Saturday, October 24, 2009


Wendell, when did you start singing? I planned to question you after your opening set at the jazz club Cliff Bell's Saturday night. I couldn’t because some fans had you cornered. Wendell, I know some saxophonists past and present liked to sing. Several years ago, for example, I heard Archie Shepp sing. It was an ugly site. Recently, I watched video footage of the late saxophonist George Adams singing. He was a remarkable free-jazz saxophonist, but Adams singing was underwhelming. Skeeter Shelton, another gifted free-jazz sax-man, sang during his gig in 2007 at the Bohemian National Home. It was embarrassing.

The crowd at Cliff Bells was noisy. I could barely hear you. So I cannot say how you fared. You seemed confident. Your knack for sashaying through chord changes with the clarinet was comparable to Pee Wee Russell and Benny Goodman, clarinetists I'm sure influenced you. If they were alive, Russell and Goodman would consider you a peer. I couldn't hear your singing voice, but I could hear your rhythm section They were like enthusiastic disciples setting at the feet of a jazz sage. In fact, I set at a table on the stage, close enough to bassist Jef Reynolds I could see the notes floating away from his bass strings, and melting in the crowd ears.

During the intermission, I chatted with guitarists Bourassa and Niko Pittman. He shared the ensemble's history, saying you formed the Detroit Swing Ensemble five years ago, mixing big band era swing and be bop, which explained why your sets included material by Louis Jordan and Charlie Parker.

Wendell you sounded complete like on your solo album "The Eight House Riding with Pluto". I overheard you tell someone you've been touring in London and Japan with a band called "Tribe". Doing so keeps you alive. Pittman said closed his law practice to play music full-time. Bourassa gives guitar lessons online. He has students overseas. They gushed about your generosity. Reynolds retired to the dressing room before I had a chance to question him.

The rhythm section was tight knit like firefighters. On the Charlie Parker selections the ensemble performed, Reynolds walked the upright bass around the club as if the bass was a show pony. On a ballad, tears streamed down guitarist Rob Bourassa's guitar strings. Pittman's guitar spoke fluent 1930-ish swings and be bop. The group switched from swing to bop quicker than a couch potato changing television channels. I hate the audience chatter muffled your voice. Maybe the next time the Detroit Swing Ensemble performs in Detroit it'll be at a club where the audience is there is experience great jazz music.

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