A FEW MINUTES WITH… Dylan Perrillo

David Amram and Dylan Perrillo
David Amram and Dylan Perrillo

Story by Don Wilcock
Photographs by Rudy Lu

At first blush the experience should have been enough to send most local musicians screaming into the hills. Here was 25-year-old Dylan Perrillo, leader and bass player of the 12-piece Dylan Perrillo Orchestra, on stage last summer with 84-year-old David Amram, a musician the late Lena Spencer of the Caffe Lena used to call “The Renaissance Man.” It was one of Lena’s uncharacteristic understatements. Amram is the composer of more than 100 orchestral works, two operas and author of three books. His resume includes collaborating with everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Jack Kerouac, from Bob Dylan to Miles Davis, from Arthur Miller to Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo to Hunter S. Thompson. And Amram’s last performance in Saratoga Springs was at SPAC playing with Willie Nelson in the show-closing set of the sold-out Farm Aid concert in 2013.

Needless to say, the pressure was on.

For the young big band leader Perrillo, this show at the Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs was a pretty imposing gig. (GO HERE to read a review.) That’s not to say the band isn’t a good fit for Amram. Here’s a young group of musicians all in their mid-20s who handle jazz standards by classic artists as imposing as Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus and Coleman Hawkins. And they do it with a freshness that makes the listener believe they just wrote this material yesterday and can’t wait to turn on an entire ballroom of flappers.

So, OK, they were ready…

But what Amram greeted them with was nothing short of shocking. In an understatement as interesting as Lena Spencer’s comment about a “Renaissance Man,” Perrillo says simply, “David Amram definitely pressured us all in a really interesting way.”

With no pre-concert rehearsal, Amram called out songs this young band had never heard before. “He kind of put us on the spot, and he had this overwhelming attitude of – what do I want to say? – almost like being a free spirit, in that the notes didn’t so much matter. But what did matter was the fact that we were sharing this time together – playing and improvising – and it didn’t matter what walk of life we
came from. We hadn’t met him prior to the day of the event, and he made it really very plain to us that the gift of music and story-telling improvisation is an art, and all these things are really special and unique.”

So, Perrillo and company rolled up their collective sleeves and rode the big wave. Was he at all scared? “Yeah, a little bit, especially as a beat player. The job traditionally as a jazz player is to keep everybody together like the glue of the ensemble. When the glue of the ensemble is not so sticky, it gets a little crazy. Luckily. it all came together well. We all had smiles on our faces, and I think everyone enjoyed the performance.”

Are these young musicians that good? I haven’t seen them live, but judging by the music you can hear on their website, I have to say yes. Their version of “Minnie the Moocher” will have you believing you’re in a ballroom with Cab Calloway. The question then becomes how did a kid who wasn’t even born 60 years after this gem was recorded manage to make this number his own? Perrillo was five or six when the lights went on in his head.

“There were a few really important films actually that I was brought up knowing about and watching periodically that might have been the first real important piece of musical literature that I became obsessed with. The first one that I can remember is Laurel & Hardy’s film “The March of the Wooden Solders” (aka, “Toyland” and “Babes in Toyland”), and though it’s not jazz, I think that was made in 1936 or 1934. So it sort of had a similar atmosphere to it, and I watched that movie tons of times.

“You should check it out. It’s wonderful. It’s been uploaded online a bunch of places now. The whole thing is very theatrical. It’s a musical, and the original story is like an operetta written in the late 1800s/early 1900s, and so they do a lot of selections from the original opera, and there’s a fantastic cast of characters – who all I don’t know. It just struck a chord in me, I guess.

“Another really big one was a collection of films. The original Little Rascals, that Hal Roach series. They had a lot of tunes that were then contemporary, a lot of like Jimmy McHugh – jazz music, as we call it now – but a lot of popular music back in the day, and there’s a lot of their own versions of that. I can remember being around six or seven again, and sitting down and watching the VHS we had of them. There might have been five or six episodes on there, just playing them over and over and over again – actually, the two films, the Little Rascals and “The March of Wooden Soldiers.” I was kinda trying to rework a couple of selections from each of those to play with the big band. They just have a certain magic to them that really appeals to me personally.”

And if this whole story isn’t bizarre enough, a 10-piece version of the Dylan Perrillo Orchestra will perform at the legendary Caffe Lena in Saratoga Sunday night, a facility with a capacity of 85 people. They know they can pull it off because they’ve done it before.

“The first time we played at Caffe Lena, we were starting to load everything in, and we all looked around at each other a bit puzzled thinking about all the various ways that we could possibly contort ourselves and our instruments through there into a way that will work for everybody. Mentally we figured out that if we took out a couple of seats right in front of the stage we could use that room for a few of our horn players and make it work out that way. It was a little tight, but we all like each other a lot, so it was OK.”

This band has an ability to make you feel like it’s 1928, and you’re just discovering this music along with the artists playing it. It’s not paint by numbers, and it’s most certainly not “old.”

WHO: The Dylan Perrillo Orchestra
WITH: Banshee Tree
WHERE: Caffe Lena, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: Sunday (February 28), 7pm
HOW MUCH: $18 in advance; $20 at the door

LIVE: David Amram & the Dylan Perrillo Orchestra @ Universal Preservation Hall, 7/17/15
LIVE: The Dylan Perrillo Orchestra @ City Beer Hall, 2/27/14
FIVE FIRSTS: Dylan Perrillo of the Dylan Perrillo Orchestra

Dylan Perillo
Dylan Perrillo
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