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Jazz band the EarRegulars stop in for live music and conversation

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We have a great, entertaining show for you as you head into the holiday weekend. Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and guitarist Matt Munisteri are going to play and talk about the music they make and their band, The EarRegulars - that's E-A-R Regulars. They perform jazz mostly from the '20s through the '40s, and they have a new live album. They spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Here's Sam.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Sunday nights I find myself feeling jealous of New Yorkers. That's because every Sunday night at a small, old bar in the West Village called the Ear Inn, you can hear some really amazing music, vibrant and vital jazz, even though some of the repertoire is 100 years old. The band, The EarRegulars, was founded by our guests Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri and is led by Kellso. The band is usually a four-piece combo with friends sitting in. They set up in the corner of the Ear Inn and pass the hat at the set break, which is kind of remarkable considering that these are some of the best jazz musicians around. I first heard The EarRegulars on YouTube, where their weekly concerts have been pretty well documented, and I used to visit those videos during the pandemic when I needed a pick-me-up because when you listen to this band, you can't help but smile.

The EarRegulars have just put out their first live album. It's called "Live At The Ear Inn," and with the sound of the bar crowd in the background, you can close your eyes and almost believe you're there. Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri founded The EarRegulars in 2007, but that band is just one of the many credits to their names. They've both recorded albums under their own names and with their own bands and appear on countless artists albums. They are first-call session musicians whenever someone is recording any sort of traditional jazz and other genres of music. They were kind enough to bring their instruments today for our conversation. But before we get to that, let's hear a track from their new album. This is "I Double Dare You," first recorded by Woody Herman in 1937.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE EARREGULARS' "I DOUBLE DARE YOU")

BRIGER: That's the song "I Double Dare You" from The EarRegulars' new album "Live At The Ear Inn." Our guests are the founding members of the band, Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri. Welcome to FRESH AIR.

JON-ERIK KELLSO AND MATT MUNISTERI: Thank you.

BRIGER: So why did you guys want to do a live album? The last album you did was recorded in a studio.

JON-ERIK KELLSO: Well, I've wanted to do a live album really since we started the gig there, but I've always been a little concerned that it might be too loud in there at times to do a live album, but, you know, sometimes it's - you can hear a pin drop, and sometimes, you know, we have some people that go there just because it's a bar and they act like people in a bar. That's my little mantra I tell myself if I start to get upset about it being noisy.

MATT MUNISTERI: Start getting...

KELLSO: But...

MUNISTERI: ...Particularly dark, yeah.

KELLSO: But yeah, we've been thinking about it for 16 years, and we finally got around to it.

MUNISTERI: It also - I think that room sounds really good.

KELLSO: It sure does, yeah.

MUNISTERI: And we thought that when we used to play there late nights, you know, and there would be no one in the place and it was just - the room sounds good. It's wood and a lot of knickknacks and I guess beer-soaked floorboards.

BRIGER: And that's good for acoustics...

MUNISTERI: Seems to be.

BRIGER: ...Beer-soaked floors?

KELLSO: Apparently, yeah. Also, just the idea of doing a live album with this band, it was appealing because of the energy that we generate there as far as the spontaneity in this group. It's hard to recreate that in a studio setting. You know, you kind of can, but it's not the same as just, you know, the actual bouncing off of each other as we do at The Ear.

BRIGER: Well, I'd like to ask you to do a song. You said that you would do "No One Else But You," which is on the - it's the third track of the album. What can you tell us about the song before you play us it?

KELLSO: It was originally played by Louis Armstrong, and it's written by Don Redman, who was a well-known arranger and bandleader and composer in those early days. And later on, it was played by one of our heroes, Ruby Braff, and another hero, George Barnes, on guitar with their - they had a great quartet, and we kind of borrow from - mostly from their version of it as far as just the format.

BRIGER: OK. Well, we're going to hear "No One Else But You" with my guests guitarist Matt Munisteri and trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso. And they also play this on their new album, "Live At The Ear Inn" with their band, The EarRegulars. So let's hear it.

MUNISTERI: One, two. One, two, three.

KELLSO AND MUNISTERI: (Playing trumpet and guitar).

BRIGER: That was great. That was the song "No One Else But You" from Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet and Matt Munisteri on guitar. That's on their album with their band, The EarRegulars. The new album is called "Live At The Ear Inn." When I was listening to that, there was a point in the song where, Jon, you were doing this, like, descending line, and Matt, you played chords that sort of descended along with them. Did you know he was going to do that, or did you just hear it in the moment and follow along?

MUNISTERI: Yes, I knew. I wish - this is - I feel like this is asking a magician how he does his tricks. We don't really have very many arrangements. But this is - it's sort of the melody of the tune, and it's also taken, as Jon said, largely - on that arrangement, we were really borrowing from our two heroes Ruby Braff and George Barnes' version.

BRIGER: Right. Right. So let me ask you about Ruby Braff and George Barnes. I think, Jon, you knew Ruby Braff, right?

KELLSO: Yes. Yeah, I got to know him. It was a pretty amazing thing for me. That was one of my heroes.

BRIGER: Is there anything in particular that you might have talked with him about, that he talked to you about how he played the trumpet that's influenced the way you play?

KELLSO: Well, he didn't really - he wasn't trying to teach me anything specifically about how to play the trumpet. And, you know, he would sit down at the piano. He was actually a pretty decent piano player for a cornet player. And he would say - hey, do you know this song? - and start to play something. And I'd say, no. And he says, good, I'm going to teach it to you right now. So he would show me songs, and he would show me chords that he figured out from some of the masters, like Teddy Wilson. He'd say, I finally figured out what Teddy Wilson is doing on the bridge to "Sweet Lorraine," and he'd show it to me. So he taught me in those kind of ways. And mostly, we were just - hung out, and I listened to him tell his great anecdotes and, you know - just a lot of fun.

BRIGER: Well, although you're admitting that the piece you just did has some arrangements, I mean, one of the amazing things about the arrangements on the new album is they're really not arrangements. Like, you guys are playing together. The horns are doing collective improvisation in the sort of style, I guess, that was originated in New Orleans. And I just wanted to hear some of that from the album. I was thinking that we could play part of the song "I'm Coming Virginia." And we're going to cut in a little bit to the track. Matt, you start playing rhythm, and then one of the EarRegulars, Scott Robinson, comes in with something, first of all, that sounds like a clarinet, but it's not, right? He likes to play a lot of sort of odder instruments. What is that instrument he's playing?

KELLSO: It's called a tarogato, and I'm not sure I'm pronouncing it absolutely perfectly, but it's a Hungarian folk instrument, basically, used primarily in Hungarian folk music. And I like to think of it as kind of like a wooden soprano sax - like, a kinder, gentler soprano sax. At least in Scott's hands, it is. It's kind of scary in most people's hands 'cause it's not a factory-made, kind of precise instrument. It's like, you have to know a guy up on the hill to get one that - you know.

MUNISTERI: Yeah. And, you know, there actually is a real connection to traditional jazz history and the tarogato. And Jon, you might have to correct me on this, but was Scott's first tarogato one that he got from Joe Muranyi? He was...

KELLSO: That's right.

MUNISTERI: Yeah, that's what I thought. So Joe Muranyi was a Hungarian American clarinetist who played with Louis Armstrong's All Stars in the 1950s.

KELLSO: '60s.

MUNISTERI: '60s, OK.

KELLSO: He was in his last version of the All Stars, yeah.

MUNISTERI: OK, yeah. And we all knew Muranyi also. And Scott and he were close, and I think he turned Scott on to the tarogato. And he's since had several made in Hungary.

KELLSO: Including a contrabass tarogato, which...

BRIGER: That must be rather large.

KELLSO: ...Is maybe the - it's maybe the only one in existence, as far as we know.

MUNISTERI: Let's hope.

KELLSO: Let's hope, yes. No, no, no. We kid.

BRIGER: All right. Well, let's hear this. We're going to hear Jon-Erik Kellso come in on the melody. And weaving around him doing an improvisation will be, on trombone, John Allred and, on the tarogato, Scott Robinson. And the bass player on this is Neal Miner.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE EARREGULARS' "I'M COMING VIRGINIA")

BRIGER: That was the song "I'm Coming Virginia" from the band The EarRegulars. And I'm speaking with two founding members of the group, Jon-Erik Kellso, who plays trumpet, and Matt Munisteri on guitar. More after a break - this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE EARREGULARS' "INDIAN SUMMER")

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with jazz musicians Jon-Erik Kellso, who plays trumpet, and Matt Munisteri, who plays guitar. They have a new album with their band, The EarRegulars. It's called "Live At The Ear Inn." You can find the band every Sunday night at the very old West Village bar the Ear Inn.

Matt, when we were sort of trading emails, talking about doing this interview, you wrote something that I wanted to talk about. You said, the tradition of collective improvisation is central to the EarRegulars, and the role of the trumpet is decisive in any successful performance in this style. Jon is a master of shepherding the structure and feel of each performance through his musical cues. Some of this language is well-established tradition, but some is derived from Jon's personal vocabulary. Can you talk a little bit about what those cues are - like, how that works on the stage?

MUNISTERI: I started playing with Jon in '96, I think. Occasionally we would play in the same bands. And then I started having Jon on some of my own gigs when I was leading again in the '90s. And I'll just say, one thing that happens sometimes with Jon is, even if there's another leader, Jon will expect that, like, people are going to follow the trumpet. So I wasn't familiar, when we started playing together, with sort of the trumpet's role in traditional jazz and how the trumpet really determines the structure of a tune. And I was like, no, I'm determining the structure because I'm the singer and I'm telling you what's going to happen on stage. And he'd be like, no.

KELLSO: (Laughter).

MUNISTERI: And sometimes there'd be train wrecks that would happen in this other band that we played, and Jon would get really mad and just be like, listen to the trumpet.

KELLSO: (Laughter).

MUNISTERI: And I was like, well, dude, you're not telling us what to do. But, you know, the truth is, he's right. Like, once you understand that it is a language and that the trumpet is actually - if it's played correctly in this style of music, it's giving all the information that you need to be able to follow along. I know his vocabulary and his repertoire very well. If I'm listening to the radio and Jon's even, like, in a band somewhere in the mix, I can pick out his sound. Like any soloist that I love, any jazz musician that I love, if I'm listening to a record and suddenly that soloist comes on, it's like a good friend just walked into the room. And so I feel like that's what I meant by the combination of stuff that's, like, very traditional and established and then your own really sort of unique sense of play and your own cues that we all know.

BRIGER: Well, Jon, can you give an example of a cue that you might give to the other horn players?

KELLSO: Yeah. One of the ways I describe it to people when they ask about this stuff is I say that by default, often the trumpet player in certain styles of jazz bands is like the traffic cop or like the quarterback. I like the traffic cop analogy in that the trumpet kind of directs the order of the solos sometimes, or he will cue how many ensemble choruses are in the beginning or in the middle or at the end. He's often the one that will initiate improvised background figures or riffs. And you have to do it in a way that the others, first of all, know that you're trying to get their attention and then play something clear that they can latch on to and that lends itself to either harmonization or whatever it is you're going for.

And also with the endings, often the trumpet will kind of lead which type of ending, whether there's a tag at the end or whether there's a retard where it slows down and there's a hold or, you know, that kind of thing. And also with the dynamics as well, whether you're going to play a loud one and then a soft one and then a medium one - you know, sometimes he'll do things like that and hope that people are paying attention so that you're all on the same page.

BRIGER: You're playing a lot of music from the '20s and '30s. This is called, usually, traditional jazz. But sometimes I think the word traditional gives the wrong impression it's going to be, like, a museum piece. But you're not playing staid or boring music. As listeners can hear, like, this is really vibrant and exciting. But you're also - it sounds to me like you're being respectful of the era that the music comes from. Can you just talk a little bit about finding that balance?

KELLSO: Sure. I think the way we've come to a sort of a style of our own at the Ear Inn is a mixture of respect for the style and knowledge of the earlier styles of New Orleans jazz, for lack of a better term for it.

MUNISTERI: The terminology is tricky.

KELLSO: Yeah. And it's - certain words upset people. But, you know, anyway. So we come from this place of knowledge of the earlier styles of jazz, and then we also are open-minded and kind of find our happy medium with whoever is in the quartet du jour there. And...

BRIGER: 'Cause that changes the dynamics and how you play.

KELLSO: Yeah.

MUNISTERI: Oh, absolutely.

KELLSO: Depending on who the other guys are, it may lean a little bit more towards swing, may lean a little bit more towards New Orleans, may be a little bebop-y. And some versions of the quartet are more adventurous as far as it can kind of go almost anywhere, you know? And I don't try to rein anybody in as far as stylistically there.

MUNISTERI: It's also, like you said, really dependent on the individual voices, the - each of the players, the horn players on that CD - Scott Robinson and Evan Christopher and Jay Rattman and, of course, John Allred on trombone - are all, like, fully formed, strong musical personalities, you know, who've likewise digested a great deal of music. And so things happen, you know, when all those personalities come together and everyone's being honest and had a drink maybe or two, you know?

KELLSO: It is a bar.

MUNISTERI: It is a bar, after all. Yeah.

BRIGER: That's fair. That's fair.

That's Matt Munisteri and Jon-Erik Kellso, founding members of the jazz band The EarRegulars. They have a new album out called "Live At The Ear Inn." We'll hear more from them after a break. I'm Sam Briger, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUMMER'S "VIGNETTE")

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger. My guests are the founding members of the traditional jazz band The EarRegulars, Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri, who play trumpet and guitar respectively. They play Sunday nights at the New York bar in the West Village called the Ear Inn, hence the band's name. Don't let the word traditional fool you into believing that this is some sort of nostalgia act. Although the songs they play are old, a lot of them from the '20s and '30s, their performances are as exciting and lively as anything out there. They have a new album. It's called "Live At The Ear Inn." They brought their instruments to the studio. Let's hear a song they played for us that's not on the new album. It's called "Tishomingo Blues," written by Spencer Williams in 1917.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE EARREGULARS PERFORMANCE OF SPENCER WILLIAMS SONG, "TISHOMINGO BLUES")

BRIGER: That was great. That was "Tishomingo Blues," played by trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri on guitar. They're here because they have a new CD with their band, the EarRegulars. It's called "Live At The Ear Inn." That was really wonderful. Thank you for playing that. I think it's perhaps time to talk about mutes.

KELLSO: Sure.

BRIGER: Hearing that song...

MUNISTERI: Don't reach for that dial, everybody.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLSO: Mutes? What?

BRIGER: So...

KELLSO: You want to set the mute button on the - on our...

MUNISTERI: Next we're going to be talking about mimes.

BRIGER: Trumpet players like to accessorize. Isn't that right, Jon? You have all sorts of things you stick at the end of your trumpet.

KELLSO: Oh, yes. Yes. This is a fetish for trumpet players. And for me, it started pretty much right when I started playing trumpet at age 10. I was listening to my parents' old 78 rpm records from the swing era, and immediately it caught my ear - guys like Cootie Williams with the Duke Ellington band and with the Benny Goodman small bands - that he was using a plunger and, you know, making these kind of growling sounds and wah-wah (ph) sounds. And that thrilled me to no end.

BRIGER: Like an actual plunger - like a toilet plunger, right?

KELLSO: Yeah, yeah. Like - we like to call them sink plungers mostly, you know?

BRIGER: OK, fair (laughter).

KELLSO: Mostly the trumpet uses the smaller...

BRIGER: I'm hoping they're not used, whether they're sink or toilet plungers.

KELLSO: Nah, nah. Yeah. Maybe I'll demonstrate the little pixie mute by itself and with the plunger and without the pixie mute, just so you understand what that...

BRIGER: Yeah, that'd be great.

KELLSO: Would that be good? OK. All right, so this is playing with just the pixie mute.

(Playing trumpet).

OK. So now this is with the pixie mute and the sink plunger.

(Playing trumpet).

So you get the idea of how you get some different tonal...

BRIGER: Yeah.

KELLSO: ...Sounds that way. Oh, and the plunger without the pixie.

(Playing trumpet).

BRIGER: That's really cool.

KELLSO: Yeah, yeah.

BRIGER: Well, thanks for doing that.

KELLSO: Sure.

BRIGER: So I wanted to talk a little bit about how each of you got started. Jon, I'd like to start with you. You grew up in Detroit, right? What was your family like? What was your house like there?

KELLSO: Oh, well, I grew up in a suburb of Detroit, yes, called Allen Park, and I had a brother and a sister and my mom and dad. My dad had played trumpet when he was young. And it was interesting 'cause I didn't know that until after I told him that I wanted to play the trumpet. And he said, oh, really? You want to play the trumpet? Let me see if I can find mine, you know? So he dug out his horn, and he was my first teacher. And he sounded kind of like Harry James, who was his big idol. And around the same time, at age 10, I was finding my parents' old records, these 78 rpm records from the swing era. And so I got interested in that style of music at a very young age and had a buddy that lived near me who was doing the same thing, and we actually formed a big band when we were still in elementary school on our own. We put together a big band with ringers from the junior high band.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: And would you gig?

KELLSO: We played at, you know, the school concerts, and we played at the - we did some things, like, at the PTA meetings and stuff like that.

BRIGER: And was there a point where you sort of realized, like, oh, I'm actually pretty good at this, maybe better than some of my peers, and maybe I want to make a run at being a musician?

KELLSO: I think in a way, yes. I mean, I always was driven. I just wanted to be really good. Like, I couldn't stand not sounding good, so I practiced incessantly when I was young. I was just - you know, the band teacher in elementary school would have us fill out this little chart of how many minutes we practiced each day, and then we - and then our parents would have to initial it and bring it in. And I would bring mine in, and - he actually called my mother, and he said, Jon-Erik is making things up. He's lying. He's saying he practiced 240 minutes on Saturday. No, no, that's right. That's - yeah. Yeah, that's right. They had to tell me to stop practicing 'cause it was getting late (laughter).

BRIGER: When did you start gigging? What - how old were you?

KELLSO: My first paying gig, I was 12, actually.

BRIGER: Wow.

KELLSO: And then my first steady gig - for two summers in - when I was in junior high and also the summer before going into high school, I had a steady gig playing at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich., part of the Henry Ford Museum, with that same buddy of mine, Mike Karoub. And we had a little trad band, trad jazz band playing outside there six days a week, five hours a day. So that was a good chance to learn some songs and get some chops.

BRIGER: Yeah. And then when did you decide to move to New York?

KELLSO: 1989. I was 25 years old, and I got called by Vince Giordano and - of The Nighthawks, and he was looking for somebody to join the band. And he had me come - flew me out to New York, and I played with the group for a week. And, oddly, the same month I had a call from a band called the Dukes of Dixieland in New Orleans, and they flew me down there for a week. And all this happened in one month in 1989. I got offered both gigs, and those were my two favorite cities in the world that I had been to. So it was a pretty exciting time for me. And I went with the New York option and have never regretted it.

BRIGER: And so when you moved to New York, were you playing - because you're playing trad jazz, were you playing with a lot of musicians who were older than you who came from a different generation? Like, were you the young kid?

KELLSO: Exactly. Yeah. And same with my early years in Detroit, especially when I was playing the older style of jazz. You know, I was playing with some people that were quite a bit older than me with lots of experience, and I was lucky to have some great mentors that - and also just grouchy older players who would yell at me and tell me to, you know, stop playing too many notes or whatever it was I was doing wrong. So I got the tough love, and I was happy to get it.

BRIGER: Let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us, our guests are trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and guitarist Matt Munisteri. They have a new album out with their band The EarRegulars. It's called "Jon-Erik Kellso And The EarRegulars: Live At The Ear Inn." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE EARREGULARS' "BACK O' TOWN BLUES")

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with jazz musicians Jon-Erik Kellso, who plays trumpet, and Matt Munisteri, who plays guitar. They have a new album with their band The EarRegulars. It's called "Live At The Ear Inn." You can find the band every Sunday night at the very old West Village bar The Ear Inn.

Matt, what about you? You grew up in Brooklyn. What was your family like? Were they musical?

MUNISTERI: Yeah. My dad was a big music lover, and both my mother and my brother sort of were extremely gifted at music. But there was music all over the place either, you know, being played on the record player or - Sunday dinners were usually over at my grandparents, and I had an aunt that played piano and accordion, and my grandmother played piano, and my dad and grandfather sang. And there were other cousins and aunts and uncles - I had a great uncle who played, you know, just Sicilian songs on an old guitar, and I inherited that guitar when I was 12. It was an old Gibson - 1948, L-7. And so, yeah, I was around music all the time and sort of always knew that I wanted to play.

BRIGER: And I think that originally, you went down quite a dark path by playing bluegrass banjo. Is that correct?

MUNISTERI: Yes. I traipsed down that path. Yeah. I mean, I wasn't sure what instrument I wanted to play. I was playing basically anything that came my way in elementary school, which is just, you know - this was - New York City public schools used to have band programs and music programs, and I think that that's probably not like it used to be. And so, yeah, I was eager to play any instrument. But when I was in fourth grade, I think, "Dueling Banjos" was suddenly a top 10 hit. And I had a little AM transistor radio that I'd listened to, you know, the pop music of the day. And suddenly that tune was like - I mean, that phenomenon of a tune just being on the radio, like, 10 to 20 times a day - you know, it set my hair on fire. I mean, it was just incredible. So I started begging my parents to find me a banjo teacher, and they finally did. So, yeah, that was my path for a while.

And then I started playing guitar in a summer camp in fifth grade. I remembered, you know, my Uncle John (ph) playing guitar and singing the Sicilian songs when I was a kid. My great aunt was always saying, if you get good at guitar, I'll give you your Uncle John's guitar. And I'll just never forget, like, the smell of that guitar, the look - you know, it had just been sitting in its case since he died. So I practiced the guitar like crazy after that, and she gave it to me for my next birthday. And, yeah, like what Jon said, you just - as a kid just disappear into your room and practice as many hours as you possibly can 'cause it's the greatest thing in the world. It's always amazing to me that people, like, have to be forced to practice, you know? For me, it was always like, there were other things - everyone always wanted me to do other things. But I was like, oh, I'd rather just kind of practice.

BRIGER: Was there a point when you were like, I'm going to give this a go and try to be a musician full-time?

MUNISTERI: I never thought that I would make a living at it. It was always just where my head was. I always heard music in my head constantly - constantly, constantly. So, no, I never thought I'd make a living at it. And I didn't start even going out and trying to sit in with people until I was way old, like 27. I didn't - you know, I mean, I'd been playing all the time. But I - not jazz at all, nothing connected to jazz. So...

BRIGER: How did that go? How did that - those first few times go?

MUNISTERI: Oh, I got kicked off a bandstand. I mean it's actually like...

BRIGER: You did?

MUNISTERI: Yeah. Oh, of course. I got kicked - 'cause I thought that, like, jazz was like - I'd learned how to play, like, Bob Wills stuff from Western swing, from, you know, Russ Barenberg and Richard Lieberson. And, yeah, jazz musicians told me - I got told to sit down and get off bandstands plenty of times. And then I played - this is the truth - I sat in at a jam session, and I played a solo on a blues, and everyone in the place went crazy. And so I took another chorus, and people kept on being like, yeah, yeah. And I kept playing chorus after chorus. And after that, my phone started ringing, and I just started, like, working. But when I got off the stage and I was listening from the audience, I realized they'd been in the key of B-flat, and I'd played chorus after chorus after chorus in E. I couldn't hear the bass. He was on the other side of the stage. And that sort of made my career. Like, Jon, did I ever tell you that? Like, the phone started ringing after that?

KELLSO: (Laughter).

MUNISTERI: I was so hip.

KELLSO: Ah.

BRIGER: So you were playing out of key, but it sounded hip to everyone.

MUNISTERI: Well, I don't know. It sounded hip to...

KELLSO: Everything was a tritone substitution. That's...

MUNISTERI: Everything.

BRIGER: Yeah. Let's not get too nerdy...

KELLSO: Oh, they probably...

MUNISTERI: It was a disaster. It was terrible. It was awful.

BRIGER: Well, Matt, you solo obviously in these shows, but your main job is playing rhythm. There's a bass player. But there's no piano. There's no drums. And so you're holding down the rhythm chair. And along with your guitar playing, you also sing - not on this album, but on the one before this, which is called "In The Land Of Beginning Again." You sing on a song, "S'posin'," which I've heard versions of that by Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and Fats Waller. Why don't we hear your version of the song? This is from The EarRegulars' album "In The Land Of Beginning Again." This is Matt Munisteri singing on the song "S'posin'."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "S'POSIN'")

MUNISTERI: (Singing) S'posin' that I fell in love with you, do you think that you could love me too? S'posin' that I held you and caressed you, would it impress you or merely distress you? S'posin' that I said for you I yearn, would you think I'm speaking out of turn? And s'posin' I declare it, would you take my love and share it? Oh, I'm not s'posin'. I'm in love with you.

BRIGER: That's the song "S'posin'" played by The EarRegulars and sung by one of my guests, Matt Munisteri, who is also a guitarist. And the other guest is Jon-Erik Kellso who plays trumpet. And they have a band together called The EarRegulars that has a new album called "Live At The Ear Inn." Why don't we take a short break here? We'll be back in a second. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE EARREGULARS' "I'M COMING VIRGINIA")

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with the founding members of the traditional jazz band The EarRegulars, trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and guitarist Matt Munisteri. They have a new album called "Live At The Ear Inn."

You both do - have done and do a lot of session work. Can you talk about what that's like in the life of a musician?

MUNISTERI: I came into town very early this morning for a session. It's trying to fit in - I mean, you know, you're trying to fit into a situation where you're going to make the entire ensemble sound good. What I used to do a lot was then try to play sort of, like, in the background. And nowadays when I play on - you know, if it's even, like, a jingle or a - someone's date or something, I try to actually bring a lot of personality to it - musical personality. So you're trying to, you know, make someone's - work with someone else's vision. And we both work, as - you know, when you say session, it's like we work as side people with a lot of different people in different bands and different contexts. So you're trying to do something that's going to help someone's vision. And at the same time, you're actually trying to step up and be a - you know, be a recognizable voice somehow in the ensemble.

BRIGER: What about you, Jon? What about your experience as a sideman or session musician?

KELLSO: Being a sideman and a session musician for me is - has been a real challenge but a fun one. Like, there are some bands I play with and some situations I'm in where it's in a recording studio for a soundtrack or something where they have a very specific idea of what they want to hear, and it isn't necessarily just that they want to hear me doing it the way I would do it. You know, sometimes it's like we need somebody to sound like Miles Davis, you know? And one of my first jingles - I think it actually was my first jingle in New York, Howard Alden got me on this session, and it was, you know, something like therapeutic Mineral Ice or something. And they said they wanted this track to sound like Miles Davis' "All Blues." And so they kind of came up with a tune that was reminiscent of that, you know, without actually playing that song. And, you know, as a teenager, Miles was one of the guys that I studied pretty hard. I don't only listen to early - earlier players, I like listening to all kinds of stuff. So I had spent a good amount of time, you know, trying to copy him and learn from him.

So I guess I did a good job because they stopped things at one point, and you could see they're all having, like, a huddle in the booth. And they said, Jon, can you sound a little less like Miles Davis? And I took that as a high compliment. I thought, all right, well, like, OK. I guess I did what I was trying to do there. It sounded, you know, enough like him that they were worried that they were going to get in trouble or something, you know? But so, yeah, sometimes the gig is to copy somebody or give a - of - your version of some specific person or a very specific style. And, you know, and sometimes it's - it is they just want you to bring your flavor to the mix, you know?

BRIGER: Well, I wanted to end with a really beautiful song that you guys did on your last album, which is "In The Land Of Beginning Again." This is a song called "Smoke Rings," which I think was originally done by The Mills Brothers. Is that right?

KELLSO: I think it actually went back to the Casa Loma...

MUNISTERI: Yeah.

KELLSO: ...Band. Glen Gray.

BRIGER: OK.

MUNISTERI: Right.

BRIGER: You want to say anything else about this tune?

MUNISTERI: I actually heard it first - oh, my God, what's the name of the great Canadian country jazz singer? Whatever. I guess the answer, Sam, is do we want to say anything else? No.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: OK. Well, we'll let the...

KELLSO: Yes, but I don't know what it is. I do, but I can't.

BRIGER: We'll let the music speak for itself. Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri, thank you so much for coming in today. It was a real treat.

KELLSO: Thank you, Sam.

MUNISTERI: Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE EARREGULARS' "SMOKE RINGS")

GROSS: Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri are the founding members of the traditional jazz band The EarRegulars. Their new album is called "Live At The Ear Inn." They play at the Ear Inn most Sunday nights, but they won't be there New Year's Eve. They spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Kellso and Munisteri joined us from the studios of WNYC in New York. Our thanks to recording engineer Irene Trudel.

Throughout this holiday week, we've been featuring a few of our favorite interviews of the year. Monday, we'll celebrate New Year's Day with Barbra Streisand and listen back to the interview I recorded with her in November after the publication of her memoir. We talked about her two Broadway shows and why she decided to never do another, how she learned the hard way that romance with your leading man can spell trouble, the two different sides of her personality and more. We also played and talked about some of her great recordings. I hope you'll join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering from Adam Staniszewski, Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross. All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a healthy and fulfilling new year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Sam Briger