Armand Hirsch and Other Young Masters

One of the greatest kicks in my autumnal years is suddenly finding a young jazz improviser who has simply “got it.” That’s why 20-year-old alto saxophonist Hailey Niswanger and 24-year-old Aaron Weinstein each have chapters in my new book, At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (University of California).

It’s happened again. Recently, there was an event connected with my book at the Strand bookstore, the nation’s largest haven for used books, usually filled with customers who haven’t learned that Americans don’t read books anymore. Responsible for the music was Hank O’Neal, a record producer, internationally known photographer and author of The Ghosts of Harlem (Vanderbilt University).

Hank brought in 19-year-old guitarist Armand Hirsch, leading a trio composed of 20-year-old organist/pianist Jake Sherman and 21-year-old drummer/percussionist Jake Goldbas. I had never heard them before, and, on the panel, sitting next to Jim Hall, I wondered if the immediate presence of this internationally known master of the jazz guitar would be at all intimidating to young Armand.

After half a minute, Jim leaned forward in excitement, as did I. It was, simply put, thrilling: the exhilarating, swinging cohesion of the trio, and the leader’s ceaselessly original and surprising conception.

The next day, as Jim Hall was walking his dog, Django, on the street where we both live in Greenwich Village, he said, “Last night really meant a lot to me; a real unit—each [player] with his own voice, and I didn’t hear any clichés. And the guitarist really knocked me out! He played the hell out of the guitar!”
I told Jim that if I were still running Candid Records, that trio would be in the Nola Studios next week. Armand doesn’t have a record contract yet, but Hank, Jim and I are working to get him one.

I later found out Armand has been touring as a guitarist since he was 14. He’s worked at jazz festivals here and abroad and shared stages with, among others, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride, Frank Wess and Ravi Coltrane. He was also a regular member of the quartet led by Hank Jones, who once told him, “Beautiful, Armand! You’re playing is simply remarkable!”

Where did this cat come from? At 5 years old, at the Trevor Day School in New York, Armand started studying drums with a private teacher there, Eddie Locke. “Simply by knowing him,” Armand remembers, “I learned an invaluable lesson in the cheerful and sometimes jocular nature of jazz music, which is often lost on a lot of players. I always admired how he was always smiling.” (I knew Eddie Locke, and the only other person I’ve ever known, in and out of jazz, who had so generous and nurturing a spirit was Dizzy Gillespie.)

At 14, Armand devoted himself full-time to the jazz guitar. And now, with Jake Sherman and Jake Goldbas, who also knocked me out at the Strand, he says, “We’re making simple, palatable music, engorged with the jazz tradition and aesthetic, which will appeal to the listener for its melodic content and rhythmic animation.

“For us, the players, it can be very challenging, and it’s hard to know how to balance the constituent elements, but I hope that it’s the kind of music that would make Ellington smile; after all, he did that better than anyone else in jazz.”

I knew Duke for years. I’m sure he would smile because the trio doesn’t fit into any pat category, like “classic” or “cutting edge.” These are true individualists, listening very attentively to one another and creating a singular whole. Max Roach once told me that when that happens in jazz, it’s like how the Constitution works. “When it works,” I said to Max. “It hasn’t been working for nine and a
half years.”

In addition to his jazz gigs, Armand is in his sophomore year at Columbia University, where he doesn’t major in music. “I’m a neuroscience major,” he says. “I once heard Jim Hall talking about how art and academia and knowledge are means to the same end, and I’ve always quite liked that so much that I based my choice of college on it. My academic pursuits keep me grounded and balanced. … But as it stands right now, I fully intend pursuing music as my career. And with my new trio, I’m very excited to put my music out to the general public.”

Also vigorously proving how jazz will never die is 32-year-old baritone saxophonist Adam Schroeder, who recently released his first CD as a leader, A Handful of Stars (Capri). His credits include the Ray Charles Big Band and John Pizzarelli, and, from 2003 to 2008, Adam was a regular in Clark Terry’s Young Titans of Jazz Big Band.

“I’ve put many years into finding my voice,” Schroeder told the writer Ed Hazell, “learning to make the baritone sing.” And he sure does it make swing as well. An admirer, Clint Eastwood, a longtime jazz and blues pianist and an advocate for the music, applauds Schroeder on the saxophonist’s website: “I love the way you play that cannon!”

There will be more about Adam Schroeder in future columns. And, in what years I have left, I expect I’ll have many other opportunities to cover new young jazz storytellers who have “got it.”

As Sidney Bechet wrote in his glowing book, Treat It Gentle, you can’t hold this music back. Or, as Clark Terry likes to say, “It’s a gift!” And that gift is for anyone with big ears—and a big soul.

Nat Hentoff can be contacted at 212-366-9181.

Originally published in November 2010

1 Comment

  • Nov 18, 2010 at 02:22AM Richard Thomson

    I watched Armand on you tube: great playing. But all due respect to Jim Hall, who is my favorite guitarist, cliche free my ass. The only cliche free "jazz" guitarist is James 'Blood' Ulmer.

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