Jazz Notes: Clarinetist / Saxophonist Mike McGinnis Returns to Jazz Standard With His Dream Trio — Art Lande and Steve Swallow
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, April 11, 2018
In 2017, then-44-year-old clarinetist/saxophonist Mike McGinnis experienced his longtime fantasy of forming a trio with two of his elder-jazz heroes, pianist Art Lande and electric bassist Steve Swallow. It became a striking reality of improvisational chamber jazz beauty. Based on a rehearsal, two days of gigging at Ibeam Brooklyn and a full day recording at Systems Two Brooklyn, McGinnis and his crew came up with the lyrical, dancing, whimsical album with unexpected twists, appropriately titled Recurring Dream on Sunnyside. In addition to improvised pieces, there were originals by all three.
Despite the fact that the trio did not have a drummer (oftentimes a necessity for scoring a live gig in a club), McGinnis convinced Jazz Standard that given the prestige of Lande and Swallow a crowd would show up. Indeed, both sets of a one-night gig were packed. That seemed to guarantee an encore outing this year, especially since the group is celebrating the release of its second album, Singular Awakening, also on Sunnyside, at Jazz Standard on April 19.
“The whole project taking place was like a marathon for me,” McGinnis had said at the time. “I was in the best shape when we went into the studio that first time and I had so much fun. In the studio we did 14 compositions, so we’ve got a lot more to reveal.”
That‘s what Singular Awakening is all about. After the debut recording, McGinnis still had lots of extras in the can: 30 minutes of free improvisation that opened the recording session and another CD’s worth of music that didn’t make the first cut.
Last year, McGinnis reflected on the first sessions, about “how easy it was.” He laughed and marveled at the magic he experienced with both artists who he’s had a relationship with over the past decade plus. “There I was putting a lot on the line,” he said. “I was wondering, am I going to be good enough to play with these two guys? But from the first note, I realized that it was sounding like what I had been hearing in my head for 10 years. I was so free that I felt like I could play anything. Art and Steve were saying what you play is what it is. That’s the truth and live with it.”
The Maine-born and Brooklyn-based McGinnis talks like he plays: spirited, buoyant, tastefully billowing. His tale of linking up with the septuagenarians (then, the Boulder, Colorado-based Lande was 70, and the upstate New Yorker Swallow was 76) is a remarkable story of being in the right place at the right time with eager teachers. McGinnis said, ”They were cheerleaders all the way through.”
When he first came to New York in 1999 after a stint of studying classical saxophone as an undergrad at the University of Southern Maine and later at Eastman College of Music studied with Ralph Alessi and pianist Michael Cain, McGinnis moved into a house in Astoria, Queens. Alessi hipped McGinnis to an open apartment one floor below saxophonist Ravi Coltrane who was spreading his wings in a series of jams with the likes of Steve Coleman and Jason Moran, and starting his own label, RKM Music. McGinnis with his group, Between Green, recorded the imprint’s first disc, Tangents, in 2000.
From his contact with Pain at Eastman, McGinnis began to immerse himself into Lande’s music. A few years later he got to meet him when they jammed together at a wedding. After that they met up at the upstate New York music retreat Pompanuck. “Art was doing all these amazing things on the piano, and I was just a shy guy,” McGinnis said. “Before we played on instruments together, Art challenged me to play duo on the badminton court. Through that we became friends.”
McGinnis adds with a laugh: “One detail that shows a facet of his nature is that he wanted to play not against each other, but together trying to hit the birdie back and forth as many times as we could. So, his spirit was always one of playing together as opposed to competing, and during our badminton time, we both got so obsessed with trying to hit back and forth so many times that I think we almost got to 100.”
Meanwhile a radio program host friend at public station WNYC, Dave Garland, recommended that McGinnis explore clarinet through the recordings of Jimmy Giuffre, whose classic early ‘60s trio featured pianist Paul Bley and Swallow. McGinnis was blown away and started seeing music in the Real Book composed by the bassist. A few years later, he was playing alongside him when saxophonist/composer Ohad Talmore arranged Swallow compositions for a chamber ensemble that toured Europe for 10 days. “For the whole tour, I asked Steve, who’s a sweet sage, about all the stories of that band,” McGinnis said. (He had been asked to go to Berkeley, CA, to be a part of the band for a long run of the Tony Award-winning performance of Passing Strange but decided to do the tour even though he knew he wouldn’t make as much money.)
During the course of his budding friendships with Lande and Swallow, McGinnis came to realize that the two had played in a jazz-rock band in San Francisco in the early ‘70s. The chemistry proved to still be strong after four decades of not playing together. “Mike was really the catalyst for us getting back together,” said Swallow. “It was a good idea. This trio works extremely well. I’m impressed with Mike. Mike and Art are both completely at ease with the asymmetry of time signatures.”
McGinnis picked the tunes for Recurring Dream, studying the compositions of Lande and Swallow. “I’m glad Mike chose ‘Bend Over Backwards’ because it’s clarinet-friendly so that he can do the interval leaps,” said Swallow. “There’s like a crazy grace to the dance with a serious comic strip of melody.”
Starting off with a funky, elated take on “Mel’s Drive In” by Mel Martin from Lande and Swallow’s S.F. days (with McGinnis on soprano sax), the Deferred Dream highlights include two McGinnis originals (including a revisit to “The Rising” from his previous album Road*Trip which featured two extended clarinet works including Bill Smith’s classic Concerto For Clarinet And Combo), the gorgeous Lande tune written for the date “Constantinople,” and “Drat Recurring Dream,” Lande’s spinning and turning de-arrangement of “Darn That Dream” which McGinnis soared through with clarinet glee.
For Singular Awakening, McGinnis chose two Swallow compositions for the opening and closing of the album—the rhythm-changing blowing tune “Bite Your Grandmother” and the meter-shifting “Here Comes Everybody”—and two by Lande (the second and second-to-last track) including “Shining Lights” and “For Elise.” In the middle of the recording, McGinnis chose some of the tunes from the trio’s initial improvisational meeting. “I listened to all the free stuff, and it was all great,” McGinnis said. “It’s out, it’s in, it’s melodic.”
For the Standard show, the trio will again make a rare appearance. “Both these guys are so busy,” McGinnis says. “Art has been sending me new music, but Steve is on the road a lot. People have approached me to perform with the trio, but there’s no time. I’d love to do a tour, but again, no time.” But in the meantime, for this show, McGinnis will be awake from his dreams with his heroic band mates.
Cover: (l. to r.) Art Lande, Steve Swallow, and Mike McGinnis; courtesy of artists. Jazz Standard photos: Mu Reyes; all others at IBeam Brooklyn: Adam McCullough