somewhere in the 1980′s not long after a desperation move back to hometown Brooklyn, NY from my beloved Greenwich Village aerie, i received an invitation from an admired friend, saxophonist Bill Kirchner, who was to present his quartet at a library a decent bike ride from my downtown home. i was always looking for somethings to write about that were, shall we say, off the oft-trodden jazz path. we remained friends –and now colleagues– so when i read that his music was being showcased at one of his teaching institutions, the Manhattan School of Music, i jumped at the chance to hear his work in expanded versions by the estimable MSM Concert Jazz Band.

in a program under the overall banner of “Kirche Tonen” MSM Music Director Justin DiCioccio conducted the band through ten pieces mostly composed or arranged –perhaps happily deranged– by Kirchner, who also teaches at the New School, New Jersey City University, hosts radio programs from Rutgers on WBGO, Newark Public Radio, wins Grammys(r), writes liner notes. all in addition to his artistry as saxophonist. in short, he’s your atypical New York overachiever. Bill has a number of CDs all available through the internet each more brilliant than the ones preceding. but i digress…

the MSM concert, which was presented in October 2011, featured some never before performed compositions as well as some which were expanded for the occasion. it doesn’t take much imagination to understand the widening of his pieces. Kirchner’s Nonet versions sound big band-ish from the get-go. his 1987 Chicago Jazz Festival recording, “One Starry Night,” (JazzHeads) now available on the internet, becomes a tentette with the addition of vocal sounds designer Sheila Jordan. a second CD of duets w/pianist Marc Copland (“Old Friends,” announced as “Cohen” his former surname also on JazzHeads) was recorded at the New School Performance Center.

for Kirche Tonen, a play on his surname and the German “church sounds,” swung open w/Bill’s take on the Ellington dictum that “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” originally re-worked for the vocal duo of Marion Cowings and Kim Kalesti, who themselves are pair of derangement lovers. in his notes Kirchner writes that drummer Paul Wertico (Kurt Elling, et al) once quipped that “it don’t mean a thing if all it does is swing.”

that beginning was the end of familiarity. the balance of the program was original music including two world premieres. not so on “Old Friends,” the Kirchner/Copland duets CD. Kirchner’s abstract on the French-composed “Autumn Leaves” is more avante chanteuse than Johnny Mercer, who wrote the English lyrics. it and Johnny Mandel’s “Keester Parade” (aka “Centerpiece.” deejay Mort Fega once told me that the name was changed for radio play consideration.) begins with improvisations offering no clue as to what is in store. in brilliant examples of musical writing the melodies of each are insinuated rather than pronounced.

“Theme For Gregory” with its dedication to saxist Gregory Herbert, who died on the road in 1978, age 31(!), is a moving tribute to him by Bill as an exposition by the MSM Band from an earlier Nonet arrangement. both Bill and i met Greg when he was with the Woody Herman Young Thundering Herd and later with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra at the Village Vanguard. he was among the more exciting young players at the time. sadly i wrote his obituary for Down Beat. Greg was a mentor to Bill.

penned with pianist Copland the addition of a string quartet elicited “Chanson for Double Quartet” (aka “Pour Une Chanteuse.”) in the program notes Kirchner points out that the piece was originally conceived as a duet for the pair, but that it sounded so “full-blown and well-crafted” that he transcribed it and added the strings.

Kirchner has been a darling of the BMI workshops and a couple of those commission were included at MSM. “Inner Child” was inspired by BMI’s mentors Bob Brookmeyer and Manny Albam. “Holding Patterns” written as an assignment by Brookmeyer “utilizes a three-voice counterpoint.” Bill expanded the idea for the big band. “the experiment worked,” he noted. interestingly, the rhythm section has no written parts. “They are instructed to listen and respond.”

Brookmeyer, who left us as this went to press, is the basis for Kirchner’s “Variations on a Theme by Brookmeyer.” Brookmeyer’s composition, “ABC Blues,” for the Thad & Mel Band’s debut recording on Solid State, “changed my life forever,” Bill noted. another Brookmeyer chart on a later T & M album, “St. Louis Blues,” did the same for me although not as a player but the way i looked and listened to jazz. in it’s gauzy “transblucency” it could be used on a museum walking tour of impressionist graphic artists. “Variations” and the succeeding offering, “Since You Asked” dedicated to Bill’s wife Judy, were world premieres.

one last observation: Judy always accompanies Bill to his concerts and to those at NJCU usually knitting Madam DeFarge-like each celebrating in her unique manner.

- © arnold jay smith
December 2011

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