" Four years ago we did a program of Beiderbecke’s music. I decided to do it again this year to add a little diversity to the program," James A. Ruffner said, the director of the Jazz Forum.
In the past, Ruffner booked top-notch jazz musicians such as George Benson, Johnny Allen, and Charlie Gabriel. Ruffner focused more on bebop, but this year he changed.
"Jazz is a broad river and we plan to sail down all sided of it," Ruffner said.
The tribute to Carmichael and Beiderbecke was the first stage of the overhaul. Ruffner asked Saunders to do the tribute concert because he believed that Saunders could interpret their music. Saunders exceeded Ruffner’s expectations.
Saunders 65, was born in Detroit, but grew up in Grosse Pointe. " I lived across the street from the police station, where I spent a lot of time," he joked.
At 7, he began playing the cornet, and by age 13, he had formed a Dixieland Band. He studied at U.S Navy School of Music. His style developed while working with cornetist Wild Bill Davison, his mentor.
Saunders and his All-Stars performed two hours. They cruised through the first set. Saunders told humorous stories, and poked fun at his band-mates saxophonist Jim Wyse, trombonist Al Winter, and drummer Bob Pinterich.
" Bob is so old that he social security number is 3," Saunders quipped.
Pinterich shared the rhythm section duties with bassist Paul Keller and pianist Bill Meyer. Keller was nonchalant throughout, but Meyers found it difficult to contain himself.
Saunders divided the concert into two sets. First, he paid homage to Carmichael, then Beiderbecke. Both sets were informative. He gathered the information about them from the Internet, he confessed.
"I don’t know why they keep asking me to do concerts where I have to do research," Saunders complained jokingly.
Saunders gave each horn player a chance to stretch. Trombonist Al Winter, a former member of the Benny Goodman orchestra cut loose on Georgia On My Mind . Winter soloed the way that he walked, carefully and deliberately. He shuffled on the stool as if trying to find the right position to project the notes. He finally set on the edge with his feet spread. He moved the slide swiftly like a carpenter sawing through wood. He never broke a sweat.
To keep things lose, Saunders mixed levity and music. For instance, he asked Winter to recount his experience with Benny Goodman. Winter said he lost the gig with Goodman because during a performance Winter’s slide slipped from his hand, and hit Goodman in his ass. Goodman handed Winter the slide, and fired him. The audience nearly buckled over. That story segued into the next number Nearest Of You .
Jim Wyse caressed every inch of Nearest Of You . He blew with his eyes shut. The music sprung from his horn, and leaked from his pores.
Saunders and his All-Stars lionized Bix Beiderbecke. They performed Jazz Blues, Signing the Blues, Davenport Blues, and In A Mist and some of Beiderbecke’s obscure material.
The second set was unpolished. The All-Stars performed Carmichael’s material rote, but had to "site-read" Beiderbecke’s. This set felt rushed, and they seemed uncomfortable with the material.
Evidently, Saunders revered Beiderbecke. When he talked about Beiderbecke’s life, Saunders hardly mentioned Beiderbecke’s alcoholism. Saunders felt Beiderbecke’s musicianship was a more interesting topic than his demons. " Cornet players have been trying for years to play like Bix for years, but nobody could match him," Saunders said.
After acknowledging Beiderbecke’s uniqueness, Saunders played China Boy meticulously. The softness of his phrases made the cornet sound like it was manufactured from cotton instead of brass.
Saunders gave pianist Bill Meyer the okay to play freely on In A Mist . Saunders wanted to test Meyer’s "site-reading" skills. In short, Saunders wanted proof Meyer wasn’t a trigger-happy pianist. This was his first crack at the tune, and he met the challenge. He rehearsed it two hours before the concert. He handled In A Mist like it was priceless. Saunders concluded the concert with I’ll Be A Friend with Pleasure.
Overall, Saunders tribute to Hoagy Carmichael and Bix Beiderbecke was engaging and worthwhile. He maintained the poignancy of the their work. Equally, engaging was the bits of jazz lore that Saunders shared.