Live Jazz: William Galison at the Whitefire Theatre

by Devon Wendell

It was an evening of pure, traditional jazz delivered with sensitivity and originality by harmonica wiz William Galison and his quintet on Thursday night at the Whitefire Theater in Sherman Oaks.  Backing Galison in the L.A. Modern Jazz Series concert were pianist Otmaro Ruiz, clarinetist John Tegmeyer, bassist Greg Swiller and drummer Dan Schnelle.

Opening the set with the Charlie Parker classic “Billy’s Bounce,” Galison and Tegmeyer immediately established an original sense of harmony between the chromatic harmonica and clarinet. Instead of trying to mimic Bird and Miles’s original recording, Galison proved that less is more, choosing to play well thought out and tasteful phrasing with soul and a true knowledge of his instrument, without falling back on fast scales or abandoning the over all theme of the piece. Tegmeyer’s playing, though sweet, was more frenetic, which created true dynamics between the pair.  Here and elsewhere, Ruiz’s piano work tended to start soft and tender and slowly build in intensity, prompting the very pure rhythm team of Swiller and Schnelle to give it their all, very much the way McCoy Tyner would push Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones to climactic heights which John Coltrane could explore.

On Galison’s composition, “New Samba,” the band laid down a hard-bop samba motif, with Galison and Tegmeyer interweaving in and out of each other’s lines perfectly, without stepping on each other’s phrasing.  As Galison said to the audience, “Clarinet and harmonica are like family, or like peanut butter and jelly.”

Though almost every jazz artist has covered “Body and Soul,” Galison’s rendition was one of the most mournful and bluesiest versions I’ve ever heard, playing high note bends on the harmonica and making the instrument cry and plead with very few notes. It was, without a doubt, a highlight of the set.  His slow vibrato, in fact, was closer to that of tenor sax balladeer Ben Webster than that of his mentor and chromatic harmonica master, Toots Thielemans.  Tegmeyer’s solo, though confident and skillful, could hardly match Galison’s emotional outpouring on this standard.

Just Friendswill always be associated with Bird’s incredible reading of this classic ballad on the Charlie Parker with Strings album.  Galison’s cover was closer to the version by Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins on the album Sonny Meets Hawk. Again, Galison chose not to mimic Bird’s laser like runs and instead rode slowly and soulfully behind the bass, drums and piano. His ability to slur notes and expand upon the song’s well known melody was astonishing.

On “Whitefire Blues” (Galison’s on- the-spot ode to the show’s tiny theater  venue), he switched from chromatic to diatonic harmonica, delving straight into a pure and slow Chicago blues shuffle, paying tribute to blues harp masters Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter and Junior Wells, with squawks, wails, moans, and sharp bends.  Ruiz’s playing was in the authentic vein of Chicago blues piano veterans Eddie Boyd and Otis Spann, instead of sounding like a jazz player trying to oversimplify the blues.  Swiller’s bass walked with purpose and groove, and Schelle held down a solid foundation for Galison and Tegmeyer.  It was obvious on this number that Galison has a pure understanding of the blues, which is also the foundation of his jazz soloing.   This was true alley music from the Windy City even though Tegmeyer’s playing sometimes seemed out of place – a reminder that Howlin’ Wolf and the others never seemed to include a clarinet in their musical mix.

Johnny Mandel’s composition “Emily,” made popular by Henry Mancini, closed the set, with Galison and company choosing to emphasize the romantic ambiance of the original theme. Tegmeyer’s clarinet shined on this number, playing fast yet graceful runs to match Galison’s voice-like lines.  The band remained strictly within the jazz mainstream, convincingly calling back to a different era.

Galison’s enthusiasm and joy for the music – whether pure jazz or the blues — was present in each number,  Although he spoke with warmth about his former teacher and mentor Toots Thielemans, it was obvious, in this refreshingly intimate and memorable jazz performance,  that Galison has found his own style.  Unlike the countless other chromatic players have hung on to Thielemans’ every note for the past several decades, Galison is a true original.

To read other posts by Devon Wendell, click here.

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