Four members of the celebrated Cecil’s Big Band at Cecil’s Jazz Club and Restaurant in West Orange, New Jersey—tenor saxophonist Mike Lee, trumpeter Ted Chubb, bassist Kellen Harrison, and drummer Shawn Baltazor—decided five years ago to get together for jam sessions in the basement of Lee’s house in nearby Montclair. Lee and Chubb brought some original compositions to jam on at the Wednesday afternoon sessions, and the men soon discovered they had a special musical affinity for one another.
“We didn’t get together with the idea of being a band,” Lee explains. “We just realized after a few weeks that we were a band.”
They decided to call the quartet New Tricks. All four musicians are firmly rooted in post-bop jazz traditions, yet they bring new twists to acoustic straight-ahead jazz conventions with their use of challenging rhythmic and harmonic devices. The name also refers to Lee, at age 47, being the “old dog” of the bunch. Chubb is 30 and, like co-leader Lee, hails from the Cleveland, Ohio area. Both Harrison and Baltazor are originally from Northern California—the bassist was raised in Concord, the drummer in San Rafael—and are in their mid-20s.
Following the release of New Tricks’ self-titled debut CD in the summer of 2009, the quartet toured for a weekinOhio. In the spring of 2010, the group toured for three weeks in the Midwest and two in California. During these tours, New Tricks focused on nine new tunes—six by Lee, three by Chubb—that were recorded immediately upon returning home and comprise Alternate Side, New Tricks’ brilliant sophomore CD.
“Mike and I always say that the band sounds the best when we’re all playing at the same time,” Chubb states. “If I’m soloing, Mike is playing a background. We’re always musically complementing each other to reinforce the tune. Everything about this band is about reinforcing the compositions.”
Although the instrumentation of New Tricks is similar to that of Ornette Coleman’s classic quartet— saxophone, trumpet, bass, and drums, with no piano or guitar supplying chords—New Tricks’ tunes, unlike most of Coleman’s, are constructed with chord changes as their foundations.
“We’re not playing without a chordal instrument in order to have more freedom,” Lee says. “We feel that the absence of piano means we have more responsibility to play the harmony, not less. We want people to be able to hear the tune. Ted and I comp for each other. We try to catch part of the harmony while the other one’s playing so that we reinforce the song.”
Kellen Harrison’s probing bass lines help anchor the co-leaders’ compositions both rhythmically and harmonically. “He plays beautifully and interactively in a way that’s mystifying to me,” Lee says. “He’s just a very grounded player and catches everything that goes on around him.”
Of Shawn Baltazor, Chubb says, “There are not many drummers who play the arrangements as specifically as he does. He thinks so compositionally. He reinforces the tunes all the time. He’s got fantastic ears and brings the best points out.”
Chubb penned “Alternate Side Parking,” the CD’s swinging opener, after coming off a tour and being welcomed home by a parking ticket. Lee’s “Optimistic-Lee” is played in 3/4 time and features the four musicians playing very freely within the song’s specific form. The up-tempo Chubb composition “Shellen vs. Chee” highlights the push and pull between the horn frontline and the rhythm section. Lee originally wrote the serene ballad “Vicenza Days” as part of “Optimistic-Lee,” but when he couldn’t quite make the two tempos jibe, he made it a separate number. Lee’s circular “Back to Work” was the first tune New Tricks rehearsed for its California tour. The title of Chubb’s “Long Road Home,” which moves back and forth between African and swing grooves, references the trumpeter’s four and a half years on the road with the touring production of the hit Broadway musical Jersey Boys. Lee’s bouncing “New Dog” is a sequel to “Old Dog” from New Tricks’ first CD. Lee also composed the final two tracks: “Short Stops” is taken way up in tempo and filled with loads of quick breaks, and “Skeltazor” is made up of three vamps played over different divisions of 11/4 time.
Mike Lee was born on April 10, 1963, in Cleveland and has lived in Montclair, New Jersey for the past 12 years. He took up alto saxophone in junior high school and switched to tenor to play in the high school jazz band. Lee moved to Brooklyn in 1984 and met trumpeter Dave Douglas at a Lower East Side jam session. The two young musicians became roommates and band mates for two years. “Living and playing music with Dave was a pivotal experience for me that directly influences how I interact and create as a member of New Tricks,” Lee says.
Also while in New York, Lee studied with fellow Clevelander Joe Lovano. “Much of our work had to do with how harmony and rhythm work together,” Lee says of his lessons with the saxophone master. “We played duets in the lessons. He played drums. He’s an amazing drummer.” Lee would later work with his teacher in Cleveland and on the road with Lovano’s 11-piece Celebrating Sinatra band.
Although paying gigs were few and far between during his initial four years in New York, Lee found steady musical employment following his return home in 1988. It included engagements with Marcus Belgrave, Geri Allen, and Bobby Watson, a weekend in Akron with Rosemary Clooney, toured with the Woody Herman Orchestra.
After returning to New York in 1993, Lee began getting calls to sub in the saxophone sections of the Village Vanguard Orchestra and the Maria Schneider Orchestra. He has recorded three albums of his own: The Quiet Answer (1990), Above the Battleground (1998), and My Backyard (2002). Since 1997, he has toured the country frequently as a guest artist with local rhythm sections, often giving workshops at universities along his routes. He currently oversees classes for Jazz House Kids, an acclaimed program run by vocalist Melissa Walker that trains young musicians. And, for the past four and a half years, he has been the director of Cecil’s Big Band, although Chubb, Harrison, and Baltazor are no longer members.
Ted Chubb was born on November 17, 1980, in Ashtabula, Ohio, an hour’s drive northeast of Cleveland. His mother, a cellist and soprano, taught music in public schools. Chubb played violin, piano, and trumpet as a child and was introduced to jazz at age 15 by Miles Davis’s classic Round About Midnight album. After graduating from Ohio State University and performing with Midwest legends tenor saxophonist Gene Walker and organist Bobby Floyd, he enrolled at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. At the suggestion of two of his Ohio trumpet teachers, Pharez Whitted and Derrick Gardner, he studied at Rutgers with legendary jazz and classical trumpeter William Fielder, whose previous students had included Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, and Terell Stafford.
“They told me, ‘If you want to do this for a living, you need to study with Prof,’” Chubb says of Fielder, who died in 2009. “He had the precision, flow, and continual refinement of fundamentals from a classical background and was able to teach that trumpet pedagogy to jazz players.”
Ted toured more than 40 cities with the award-winning Broadway show Jersey Boys from 2006 to 2011 as well as appearing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He has performed at jazz clubs, festivals, and theaters across the U.S., Europe, and Caribbean.
Today, Chubb lives in Jersey City, about 14 miles from New Tricks co-leader Lee. Upon meeting six years ago, they found they had much in common.
“One of the first reasons we bonded musically,” Lee says, “was that we started talking about Booker Little and what an influence he had been on both of us compositionally, as well as a trumpet player. Ted is always looking forward. He’s very expansive in his composing and in the way he interprets my compositions.”
“We’re both from the Cleveland area, so I think we hit it off personally right away,” Chubb adds. “We’re into the same music, the same players, and we both really have what we like to call an ‘affliction’ for Cleveland sports. He is rooted in tradition, but very open-minded to going beyond that.”
The vibrant, uncompromising music on New Tricks’ Alternate Side is very much about using tradition as a springboard into the future of jazz. “Alternate side” charted at 22 on the CMJ Charts (College Music Jazz Charts) for over a month just below international artists such as Marcus Miller and Brad Mehldau . The new album also received critical acclaim in a wide variety of jazz publications including Jazz Times, Hot House Magazine, and Inside Jazz Magazine. This spring also saw the band celebrating it’s new release with a 3 week tour of the mid-west performing in jazz clubs, college concert halls, high schools and giving clinics to fantastic young musicians at some of the country’s finest music institutions.
“Working with Ted and making this project go has been so fulfilling and enlightening for me,” Lee says. “I’ve wanted a push like this in my career ever since the beginning, and I’ve just never had the kind of support and camaraderie that I now have with Ted, Kellen, and Shawn.” says Lee.
“New Tricks has all of the cohesion and assuredness of a working band – something not experienced as often as it once was in jazz. New Tricks mirrors the personality of Its leader, Mike Lee, a brilliant saxophonist of the highest level.”
– Christian McBride
“New Tricks conveys a distinct New York sound on its aggressively swinging sophomore effort. The quartet puts a new spin on an old hard-bop formula without crossing over into the avant-garde camp.”
–Bill Milkowski, JazzTimes
“Mike lee and New Tricks have a real New York sound..very seasoned and swinging..I like this band..”
“New Tricks is keeping the music alive with a fresh approach – creative, stretchin’, and groovin’….check them out!”