Yesterday afternoon at Old First Presbyterian Church, jazz pianist and vocalist Mike Greensill made his annual Labor Day Weekend visit to the Old First Concerts series, an event that traditionally launches the new season of this series. Things were more crowded than usual up on the altar, since this year Greensill led a quintet featuring two wind players, Charlie McCarthy on tenor saxophone and flute and Joe Cohen on alto saxophone, along with rhythm provided by John Clark on bass and Bob Blankenship on drums. Sadly, illness prevented vocalist Wesla Whitfield (Greensill’s wife) from making her usual “mystery guest” appearance.
Once again the program consisted of familiar standards and Greensill’s own pieces. However, he called three of those pieces “parodies,” since they amounted to reflections on other standards. The most ambitious of these was “Better Zip it in Your Ghoul,” which was meant to be based on Charles Mingus’ “Better Get Hit in Your Soul,” a wild and wooly evocation of a prayer meeting, which, even in its first studio recording version (on Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus) is as much theater as music, if not more so. Greensill tended to fall back on the underlying harmonic progression with a result that just as easily could have been confused with Miles Davis’ “All Blues.”
Nevertheless, that is how music rolls; and it has been doing so far longer than “jazz” was part of our working vocabulary. Greensill’s “parodies” were neither more nor less than the sixteenth-century “parody mass” form, in which a pre-existing piece of music (often secular) would get appropriated as the cantus firmus in a polyphonic setting of the Mass text. (As Martin Luther purportedly said while working on his own hymnal, “The Devil can’t have all the good tunes for himself!”) More recently (1967) Frank Tirro wrote about how many bebop “originals” were actually based on a “silent theme,” such as “How High the Moon” for Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” or “Whispering” for Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High.” (Ella Fitzgerald’s scat improvisations for “How High the Moon” would sometimes include references to “Ornithology.”)
Greensill’s parodies involved different “levels of silence” for his sources. It was not hard to detect the presence of “Tangerine” in “Puce,” while the Mingus treatment was more elliptical. (Was “All Blues” the silent theme of Mingus’ composition? Mingus claims he stole “Better Get Hit” from himself; but who knows?) The most original departure came in “Something Over There,” which came from Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere,” best known these days for the lyrics by Oscar Brown with one of the most memorable lines to be set to music: “Daddy, can I have dat big elephant over dere?”
The rest of the group was given ample opportunity to strut their stuff. McCarthy not only delivered some impressive sax work but also served as one of the composers with his “The Romance Blues.” For basic tune delivery, Cohen and McCarthy had excellent chemistry in their parallel octaves, where McCarthy was below with his tenor or above with his flute. Greensill gave Clark several opportunities for extended bass work, all of which were consistently absorbing. Blankenship’s drum work, on the other hand, was almost as consistently understated; but his contributions to the overall fabric were consistently distinctive.
The new season has now officially begun; and, once again, Greensill could not have been a better harbinger.