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Jazz History Is Written in New York (again)

Jazz players from different origins have one shared destination, New York City

Ehud Ashierie Jazz New York
James P. Johnson was the king of New York pianists in the 1930s. Today jazz’s new phenomenon is a young pianist named Ehud Asherie. Born in Israel, he grew up in Italy but it's in New York that he found his ideal environment and here he is making jazz history.

Eventually all American jazz comes to New York. But it doesn’t always start there. The beginnings of the several varieties of jazz are more closely associated with New Orleans, St. Louis, Kansas City and Chicago.

As for jazz piano, the central figures have long been silent. Ohioan Art Tatum’s kidneys gave out almost exactly sixty years ago. And this summer marked just thirty years since we last heard the Texan Teddy Wilson, who learned to play in Alabama.

To be sure, there have been other interesting pianists since. Promoter Norman Granz brought a teen­aged Oscar Peterson down from Canada, and then spent several decades putting the agile, swinging Peterson into recording studios to back a long list of stars, from Lester Young to Fred Astaire, with consistently good results. And Erroll Garner’s attractive, limping bounce became very popular, as did Dave Brubeck’s West Coast pseudo­classicism and the baroque cascades of McCoy Tyner. (This leaves aside some who are memorable as composers and orchestrators, such as Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans and Gil Evans.)

But the main development that began with the bop era in the ‘40s was, in fact, a reduction. Where Tatum and Teddy Wilson were strong two­fisted pianists with a sense of what had come before, the major bop pianists were essentially right­hand pianists, focusing entirely on a single­note line that often matched the inventiveness of bop’s great horn men. This was true even of that era’s essential figure, Bud Powell. The left hand began to disappear, except for quick stabs of punctuation.

A further diminishing took place at the same time. The improvised solo has, since the 1920s, been the core of jazz, but the bop musicians took it a step further, largely ignoring the qualities of tunes they were playing, often borrowing only the chord progression and replacing the original melody with a riff that allowed them to ignore completely the melodies in which they were not interested.

Jazz’s new (in a way) phenomenon, a young pianist named Ehud Asherie, has reversed these trends. He plays with such a strong left hand that, even playing solo, he provides a full, powerful sound. The true two­fisted piano has returned, and in his sets, the original compositions (sometimes by the bop musicians themselves) have returned to importance. Good songs are treated with romantic reverence by this “passionate craftsman joyfully at ease with pre-­swing idioms” as The New Yorker labeled him. His vast repertory is explained with a shrug: “I like tunes.”

But the two great complete jazz pianists, Tatum and Teddy Wilson, had a predecessor, whom they both admired and learned from and here, finally, we strike a genuine New Yorker. James P. Johnson was born across the river in Jersey and died in Queens, but is forever associated with Manhattan. He was the king of New York pianists in the 1930s, and his style of “stride” piano is thought of as having been born in New York although, of course, it’s not that simple.

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Pianist James P. Johnson.

Today James P. Johnson’s photo hangs over the tiny bandstand of a cellar club in Greenwich Village. That’s exactly the right place for it, and the beginnings of a smile on Johnson’s face must come from what he’s hearing. He’s hearing jazz history as, for the first time since the days of Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, listeners are flocking to hear a genuine, two­fisted, swinging jazz master who is firmly rooted in the music’s past. But Asherie is no retrograde nostalgia ­peddler, but an adventurous, unrelentingly inventive young jazz polymath, playing everything from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker, and making it all his own.

Ehud Asherie is not new to the Manhattan scene. But until recently he has been hiding out in plain sight, featured in the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center and at out-­of-­town jazz festivals, backing other singers and musicians everywhere from Lincoln Center to a room above a Oaxacan cafe on the Lower East Side. But it is playing solo piano in a good listening room that provides the launching pad for jazz’ most exciting new voice to date. It allows him free rein for all the tempo changes, harmonic complexity, romantic lyricism and, most of all, the never ending explorations and improvisations that cause his followers to hang on every note.

That elusive, mysterious element of good jazz,­­­ swing,­­­ is, counter­intuitively, more present in his solo work than when he has a rhythm section behind him. His left hand is so powerful (“mighty” according to The New Yorker) that he is a whole rhythm section all by himself.

Part of his power probably comes from the athletic build produced by a strenuous routine of swimming. When he was pleasing the dancers in the Rainbow Room, his smooth­shaven matinee idol looks were perfect for distracting the debs. Now that he is digging with such intensity into the challenge of serious jazz, he has the sharp, bearded profile of a Hebrew prophet.

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Ehud Asherie

The symmetry of history would be perfect if Asherie were, like James P. Johnson, a native New Yorker. But no. Born in Israel, he grew up in Genoa and Milan (qualifying him to be, he claims, a genuine pizza­bagel). His handsome parents, both born in Israel, made all the sacrifices necessary to give their sons and daughter everything they needed for life, his father communicating from his ocean transport office in Genoa every day so that the children could have the best schooling in Milan. His mother, who loves music and dance, showed her strong will on those occasions when young Ehud wanted to quit his musical training. Mezzrow, that cellar club in Greenwich Village with the James P. Johnson photo, where Asherie plays frequently (and where his parents can often be seen digging the sounds) should put up a plaque for her.

The spark of serious interest in music, that finally lit the flame of motivation, came with exposure to a Thelonious Monk recording, and to the sidewalks of New York. The parents who had offered such strong guidance when it was needed, came to recognize Ehud’s developing passion for jazz, and allowed him, at the age of 14, to roam the streets of the West Village. They knew that of the array of temptations available in that neighborhood, it was only the music that drew Ehud. He often stayed out all night, catching the last notes of the last jam session. And imagining himself on the bandstand of the jazz headquarters in the Village, Small’s, a dim cellar down steep stairs. That club now features him regularly.

As Asherie recently told Downbeat magazine: “…that New York sound of being in the moment…has formed me more than anything. That’s the way I play and that’s what New York is about.”

The classical training has not been uprooted: in New York he has accompanied sopranos in recital and still includes sonata phrases when noodling during intermissions, when no one is paying attention.

The jazz connection back to Italy came after the family had moved to America. For about a decade, Asherie would return a couple of times a year to play throughout the country. Although he no longer makes a regular return to perform in Italy, Asherie does, in fact, lead a double life. He flies frequently to Brazil, sometimes performing in Sao Paolo, where, according to a Brazilian musician who passed through New York this summer, he astonishes Brazilians with his Brazilian repertory. His other life is actually on display routinely in another West Village cellar just a few steps from Mezzrow, the excellent listening room that provides the stage for his mainstream jazz inventions. Down in this other cellar, amidst ping pong and table hockey, unnoticed by most of the very young sporting crowd, Asherie leads a latin quartet playing Brazilian music and singing in his fluent Portuguese. Occasionally some obsessive Asherie­follower, or an exhausted table tennis star, will drop onto the moth­eaten sofa provided for that rare animal, an actual listener.

Asherie is, however, serious about the Brazilian part of his absolutely­breathtaking repertory. On his solo jazz dates, he will often include composers going back as far as Ernesto Nazareth, whom Asherie calls “the Scott Joplin of Brazil”, and play compositions from the 1890s.

But the mainstay of Asherie’s jazz playing is the music of the ‘20s and ‘30s when, as he explains, American songwriting had not yet calcified into the formulas we all know. This somewhat earlier music is more open to invention and alteration, in fact seems to invite it. In a series of excellent recordings, Asherie has explored music from Eubie Blake’s score for the musical Shuffle Along to seldom­heard compositions of Billy Strayhorn (forever associating with Duke Ellington). Any set at the Mezzrow might include the music of Parker, Armstrong, Fats Waller, plus songs from the ‘20s and’30s, tunes of Harry Warren and Vincent Youmans. As he says, “I like tunes.”

It is the thrill of his live performances that creates the feeling that jazz history is being made. There one can hear, for example, how Asherie often enters a tune.

Just as Marcel Proust and other serious esthetes of la belle epoque were guided by the great critic and essayist John Ruskin, Asherie’s listeners undergo an advanced course in how to enter a tune. Ruskin felt that how one approached a great Gothic cathedral was crucial. One mustn’t dash up to it across an empty square. It required method and shoe leather. Depending on the cathedral and the town, one moves to catch glimpses of the apse and, from different angles, the spires and flying buttresses, then sees the side doors at the end of the town’s streets, and only eventually draws near the facade and begins to get an idea of the whole.

Ruskin­like, Asherie will often begin a tune with a series of block chords and harmonic runs that the listener cannot attach to anything until one hears certain sequences that seem familiar, that remind of a tune or even the tune’s verse. Only slowly, in sparse and subtle touches, does the melody begin to emerge, and then, with most of the parts now assembled, the left hand begins laying down an easy, but compelling, beat, and the tune swings, and then whole room swings.

What one is hearing these days in New York, from this self­mocking pizza­bagel, is slowly being recognized for what it is: one of those moments in jazz history that will allow New Yorkers to say “I was there for that.”

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