On April 5, 2018, they’re back, leading an ensemble in an evening of Tales and Tunes at the Morris Museum’s Bickford Theatre in Morris Township.
Each man is a master: Kemble of the guitar, Vezza of the keyboard. Morristown Green asked them to reflect on their show, their friendship–and their instruments. Ax or Ivories? Which one rules?
MORRISTOWN GREEN: Greetings, Gentlemen! So what’s the backstory of this show? How did you agree on what to play? Arm wrestling? Rocks/paper/scissors?
Grover: This show will feature a large portion of original tunes, along with a variety of unusual American Songbook choices. Jerry has been telling me we’ve got to record my original stuff and play it out more, and frankly it’ll be nice to play more of the originals that people always respond so well to. And we’re going to tell stories about our association of 25 years together, and all the fun stuff that’s happened along the way.
Jerry: This show came about by way of a phone call from Linda Smith asking me if I’d be interested in doing a show at The Bickford Threatre. We were immediately on the same page about a concert teaming Grover with me, as we did for Linda and Don Smith at The Morristown Jazz and Blues Festival, and as we’ve done together for many years at Shanghai Jazz.
Video: Jerry Vezza Jazz Quarter featuring Grover Kemble on ‘Drown in My Own Tears,’ recorded by Gene Guerrero:
MG: How, exactly, did you guys meet? What had you heard about each other? Were the stories true?
Grover: I was playing in a trio with two longtime friends of Jerry’s. Events came up where the trio needed to expand and add piano, so Jerry was recommended to me. We started gigging more regularly as time went on with private affairs, weddings and local jazz venues. It freed me up a bit to have piano, and we became good friends and team members as time went on. Jerry blended well and always took a supportive role, saying “my job is to make you sound as best as possible.” His playing complemented our trio arrangements and added drive and depth.
Jerry: I had heard so many good things about Grover from a former member of Za Zu Zaz, Dave Miller. Dave was in my band through much of the 1980’s, and would tell us many a tale about Grover and the Zaz days. The drummer in my band with Dave was Tom Sayek. Grover later formed a band with Tom and one of my oldest and dearest friends, the late bassist Steve Freeman. I got to know Grover through them. They had me join them on a gig and then I started playing with that trio regularly. I never attempted to fact-check Dave’s stories. But one thing they did do was paint an accurate depiction of this fascinatingly unique character by the name of Grover Kemble.
Video: Grover and Jerry rehearse for 2011 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival:
MG: What do you remember about your very first gig together?
Grover: I think it was a wedding…Jerry followed my lousy charts as though they were actually correct. He smiled a lot and made the difficult job of pleasing wedding clients a lot easier. He filled in with the guys and played without me while I tracked the party members down to discuss their various ceremony requests and needs. He keeps the vibe on the up and up, and does the Italiano charm thing on all parties involved.
Jerry: The impression I remember was how well prepared and professional Grover was on the bandstand. He takes his craft very seriously, aims to please his audience no matter what it takes. He’s also a team player, and whenever it was my gig and I was the leader he would be my right hand man.
MG: You two must like performing together. (How many shows has it been?) What do you admire about each other?
Grover:Jerry’s the consummate cool, sophisticated charmer. He’s always ready to try something new, and gives my discombobulated artistic attempts his best efforts. We must have done a zillion or so gigs over the last 25 years.
Jerry: We’ve done too many gigs together to count or recall. There is much I admire about Grover. He’s a naturally gifted musician, vocalist, songwriter and entertainer. His music comes from his heart more than his head. That makes his music heartfelt and musical in the truest sense. I admire that, because many extraordinarily trained musicians don’t have that quality. He’s a wonderful singer with exceptional intonation — he consistently sings in tune. He writes great songs. He has fun making music and his audiences have fun at his performances. Lastly, he cares about people and especially about his audiences.
MG: Can either of you play the other fellow’s instrument? Ever tried?
Grover: I’ve always dreamed of being a piano player but can’t play a note’s worth. But I do try to approach guitar chording in a pianistic way. I actually have dreamed I can play piano, and in these dreams I effortlessly glide across the keyboard playing riveting, blazing jazz solos.
Jerry: I’ve tried the guitar, but the hand position was painful for me. I wish I could play guitar, because when I’m on vacation and don’t have access to a piano, I’d love to be able to play some tunes. Also, all other musicians get to show up with their own instruments that are exactly what they like. They can also tune them themselves. Pianists are relegated to what’s there when they show up, and most players can’t tune them at all. That’s one thing I’m very aware of as a concert piano technician — I tune for major artists on stage. They rely on me to prepare the piano for them.
MG: Guitar and piano are the star instruments of popular music. Why did you choose one over the other? Which is harder to play?
Grover: My older brother bought me a $12 pawn shop special, brought it home from college to give me when I was 12 years old. I actually had it fixed up and played it at Carnegie Hall with John Pizzarelli in 2005, for the JVC Jazz festival. I remember my brother saying the classic: “Here, kid brother…practice and you’ll get to Carnegie Hall!” So there I was, playing that hunk of el cheapo guitar at Carnegie Hall… I would say piano is harder but any instrument is difficult when you begin to get into the depths of music with it.
Video: Grover and his $12 guitar at Carnegie Hall:
Jerry: All instruments present different challenges. My father was a professional sax player and wanted me to play piano. Piano is the most orchestral instrument because the 88 keys represent the full range of the symphony orchestra. Back in 1957 when I started piano lessons, my father told me that as the piano player I’d be the only musician who could go to the gig without having to lug an instrument. Well, that was many years before the Fender Rhodes electric piano, which was like carrying a coffin!
MG: Just to take this one step further… Grover, if you could choose one song to really nail on piano, what would it be, and why?
Grover: Lush Life, the Billy Strayhorn composition he wrote for the Duke Ellington Band. Lotsa chords ….elegant and evocative….not flashy. I like to hear beautiful chords ring out for awhile, as opposed to a lot of busy riffing.
Video: ‘Lush Life’ performed by Kay Davis and Billy Strayhorn, introduce by Duke Ellington:
MG: Jerry, same question: If you could borrow Grover’s ax and master one tune on it, what would you pick, and why?
Jerry: I love the guitarist Jim Hall, and especially his duo recordings with my first really big influence, the jazz pianist Bill Evans. I would love to be able to play I Hear a Rhapsody the way Jim Hall did with Bill.
Video: ‘I Hear a Rhapsody’ by Jim Hall and Bill Evans:
MG: Grover has an impressive Jimmy Durante show. Jerry, if you could impersonate someone in a one-man show, who would it be, and why?
Jerry: Grover doing Jimmy Durante. I love that fake nose!
MG: What guitarist most inspired / influenced you, Grover? Why?
Grover: My brother gave me classical guitarist Segovia records, and Flamenco guitarists Sabicas and Carlos Montoya to listen to. I loved that nylon guitar sound and tried to emulate that tone. I played a lot of electric rock guitar in college up through the 1980’s. I came back to nylon in the late ’80s and have stuck with it. Of course, Django and Carlos Santana figure into my playing style, too.
MG: Same question, Jerry, for piano?
Jerry: Bill Evans. He was innovative in his lyricism, harmony, touch and tone on the instrument. He also wrote beautiful music.
MG: Jerry, you generally leave the vocalizing to others. Why is that? Do you sing around the house? In the shower?
Jerry: My singing is useful for clearing the house in under five minutes.
MG: Grover, if an alien from a distant galaxy landed and decreed that you must choose one: Singing, guitar playing or songwriting, or face banishment to open mic nights on Pluto, what would you pick?
Grover: Tough question. However, it would ultimately be guitar playing. You’ve got to realize that playing the guitar is the most therapeutic emotive pastime I could ever have. I’ve probably spent a good lifetime just noodling ideas to be played on stage or put into songs for over 50 years. “If music be the food of love, play on…”
MG: Jerry, what’s your musical connection to Sardinia? Why the fascination?
Jerry: My wife Diane suggested we go there when our children were 1 and 4 years old. It was so remote and hauntingly beautiful. I found places to play, various restaurants, and we spent the month of July there every summer for the next 12 summers. It’s a magical place beyond description. I wrote a lot of music there which I have yet to record or perform in public.
MG: What musical place is nearest and dearest to your heart, Grover?
Grover: Spain and Brazil— geez, these people have soul in their music like no others. Latin music of all styles is so enthralling!
MG: A word about your band at the Bickford… what should we know about those guys?
Grover: Tommy Sayek is on drums. He’s very smooth and polished and I’ve played with him as well over 25 years. Rick Crane is on bass and cuts the thump job with great swing, smooth lyricism, and beautiful soloing.
Video: Grover’s Za Zu Zaz reunion, 2011, with Jerry on keys:
Jerry: Tom Sayek and I nearly learned how to play jazz together. We met in the mid- 1970s and practiced all day and had a steady club gig six nights a week. I think I’ve done more gigs and playing with Tom than anyone else. Rick is everyone’s favorite bass player. We’ve done countless gigs together. Anton is an absolutely splendid saxophonist and musician and a wonderful person on and off the stage. He will be playing my late father’s vintage Selmer Mark VI at this concert, which I just had fully restored for this occasion.
MG: Finally, the burning question: Who is more popular with the ladies–guitar slingers or keyboard wizards?
Grover: Jerry’s got me beat here….the guy exudes Mediterranean cool. The keyboard appears more intellectual and deeper.. Guitar players strut better and use body language more with stalking, prancing and preening. But it’s just a lot of fluff to the truly hip women.
Jerry: I can’t argue with Grover on this one. Grover can play really loud power chords which have an hypnotic effect. I can’t do that on piano. But then again, I don’t need to resort to hypnotic techniques to achieve certain outcomes.
MG: Ladies, judge for yourselves on April 5 at the Bickford. Thank you, Gentlemen!
Jerry Vezza and Grover Kemble present Tales and Tunes – Together at the Morris Museum’s Bickford Theatre, Thursday, April 5, 2018, at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $20 in advance, $25 at the door. At 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morris Township, 973-971-3706.