with the instrument’s capacity for vocal expression.
Born on February 20, 1944, Soloff’s deep spiritual connection to the trumpet incubated away subliminally in the archives of his mind for years and years, until in a flash of memory, he realized the true origins of his artistic inspiration. “I was raised in Brooklyn until I was five,” Soloff recalls.
“I moved to Lakewood, New Jersey in the second grade. When I was in the fourth grade, they gave everybody a tonette, right. And then in the fifth grade they asked everybody what instrument they wanted to play, and I picked the trumpet, I thought, because it was shiny. Quite honestly that’s the reason I consciously thought that I played the trumpet, until I was in college, when I realized the real reason. I was walking back to the dormitory from classes one night, and I started to remember Roy Eldridge’s solo from “After You’ve Gone” with Gene Krupa, a record my grandmother and grandfather had in the house when I was like four or five.
“And back then I used to listen to Louis Armstrong, because of my Uncle, who was a show piano player named Jesse Solomon. He turned me on to Louis, and I was listening to records like “I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music” and especially “Shoe Shine Boy.” On the former he executes a scale where he goes up very, very sweetly to a high G on the trumpet, and that kind of turned me on to the upper register of the instrument. But I wasn’t conscious of this when I first picked up the trumpet, yet that was my introduction to music, and I began playing trumpet when I was ten. And after doing my first job in the Catskills when I was fifteen, I decided to be a musician because I had so much fun hanging around the musicians and entertainers. I just knew that this was my thing.”
As a young jazz fan, making my way through the catacombs of Manhattan it seemed as though everywhere I turned up, every other disc I laid my hands on, there was Lew Soloff. When I picked up on those early Blood Sweat And Tears records, there was Lew Soloff. Caught a performance by the Gil Evans Big Band, and there was Lew Soloff. Went down to the Lower East Side to hear Elvin Jones at Slugs and the drummer would just light up like a Christmas tree whenever Lew Soloff dropped in from another job to add his trumpet to the mix.
Live or in the studio, it didn’t seem to make much difference what the music was or what you needed. Jazz or Latin. Instrumental or vocal charts. Improvisation or sight reading. Soloist or section man. Middle register lyricism or upper register screaming. If you needed a trumpet player you could bet your budget on—then or now—the call went out for Lew Soloff, the ultimate team player and working musician.
“I don’t do that much studio work anymore,” Soloff points out over lunch as we discuss his rich tapestry of experience. “I’m almost totally involved in the jazz world. But coming up, anything I played, I loved—I just wanted to have the horn on my face. I was in the Catskills for seven summers from 1959-1965. And by doing that, I learned to sight read really well, playing different acts every night. I still do job-type jobs, because I have a family to support, and until you really break through in a major kind of way, it’s very difficult to make a living just in the jazz world, without anything else to fall back on.
“You see, the connotation of working musician to me is being hired to play your instrument, rather than being hired to play your music. And it’s all been a lot of fun for me. If it’s a really, really great arrangement it’s a joy. One of the thrills of my life was playing lead with Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand. When I came up there were so many great big band records, and I wanted to be one of those guys on the back of the album jacket, at first, but then I got turned on to some other things.
“I always improvised in the context of whatever little club dates I was doing and whatever jam sessions I could make. But in the summer of 1963 I played up at Kutscher’s Country Club in a show band. And every night I and the other musicians—including Dave Liebman—would jam until five in the morning. I learned a lot about playing that summer, and that I like to play too much to only be a big band trumpet player. I needed more expression than that alone could afford me.”
Working his way around the New York music scene in the ‘60s, Lew Soloff’s blend of craft and creativity soon earned him a reputation as musician’s musician, and it seemed as if all the top bandleaders gave him a holler at one time or another.
“I was a working musician on the scene, making rehearsal bands and recording dates,” Soloff says proudly of his formative days. “I did some club dates. I played in Radio City Music Hall. When I came to New York I started working with Machito and a whole lot of really good Latin players, such as Tito Puente. I even played with Vincent Lopez. The first jazz gig I had was with Maynard [Ferguson]. Then I started rehearing with Kenny Dorham and Joe Henderson in that wonderful big band, and we rehearsed three hours a day, five days a week. And that was really a lot of fun.
“Then in 1966 [tuba player] Howard Johnson got me on the Gil Evans Big Band, and to me that was the greatest gig in my life. I played with him until he passed away, and I still play with his son every chance I get. I learned a lot about interpreting parts and also about soloing from Gil.
“I was basically knocking around town doing a lot of playing—not record dates, but a lot of playing with people like Maynard and Clark Terry—when I got a call to join Blood, Sweat and Tears in 1968. I kind of liked that first record. I prided myself on my versatility at that point. I knew several of the BS&T guys from the Catskills Mountains and the rehearsal scene in New York, while the other guys were basically from the rock and roll scene. But I had never played rock and roll, and I wanted to be able to play anything.
“Also, I thought I would meet some girls, too,” Soloff laughs.
Since his Blood, Sweat & Tears days, Soloff has appeared on countless recording sessions, but when producer Makoto Kimata heard Soloff playing duets with pianist Mulgrew Miller he was so taken by the trumpeter’s command of the Harmon mute, that he enlisted fellow producer Todd Barkan to help organize a session showcasing Soloff’s lyric talents in what amounts to an overview of the American popular song form…and great melodies in general, from Arlen and Rodgers and Kern, to this Tchaikovsky cat, who seems like a real comer.
And in teaming Soloff with pianist Miller, bassist George Mraz and drummer Victor Lewis, Barkan and Kimata assembled a band with the kind of deep intuition and measured restraint that allow Soloff’s music to simmer deep and hard without ever quite boiling over—the type of musicians who make a recording session resonate with a level of interplay worthy of working bands with ten years of collective flight time under their belts.
Echoing those sentiments, Soloff proudly points to this recording as evidence of what can happen over the course of two days when great jazz artists get to know each other deeply and have a blast doing so. “You know the way in which this record begins? With ‘Come Rain Or Come Shine.’ Well, those were the first notes we ever played together.”
Which is how, as they say, you separate the men from the boys. On “Come Rain Or Come Shine” Mraz and Lewis display a gift all too rare among contemporary rhythm players…the ability to render their accompaniments so that they’re practically invisible—plenty of heat, yet the song is never consumed by the fire. Soloff and Miller dance gently around the melody, until Lewis shifts from brushes to sticks, signaling a telling modulation in emphasis, inspiring Soloff to respond by elongating his phrases ever so slightly, allowing his melodies to grow more elliptical and jagged, yet never losing his focused sense of the song. In like manner, Miller completes the circle with rhythmic/harmonic variations that gradually lead back to the repose of Mraz’s understated melodic embellishments. In like manner do they approach the title tune, which concludes this session on an up note, swinging as hard as you please; an expressive rhythmic workout that frames Soloff’s more pensive ruminations in sharp relief, without ever quite breaking the sensual, intimate spell Lew and the band weave throughout
“That’s a good point,” Soloff allows. “Besides wanting to explore aspects of the song form, once we saw the way the music was going—with most of the cuts having a fairly relaxed feel to them—it just didn’t feel right to all of a sudden do some crash and burn tune right in the middle of it, and draw somebody out of that mood. We ourselves felt like sustaining the mood that the recording was already in. Now a standard such as ‘With A Song In My Heart’ is a tune that you really have to know; it has some different things going on harmonically, and we really swing out, but still, I kept the mute in, and we didn’t roar and burn on it. It never got to that place, which is another side of what the band really can do, of course, but this record is very heavily influenced by singers, as it’s built around some great examples of the American standard.”
Still, the band achieves a nice sense of pacing and variety in their choice of tunes, tempos and grooves, such as the lovely Spanish tinge on “Deguello” (from Rio Bravo) and the near eastern vibe of Soloff’s own “Istanbul,” both of which benefit from the composing and arranging skills of Rob Moussney; Moussney also distilled down the “Andantino from Tchaikovsy’s Symphony # 4, Second Movement” into a beautiful jazz interpretation of a melody originally carried by the oboe, with a lovely harmonic role for Lew’s wife Emily Mitchell on harp (who also shines on “Deguello”). “In the original,” Lew explains, “there are a lot thematic developments that went through many, many modulations, and Rob kind of edited it down and got us back to the original key in a very nice, concise manner.”
Still, for all the great moments and superb interplay on With A Song In My Heart, the most telling emotional moments for this listener occur on a stunning Soloff rendition of “I’m A Fool To Want You,” the old Sinatra tear jerker. The trumpeter’s solo should be required listening for anyone who wants to gain an insight into what it means to be both a jazz improviser and a jazz interpreter.
The manner in which Soloff reprises the theme after Miller’s solo—walking on eggshells by stretching phrases in a breathless, sing-song manner–the voice suddenly cracking as if overcome by ruminations on some past love gone awry—is the reasoned, tender lyricism of a mature musician, overflowing with feeling, yet devoid of cheap sentiment. It is the sound of an original, confident in his mastery, incapable of playing a superfluous note.
An artist whose time has come, a trumpeter ready for any challenge.
An artist, who if we may be allowed a parting postscript, was still reaching for a higher ideal of his instrument, a mastery of both its hot and cool aspects, right down to the moment he was recruited to join tribal elder Clark Terry, and presumably the Archangel Gabriel, in some exalted celestial brass section, on the other side of the river.
In Lew’s own words, he never stopped reaching. “The universal spirit, or whatever it is, is what infects us, and makes us play the music.”
In that spirit of a lifetime’s journey, please refer to the incredibly emotive amen choruses Lew puts down on our final video clip of “Georgia On My Mind” (from October 20, 2013).
If you love jazz, if you love blues, if you live the trumpet, this performance is truly Lew Soloff’s Sermon on the Mount. It’s all here; all the discipline and aspiration of a lifetime distilled into one radiant, extended aria. I mean, damn. All soul and no artifice, transcending the horn itself, while seemingly referencing every significant expressive element of the trumpet’s cumulative vocabulary, going back to tribal elder Louis Armstrong, and all of his spiritual children.
True mastery, but never for its own sake.
In a word?
And because Lew Soloff never stopped reaching, we will never stop listening.
A peaceful journey, my friend.