That?”, the debut cd of the Mike Kaplan Nonet, has been a long time in the making.
In a current environment where much Jazz being released on the market seems like an intellectual exercise directed at other musicians and a select few privileged insiders, this band makes music that strives to touch the heart and soul of the listener as well as the mind. Pete McGuinness, the group’s trombonist since the late ‘80s sums it up this way, “Mike’s music, while it’s interesting and complex, never forgets its warm and greasy roots”.
The core of the group has been together and in force since the late ‘80s and Kaplan’s approach to writing for the band has evolved around the unique sound of the ensemble’s special players. As pianist Matt King puts it; “The Nonet is a diverse array of musical personalities that speak together with cohesion on the subject of Jazz. We bring out the best in each other.”
Kaplan has always been drawn to the music of larger ensembles. In fact the 1st album he ever bought was “The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall”, featuring the masterful arrangements of Hall Overton. “I loved the punch and depth of that 8 horn front line and the way it alternated with great solos by Charlie Rouse, Donald Byrd, Phil Woods and Pepper Adams, in addition to Monk. It’s also great how Overton kept the spirit of Monk’s small group music while expanding his orchestral vision”, Kaplan says.
Mike was also deeply touched by the music of Charles Mingus on “Ah Um”, “Let My Children Hear Music” and many other albums(“I always feel the passion and joy in Mingus’ work no matterhow intricate the music gets”). Later, Kaplan dug into the music of Thad Jones, Duke Ellington, Carla Bley and Cedar Walton, among others.
Kaplan originally started writing arrangements for 6 horns (2 trumpets, trombone and 3 saxes) and rhythm section in the early ‘80s and quickly amassed a book of almost 50 charts. He visualized the band as one that would cover many different stylistic bases. (In fact, at that time the band performed under the moniker “Rainbow Conception”.) He also wanted a unit where the contributions of distinctive soloists would be as important as the writing and ensemble work.
The Nonet had a period of extremely sporadic work in the mid ‘80s (with a rotating corps of ringers such as Dick Oatts, John Mosca, Andy Fusco, Gary Smulyan, Ken Peplowski, Kent Smith, Steve Lampert and others called in to play the occasional gig).
Mike started forming and rehearsing the current edition of the Nonet in the late ‘80s. He based it around the dynamic, already established rhythm section of Matt King(piano), Doug Weiss(bass) and Pete MacDonald(drums). At that time, this trio had been playing together for 5 years and had already achieved a remarkable synchronicity. Kaplan really appreciated their ability to take the band in a lot of different directions. Nonet lead trumpeter Rob Henke says of the King-Weiss-MacDonald rhythm corps: “It’s one cohesive unit, a rhythm section that’s so together and has so much flexibility that it’s super cool to build stuff on top of, whether it be arrangements or improvised solos”.
For several years, Rob Henke had been playing his trumpet alongside Mike in horn sections of diverse types of bands ranging from Rhythm and Blues to Salsa/Merengue/Cumbia, most of which Kaplan was also writing the arrangements for. (It was in just one of those Latin bands that Henke coined the name “Dr Newark” for Kaplan, which has stuck through this day.) Rob had also been playing in a quintet, First Hand, with the King-Weiss-MacDonald rhythm tandem. In finding a dynamic lead trumpet player to interpret the wide range of Kaplan’s music who was musically compatible with the band’s personnel, Henke was the obvious choice.
Around this time, Mike shared a stage with trombonist Pete McGuinness for the first time (on a gig at Riverside Park with the Chico Mendoza Latin Jazz Dream Big Band). After hearing a few bars of McGuinness’ first solo on one of Mendoza’s wild mambos, Mike knew that Pete was the man to play ‘bone in the Nonet. Pete was, and still is a versatile, warm, unusually fluent and witty player. Pete also made a key call in recommending trumpeter/flugelhornist Bill Mobley to Mike. Originally inspired by Woody Shaw, Mobley has his own distinctive style that leads Rob Henke to call Bill “one of the great unsung trumpet soloists in NYC these days”.
Also coming on-board the Nonet at this time was alto saxophonist Bob Hanlon, who Mike had met at a jam session almost 10 years before that. Kaplan says; “Bob and I kept in touch through the years and I found that we matched up very closely in our musical tastes; anything from Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band to Ben Webster to Eric Dolphy to Howlin’ Wolf to Duke Ellington. I was always very impressed with the way he managed to put together his diverse influences into a very vibrant, quirky and together style of his own”.
Throughout the early-mid ‘90s, the favored base for the Nonet to workshop its material was Wallace’s Bar and Liquors, a smoky, intimate dive in Orange, NJ that had been the home base for many years for the legendary but reclusive stride pianist Donald Lambert. Over the years, people like Billy Hart, Sonny Fortune, John Scofield, Kenny Werner, Eric Kloss, Bennie Wallace, Jimmy Ponder, Ray Anderson, Harry Leahey, Mike Stern and many others had also made great music at Wallace’s. The Nonet also made forays into Manhattan at clubs including the New Music Café and Birdland.
The recording of “How’s That?” was the culmination of a 2 year plus period of monthly gigs for the group at Just Jake’s, a comfortable haunt in Montclair, NJ. There, the band could stretch out and showcase the full range of material in its repertoire.
“How’s That?” captures some of the kaleidoscopic range of music that the band performed at Jake’s. Proven, long-time audience show-stoppers such as the down-home yet sophisticated “Orange Circle Funk” (featuring uninhibited solo contributions from trombonist Ben Williams and trumpeter Rob Henke) are included on the CD. “For CM”, a rhythm section tour-de-force with an extended alto sax workout through a variegated array of moods and tempos was a popular set-closer at both Wallace’s and Jake’s. The cd also includes newer material that the band worked into shape at Just Jake’s including the title track (a rollicking combination of New Orleans party funk and metro NYC area cool) and also Hanlon’s “In Reality”, a challenging original that really makes the soloists work. Ballads aren’t neglected either; the CD features the heartfelt, occasionally Ellingtonian “Melody For My Mom” and the more contemporary and abstract “Sudden Stranger”. The cd is rounded out by Kaplan arrangements of tunes from 3 of his favorite pianist/composers which became mainstays of the band’s run at Just Jake’s; a dancing rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Bye-Ya”, the misterioso shuffle “The Crawl” by Mickey Tucker (featuring jungle, wah-wah brass work) and Cedar Walton’s “Firm Roots”, which showcases the Nonet’s up-tempo Bop credentials. (Sound samples from the cd can be heard on both the “Samples” page and “Instruments” page on this website, as well as at CDBaby.com.)