Vincent Herring and Me

Many are the stories of mutual fascination between musicians from the jazz and classical worlds. Perhaps the most recounted of these anecdotes finds Igor Stravinsky at Birdland in 1951 to hear Charlie Parker, who, noting the composer’s presence near the bandstand promptly works in several quotes from The Rite of Spring into the bop up-tempo burner Koko—quickness on every level. Stravinsky was so delighted he spilled his scotch.

As a general rule, jazz heard in its traditional venue of the club begins later in the evening than does a classical concert. The world of the after-hours jam session, as most famously practiced at Minton’s in Harlem in the 1940s, is unknown to classical types.  In my youth in Seattle I did play an organ concert after the much-loved Sunday Compline services—the last office of the Christian day—in the Episcopal Cathedral. I’ve also done a few candlelit clavichord recitals ‘round midnight. But those exceptions only go to prove the rule that different rhythms mark the classical and jazz days.

I was lucky enough to witness a bracing example of the potential benefits resulting from  these complementary hours in the 1980s at the defunct and long-lamented jazz club Sweet Basil in Greenwich Village. Wynton Marsalis had been playing a Haydn trumpet concerto with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center, but hustled downtown after that appearance to take his share in an epic blues that closed out the evening in the Village in a band fronted by the pianist John Hicks and including Wynton’s brother Branford.

It seems that jazz’s opening hours generally begin earlier in places outside of New York, as in Ithaca, though I note that in one of the metropolis’s leading clubs, Smoke, the first of three sets often begins at the unspeakable hour of 7pm.

A New York City evening is a riot of conflicting choices, but a mixing of jazz and classical music is possible for the intrepid, with Wynton-like luck on the MTA or with a talent for hopping cabs or stealing cars. Making the most of such variety must also be doable in the rather smaller enclave of Ithaca, New York, a place that punches far above its weight in the ring of musical culture.

Oddly, there seems to linger here the notion that there is minimal overlap between jazz and classical audiences. The persistence of this errant assumption perhaps explains why the virtuosic alto saxophonist Vincent Herring’s upcoming appearance at Ithaca’s Carriage House begins at 8pm on April 18th — at the same time as my own organ concert in Anabel Taylor Chapel on a replica of an early 18th-century instrument that once stood in Berlin’s Charlottenburg Castle. Both events were scheduled by their (co)sponsor, the Cornell University music department. The two venues—one a lovely and spacious attic, the other a campus Gothic chapel—are less than a quarter mile from one another on the edge of one of Ithaca’s deep gorges; on a quiet evening in summer with doors of both places thrown open, one would almost be able to hear the faintest of strains of each concert while standing at the midpoint between the musics. Such is not the case in April, with the waters of the gorge raging and the many nearby fraternities just waking from their winter hibernations.

At the Carriage House, Herring will be joined by the pianist John Stetch, whose playing astonishes me each time I hear it for the way it can forge straight ahead, but also venture far from the well-worn path. What I mean is that Stetch’s style is an endlessly fascinating mix of the classic and the experimental, these elements in continuously challenging and captivating dialogue with one another. If memory serves, Stetch moved from New York City to the Finger Lakes region about a decade ago, but recently began dividing his time between the jazz capital Down State and the vibrant outpost that is Ithaca. Also on board on the 18th will be Stetch’s frequent collaborator at the Carriage House, the energetic and incisive drummer Tom Killian. Completing the house trio will be the bassist, Shawn Conley, around whom a dedicated following has already coalesced since he began his year-long stint as a visiting professor of bass at Ithaca College. These more-than-simply-local musicians can keep pace with Herring’s renowned velocity, but also, more importantly, with the torrent of ideas that funnel out of his alto saxophone.

The usual metaphors for such encounters in the jazz world are antagonistic, even militaristic, especially when the confrontation involves two horn players.  Teddy Edwards and Dexter Gordon’s The Duel from 1947 is one celebrated example. It’s as if only one man—and it is no coincidence that these are male musicians who favor such figurative language—will be left standing at the end of the evening or of the disc. Even if the body remains intact the musical status of one or more participants may not be.

To be heard on a score of CDs as leader and literally hundreds as sideman, Herring has adopted kindred metaphors for his two live recordings made with tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander at the above-mentioned Smoke in New York City: in 2005 came The Battle, and then last year Friendly Fire. The gateway opening track of the first of these discs is The Blues Up and Down, the signature face-off tune of the famous pair of tenor saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons. The fact that Herring and Alexander play alto and tenor respectively matters little: regardless of the caliber of their weapons each is as potentially lethal as the other. Alexander’s tremendous Blues Up and Down solo full of brilliant skeins and stentorian pronouncements that alternately race along with the tried-and-true blues form only to cut sharply against its form and expected harmony. Herring then blazes away with what appears to be supreme effortlessness but is nonetheless unabashed about getting dirty, spraying bluesy broadsides that always seem to hit their target; he then reloads in a split-second for more rapid-fire fusillades.

In spite of the all-too-easy recourse to belligerent titles and descriptions (my own included), I prefer to think of these engagements (another euphemism for battle!) as collaboration about renewed health and happiness rather than the threat of harm—or worse—embarrassment.  Indeed, the Smoke  recordings are anything but fatal, indeed utterly alive. Their liveness magnifies the sheer, irrefutable energy of the music-making.

I suspect that Herring, who visited Ithaca and the Carriage House a few months ago, knows that he is in for a restorative treat on April 18th.

Meanwhile the performer of the competing act in town—that organ concert—finds himself in the curious position of enthusing in print about an evening of jazz that he cannot attend and that might, by virtue of advocacy of the Carriage House gig, siphon off part of his potential audience. His concert has as its theme three famous organ contests that took place over a span of nearly 150 years in one of the most beautiful and musical of European cities, Dresden.

The title of this organ concert is Cosmopolitan Encounters, which takes its cue from one of my most beloved LPs, Great Encounters, in which, among other meetings, Dexter Gordon and his tenor saxophonist compatriot and fellow sometime expatriate Johnny Griffin meet in sublime colloquy on, yes, The Blues Up and Down. The classic nature of that reunion, and the others recorded on this vinyl masterpiece, is evoked by the cover photograph showing Dexter with his saxophone perched on his knee and seated alone in a parquet-floored and richly paneled ballroom of a sumptuous European palace. My Cosmopolitan Encounters is meant as a preview of the Westfield Center International Organ Academy and Competition to be held this coming September 22nd to the 29th  at Cornell and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester.  In this competition the participants will be asked to re-imagine some of the great encounters between legendary organists of the past even while they meet their own gifted contemporaries of the present.

It was in Dresden in 1650 that the enigmatic traveler Johann Jakob Froberger and the flamboyant and cerebral Saxon local Matthias Weckman met and demonstrated their respective talents before assembled colleagues and courtiers.  Styled as a confrontation, the meeting nonetheless led to a lifelong friendship built on mutual respect.  In 1719 J. S. Bach was to compete against the visiting French organist Louis Marchand. As reported by Bach’s children, the Frenchman fled after hearing Bach play. Whether true or not, the claim often distracts from the truth that Bach greatly admired Marchand’s music, which is full of many wonderful things not to be found even in Bach’s incomparable oeuvre. The April 18th concert in Anabel Taylor Chapel concludes with the German virtuoso Johann Wilhelm Häßler—student of a student of Bach’s—going up against the touring Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in an informal competition in 1789. As usual in such clashes, Mozart was dismissive of his opponent.  A few months after the meeting, Häßler assembled a collection of 42 short pieces that show him to be at home in the galant style and a demon with his feet at the pedal board. Mozart was typically backhanded about his perceived rival in a letter to his father: “This Hässler’s chief excellence on the organ consists in his foot-work.” I conclude with my transcription of Mozart’s mighty Fantasia in K. 608 for mechanical organ; I feel sure Mozart played it too at the organ, proving that he could keep pace with, even surpass, the musical machine for which he wrote the fantasia. The work ends with the feet rushing maniacally towards the final cadence, a furious close that comes after a grand recurring overture, two fugues of increasing complexity, and a piling up of counterpoint in a coda to be ranked with the Jupiter Symphony finale.  Here’s betting that Mozart himself was jolted into improving his footwork in the aftermath of his organ afternoon with the genial Häßler. In all these cosmopolitan encounters I inject something of my own musical commentary in extra variations, interpolated counterpoint and trios, and improvised transitions.

What would I do if I could choose between my own concert and the Carriage House evening with Vincent Herring? That decision has already been made for me. OR has it?  Hold the presses: I’m changing mine to 7pm on the 18th! Now the throngs can come to both.

DAVID YEARSLEY s a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His la


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at