Josh Walker Steps Up

“I usually hire people for gigs, people I’d watch movies with,” said Josh Walker, bandleader of his namesake jazz quartet. “That’s my benchmark. That’s the great thing about playing with guys like these. You go on the bandstand and it’s kind of a continuation of the hang.” The Josh Walker Quartet — playing together for the first time as a full band — hosted the bi-weekly Jazz Haven jam session at Three Sheets on Elm Street, playing a short set on Tuesday night that felt like a big deal, followed by the jam session.

Behind the quartet’s considerable power is a palpable maturity, both of sound and of individual character. On saxophone: Walker, whose tone was muscular, elegant, and clear. You know how some bandleaders hog the stage? Not Walker, who actually stepped off the stage for a large part of the set to appreciate his bandmates’ solos from the audience’s point of view. He played with impressive breath control and stamina, landing the notes and giving them a bluesy blur when he wanted to. Ben Rice, on piano, is from San Francisco and has classical training that brings confidence and precision to his affable chill. At home with the high keys, he wasn’t afraid to toss out a Liberace flourish when it suits the moment.

The bassist, Matt Dwonszyk, had everything you want in an upright bassist: He was serious, grounded, intent, a bit of a professor. He looked cool as a cucumber, but he was sweating when he got offstage. (“Dwonszyk is a savage, and I mean that in the best way possible,” Walker said.) He’s a little older than the rest of the band and has the touring miles to show for it. On drums, there was either some kind of centaur or Eric Hallenbeck, depending on whether you chose to believe he was human. Hallenbeck’s performance was a maelstrom of surgically precise tuning with Rice on piano and sharp crisp breaks with the sticks in the air like he was conducting a symphony. For all his power and the obvious joy he took in it — the grinning that characterizes the jazz musician at his or her most untethered from any kind of economy — he could hang back with a gentle touch when the song needed to be quiet. He comes from drums: His father, Frank Hallenbeck, plays drums in the classic-rock cover band Root Six.

“Being a bandleader can be really frustrating, because people ask you, ‘what do you want to happen here in this part?’ And I’m just like, ‘I don’t know!’” Walker said. “Most of the time, my work as a sideman, I would show up, ask a couple of questions, play the music, and that was it. Try to have some fun. But being a bandleader is pretty fun because it gives me a reason to write my own stuff.”

Tuesday’s set, Walker explained, would feature Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Like Someone in Love,” Art Blakey’s “The End of a Love Affair,” Joe Henderson’s “Jinrikisha,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan” from Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite, Hank Mobley’s “This I Dig of You.” Walker regretted not being able to include “a Sam Rivers composition called ‘Beatrice,’ which is like my favorite tune ever written. It’s just a really beautiful-sounding tune, really kind of easygoing and spurious. Sometimes I’ll go to a jam session and I’ll say, ‘Let’s play “Beatrice,’ and then I won’t even play the tune. I’ll just sit and listen to it.”

The up-tempo songs were a perfect opportunity for Hallenbeck to go to, yes, hell and back. Was the driving beat the first straight of the Kentucky Derby or the call for troops for the Union militia? In any case, the floor and tables shook. For the groovier numbers, Rice made sure the piano stood out when he wanted it to; he was never muffled by the other three. I thought it was danceable, too; sipping a drink after the set, Dwonszyk nodded serenely.

“That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” he said.

For the final song of the set, “This I Dig of You,” Dwonszyk did a huge spooky run up and down the bass like the soundtrack to a beatnik heist movie, or the theme song for a cat burglar.

“Bass is kind of a physical instrument,” he said afterward. “At faster tempos it’s sometimes difficult to play lines, like a horn player. You know, bass is a supporting instrument, so I’ll play those boom boom boom behind all the other guys and then occasionally I’ll get a solo and it’s like, ‘What do I do?’ On the faster songs, sometimes I’ll just keep that going, see if I can make something interesting by just doing that.”

Emily Gordon Photo“I really like playing with Eric because he always knows exactly when to push me,” Walker said. “I know I can’t really zone out when I’m playing with him because he’ll catch me on it real fast!” He laughed. “Can’t afford to doze off.”

“I think, even though I play drums and he plays saxophone, we both have a really similar way of interpreting music and the beat, so a lot of the stuff that we play just naturally winds up, without even thinking about it,” Hallenbeck said. “We just think about contour and moving of music and solos and that kind of thing, kind of together, we’re always on the same wavelength about thinking about it. So it makes things really nice on the bandstand, we don’t even have to say anything, you know? It’s gonna be a good hit.”

The members of the band first encountered each other at the now-closed 9th Note in Stamford, which had moved from New Haven in 2015. “From the beginning to the end, that was my hang,” Walker said. “I used to play there every week when it was in New Haven. So I got really familiar with the owner, and I was really sad to see that place go. It was really like, no place in Connecticut was really a jazz club. Open seven nights a week, jam sessions every night. The owner, Chris O’Dowd, great guy, he was really great about giving local musicians opportunities. We played tons of gigs there. Tons of sessions.”

With Jazz Haven’s sessions and other places to play and hear jazz in town, everyone in the band was sanguine about encountering newcomers or even opponents to jazz among their listeners. “The biggest thing I always get when people hear jazz is ‘they don’t get it,’ which is like incredibly vague,” Hallenbeck said.

But, as he knew from teaching music to elementary-school kids, it was all about breaking down the basics.

“One of the questions kids often asked: ‘How do you know when it’s your turn to play?’ Well, I said, ‘There’s a set number of chords and measures, and when you’re done with your turn through the measure, then the next person starts.’ Understanding the basis for how the music works can really help a non-jazz listener or someone who hasn’t been very experienced with the music feel a better sense of what we’re feeling on the bandstand.”

“Jazz comes out of the popular music of its time, too,” Rice said. “So jazz in the ‘30s is like what someone like Usher was to 2005…. I can understand why some people say, ‘I don’t understand the jazz that I hear today, or modern jazz.’ It is a little abstract at times, but you gotta realize what it’s coming out of is the popular song still, you know, it’s just a little twist on it.”

“I try to see how we can pull them apart and push through them,” Hallenbeck said. “It’s what I’ve been getting into lately, just realizing that it’s OK to take more chances with different tunes…. When you’re playing with guys like Josh and Ben and Matt, they’ll interpret whatever I started doing ... so that’s where the combination of individual creativity as well as group improvisation really meets, and that’s one of the really beautiful things about this music. You get on the bandstand and you create some really beautiful stuff out of a sheet of paper with chords on it.”

“I wasn’t always as into jazz as I am now,” Walker said. “I used to be really into EDM. To this day I’m really into trap music. I’ve always been able to derive the same satisfaction out of listening to jazz music as I do listening to, you know, Migos or Future…. You have to come to it with an open mind. You don’t really have to understand the details to enjoy something, either. You could just dig the fact that he’s up there with a saxophone and it sounds cool! That’s very valid, too.”

Jazz Haven Sessions happens every first and third Tuesdays at Three Sheets, 372 Elm St. Click here for more information about Jazz Haven.

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