Three quarters of the band works Monday through Friday in the orchestra of NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," but, with pianist Greg Kurstin, they escaped from Hollywood on Saturday, July 1, to play a sellout concert at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library.
The Ralph Moore Quartet, with Ralph Moore (tenor sax), Kenny Davis (bass) and Marvin "Smitty" Smith (drums) and Kurstin on piano is part of a new generation of jazz musician. The prodigious Smith, for example, only turned 29 last month. But they gave so polished a performance that many may not have noticed how much innovation was going on. Few have the privileged of interviewing an expert who is from an earlier generation and patient enough to spell it out in simple terms.
"It was an education that night," Howard Rumsey declared of the concert at which the Athenaeum program director, Dan Atkinson, had introduced him to the rest of the audience as a guest of honor. "And I was absolutely thrilled because in all my years in the music business playing with so many jazz players ... I never went to a concert in my whole life where no-one played anything based on the 12-bar blues or anything based on "I Got Rhythm" changes."
Rumsey is very much an elder statesman of West Coast jazz. He played string bass in the Stan Kenton band's original 1941 lineup. He also played in bands with Charlie Barnet, Freddie Slack, and Johnny Richards. Back in 1949 he started The Lighthouse jazz club in a Hermosa Beach bar, and its Sunday afternoon sessions became a vital center for the music that record companies and press eventually hyped as "West Coast cool."
The "I Got Rhythm" changes are used in hundreds of compositions. Dizzy Gillespie used them. Count Basie used them. Even Charlie Parker used them. The 12-bar blues, on the other hand, were Duke Ellington's stock in trade. But, according to Rumsey, what the Ralph Moore Quartet was doing at the Athenaeum was an escape from all of that.
"Now, that's a real departure," Rumsey said. "It puts all the music he played that night into one category: Compositions that are an entity within themselves, with interludes included, rhythmic patterns that are unusual and, what I liked about it most of all was that he played it with conviction."
This departure might have been what Moore meant when he twice told the audience the quartet wants to call itself "Escape From New York." Moore and his group played with a joy and conviction of their own. "They did not stumble and fall," Rumsey said. "They actually performed, at a very high level, exactly what they wanted to do that night."
According to Rumsey, they were presenting their innermost feelings and virtually telling the audience, "The material we perform on television is just somebody else's idea of what music should be. And this, that we're playing tonight, is where our head and our soul really is."
Moore played compositions by some of the great hard bop masters of the 1950s and '60s. For example, he played "Etta," by Wayne Shorter; "This I Dig of You," by Hank Mobley and "Barracudas," by Gil Evans. "I'm telling you, you'd have a hard job finding 50 players in America that could have played all those tunes that they played that night, with no paper, and made them sound elegant and absolutely outstanding," Rumsey said.
Moore opened the concert with an original composition entitled "Hopscotch." And, according to Rumsey, that was the one tune, out of the whole concert, that was close to the bebop language. After that the quartet never got back into that vernacular again. They stayed out there in that hip idiom. Rumsey said it's a musical language the young players are utilizing today to great effect in much more intellectual compositions rhythmically and harmonically.
Although the Mobley, Shorter and Nelson repertoire mostly dates back to 40 or 50 years ago, Rumsey denies that this detracts from the cutting-edge nature of the concert. He said, "The people who dig Hank Mobley, or even Oliver Nelson, are not in the mainstream today when you listen, on the radio, to KLON, or even to new CDs."
The Quartet's finale was a composition by Kurstin called "Outside." Rumsey explained that 'outside' is a term used to describe playing outside the chord changes of a composition while retaining the original chord changes in the mind. "So they are 'out there' playing things that are relative but are completely disconnected with what is going on in the bottom, and then they are able to get back in again," he said.
In an apt metaphor, Rumsey described how he felt while recently driving around the Hollywood neighborhood in which had he worked half a century ago. Some landmarks he remembered. Some were entirely new. "All of a sudden I realized, Howard, you're just missing the point. You should be thinking of how it is NOW! And that's exactly what Ralph Moore was doing. ...and doing in a splendid manner. It just made me so proud of the guy."