It’s soprano saxophonist extraordinaire Bob Wilber’s 90th birthday today. I’ve been lucky enough to hear him playing on quite a few occasions over the years – the first time was in August 1992 (when the above photo was taken), when I interrupted my year in Paris to come back for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, largely because I couldn’t bear to miss hearing him and clarinettist Kenny Davern together – the first chance I had ever had to hear these two titans of classic jazz playing together live.
Three years later, as a fledgling freelance journalist writing for The Herald, I sent myself up north to review concerts by Davern and Wilber, on consecutive nights in neighbouring towns. The night after Davern played his gig at the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness, Wilber performed at – of all places – the Parkdean Holiday Park in Nairn. (This turned out to be a suitably surreal introduction for me to Nairn Jazz and the wonderful world of the much-missed jazz promoter Ken Ramage.)
Never without my clunky Sony Professional tape recorder in those days, I interviewed both Davern and Wilber about the event that would become the most eagerly anticipated gig in my calendar for that summer – a reunion of the full Soprano Summit line-up (living members anyway!), to take place at that year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival.
Soprano Summit was a hugely successful band in the 1970s which, despite – or possibly because of – its lamentably short lifetime (six years), became legendary. Its albums became collectors’ items almost as soon as they were issued. Its conception – at a “jazz party” – organised by enthusiast Dick Gibson over a holiday weekend in September 1972 – became a tale that clarinettist Davern and fellow founding father, saxophonist and clarinettist Wilber, enjoyed telling. Here’s how it was told to me, in the summer of 1995 …
By day three of the party, audiences were suffering from ear fatigue and Gibson decided that he needed something to wake everyone up. According to Davern, Gibson turned to Wilber and said, in his Alabama drawl, “Now, I wan’ you and Kinny to get together and play a duet.”
The two, who had rarely performed together, quickly talked through a head arrangement of Duke Ellington’s moody and magnificent The Mooche for two soprano saxophones – a combination, amazingly, never before used in a working jazz band.
“We got a rhythm section together,” explained Wilber, “by a fluke Dick Hyman, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bobby Rosengarden and Milt Hinton were all there – and we got up and did the number.” Davern continued: “We finished it off on two high notes in thirds, and to our amazement people just rose up in applause – 650 folks just screaming with delight – and it was then that we realised that we had something different.”
In December 1972, the infant Soprano Summit cut its first album; the only difference in personnel being that the busy bassist Milt Hinton was replaced by George Duvivier.
Then, after a second LP, the second incarnation of Soprano Summit was born. The main reason for change was an economic one: as a six-piece band, Soprano Summit was an expensive package. The band also wanted to travel light, so the piano had to go.
Rhythm guitarist and singer Marty Grosz was signed up to replace Pizzarelli, who was tied up with studio work. Grosz shared with Wilber and Davern a love of tunes which were off the beaten standard track. Indeed, Soprano Summit’s basic ground plan was to be different and to make a feature of the fact that this was a working band with a varied working repertoire. In Grosz, they also had “a marvellous player who lent the band an entertainment factor with his singing and clowning.”
Davern added: “That was the basic sound of the group – two sopranos, or clarinet and soprano, and the guitar held it together like glue.”
The guitar was the icing on an already rather tasty cake, because the essence of Soprano Summit was the relationship between its two frontmen. Davern put it down to the fact that they grew up on the same music, but both have their own views on how it should be played.
“Our differences lie in how to approach the godhead, so to speak. We’re all descendants of classic jazz. Bob has his idea of how it should be interpreted and I have mine. But together, it works.”
In a typical Soprano Summit number they bounced the melody backwards and forwards between them like a football, with one taking a step back to play the obbligato and create a space for the other to lead the way with a solo. There was always a balance between the arranged and the spontaneous, though one sensed that much of the arranging was going on as they played.
As Wilber said: “A lot of it is intuitive. We find out what works by trying it, and then incorporate it into our repertoire.”
Their intuition about one another’s direction also meant that they complemented each other’s playing. Davern observed: “Sometimes when the two of us play two notes, you can hear a third note present – a harmonic that suddenly appears, a richness.”
That Edinburgh Jazz Festival reunion turned out to be the only time I ever heard Soprano Summit live, but thankfully there were many more opportunities to hear both Wilber and Davern over the next couple of decades. Davern died in 2006, but Wilber remains active – I last heard him at the Norwich Jazz Party in 2014 when he was on terrific form, serving up deliciously unexpected harmonies and swinging with as much joie-de-vivre as those first times I heard him, more than 20 years earlier.