Ira Sullivan was inimitable in many ways.
One of those ways was that he knew who he was and what was important in his life, and he made his lifelong decisions based upon his steadfast values. Without a doubt having been deserving of the National Endowment of the Arts’ Jazz Masters Fellowship, Sullivan was comfortable settling in southeast Florida—which he called “the most non-jazz place I’ve ever heard of in my life”—after he moved there from Chicago in 1962 to visit his parents. Despite his plan to return to Chicago, he stayed in Florida.
Sullivan was confident enough in his decision to realize that the move to Florida with his wife Charlene was what he needed for a stable family life, his family being one of the primary values in his life. Sullivan was happy that he could pick up his grandchildren from school every day. To make ends meet, he said that he developed a tree-trimming service after he cleared trees in his yard from hurricane damage. His neighbors asked him to trim their trees too, and his business took off. “I made good money because I’m very good at it,” he said. “But it was a labor of love. It was great exercise. I had a twelve-foot ladder and would stay up there for two or three days.”
But Miami jazz educator Jerry Coker was astute enough to appreciate the invaluable talent that arrived in his town, and he recruited Sullivan to teach jazz at his summer camps. At first, modestly, Sullivan thought that he lacked the talent for teaching. But when he saw a teacher lecturing beginning students about “Giant Steps,” Sullivan realized that the students needed to appreciate the joys of playing jazz as the motivation for learning it. And so, as with other endeavors, Sullivan excelled in teaching too.
Sullivan was firm in his beliefs, which led to multiple sources of his personal and professional fulfillment. His ability to connect with students arose not only from his gregarious nature and his musical virtuosity, but also from charming courtesy and mutual respect. After I interviewed him, as a gesture demonstrating his kindness, Sullivan made a gracious remark in front of my family by saying that my interview was like War and Peace due to its length. I suspect that he made countless kind remarks and did countless acts of kindness during his lifetime.
Another of Sullivan’s inimitable endeavors was his ability to play multiple instruments as required by the performance: trumpet, flugelhorn, peck horn (or tenor valve horn), alto sax, tenor sax, soprano sax, baritone sax, flute, alto flute, and drums. Sullivan rarely flew to continental U.S. engagements because he packed the trunk of his car with horns and drumsticks. Sullivan’s intuitive adaptability for the embouchures required to master each instrument, along with his unconventional improvisational style, established him as being in a class of his own.
When Sullivan passed away in 2020 at the age of 89, his son Brev was working on a tribute album in Miami with the Blue Road Records Studio Sessions Band, of which he is a member. Unfortunately, Ira wasn’t able to hear the energetic recorded commemoration to his life: Ira: The Tribute Album. However, Brev (whose name is abbreviated from Ira’s middle name, Brevard) ensured the authenticity of the tribute by sharing his father’s arrangements, both from previous albums and from his own participation in his father’s concert performances. In addition, the album is a reminder of Ira’s influence, not only on horn players like Brad Goode and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, but also on guitar and bass players like Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Mark Egan, and Randy Johnston.
(Interestingly, Ira recalled, “I set that [first] record date up for [Kirk.] I never knew he was a serious jazz musician. I saw a picture of him with the three horns in his mouth, and I said, ‘Oh my. What is this guy doing?’ We met in Louisville, Kentucky. He was suspended over the bar; it was like a ship’s galley. He came over and said, ‘Ira, I’m Roland Kirk. I’m taking my group to Chicago. You’re from Chicago. Can you introduce me to anyone so I can get my band recorded?’ Immediately, I said, ‘You call Joe Segal.’ I knew that Joe had contacts with everybody in Chicago. Sure enough, Joe got Roland a date with Argo, and when I got back to the city, Roland said, ‘I want you to be on the first recording date.’ It was Introducing Roland Kirk Featuring Ira Sullivan.”)
Miriam Stone, the founder in 2019 of The Blue Road Records Studio Sessions Band, attended some of those concerts; she met Ira performing with Brev after a concert at the Gables Stage in Miami. Accordingly, she was intrigued by Brev’s suggestion of a tribute album to his father, which Brev led. No doubt, the tribute band’s professionalism, its unique mixture of jazz with Latin percussion, and a father’s pride would have been special to Ira, who valued his family and his religion above everything else.
Ira: The Tribute Album commences with “I Get a Kick out of You,” which Brev states was one of Ira’s favorite songs. Arranged in two moods, the band of three guitars, a bass, a keyboardist/saxophonist, and a drummer/percussionist play Ira’s arrangement at a blistering tempo, the musicianship of its members immediately apparent. The lead guitarist ripples the notes of the melody, with a signature rising phrase at the repeat and at the ending of Ira’s chart, during the first track’s first 53 seconds. At that point, the listener may assume that drummer Kevin Abanto, a Peruvian native with a blazing solo, will take over the rest of the performance. But the guitars, one taking the lead and the others comping over bassist Javier Espinoza’s pulsating bass lines, ad lib the next chorus. Eventually, the guitarists and the drummer take fours, leading to another assumption that the last improvisation will be the conclusion. But no, Ira wrote another surprise. After returning to the melodic chorus again, at 5:35, the tempo slows to a light sway and then to an improvisational flourish and finish.
True to the multi-cultural atmosphere of Miami, Espinoza is a Venezuelan native, as is guitarist Leo Quintero, Stone’s guitar teacher. Stone, a Cuban immigrant, plays electric and acoustic guitar on the album. Yainer Horta, also from Cuba, switches between keyboards and saxophone. And of course, Brev Sullivan is the third guitarist of the sextet.
Respectful of Ira’s contributions to jazz compositions, the group’s next track is “Monday’s Dance,” which he played with Red Rodney on the 1981 Spirit Within album. [Said Ira: “I’m a trumpet player. Saxophones are my hobby. After Red and I started that two-trumpet thing together, all of a sudden, there was a rash of two-trumpet bands breaking out.” With typical modesty, he concluded, “So I guess Red and I might have had some influence on that.”]
Not only does the lilting jazz waltz of “Monday’s Dance” lend itself seamlessly to interpretation on the Blue Road Records Studio Sessions Band’s acoustic guitars, but also the “spirit” within the title isn’t taken lightly. Adding to the combination of traits that account for his inimitability, Sullivan, deeply spiritual, believed that music arises from a divine source. Indeed, Ira, who said “I received the spirit of Jesus Christ when I was eight years old,” elaborated that he and Jaco Pastorius, who formed a quartet with Bobby Economou and Alex Darqui, “shared our spiritual experiences.” [“I don’t know anything about “religion,” he said. “I go to the bathroom religiously. I eat religiously. I sleep religiously. But I never thought of God as religion.”]
Remaining consistent throughout his life, Sullivan used to play “Monday’s Dance” at Jazz Vespers in local churches when he toured. And he joined young Miami musicians in playing it in local churches. The tribute band’s version underplays their potential for musical intensity, putting listeners at ease as they play with seasoned mastery of their instruments, the guitars singing and ringing at a medium volume throughout.
Ira’s “Circumstantial,” released with Jodie Christian on piano on the album of the same name in 1977, again reveals his calmer side, though Sullivan started his musical career as a bebopper. The sextet’s musicians’ excellent attention to timbre over its long tones, including Horta’s on soprano sax, contributes to the success of the track.
Ira Sullivan: The Tribute Album also includes his composition in six-eight, “Nineveh” from the 1967 album Horizons, which he performed with Miami musicians Dolph Castellano, Lon Norman, William Fry and José Cigno. The Band plays the piece, reminiscent of “Afro Blue,” with controlled abandon, the musicians’ high level of musicianship adding to the success of the track. The guitars slash and the drums thrash with rock concert intensity as the Band reminds listeners of Ira’s explorations in fusion. Ironically, Ira said in the interview, “I was never into rock too much because that back beat turns me off…. Rock music is great though. My son is a rocker. But it shouldn’t be promoted to the exclusion of everything else.” Horta elevates the celebratory performance on soprano sax with his swirling, not-to-be-denied tribute to Ira’s remarkable work on the album.
Yet another piece reworked from a previous Ira Sullivan album, as if in intentional contrast, is the next track, Tadd Dameron’s “Our Delight” from The Incredible Ira Sullivan, recorded with Hank Jones, Eddie Gomez and Duffy Jackson. Presented at a medium fast tempo with electric guitars, Espinoza’s electric bass prods with walking fours until he emerges to take his own melodic solo, his precise attention to tone and extroversion easily engaging the listener.
“Icarus” showcases the atmospheric richness and illuminating colors of multi-instrumentalist Ralph Towner’s composition, a premiere piece for the Oregon quartet and one that notably was recorded as well with Gary Burton on ECM’s Diary album. As in subsequent Oregon performances with Paul McCandless on horns, “Icarus,” a tune providing for resonating, triumphant, soaring guitar work, includes Horta’s sweetness of tone on soprano sax over Abanto’s clip-clopping rhythm.
“The Little Train of Caipira” and “Espresso Bueno” represent the influence of Latin music upon Ira. Heitor Villa-Lobos, the foremost Brazilian guitarist of his era recognized worldwide by the likes of Leonard Bernstein, wrote “The Little Train of Caipira” a Toccata movement of his suite, Bachianas brasileiras No. 2, in which he combined popular and classical musical elements. Meant as an entertaining yet no less difficult-to-play piece, Abanto picks up the tempo from a pensive guitar introduction with the drums’ unmistakable imitation of a train’s acceleration from a stop. Played at a medium-fast tempo, the piece chugs along with casual celebratory joyfulness, four accents providing toots at the repeats. Written by Brev so that he and his father to get audience members out of their seats and dancing, “Espresso Bueno,” a fast-paced rumba, showcases the cohesion of the Band as the members effortlessly trade off solos while maintaining the sizzling excitement that the piece generates.
Respectfully, the album concludes with “Amazing Grace,” the song with which Ira always ended his live performances. Ira’s recording of the hymn appears on his album with Red Rodney, Ira Sullivan Does It All (1983). Ira said about his faith, “I remember that someone asked me if I ever saw the movie Jesus Christ Superstar, and I said, ‘No, I haven’t finished the book yet.’ I never go to see movies about God or jazz musicians. To me, that’s an illusion. I knew them in real life—Bird, Dexter Gordon, Lennie Bruce and all of those people. I’ve been asked to be in some of those movies, but to me reality is much better than illusion.” Brev is the only musician playing his father’s favorite hymn. Multi-tracking the three parts, he plays with sustained exquisiteness without accompaniment over the track’s length of almost four minutes.
Just as Ira Sullivan was an individual who knew who he was and who played with authenticity, so is his son, Brev, who, on Ira: The Tribute Album, combines his personality/his instrument/his music/his style with his father’s. Furthermore, Brev Sullivan didn’t have to go far to find the perfect musicians for the album; they were already in the Blue Road Records Studio Sessions Band, of which he is a member. With admiration, technical skill, stylistic versatility, professionalism, and vigor, the band’s members capture and honor Ira Sullivan’s spirit by being true to themselves as well.
No doubt, the inimitable Ira Sullivan would have respected that.
Label’s web site: www.blueroadrecordsstudio.com