JALC on the Back Deck: Sherman Irby and Marcus Printup

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Alto Saxophonist Sherman Irby, August 12

Alto saxophonist Sherman Irby (left photo above) spent four years playing with the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s quintet. During that stretch — from 1997 to 2001 — two of his band partners were bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Willie Jones III. That’s the trio Irby will be leading at the Morris Museum’s Jazz on the Back Deck concert on Thursday, August 12. “We go back a long way,” he said. “Coming out of the pandemic, it will be sort of a homecoming.”

The time spent with Hargrove, who died in November 2018 at the age 49, was special. “He was the spirit of the music,” Irby said. “He had that spirit that was infectious to everyone. Roy connected the older generation to the new generation. He wasn’t a talker; he was a doer. When he played, he gave you all the instruction you needed. It was an experience unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced, sort of like Elvin Jones talking about playing in Coltrane’s band.”

After leading his own group for a few years, Irby joined Jones’ band in early 2004. “I got a call from Gerald,” he recalled, “who was Elvin’s Musical Director. He said, ‘Hey, Elvin needs a saxophone player, but he doesn’t like alto players. Can you get to Boston for a 7 o’clock gig?’ I headed straight to Newark and got on a plane. The gig was at the Regatta Bar. When I got there, they called the tunes, and I started playing. I’m just enjoying myself, thinking this is my one opportunity because he doesn’t like alto players. After the gig, he said, ‘Welcome to the Jazz Machine. You’re hired.’”

Jones passed away in May 2004, and Irby joined JALC in 2005. He also had the opportunity to play with McCoy Tyner’s quartet, again on the recommendation of Cannon, and he stayed with Tyner until the pianist’s death last year.

Irby was born and raised in Tuscaloosa, AL, and started playing music at the age of 12. While in high school, he had the opportunity to perform with gospel singer James Cleveland. He earned a B.A. in Music Education from Clark Atlanta University and joined pianist Johnny O’Neal’s Atlanta-based quintet before moving to New York in 1994. He now lives in Warren, NJ.

For several years in the ‘90s, Irby was a regular at Smalls Jazz Club in the West Village. He remembers that one of his influences, alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, “used to come down to Smalls. He’d only come to the bottom of the stairs and stand there. It was like ‘Yeah, I hear ya.’ He was always supportive.” During the ‘90s, Irby also toured with pianist Marcus Roberts and was part of vocalist Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program with Hargrove. Carter, he said, “was a force of nature. She taught a lot of us about how to put a band together, to think about the sound you put out, the stage presence. The things you don’t learn in school.” From 2003-2011, he was Regional Director for the Carmel, CA-based Jazz Masters Workshop, a mentoring program for young children. “We tried to teach kids to enjoy playing jazz and feel the music,” he said. “We exposed them to the joys of playing it.” Other musicians who worked with him in the program included bassist Buster Williams and tenor saxophonist Jerry Weldon.

Some of the music Irby’s trio will be playing in the Morristown concert will be reminiscent of music on his 1998 Blue Note album, Big Mama’s Biscuits, featuring Cannon on bass and Clifford Barbaro on drums with Hargrove featured on the title track. In a November 1998 review, AllAboutJazz’s John Sharpe described it as, “11 tasty, bluesy biscuits — all flavored with generous helpings of gospel, R&B, and funk.” Nine of the 11 tracks were Irby originals, including “Conversing with Cannon”, a tribute to Cannonball Adderley.

Irby is looking forward to playing outdoors at the Morris Museum. “We just want people to feel good and enjoy some good music,” he said. “Come with an open mind and an open heart, and we’ll make you feel good at the end of the day.”

Trumpeter Marcus Printup, August 19

“It’s gonna be great to play with a small group gig again.” When trumpeter Marcus Printup (right photo above) leads a quartet at the Morris Museum on Thursday, August 19, it will be the first time he’s led a small group in two years. “I’m looking forward to stretching out,” he said. “Jazz is spontaneous and innovative,” he said. “I have no idea of what we’re going to play, but I do want to write something for it. Expect something original that you’ve not heard before.” He will be joined by bassist Philip Norris, drummer TJ Reddick, and alto saxophonist Godwin Louis.

“I’m super excited to play with these young musicians,” he added. “I remember when people hired me. Giving these cats a chance to play is going to be wonderful. I’m being a mentor for them and also learning from them. I’m looking forward to being inspired.”

Norris, originally from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, grew up in North Carolina and was in the Triangle Youth Jazz Ensemble, the jazz arm of the Triangle Youth Philharmonic in Raleigh, NC. In 2016, he received the Ella Fitzgerald Outstanding Soloist Award at JALC’s Essentially Ellington competition. He has played with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the late pianist Harold Mabern, and tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, among others. Norris can also be heard on pianist Isaiah Thompson, Jr.’s debut album, Isaiah J. Thompson Plays The Music Of Buddy Montgomery (WJ3 Records: 2020). (See Rising Star: Pianist Isaiah J. Thompson, Jersey Jazz, November/December 2020).

Reddick was part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center virtual Big Band Holidays concert in December 2020. He has appeared with Wynton Marsalis’ Quintet at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem and with Marsalis’ Future of Jazz Orchestra in Frederick P. Rose Hall. New Jersey Jazz Society members may remember him as part of alto saxophonist Alex Laurenzi’s quartet at the last NJJS live Social before the pandemic, in February 2020 at Shanghai Jazz in Madison, NJ.

Louis, a graduate of the Berklee College of Music, was a finalist in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz saxophone competition. He has studied and performed with bassist Ron Carter, pianist Herbie Hancock, and the late trumpeter Clark Terry, among others.

Printup grew up in Conyers, GA, and graduated from the University of North Florida, winning the International Trumpet Guild jazz trumpet competition. In 1991, he met pianist Marcus Roberts, who introduced him to Wynton Marsalis, and, three years later, he joined the JALC Orchestra. “My first performance with the orchestra was in 1994,” he said. “During the pandemic, we’ve been teaching and doing virtual things. Last night (June 17), we played at the Central Park SummerStage –first time with a big audience. It was electric.”

In March 2020, Printup and his wife, classical harpist Riza Printup, released an album, Gentle Rain, on the Steeplechase label. It features just the two of them without any other instrumentation. “When we first met,” he recalled, “she showed me her harp, and I was so intrigued with her instrument. She’s a trained classical harpist, but she took a jazz course with the late David Baker at Indiana University. She has a natural ear.”

Since the album came out at the beginning of the pandemic, the Printups “haven’t done anything to promote it.” But JazzTimes’ Veronica Johnson noticed it. “Marcus Printup,” she wrote, “is known to many as the fiery trumpeter adjacent to Wynton Marsalis in his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. A longtime fixture in the band, Printup has cut his teeth swinging to big band standards . . . But he’s just as powerful on a ballad . . . Those balladry skills are well displayed by Gentle Rain, for which he’s backed solely by a harp, eloquently played by his wife Riza — a daring configuration that’s rarely been attempted in jazz. Although trumpet and harp may not seem the most likely match,” Johnson continued, “the Printups expose a striking beauty to the combination.”

At the Central Jersey Jazz Festival in downtown Metuchen, NJ, on September 11, Printup’s quintet will feature Riza, playing harp and also presenting a jazz education program for families. The Printups have a nonprofit organization called RiMarcable Music for Arts & Education which educates young children — pre-k through grade 5 — about jazz through a jazz explorer camp, jazz story times, and other events.

Marcus was recently asked by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to incorporate jazz into its summer curriculum at Tanglewood. “I’ll be doing five weeks of teaching online,” he said, “but I’ll be teaching at 2 in the morning because I’ll be on tour with JALC in Europe.” In July, he’ll be recording with saxophonist Greg Tardy, and, in August, he’ll be performing with Boston’s Silk Road Ensemble, a group of musicians, composers, arrangers, visual artists, and storytellers from Eurasian cultures.

The New Jersey Jazz Society is a proud sponsor of the Jazz on the Back Deck series. The August 12 and 19 concerts begin at 8 p.m. Seating blocks for tickets are available for purchase, ranging in size from 8’ x 8’ (maximum of two for $50) to 8’ x 16’ (maximum four for $100). Everyone should bring their own chairs and refreshments. Rain dates are the following evening. For more information or to order tickets, call (973) 971-3706 or log onto morrismuseum.org./jazz.


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