Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Chicken Fat Ball Celebrates 60th anniversary in Maplewood

produced by Al Kuehn, Don Greenfield, and Ed Stuart

Sunday, April 14, 2 p.m.
The Woodland, 60 Woodland Road, in Maplewood, NJ
Net proceeds from the event will benefit the New Jersey Jazz Society.
Seating at the Chicken Fat Ball is picnic style, and guests are encouraged to bring their own drinks and snacks. For more information, or to order tickets, call (973) 763-7955.

It's been several years since pianist Ehud Asherie has performed at the Chicken Fat Ball, but he'll feel right at home. "These are guys I've played and recorded with many times before," he said.

Those "guys" are: tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, cornetist Jon-Erik Kellso, clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Ken Peplowski (below, right), trombonist John Allred, bassist Gary Mazzaroppi, and drummer Paul Wells. A celebration of traditional jazz, the CFB will be marking its 60th anniversary.

Called "a master of swing and stride" by The New Yorker, Asherie revealed that, "In my formative years, I kind of grew up in bebop—Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Barry Harris—that New York kind of piano playing. Then I kind of came to the realization that it didn't come out of thin air, it came out of another tradition of jazz piano."

Largely self-taught, although, "I did have piano lessons when I was a kid," the 44-year-old Asherie dropped out of music school after one year. His "school" actually was the Greenwich Village club, Smalls, where he hung out as a teenager. "That was kind of an interesting time," he recalled. "You had all these older musicians who had been playing since the 1950s. They were alive and playing—the drummers Jimmy Lovelace and Frank Gant and the pianist Frank Hewitt. And, you had a lot of musicians a generation older than me—people like (guitarist) Peter Bernstein, (pianist) Brad Mehldau, and (pianist) Sacha Perry. It was just an amazing kind of scene. Once I started hanging out there, it was amazing to feel I had been accepted into this community. It was the mid-to-late '90s and early 2000s."

Asherie started playing professionally in 1997 with his own trio—Kenji Robinson on bass and Tom Pleasant on drums—performing late on Sunday nights at Smalls. Then, he played in bands led by saxophonists Grant Stewart and Bob Mover. His last album, Wild Man Blues (Capri: 2019) was called "both quaint and audacious" by DownBeat's Matthew Kassel. "Asherie," he wrote, "succeeds here as an interpreter of old material thanks to his refreshingly recherche song choices: 'And Then She Stopped', and the title track, written by Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton."

An earlier album, Shuffle Along (Blue Heron: 2016) featured solo piano performances from Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle's 1921 Broadway musical of the same name, which was being revived on Broadway. The album, wrote Jersey Jazz's Joe Lang, contained "scintillating solo interpretations of eight tunes from the show . . ." Eubie Blake, Asherie said, "was a great songwriter. He deserves a lot more recognition for his songwriting. A lot of songs that were written in the '20s by him were very adventurous."

Saxophonist Harry Allen once described Asherie as someone who is "modern, yet traditional at the same time . . . in the most wonderful way." Responding to that depiction, Asherie said: "Tradition is something that you study and build on. So, then you can create and add something to it, a foundation, creativity coming from study and knowledge, which gives it some roots. And, to me, the fascinating thing about jazz is how you create within an idiom or inside a style." That, he explained, "gives you the ability to be modern and traditional at the same time."

The familiarity of all the CFB musicians with each other will undoubtedly result in a spontaneous, swinging afternoon. Last year, Allen characterized the event as "like sitting around the dinner table with friends." Asherie and Kellso were on Peplowski's 2018 Arbors big band album, Sunrise, which Jersey Jazz's Lang called "big band music at its best."

Reviewing Allen's 2023 Triangle 7 album, With Roses, Pierre Giroux of AllAboutJazz described his playing as having "an elegant tone and swinging style in the manner of Lester Young or Ben Webster." Lang wrote that Allen, "puts a special touch on not only his exceptional playing, but also on his always sophisticated, yet accessible, arrangements." Trombonist Allred was a member of Allen's band on With Roses.

Kellso and his band, the EarRegulars, have been performing on Sunday nights at New York's Ear Inn for 16 years. Last year, they finally recorded an album at the club. Allred is also on that album, and AllAboutJazz's Jack Bowers, in a review, described him and Allred as "splendid soloists . . . good music never grows old. The audience clearly appreciated the freewheeling performance."