Friday, December 17, 2010

Tin Pan Alley Revisited: Spike Wilner/ Ned Goold Duo at Smalls

Spike Wilner
Now that my teaching semester at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg is on holiday break, I'm spending the rest of December in New York. Unfortunately, it seems to be just as cold in the Big Apple as it is up north in the ....what's a nickname for Winnipeg? Big.....Ice Cube? I dunno...... Anyway, It seems worse in New York at times more because we don't rely on our cars here, we walk to the subway. We're staying on the Upper East Side near York Avenue, which is a good twenty minutes to any subway. Nevertheless, I braved the windy cold last night to hear some warm jazz at Small's, my favorite club in NYC.

On the bill for the early set was an interesting piano/ tenor saxophone duo featuring pianist Spike Wilner and saxophonist Ned Goold. Wilner is currently the proprietor of Small's, however, he has been paying his dues as a jazz musician for almost two decades in the city. And you may know Goold from his work with the Harry Connick Jr. Band. Both musicians are quite accomplished technically, and also have a strong interest and respect for the history of the music. Furthermore, they are both very creative  players, and seemed very comfortable in the exposed, intimate setting of duo. 

The theme of the evening was performing obscure tunes from the "Tin Pan Alley" era of American songwriting. For those of you who don't know, Tin Pan Alley refers to tunes written roughly between the turn of the 20th century( some say as early as 1885, when music publishing began in New York) and 1950(when rock and roll took over ). Much of the jazz repertoire is taken from this era: all the famous tunes by Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Fats Waller, and so on, were from this era. More importantly, "Tin Pan Alley" was an actual place: West 28th Street between 5th and 6th Avenue. (I think there's a Starbuck's there now....) All the publishing houses were there, and they had people called "song-pluggers" who played new songs on pianos all day long, so that people might hear the tune and come in and buy the sheet music.( This was before radio, of course.) The cacophony of all these pianos being played all at once sound like, well, "tin pans" being thrown down an "alley". Hence the name. 

And as Mr. Wilner mentioned during the performance, jazz musicians use a small portion of these Tin Pan Alley tunes as vehicles for jazz. But there were so many tunes which were great but never made it into the jazz lexicon. Sometimes it's fun to dust off some of these gems and take them for another ride. And that's just what Wilner and Goold did last night.

The evening began with "Gone With The Wind" written by Allie Wrubel and Herb Magidson in 1937, which is actually not so obscure for jazz players. One thing I noticed right away from this ensemble was the commitment to the melody. The themes were always very clear and the original chords were respected. Indeed, if you look at old fake books, sometimes the original changes are hipper than what they morph into today. 

Earl " Fatha" Hines
I have heard Wilner deal with some heavy bop and post bop over the years. In this setting, however, Wilner drew from Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller, and Art Tatum with great aplomb. Various inceptions of stride piano in the left hand were used throughout the evening, quite skillfully. In the stride idiom, the use of tenths in the left hand, or a third and an octave, are used frequently. It takes a pretty good stretch of the thumb, unless you can "roll" the jump and make it sound smooth. Wilner had no problems with this endeavor. Also, his right hand carried on independently from the left with much dexterity and tone.

Ned Goold's sound reminded me of Lester Young a bit. I was luckily sitting in the first row at Small's, so I could hear the sound acoustically right from the bell of Goold's horn. (I sort of wondered what Lester Young would have sounded like from that vantage point, if I was a time traveller.). Goold has a ton of bebop vocabulary, although it was executed in a very fluid, off- the-cuff manner. Every once in a while,  Goold would venture into an almost sheets-of-sound territory, and even allude to some quite dissonant intervallic material (which most saxophonists worth their salt seem to have at their fingertips). 

Some of the tunes presented were gems like "I'll Tell The Man In The Street" by Rodgers and Hart, "I Surrender Dear" by Harry Barris (Wilner joked that Barry Harris could do a record of Harry Barris tunes!), "Well, Did You Evah?" by the prolific Cole Porter. A version of "Too Marvelous For Words" gave a nod to the famous Art Tatum version. 

Stephen Foster
I found it interesting that they choose a Stephen Foster tune entitled "I Dream Of Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair." Foster was someone who wrote many tunes for the minstrel shows of the mid-19th century. Since publishing was not regulated back then, Foster did not earn royalties the way composers do today, and he died penniless. 

Also surprising in the set was a rousing version of Theolonious Monk's "Crepiscule with Nellie." This is one of those Monk tunes which is really hard to improvise on because of the odd structure. Wilner and Goold found some new ways to approach it. 

The set ended with a virtuoso rendition of Gerswin's "Liza".  I stayed after a bit to hear the next band, which was pianist and Winnipeg native Jill McCarron and her wonderful quartet consisting of altoist Vincent Herring, bassist Essiet Essiet, and drummer Joe Strasser. They had a mixed meter version of Joe Henderson's "Short Story" that was quite impressive. I left that night amazed at the plethora of jazz music that one can hear in New York on any random Thursday night. 


  1. Lovely chronicle. George, are you planning to come and play in Italy any time soon?

  2. excellent george !!!!!!!!!!!! so sorry i missed it !!!!!!!!!!!! yer analysis makes me feel worse that i did !!! but brilliant and all true !!!!!! spike and ned blow me away every time i hear them play !!!!!!!! ,,robert bloom

  3. The nickname for Winnipeg is "the 'Peg".

  4. Some of the tunes presented were gems like "I'll Tell The Man In The Street" by Rodgers and Hart, "I Surrender Dear" by Harry Barris (Wilner joked that Barry Harris could do a record of Harry Barris tunes!), "Well, Did You Evah?" by the prolific Cole Porter. A version of "Too Marvelous For Words" gave a nod to the famous Art Tatum version.
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