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After about a week or so I summoned the courage to call Sonny and found him to be friendly and approachable. We chatted a little and set a time to get together at his home, a small house located on the southeastern shore of Long Island. When Leslie and I arrived the four of us got better acquainted and Sonny gave a slightly more detailed account of his past than when we had first talked on the phone. He had just turned 49 years old, was of Italian descent (his family name had been shortened from D'Alessandro), grew up in Pittsburgh, was originally a singer but took up the bass in the late 1940's, and moved to New York in 1955 to play jazz. One of his early friends and employers was alto saxophonist Phil Woods and Sonny had performed with Phil and recorded two albums with him in the 1950's. He worked for several years with pianist Lennie Tristano (starting in 1959) and in fact lived for a period of time in the basement of Lennie's house in Queens. Sonny had bought his current house in the 1960's when he was making a decent income as a free-lance player in New York and moved there permanently around 1970 or so.
I thought this was both an interesting and intriguing appraisal, and couldn't find a description quite like it pertaining to any other jazz musician in the book. I decided then that I needed to get to know Warne's playing for myself and went to the local record store to look for some of his recordings. These are a little easier to locate currently, but in late 1980 there were not many of his records available. However, I had some luck and came home with two LP's: "Warne Out" and also "Jazz Exchange Vol. 1: The Warne Marsh Quintet featuring Lee Konitz and Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen." I immediately put on "Warne Out" and had the first of many moments that continue to occur when I listen to Warne: what I heard not only identified him as a highly skilled improviser, but also as one of the most unique players that I had encountered. The LP is a trio recording made in Los Angeles in the later 1970's with Warne joined by Jim Hughart on bass and Nick Ceroli on drums. This is a spare setting, however it was obvious that nothing was missing in terms of other instruments. The first track is cleverly titled "Loco 47" (Local 47 is the Los Angeles chapter of the Musicians Union) and is an improvisation on the harmonic structure of the song "This Can't Be Love." Warne begins by playing a relatively simple melody, and then goes on to improvise several choruses that sound to my ears to be an example of spontaneous playing of the highest order. Beyond that, it just "sounds right" in a way that defies any verbal analysis or explanation, and shares this quality that I believe is inherent in all great jazz performances either recorded or live. One element I also noticed was a rhythmic command and freedom much like the first track of Lennie Tristano that I heard at Sonny's house, however it seemed that Warne went even further than moving the implied downbeat back and forth. There are phrases that he improvises in polyrhythm over the basic time that Jim and Nick provide, as well as phrases that toy with the overall sense of meter in a playful way but always come back to the correct spot in the form. Finally, Warne's sound and 'concept' in some way revealed a healthy 'sense of humor' to me. This is a term that I used to hear in reference to jazz improvising, and while it is difficult to define I believe that "Loco 47" amply displays it. Over the years I have developed an internal personal "short list" of greatest recorded examples of Warne's playing, and "Loco 47" is definitely on that list.
I noticed in the Village Voice in November that Warne and Sal would be playing again at the Vanguard from the 17th through the 22nd. Because of school I didn't have the free time in November that I had in August, consequently I was only able to get in for the last night of the engagement. This was a lower-key evening than the one in August (perhaps due to being the last night of six and also a Sunday), however was very consistent with the quality that I had heard on that first night. By the time the third set came (at 1:00 am) the club was fairly empty, and I moved closer to the bandstand. I could overhear a little bit of conversation, although Warne and Sal didn't talk much at all, and the only person who would address the audience was Warne when he would introduce the players at the end of each set. As the time neared 2am I realized there would probably be only one more tune, and at that point the rhythm section (Frank Canino and Skip Scott again) launched into a fast blues. Warne started playing alone with them (Sal did not enter for some time) and started quietly building a solo that gradually increased intensity. This went on for some time and I remember having the distinct feeling that he was overtaken by some force that moved his playing from excellent to inspired. There was a look in his eyes of being somewhere else, and not focused in his vision on anything specific in the room. This is difficult to explain in words, but it was a very powerful experience and I had the sense during that final tune that we were privileged to be hearing one of the great living jazz players at a moment of highest inspiration.
I remember going to see Sonny for a lesson on a Saturday in later April and singing Lennie's solo from the recording "Line Up" both with the recording and with him accompanying me on the electric piano. I also played very well and decided to take advantage of the momentum by bringing up the subject again of studying with Warne. His response this time was quite different: "you're definitely ready man, Warne is going to love you!" He then gave me two phone numbers: Warne's home in Ridgefield, Connecticut and also his studio at the Bretton Hall Hotel in Manhattan. As I left Sonny that day he said that I was going with his full blessing. I thanked him, but it was difficult to fully express how much I appreciated his support and generosity, and also his facilitation of my journey. I didn't know at all how things would go with Warne, and in fact was somewhat terrified of what I was about to do both because I felt that I realized his stature as an artist and also was quite intimidated by what he had achieved. That said, I called him in Connecticut late that afternoon. I was extremely nervous, but with a jittery voice introduced myself and said I had met him at the Vanguard in August, was playing and studying with Sonny and would like to come for a lesson if possible. He said that would be fine and that the first lesson was more of an interview and would be free. We set a date for 3:00 in the afternoon of Monday May 3 at Bretton Hall; it was difficult to think of much else before then, but finally that Monday arrived.
When I arrived at Bretton Hall for my lesson on Thursday July 22 Warne immediately asked if I was free on that Saturday. It turned out that I did have a gig, at that time I was playing a fair amount of wedding and commercial jobs on Long Island. I asked why and he said that there was going to be a party on that early evening where he had agreed to perform, but would be prior to playing later that night at Gulliver's. I started suggesting other guitarists he might contact, but his reply was "think for you, not for me." It was clear from his tone that he wanted me to arrange for a substitute to cover my job so that I could do the performance with him, so I made a call from his studio and was able to find a replacement. Warne said that the gig was to be on the rooftop of the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan, and that I would be part of a group that would play one set with him, and then the remainder of the evening for the party. After the details of the gig were taken care of we went on with the lesson, but it was fairly difficult to focus and contain my excitement. So, as happened a few weeks before when Warne invited me to the session with the Danish drummer, I left Bretton Hall that evening with my head spinning. This was a lesson with more than one surprise however, and once we settled down to going through my work Warne said that we needed to talk about what I was going to do for the next month. When I asked why he said that he was leaving for Europe early the next week to play some gigs, the primary one being a concert on August 12 at the North Sea Jazz Festival in a quartet with Sal Mosca. So we laid out the work I would do, and this was fairly easy as I had become grounded in the activities of slow improvising, singing and playing solos, working through the meter studies, and also composing.
Tensions eased quite a bit though once everyone got their equipment in and set up, and after that the band did a hasty sound check. That left less than thirty minutes before the concert was scheduled to start, and by then there was a large crowd waiting in the lobby of the Fine Arts Center. I chose to attend to the group, so escorted them to the green room where they could relax and have something to eat and/or drink. Even though I had some personal connections to Phil and his bassist Steve Gilmore I didn't say anything about that, however maybe fifteen minutes before the concert was due to start I was talking a little with Steve about a duet album he had recently made with guitarist Harry Leahy (Harry had been a member of the band for a time in the late 70's, they were a quintet at that time with Mike Melillo playing piano). The green room was somewhat crowded and there was a good deal of cocktail party type chatter going on. I finally mentioned to Steve that I was playing regularly with Sonny and he became very interested and asked me several questions about him. (Sonny refused to come to the concert although I offered him free tickets; he prided himself on his reclusive nature although he made sure to have me send his love to Phil. )After a minute or so of the conversation Steve turned and looked around the room and spotted Phil on the other side. The room was large and rectangular, perhaps sixty feet long and thirty feet wide, and there was a grand piano and also a small kitchen unit in it. Steve said in quite a loud voice, "hey Phil: this guy here is a guitar player and plays in a band with Sonny Dallas!" Phil looked over and said "no shit!" and quickly came over to talk with both of us. It seemed that in an instant any sense of tension was completely dissipated, and the three of us talked about Sonny for several minutes. I also mentioned that I was studying with Warne and working with him occasionally and the conversation was very relaxed, in fact Phil made me feel quite like a colleague at that point. Gradually everyone else left the room to find their seats and I was left alone with the band. I walked them to the backstage area, made sure everything was OK, and then found my own seat. The group gave an excellent performance starting with Neal Hefti's tune "Repetition" (this piece was recorded by Charlie Parker when he performed with a small string orchestra). I remember the ballads most: one was a tribute to the recently deceased Bill Evans written by Phil and titled "Goodbye Mr. Evans," and another was a beautiful piece written by the bassist Red Mitchell called "It's Time to Emulate the Japanese." Phil played the clarinet on one or two tunes that night, his playing was masterful and I was especially struck by the warmth of his sound.