Ehud Asherie is one of the musicians I look for whenever I’m in New York, and if he’s not on the road, I usually get lucky and find him at a piano somewhere in town. On a recent visit, I had the good fortune of hearing him two nights in a row, first at the weekly Louis Armstrong celebration at Birdland, and then a solo set at Smalls Jazz Club, where he usually plays the 7:30-9:45 p.m. slot every other Thursday. At Birdland, Ehud joined David Ostwald’s Gully Low Jazz Band to play “Black and Blue,” “After You’ve Gone,” and other tunes associated with Pops; Gully Low’s personnel often changes from week to week, and on this occasion included Wycliffe Gordon and Anat Cohen.
The following night, Asherie was on his own at Smalls for a couple of sets that included material by Fats Waller, George Gershwin, Ellington, Bud Powell, Monk and Leonard Bernstein. Ehud channels the stride masters as well as the modernists, and the lineage that runs from James P. Johnson and Jimmy Yancey to Monk and Errol Garner figures prominently in his work. Not surprisingly, he’s an insightful listener. The first time I met Asherie and mentioned how Dave McKenna had opened my ears to solo jazz piano, he expressed awe not only over McKenna’s two-fisted attack but the subtler internal voicings that are often overlooked by listeners wowed by his rumbling bass lines and dazzling technique.
Asherie, who turned 32 in December, was born in Israel in 1979. His family moved to Italy when he was three, and six years later to New York. In his early teens, Ehud began hanging out at Smalls and studying with the veteran pianist Frank Hewitt, a Smalls regular who’s now deceased. Ehud spent a few years working with Grant Stewart’s Quintet, which is where I first heard him, and he’s recorded with Stewart and Harry Allen, another bonafide keeper of the flame. Asherie and his colleagues explore the seemingly endless possibilities of theme and variation inherent in the 12-bar blues and 32-bar song forms, and they swing like mad. Here’s a clip of Ehud and Harry stretching out on the Vincent Youmans classic, “Hallelujah.” And here’s a solo version of “My Heart Stood Still” which Asherie played at the Arbors jazz party in Florida three years ago; a year later, he recorded this solo collection of New York tunes for Arbors that I’ve been playing regularly on WFCR.
Last week Posi-tone Records released Upper West Side, a duo recording by Asherie and Allen that’s destined to become another chart-topper on Jazz à la Mode. Let’s hope we’re not the exception, for beyond a devoted circle of fans, players like Asherie and Allen and Stewart rarely garner much attention in the jazz press. When I mention their names to writers and deejays, or to players of an edgier bent, they readily acknowledge their mastery but often leave it at that. Rarely are they reviewed by the Times or even mentioned in the paper’s Friday arts listings, yet they’re almost always working in town. But they’re not the kinds of players who are bellwethers of the latest trend, so assignment editors and those for whom straight-ahead jazz just isn’t enough tend to overlook them. One senses that Ehud and his colleagues are not unaffected by this lack of wider recognition, that they’re well aware of the jazz buzz ringing elsewhere. But as Asherie told me recently, “I love the music I play,” to which I thought,”There’s no small reward in that.”
Here’s Ehud at the Kitano Hotel introducing “One for V,” a tune based on his hero James P. Johnson’s “Old Fashioned Love.” Wrap your heart around the freshness of this old-fashioned-ness and savor the choice quote from “Manhattan” he uses to signal the end of his solo.
Asherie will be with Gully Low on the 8th and 15th of this month at Birdland, and he’s back at Smalls on Thursday, February 16 with his trio. Smalls, by the way, is operated by former Hampshire College student Spike Wilner, a fine pianist in his own right whose venue offers the cozy feel of a clubhouse. For many, it’s probably a second home. In addition to its primary function as a performance venue, Smalls operates a record label, provides a live internet video stream for a nominal annual fee, and presents up to three different acts and a jam session seven nights a week in its location at the bottom of a steep flight of stairs at 183 West 10th Street in Greenwich Village.