Ernie Krivda Blows Full-bore at Andy’s
Cleveland, Ohio-based saxophonist Ernie Krivda blew hot and strong at Andy’s Jazz Club in Chicago on April 20–21. Sporting a different suit and hat each night, silk handkerchief in breast pocket, Krivda radiated old-school style. His right hand hugged the tenor tight to his waist in an unusual grip, as if he needed to keep it close to squeeze out those extra notes. Krivda is a volcanic player, lungs like barrage balloons; he spits fat notes fast, but gives each one status with a tap of the tongue. His group Detroit Connection boasts Marion Hayden, a first-call Motor City bassist, pianist Chip Stephens, currently jazz professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and humble-but-energized drummer Renell Gonsalves, son of legendary Duke Ellington saxophonist Paul Gonsalves. The Connection averaged three tunes a set, since Krivda had a lot to say on his horn, the material largely standard fare save for Krivda’s tribute to one of his favorite Midwest jazz clubs (“Irv’s At Midnight”).
Krivda’s stagecraft could seem a little kitschy. He would release his right hand from the saxophone in a showbiz flourish, though as intensely as he grips the horn, with fingers curled in readiness, you figure his arm needs a rest, and there’s no doubting his fervor in throwing his whole body into the performance.
But at 67 (though looking and playing a decade or three younger), Krivda isn’t frontin’. He’s deeply grounded in jazz lore. Like Cleveland homie Joe Lovano, Krivda’s father was a saxophone player, too, so swinging the horn came as a birthright.
So the legend goes that Ernie Krivda turned down Miles Davis. The story is true, but, during an all-night chat at Chicago’s Tempo Café (a few predawn hours before his return to Cleveland to rehearse his student big band for the Tri-C Jazz Festival), Krivda cleared up misconceptions. “Between the ages of 25 and 30, I led the house band at the Smiling Dog Saloon in Cleveland six nights a week,” he began to explain. “We opened for everyone from Cannonball Adderley and Stan Getz to Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett.” Krivda picked up valuable bandleading lessons in such proximity to the greats. Witnessing Getz bawling out two stellar sidemen in the dressing room one night reinforced to Krivda that you could have band members who were great individually, but that was no guarantee they could play effectively together.
It was Adderley who hooked him up with Quincy Jones during Q’s lucrative Body Heat project, which allied beboppers with less harmonically sophisticated funk musicians. Krivda’s ultimate dissatisfaction with that situation echoed his uneasiness about the Davis offer. “Miles’ band was not happening during a week at the Smiling Dog in the ’70s,” he said. “Even though Al Foster was on drums, Miles could barely zip his pants. He was in terrible physical shape and stopped playing shortly after; joining his group was not a viable option for me at that time.”
Despite regularly rubbing shoulders with bona fide jazz royalty, it was a trio of Cleveland tenormen—Dave O’Rourke, Count Basie alum Weasel Parker and the redoubtable Joe Alexander—who had the most impact on Krivda’s development. At Andy’s, he was playing O’Rourke’s old King Super 20 tenor, carrying on the big-toned legacy. “I keep returning to the mother groove of swing. It’s a serious part of the music’s identity, and I’m still trying to get more intimate with it,” he mused, insisting the Midwest is still the heartland of swing feel. After living in New York for a spell in the ’80s, Krivda now orbits a circuit around Cleveland that includes clubs in Buffalo, N.Y.; Columbus and Toledo, Ohio; Indianapolis, Ind.; Grosse Point, Mich.; and Pittsburgh, Pa.
Blues For Pekar (Capri), the latest of 30-some Krivda CD releases, pays homage to the late cartoonist Harvey Pekar, onetime DownBeat critic and author of American Splendor. The disc features Krivda protégés Sean Jones and Dominick Farinacci on trumpet and flugelhorn, plus Hayden, Gonsalves and veteran pianist Claude Black. Several tracks sound remarkably authentic to the vibe of the original versions with close ensemble empathy, Sonny Rollins’ “Valse Hot” being one example. Krivda, who values individual expression and exploration, appeared somewhat defensive about that suggestion. “I wanted that track a little ‘hotter,’” he contended. Krivda’s desire to dwell on much-played material is akin to Rollins’ persistent excavations into standard fare.
Listening live at Andy’s to the plaintive, vibrato-laden interpolations within Krivda’s relentlessly vertical, arpeggiated trajectory, one could no doubt trace these characteristics back to his father’s preoccupation with Coleman Hawkins. Though he is partial to abrupt bluesy articulations that remind of yackety saxman Boots Randolph, Krivda clearly loves ballads like “Lover Man” and especially “More Than You Know,” which he played each night in Chicago.
It’s been written that Krivda uses circular breathing to elongate his lines, but I didn’t hear it and he denied it. “I think the necessity for taking breaths is an important part of horn playing,” Krivda said. “I saw (Ellington baritone saxophonist) Harry Carney circular breathe for dramatic purpose and have been around Roland Kirk, but I think taking a breath is good. It’s all about controlling the airflow—that’s why they call it a wind instrument.”
Andy’s is like jazz clubs used to be, where folk went to talk, carouse and enjoy the vibe, not just sit cloistered and attentive.
Krivda knows that a tune like Wes Montgomery’s “West Coast Blues” has elements to hook a lively audience, with its waltz feel and repetitive riffs, plus harmonic sideslips to keep the musicians engaged. His sartorial presence and full-bore blowing drew decent crowds both nights at Andy’s; his stash of Blues For Pekar CDs was soon gone. Krivda bagged his saxophone between sets and stored his currently cooperating reed in a moistened cigar case with a dozen others, all scrupulously hand-numbered. He started each set promptly, and if his band mates weren’t quite ready, he’d start alone. His youthful staying power suggests he has some instincts for self-preservation—notwithstanding our all-night hang—such the better to funnel extra levels of energy into the music.