Ears Of A Clown
The sands of time recently clocked up an important anniversary in my music education, that being four years since I first laid eyes and ears on Chuck Israels and his perfection-seeking Orchestra. It was November 23, 2011, at the now defunct Ivories Jazz Lounge & Restaurant in the Pearl District of northwest Portland. I rushed home and wrote simply: ‘Wow! – a masterclass in musicianship!’
As a swing dancer-cum-DJ at the time, my ears were very much finding their more expansive feet. Via the live music offerings at that time for swing dancers, I had come to be rather taken by the creative and technical prowess of two particular musicians, reed maestro David Evans and Tricky Sam trombone stylist John Moak. I’d made a cautious decision to stalk these pair in whatever setting they happened to be performing in. I was completely open (more about ‘being open’ later..) to the idea of listening and learning whether the evening involved swing or more modern stylings, in a trio or a large group. Which brought me to Ivories for the first time where they both occupied seats in the front line of the Chuck Israels Jazz Orchestra. What happened in the ensuing three hours did not leave me speechless – it’s actually quite easy to articulate just as it was then. The quality of what I heard was the equivalent of having my ears syringed by a team of elite surgeons. It was both precise and relaxed. The music of Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Mingus and Horace Silver was presented in manner like never before – accessibly.
The ‘accessible’ attribute of types of jazz music is often discussed, often in association with avant-garde, cool, free – yes those jazz flavours that repel the dance crowds and happy, smiling festivals I’d long been immersed in. Nobody I knew had any attraction to this music, how could it possibly be termed ‘accessible’? But now all that had changed as I sat transfixed by this heightened quality of music-making, execution – and it truly was a beautiful experience.
My ears, you see, were not even an uncut diamond that evening. They were more akin to a colourless Sistine Chapel. And to reflect on the intervening years, the first of the finest brush strokes were made that evening. My ears began to hear music properly for the first time, and to understand on some significant level.
Ear The Difference
Actually, I’d already discovered Horace Silver before Ivories had ever opened its doors, but barely more than half a dozen tunes. Still, one tune had made multiple visits to my playlist when DJing for swing dancers, and was accompanied by other unfashionable names, foreign to just about any swing dance I’d been to : Mingus, Wardell Gray, Dizzy, Bobby Timmons, Marty Paich and one or two others kept dancers busy during my DJing, names that I once categorised long-windedly as ‘musicians that would cause dancers to exit as if their pants were on fire if their names had been announced’. My ears were now hearing the fullest sound in almost any jazz tune put in front of me and I could instantly tell if it was a swing dance hit or not, or somewhere in between. Any pre-applied labels were irrelevant. More than any other individual or group, the Chuck Israels Jazz Orchestra is the entity most responsible for my accelerated music education. And this from a swing dancer, stereotyped as we are as only really interested in fun music, not the intellectual side of things, ya know?
The band, as far as I can honestly and objectively testify, are the most impeccable of their type in the area and did not stand still. The ensemble playing improved as its leader and sage would want; calls came for CDs (‘Second Wind’ in 2013 and ‘Joyful Noise’ in 2015), reviews in ‘Downbeat’ were written, performances at the Detroit Jazz Festival and others followed (some accepted, some declined) as their reputation steadily grew.
I can’t remember how many times I’ve attended a performance, 40? 50? In those early Ivories days, the gig was weekly on Wednesdays. They’ve certainly added up to a lot of hours of joy. Why would I still go today? Why would I still speak highly, with such fervour, today?
There is a quality in this group that strikes rapier-like. It’s not only the quality of their musical excellence, but the quality of their attitude. As musicians, their ensemble playing is without parallel, and when paired with the ingenuity and originality of their ever-evolving solo ideas (their stunning technical execution is a given), their performances from one month to the next remain as fresh as ever. Unquestionably, I should have grown tired of the band/the band stale on me long before now. But I’ve long understood that the aforementioned qualities explain why this hasn’t happened and is unlikely to do so for the foreseeable future. Collectively and individually, there is outstanding musicianship on show, time after time.
It’s true that the Chuck Israels Jazz Orchestra is primarily a listener’s group (and so it should be!), but I’ve also had some memorable dance experiences accompanying them. Indulge me here, as I disclose what an honour it was to perform tap-dance as the full band played ‘David Danced’ from the Duke Ellington – Sacred Concert repertoire. When called on, they swing very handily too; there is plenty of post-war 4/4 jazz rhythm on record out there and the CIJO hits that groove hard and true when honouring that style.
Chuck Israels himself is a living treasure here, and it’s worth noting some of the names he’s worked with : Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, and of course, Bill Evans with whom he performed and recorded with for five years. The CIJO repertoire will educate and enrapture you with the work of Evans, Ellington, Monk, Silver, Mingus, Paul Desmond, and even, yes, Louis Armstrong. The fine English trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton once described him as ‘a superb technician who handles the double bass as if it was a guitar. Chuck Israels is one of the reasons why musicians have come reeling away from performances by the Bill Evans Trio in a mood poised between elation and utter despair’.
Time hasn’t stood still and neither have my ears nor these musicians. I’ve seen them individually challenge themselves, both in this group setting and in other groups. Chuck Israels relentlessly pursues the highest standard in whatever component of the band’s direction or issue happens to be at hand. The composition of a performance setlist? The arrangement of an original performed a few times? The shape of a phrase in ‘Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West’?
It’s unlikely you’ll have set the bar as high as he has. At this stage, it’s unlikely you can see his bar. But if you really do have that open mind you keep telling your social media audience you have, you’ll hear what I heard at my CIJO baptism, if not more.
Ear The Band
There are a host of good reasons you should catch the Chuck Israels Jazz Orchestra at least once in your life and I’ve documented a fair few of them here through very personal experience.
You can always see them LIVE on the 3rd Sunday of every month at Vie de Boheme on SE 7th just a block south of Hawthorne.
You can hear them whenever you like, forever if you buy any of the band’s CDs at CDBaby, Amazon or iTunes.
Chuck Israels – leader, arranger, bass
Jessica Israels, Margot Hanson – vocals
John Moak – trombone
Charlie Porter – trumpet
John Nastos – alto sax, flute
David Evans – tenor sax, clarinet
Robert Crowell – baritone sax
Chris Brown – drums
Dan Gaynor – piano