Drummer and conga-player RJ Spangler runs the Eastlawn record label in Detroit. He’s playing on two new recordings:
- “Blues to Be There: a Salute to Duke Ellington” (multi award-winning Planet D Nonet, co-led by Spangler and trumpeter James O’Donnell)
- “Joys” fronted by singer and trombonist Tbone Paxton.
Spangler talked about finding rare Ellington tunes to record, and long-standing musical collaborations in Detroit. Feature by Alison Bentley
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London Jazz News: What made you focus on this particular period of Ellington, ‘56 to ‘63?
RJ Spangler: Duke is a great hero of ours: we did a retrospective of his Cotton Club era and a Strayhorn tribute, which was probably our most successful record to date. I always liked this era of Duke’s band: Sam Woodyard on drums, Paul Gonsalves and Johnny Hodges on sax. If you want to play tribute to someone like Duke you don’t want to record all the songs everybody’s already recorded.
LJN: You’ve said, “There’s a place where swing-era types and hard bop-era types could find themselves in the music.”
RJS: Yeah, that’s what Duke’s band was- he had guys of all stripes.
LJN: Tell me about the tracks.
RJS: Spacemen is basically a Clark Terry vehicle and Charlie Miller my trumpeter loves Clark Terry- it’s his feature.
LJN: “Pie Eye’s Blues” has quite a free baritone solo.
RJS: That’s Alex Harding– he played for 30 years or so in New York City. He played with Sun Ra and lot of free jazz musicians. I knew him when he was at high school. In the film Anatomy of a Murder, Duke plays a character named Pie Eye, but I’ve never figured out what that’s about!
LJN: “Chinoiserie “features you on congas and has an Afro-Latin feel.
RJS: That’s Sean Perlmutter on drums- he comes out of the swing era but he can get out of that and really hit where it matters.
On Blues to Be There, Christopher Tabaczynski plays a nice clarinet solo, James O’Donnell plays the trumpet solo and Michael Zaporski brings in atmospheric piano. It’s slower- we love the blues!
James sings on Take the A Train. He’s a character- first take too! Betty Roche was the first one to sing it with the background vocals.
LJN: “Moon Maiden” is big band Latin?
RJS: That’s Tbone Paxton singing. It’s an interesting song, because a TV network in America commissioned Duke to write it about a trip to the moon. It’s the only song Duke ever recorded singing with the band, and it’s a sultry little number. That’s Tbone playing the trombone on Swingers Get the Blues Too.
LJN: “Blow by Blow” is a really blues.
RJS: Our former bass player moved to Washington DC, but he still writes most of our arrangements. He was able to reduce it down to six horns for us. Duke had 5 saxes, 4 trombones and 4 or 5 trumpets on his songs.
Tigress is a Latin groove- it’s a beautiful thing with all those horns interacting and creating this stirring kind of vibe. James has a very pretty sound on Almost Cried. He and Tbone studied with a guy called Russell Green who played trumpet with the Jimmie Lunceford orchestra They really learned how to play in a swing era style.
LJN: “Purple Gazelle” is a calypso?
RJS: That’s a pretty song isn’t it? It was a tough one to record. It’s very atmospheric and it’s from Anatomy of a Murder. We’re gonna go on tour this summer, way up north to where that movie was filmed. We have the gigs booked, but we need to raise the money for some of the costs to take a 10-piece band on the road, so I put up a GoFundMe page!
U.M.M.G. stands for Upper Manhattan Medical Group in Harlem. This is the doctor that took care of Duke and Strayhorn, and they loved him so much they wrote him a song for his practice. It’s a swinger. Charlie’s on that one and so it’s Goode Wyche III, our baritone player.
LJN: Bonga is a really driving Latin groove.
RJS: I have a solo on that, and the trumpets go back and forth
LJN: Moonbow has mute and flutes
RJS: Kasan Belgrave is on clarinet- at the moment he’s with the Lincoln Centre Orchestra and he’s a very good musician
LJN: Then VIP ‘s Boogie/ Jam With Sam.
RJS: That’s Goode playing the baritone- the big strong sound with the blues on top and bebop trumpet again. Michael’s on piano- he’s another guy from my generation who learned from the elders before us. Our band is four older guys and six younger guys and it’s a good mix.
LJN: “Joys” has a really interesting mix of songs, with Tbone Paxton both singing and playing trombone. Milenberg Joys made me think of Dr John.
RJS: T-bone and I learned every song off Dr John’s Gumbo album. We’re doing 10 different Mardi Gras gigs this month- we’ve been playing the music of New Orleans for last 35 or so years here in Detroit.
LJN: “Estate“ is a complete contrast- a slow bossa with John Hendricks lyrics.
RJS: I’m a lifelong fan of Lambert Hendricks and Ross, Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure and all those guys. Johnny Adams is a great singer from New Orleans- he would come up to Detroit and Tbone and I would be his band members, so Lost Mind is a tip of the hat to him.
LJN: “This Will Make You Laugh” has a string quartet.
RJS: Our guitar player Matt LoRusso wrote that original arrangement of a Nat King Cole song- he really did some work on that.
LJN: Junco Partner is by Dr John?
RJS: It’s a big rave up when we do that one live- really funky. Lulu’s Back in Town is swing- that’s a big one at our gigs too- we love Fats Waller.
LJN: Sweet and Slow is very bluesy.
RJS: Another Fats Waller- we slowed it down. Tbone plays a great trombone solo. We always try to do a Louis Jordan tune on all of our records and Push-ka Pee-shee Pie is a wild calypso, rollicking with a big fancy arrangement.
Them There Eyes is from a Lester Young record. That’s Chris playing clarinet and sax and James brings a nice trumpet solo. When I Grow Too Old to Dream– isn’t that a great song? A little known Nat King Cole- you wanna get some songs that are off the beaten path and shine a light on them.
LJN: “Cease the Bombing” is an instrumental?
RJS: That’s a soul-jazz tune by Grant Green- he lived in Detroit for a number of years, and a lot of guys played with him. All the guys in our band have been together for decades but Matt is really a founder member of our project, so we thought we should feature him on guitar. We’ve all been playing together since the 70s and 80s- these are old friends. We had a lot of great musicians here in the 70s: guys like Wendell Harrison, HaroldMcKinney, Phil Ranelin came here from Indianapolis. They were the godfathers of jazz here. There was avant garde jazz, mainstream jazz and bebop.
LJN: How did you set up your own record label?
RJS: Eastlawn Records was founded in 1990 by my friend Frank Traum- we want to high school together. We’re getting really great reviews all over the world.
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