Jack Firneno, the Wire
While many pop songs can be converted relatively easily into jazz tunes, Walk This Way by Aerosmith, arguably, isn’t an obvious choice. But, that doesn’t stop Eric Mintel from doing a good job of it.
“I love doing stuff like that. It’s like going to my laboratory and seeing what melodies and rhythms can go against it,” said the celebrated, Lower Bucks-based jazz pianist.
Played with the Eric Mintel Quartet, his version starts out with the song’s iconic drum beat and riff, with alto sax player Nelson Hill playing the vocal line. From there, it breaks into a swing beat with each member taking a solo but playing that familiar riff before stepping aside for the next player.
“It brings back the melody for people to say, ‘OK, we’re here, it’s not a new song,’ ” he laughed.
It’s a bit of a novelty, like when the band plays arrangements of famous TV show themes, or even when Mintel posts short, comical videos of offstage antics on his Facebook page.
But that’s all just a small part of Mintel’s repertoire, which rests much more on his large body of original jazz tunes, including hybrid works featuring orchestras and choral pieces, and weighty library of standards.
His group plays two or three shows of these a week across Pennsylvania and New Jersey along with the occasional cross-country trek. And this spring, he’ll be playing a handful of dates for his fellow Bucks County natives.
The quartet, also featuring Jack Hegyi on electric bass and drummer Dave Mohn, play it all in a way that clearly spotlights Mintel’s own Dave Brubeck-influenced style, but also shows off the ensemble’s almost audacious energy and daring improvisations.
Take, for instance, a recent rendition of Brubeck’s classic tune Take 5, a standard that, even Mintel admits, “has been done to death over the last 40 years.”
The quartet’s version isn’t radically different from the original — there are no “out there” avant garde solos or drastic arrangement changes — but it’s still something new.
In a recent television performance of it in Allentown, Mintel’s solo starts as many of his do: close to the melody, but sharp and punchy, almost as if he’s sparring with the band rhythmically.
His part turns into a rolling, Spanish-tinged passage that Mohn falls in with before punching back, so to speak, in some short solo passages opposite the bandleader.
Mohn then throws in a few rhythm-stretching fills of his own before the group returns to the song’s main theme. The whole band hits the same notes; Mintel looks up and smiles at them.
“There’s a great excitement, like watching a tightwire act,” he said about the band. “I try to create an element of surprise to keep the audience excited.”
And, ultimately, that’s what he’s after: more than just playing for jazz connoisseurs, Mintel tries with every performance to introduce new people to the style.
“I love it, it’s a completely personal art form. You’re seeing an intimate part of the performer through the music,” he explained. “It’s the last art form, really, where you’re free to improvise and I want audiences to see that freedom.”
But, to compare Brubeck and Aerosmith again, jazz is arguably more like, say, sipping a top-shelf whiskey than downing a shot of Jack Daniels: an acquired taste.
“It’s not three-chord rock or folk,” admitted Mintel. “It’s more cerebral.”
But he’s forged a style that’s skilled and intriguing while still leading in first-timers. “If you hit someone who doesn’t know jazz with a million notes, it’s technically brilliant, but they’re gonna think it sounds insane and get turned off,” he said.
Instead, he offers familiar songs to give people a starting point, like the Take 5 performance. Novices may begin to pick up on those rhythmic excursions. And, perhaps, later on start noticing a solo taking the melody in a different direction, or how the chords Mintel plays under a soloist don’t quite line up with the other notes, but instead fill out the song in a new, unique way.
“When people say they never liked jazz before but enjoyed us, it tells me they’re getting something out of that they’ve never gotten before,” said Mintel.
And, after two decades of shows at clubs, festivals and special engagements ranging from elementary schools in Levittown to the White House, Mintel will hopefully hear that a lot more this year.
The group took a short hiatus from the road last year, but already 2015 is gearing up to be a busy one. The Quartet celebrated its one-year anniversary of first playing at the Bucks County Playhouse with a set there last Saturday, and has a pair of dates coming up at Crossing Vineyards in Washington Crossing.
Later in the year, he’ll be out in California and down in Georgia, but back for the first Allentown Jazz Festival and a festival in Jenkintown later in the year.
“We’re constantly re-introducing ourselves to audiences. We’re always seeing new faces,” he said. “That’s been my mission for 20 years.”
The Eric Mintel Quartet is playing Crossing Vineyards on March 20 and April 10. For information, visit www.ericmintelquartet.com.