Ira Gitler wrote of Tadd Dameron (1917-1965): “His melodies were so beautiful, but at the same time, they swung. He was airborne, to me. He was in the heavens before he got there.” Dameronia’s Legacy All-Stars, a Euro-American octet, celebrates the music of the great Ohio-born pianist/composer in a live album which has just been released. Feature/ interview with Bernd Reiter by Martin Chilton.
Tadd Dameron, who wrote a string of gorgeous jazz standards before his untimely death in 1965 at the age of 48, once said “there’s enough ugliness in the world; I’m interested in beauty”. Dameronia’s Legacy All-Stars, a Euro-American octet created and led by acclaimed drummer Bernd Reiter, pay tribute to the American pianist and composer’s beautiful music in their new album, a live record cut in Germany, at The Audi Forum in Ingolstadt in Bavaria.
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Austrian-born Reiter, who recently celebrated his 40th birthday, first heard the music of Dameron around 20 years ago, when he was a student, finding it first through the influence of his “hero and biggest inspiration”, drummer Philly Joe Jones. In the 1980s, Jones, along with Don Sickler, formed the band Dameronia, to posthumously shine a deserved spotlight on Dameron’s music. “It’s wonderful music and also great for a drummer, because you get loads of features.”
Encouraged by his father, Reiter began playing drums from the age of five. “When you start that early, you make a lot of progress because you just learn very fast,” he says. Although his main inspirations as a student were Philly Jo Jones, Elvin Jones and Art Blakey, he also got an education in jazz rhythm from Manfred Josel, a respected teacher at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz, where Reiter studied from 2001 to 2007. “Manfred had been a swinging drummer as a teenager and you are always influenced by your first professor. He loved Shelly Manne and played me a lot of his records,” Reiter says.
However, it was Philly Jo Jones and his Dameronia Ensemble – which used the original arrangements written for the orchestras of Billy Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie – that remained a lasting inspiration. When Reiter first started thinking about paying tribute to Dameron, he believed that the ideal structure would be an octet, a line-up that offered the options of a big band while leaving enough solo space for all the musicians.
The stellar line-up of Dameronia’s Legacy All Stars is comprised of Reiter on drums, alongside Jim Rotondi (trumpet); Dick Oatts (alto saxophone); Jon Boutellier (tenor sax); Rik Van Den Bergh (baritone sax); Johannes Herrlich (trombone), Andrea Pozza (piano) and Aldo Zunino (bass).
Montana-born brass man Jim Rotondi, whose CV includes spells working with Lionel Hampton and Ray Charles, performed in New York for 20 years before moving to teach and play in Austria, was a key person in the project. “About a decade ago, Jim and I first discussed the idea to play this Dameron music together. We both loved Dameron’s recordings and know his music well. We right away said, ‘let’s do it’, but in the end it took a long time to come together,” comments Reiter.
Both musicians knew the arrangements inside out, but they also went back and checked out all the classic 20th century interpretations of the songs they were considering for the Dameronia’s Legacy All Stars repertoire. Reiter was intrigued by how drummers such as Jones or Max Roach approached Dameron’s songs, while Rotondi was aware of the way trumpet luminaries such as Fats Navaro, Clifford Brown and Kenny Dorham had approached Dameron’s chords. “Jim has a lot of Freddie Hubbard in his playing but he also knows all these early records really well,” says Reiter.
Another key band member is alto player Dick Oatts, from Iowa. “I really wanted to have him in the band,” says Reiter. “As a lead alto player, he is the best of the best. I met him in 2004 when I was a student and he was so fantastic, not only as a teacher and a player but also as such a good spirit. I later saw him play in New York many times. When Jim and I finally decided we were going to do it, I approached Dick and he right away agreed.”
After the pandemic disrupted attempts to tour with the material in 2019 and 2020, Reiter was finally able to organise a tour in late 2021 – one that took in Switzerland, Germany, France and England – managing to navigate the tricky logistics of restricted flights, travel permits and the hitches of last-minute bookings.
In October 2021, a few days after playing Ronnie Scott’s in London, when the album’s eventual executive producer Martin Hummel was in attendance, the octet performed in Ingolstadt. “I hadn’t planned on doing a recording but the concert was being broadcast as part of the Bavarian Radio Festival and they were capturing it on multitrack,” recalls Reiter. “The show came towards the end of our tour and by then the music was really together after playing 12 concerts. The radio producer did a great job. There were Covid restrictions in place, so there were only 100 people allowed in as an audience, but we ended up cutting a record that was like a live studio recording.”
Dameronia’s Legacy All Stars opened as usual with Choose Now – where all the band each take on a separate chorus – and sorted out beforehand who had solos and where, so they could squeeze in eight other tunes: The Scene is Clean, If You Could See Me Now, Philly J.J., On a Misty Night, My Foolish Heart, Flossie Lou, Look, Stop and Listen and Portrait.
Of course, Dameron’s masterpiece If You Could See Me Now, a tune recorded by Sarah Vaughan, Chet Baker, Bill Evans and Wes Montgomery among others (and singer Mel Torme, who Oatts used to accompany), was a must-include tune, and Reiter gets the chance to shine as a soloist on Philly J.J. Although most of the arrangements were the work of talented French tenor player Boutellier, Rotondi wrote the score for On a Misty Night. Oatts did the same for the gorgeous ballad My Foolish Heart, a lovely feature tune for the two Americans.
“The final selection of tunes were pieces that we really wanted and a programme that we had honed to make it really work,” adds Reiter. “It all came together very naturally.”
The album was released on 5 August – via Ubuntu Music – and Reiter is already planning a tour with the same octet to promote the record across Europe. They are performing in Ingolstadt, Paris and Munich and hope to return to Ronnie Scott’s in October, a venue he describes as “fantastic and atmospheric”.
Dameron is done proud by an album that is a real treat, brilliant compositions played by a band adept at inventive soloing. “It was a lot of work to plan the whole thing but I’m really glad we did it,” says Reiter. “It’s been an incredible experience.”
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