The HardBop Quintet

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For nine years I co-led a band called the NY HardBop Quintet.  There are a lot of great memories and even a few frustrating ones, but by and large this was a very important time in my life.  Not only did these great musicians influence my playing and writing, but through my desire to keep this a working unit I learned a great deal about the business of music.  Even though at times there was some rough going -- especially at first -- I proved to myself that I could book gigs in town, as well as tours, deal with publicity and press, and along with my co-leader Bim Strasberg, oversee the production of our four CDs.  

The band was formed in 1990 by the drummer and my close friend Eddie Ornowski.  He had a four week gig playing at a club in Nagoya, Japan.  He called trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, bassist Strasberg, a volcalist named Laura Vacarro, and myself.  I had never met Eddie but he had heard me a few years prior when I was playing at this dive bar in Chelsea called Pats and he had a feeling that we would hit it off musically.  

When we arrived in Nagoya we were driven to the club to meet the owner.  The driver took Eddie to the table where the club owner was engaged in berating one of his employees.  At the exact moment Eddie approached the table the owner decked the employee with a roundhouse.  Turned out we were working in a Yakuza run club who had desired an American band that could play "movie music." By this they meant the theme to Rocky and Chariots of Fire.  

Needless to say this wasn't what we were expecting but we made the best of it and managed to compromise with "Shadow of Your Smile" and "As Time Goes By." Soon after our stint began we discovered an after-hours bar no bigger than a walk-in closet that had a piano.  There we would play until 4 or 5 in the morning, after which we would be escorted back to our apartments via taxi by an ex-pat good-natured elderly Texan named Christy.                


We returned home from Japan in the fall of 1990 and by then we were set on trying to get some gigs in New York.  Since Eddie was busy teaching as well as gigging, I took it upon myself to do the booking.  The idea was that we would be a cooperative musical group, each contributing compositions and arrangements.  Except for the organization of gigging and recording this would remain the case throughout our history.  One of us would bring a song in and by the time we played it down a few times we pretty much had a good idea if it was worth performing.  I had always been interested in composing but had never had much encouragement, so this workshop situation was a gift.  In the early days we would rehearse often -- once a week of so - and this gave me a chance to try out a lot of different ideas, keeping some while discarding others.  In this way I gained confidence as a composer and was in turn influenced by the tunes that the others would bring in.

In 1992 Joe recommended me to bassist Joel Forbes for a jam session at his house in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.  Saxophonist Jerry Weldon was at most of these sessions and he began hiring me on some of his gigs at J's on the Upper West Side.  I believe it was Joe who suggested expanding to a quintet by bringing in Jerry.  It was a great idea and one that was crucial to our group sound.  Jerry and Joe had a long history going back to their years in the Lionel Hampton band in the late 1980s and they had a chemistry that was at once exciting and infectious.  The way they phrased melodies and interacated on the stand became a linchpin of our group's sound. 


Some of our early gigs were at J's, The Angry Squire, and The Chelsea Commons.  The Commons was our home base at that time and we would play there a few times a month.  If Joe couldn't make the gig we would call Ralph Lalama and there some memorable sax battles between him and Jerry.  Once Greg Hines came in and we saw him go into the men's room soon to be followed by a lady friend.  We can only speculate on what happened then --  they were probably working out a new dance routine. 

One of the low-lights of early HBQ history was our name.  We brainstormed for a few weeks and finally came up with New Jazz World Order, and by 'we' I mean 'I.'  NJWO was the name of one of my tunes so it's only fair that I shoulder the blame for this unfortunate misstep.  The name was supposed to be an ironic reaction to then president George H.W. Bush's 'new world order.'  You remember -- the one where the US gets to invade any country it wants for whatever reason it wants.  Little did I know that neo-nazis in Germany -- skinheads -- had also adopted 'New World Order' as their moniker of choice.  I DIDN"T REALIZE!  We had to change the name, the logo, the press kit, everything.  It was a real pain in the ass, but we had to do it.  Jerry was the one who came up with HardBop Quintet.  It was simple, to the point, and let people know right off where we were coming from.  A few years later Peter Schmidlin of TCB would add NY to the name to let the European market know that we were a New York band. 

Bim was the one who made the connection with Peter Schmidlin, the president of the TCB Montreux Jazz label.  From the start Peter believed in our group concept and he was very enthusiastic about where we were coming from.  With Peter we produced four CDs, three of which were top 20 Gavin charters. (I think the last might have topped out at 23, but we won't quibble.)  In 1998 Peter brought us over to Switzerland for a week long tour.  It was an incredible tour and Peter did his best to make us feel at home and took great care of us.  



In 1995 Eddie left the group and we began thinking about a different drummer.  Joe had done some gigs with Clifford Barbaro and recommended him. We had a tour of the Midwest and we hired Cliff.  I'll never forget that first rehearsal with him.  He barely said two words and played brushes for the entire rehearsal.  I thought he wasn't into the music and that he was vibing us.  As it turned out this couldn't have been farther from the truth.  As soon as we got out on the road it was as if he had been with us since the beginning.  The hookup was instantaneous, both musically and personally and it was a seamless transition.  We had taken two cars and for the first part of the ride Cliff was riding with Bim and Richie Vitale, who had subbed for Joe during the first week of that tour. Later on Cliff was riding with me and, as is his custom, began complaining about the lack of amenities in my car. "Well Dom has got a good radio. Dom said that we'll be there around 8.  Dom said..."  Who's Dom?  It took me awhile to realize he meant Bim. 


Rokermotion, our 2nd CD, was recorded shortly after returning from the Midwest.  We had played with Mickey Roker a number of times at a club in Philadelphia called Ortliebs, and since we were between drummers we asked him if he would make our next record date.  To our delight he accepted and we ended up with a great session with one of the all time drummers.  Mickey was such a positive force during that recording and he made things incredibly easy.  Of the three sessions that were recorded at Van Gelder's this was the smoothest, although we were probably at our tightest during the recording of "The Clincher" owing to the amount of gigs and rehearsal we had done.  Rudy didn't know us during that first session and as a result he required a good amount of finessing and coddling, two traits I am not known for.  I remember mentioning how I preferred the sound of vinyl over CDs and how he nearly took my head off.  Fortunately Eddie was there to smooth things over, a feat worthy of a U.N. ambassador.  


Cliff played on both A Whisper Away and A Mere Bag Of Shells.  The latter was done at Systems Two in Brooklyn and both were successful projects.  By 2000 we had toured California twice, the Midwest twice, Upstate New York, Switzerland, and performed at such New York spots as The Village Gate, The Blue Note, Smalls, and Birdland.  Why did we break up?  In reality there was never an official breakup.  It was simply a case of running out of momentum.  Jerry and Joe became more and more busy with various solo projects and I didn't have the time and stamina to continue booking tours.  The business was becoming unwieldy and I felt that we had taken our band as far as we could without representation.  I decided to devote more time to my family and other musical situations. 

Now that ten years have gone by I look back at that time with a great deal of fondness and I am thankful that we have the four CDs to document that era.  I still see all of the guys and although we have not worked as a band since a nutty gig we did in Greenpoint back in late 1999 or early 2000, I do work with them individually.  Who knows -- in the future there may come a time when the world will have a desperate craving for five middle-aged hardbopsters.  When that time comes, we'll be there.