The Chicken Fat Ball, said tenor saxophonist Harry Allen (photo above) is a little “like sitting around a dinner table with friends.” But instead of deciding what to eat, they decide what tunes to play. “We certainly don’t talk about it ahead of time,” Allen added. “It’s pretty spontaneous. There might be a little discussion backstage right before we go on. One person suggests something. Someone else suggests something. It’s very much like a conversation.”
Traditionally, the Chicken Fat Ball has been staged on the first Sunday in January. The last January concert was on January 5, 2020. The following year, it was canceled due to the pandemic, and when it resurfaced in 2022, the date was changed to May 30. This year, the new tradition continues as the CFB will be held from 2-5 p.m. on Sunday, April 16, at The Woodland in Maplewood. Allen, who has performed at several of the past events, will be joined by trumpeter Warren Vache, clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Ken Peplowski, trombonist Randy Reinhart, pianist Mark Shane, bassist Gary Mazzaroppi, and drummer Paul Wells.
Pointing out that he’s “in love with the Great American Songbook and the Dixieland songs that came before that,” Allen predicted that the afternoon will be “a blend of straight-ahead jazz and Dixieland. We have all the right guys for it, and it will be a swinging affair.” As for his own playing, “I’m very influenced by Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, and Stan Getz. That will certainly be obvious to a lot of people.”
Vache, also a Chicken Fat Ball regular, spent time in the ‘70s as a member of Benny Goodman’s band, an experience that enabled him to play with some of jazz’s leading elder statesmen – tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, trombonist Urbie Green, pianist Hank Jones, and bassist Slam Stewart. While recording on the Concord label in the late ‘70s, he made several recordings with Rosemary Clooney, playing and recording with such other instrumentalists as tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton, pianist John Bunch, guitarist Cal Collins, and drummer Jake Hanna. Their work prompted The New Yorker’s Whitney Balliett to write that, “These musicians have moved beyond their predecessors; they contain the past and the present.”
During the Covid lockdown, Allen recorded and self-produced five albums as a leader from his home, and “started releasing singles digitally since CD sales are going down and down. People can find them on Spotify or iTunes or Rhapsody or wherever they buy their music.” In the April 2021 issue of Jersey Jazz, Joe Lang singled out one of the albums, Milo’s Illinois, a duet recording with bassist Mike Karn. “Allen and Karn,” Lang wrote, “have been playing together quite a bit in recent years . . . One thing that is ever present in any Allen performance is his innate sense of swing.” The album, Allen revealed, was named after Karn’s late dog, Milo. The title, he explained, is “a little play on words with Illinois Jacquet because they had a jacket for Milo.”
The Chicken Fat Ball is produced by Al Kuehn, Don Greenfield, and Ed Stuart, and this year all proceeds from the event will benefit the New Jersey Jazz Society. The seating is at picnic tables, and attendees should bring their own drinks and snacks. Tickets are $35 and can be ordered by sending a check, made payable to Al Kuehn, to 12 Lenox Place, Maplewood, NJ 07040, along with a stamped, self-addressed envelope. For more information, call (973) 763-7955.
PHOTO BY RICHARD RYALS