One of my favourite releases of recent months is the double Arbors CD of music by the 1970s supergroup Soprano Summit – much of it previously unissued. Browsing through the CD’s booklet this week, I realised that it’s 30 years since this small, but perfectly formed, outfit disbanded – though its members did get reunited in the 1990s and occasionally thereafter. Here’s a timely, 30th anniversary, tribute…
Soprano Summit was a band which, despite – or possibly because of – its lamentably short lifetime (seven years), has become something of a legend in the jazz world. Certainly, its albums became collectors’ items almost as soon as they were issued. Its conception – at a jazz party organised by enthusiast Dick Gibson over a holiday weekend in September 1972 – became a tale that the late clarinettist Kenny Davern and fellow founding father, saxophonist and clarinettist Bob Wilber, enjoyed telling.
By day three of the party, audiences were suffering from ear fatigue and Gibson decided that he needed something to wake everyone up. According to Davern, Gibson turned to Wilber and said in his Alabama drawl: ”Now, I wan’ you and Kinny to get together and play a duet”. The two, who had rarely performed together, quickly talked through a head arrangement of Duke Ellington’s moody and magnificent The Mooche for two soprano saxophones – a combination, amazingly, never before used in a working jazz band.
”We got a rhythm section together – by a fluke Dick Hyman, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bobby Rosengarden, and Milt Hinton were all there – and we got up and did the number. We finished it off on two high notes in thirds and to our amazement people just rose up in applause – 650 folks just screaming with delight – and it was then that we realised that we had something different.”
In December 1972 the infant Soprano Summit cut its first album, the only difference in personnel being that busy bassist Hinton was replaced by George Duvivier. Then, after a follow-up LP, the second incarnation of Soprano Summit was born.
The main reason for change was an economic one: as a six-piece band, Soprano Summit was an expensive package. The band also wanted to travel light, so the piano had to go. Rhythm guitarist Marty Grosz was signed up to replace Pizzarelli, who was tied up with studio work.
For Grosz, the invitation to join Soprano Summit was a lifeline – as well as a launchpad for the solo career he’s enjoyed ever since. “It was great for me because I’d been toiling in the vineyards – I’d been playing all the crumby jobs in Chicago and wondering if this was all there was in life for me,” recalled Grosz in a 1995 interview. “This band had a feeling of experimentation about it – and I love that.”
Grosz had already heard Soprano Summit on the radio and couldn’t wait to get to New York to take up his new job. “Soprano Summit was a sterling quintet, a peppy, interesting band sort of like the little Jimmie Noone Apex Club group with Jimmie Noone and Joe Posten on clarinet and Posten sometimes on alto sax.”
Grosz shared with Wilber and Davern a love for tunes that were off the beaten standard track. (He passed the test with Davern by being au fait with the Red Allen-Pee Wee Russell number Oh Peter.) Indeed, Soprano Summit’s basic groundplan was to be different and to make a feature of the fact that this was a working band with a varied working repertoire. In Grosz they also had ”a marvellous player who lent the band an entertainment factor with his singing and clowning”. Davern said: ”That was the basic sound of the group: two sopranos, or clarinet and soprano, and the guitar held it together like glue”.
The guitar was the icing on an already rather tasty cake, because the essence of Soprano Summit was the relationship between its two frontmen. Davern put it down to the fact that they grew up on the same music but both have their own views on how it should be played. ”Our differences lie in how to approach the godhead, so to speak. We’re all descendants of classic jazz. Bob has his idea of how it should be interpreted and I have mine. But together, it works.”
In a typical Soprano Summit number they would bounce the melody backwards and forwards between them like a football, with one taking a step back to play the obbligato and create a space for the other to lead the way with a solo. Then several rounds of musical jousting would take place, with each front man vying for musical supremacy – especially, remembered Marty Grosz, on their “big, next-to-closing number, Song of Songs,” a schmaltzy tune that Sidney Bechet used to play. “They way they did it, they’d uilt and build and build it – and people loved it.
“They would build up a head of steam and it would bring the house down.I don’t think either of them would have the horn out of his mouth during the whole number. They’d egg each other on, and try to outdo each other. Then, when they ran out of gas, they’d pass it on to me – and I’d be like a drowning man struggling to keep his head above water..”
There was always a balance between the arranged and the spontaneous, and the only clue to the planned nature of the programme was the fact that they had music in front of them. Indeed, Grosz pointed out: “They were the only band I ever came across who could somehow surmount the fact that they were reading from these charts. I thought it was good that they had little arrangements – otherwise if you don’t play together for a long time, every night in the same club with the same bass player and drummer, then you’re going to end up playing common denominator tunes. This was a chance to do out-of-the-way material.”
Bob Wilber was modest about the way he and Davern worked. “A lot of it was intuitive. We would find out what worked by trying it, and then incorporate it into our repertoire.” Their intuition about one another’s direction also meant that they complemented each other’s playing. Davern observed: ”Sometimes when the two of us play two notes, you can hear a third note present – a harmonic that suddenly appears, a richness.”
Although Soprano Summit split up in 1979, both Wilber and Davern, who thereafter played clarinet exclusively, continued to discuss their musical rapport in the present tense because following the recording of the Chiaroscuro album Summit Reunion (with their original line-up) in 1990, they increasingly found themselves being booked together for concerts, albeit with different rhythm sections. Indeed, plans were afoot for some Wilber and Davern concerts when Kenny Davern died suddenly in December 2006. As he had said, during a mid-1990s reunion, ”people still throw their babies up at this band, at this combination of instruments”.
Thankfully, there are plenty of recordings of this near-mythic band to testify to its ability to give the hairs on the back of the neck a work-out, even three decades after its demise. As the recent Arbors CD of highlights from the tapes recorded by the New Jersey Jazz Society in 1975 demonstrate, the Soprano Summit sound is as fresh, exhilarating and downright thrilling as ever.
MARTY GROSZ remembers:
“I joined Soprano Summit in 1975 for a concert at the Carnegie Hall. There I was, with my knees knocking together. Somehow, playing the Carnegie Hall is an unnerving experience. I had to put one foot up on a chair to stop my knees from clacking like castanets while I played the guitar and sang the Milenberg Joys.
“Around that time, we did The Today Show a couple of times. One time we were doing The Today Show and I was singing How Can You Face Me, and Kenny started mugging, pulling his fingers at the corner of his mouth and making all kinds of faces and obscene gestures. It was all I could do not to just give up in the middle of live television and crack up.
“I like that kind of thing in a band. I’d much rather they’d come out with water pistols and soda water bottles than those deadly bands where everybody sits there like zombies and the leader comes out and makes one of those deadly earnest announcements. In this band, we had a chance for craziness like Theatre of the Absurd, which I personally am a fan of.
“Soprano Summit was the only group I ever played with who managed to read music on the stand and not have it have a negative effect on the audience. Usually, when you have a little combo – especially – and the musicians have their eyes down at the paper, you lose contact with the audience. But, for some reason with Soprano Summit, they could surmount the fact that they were reading from these charts.
“We had these little orchestra stands and I sat in the middle – I was the guy who stopped Kenny and Bob from killing each other at times. Kenny was the outspoken one, and Bob was quiet – always thinking about the music; about arrangements.
“Soprano Summit was the band I actually looked forward to playing with. I’m really sorry it had to come to an end. Sometimes when Kenny and Bob were wailing away full tilt, and the rhythm section was boiling, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. And I’m an atheist.”
* The Soprano Summit in 1975 and More (Arbors Records ARCD 19328)