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Owen McNally writes about jazz and other music events in Connecticut's Jazz Corridor, stretching from the tip of Fairfield County, right through New Haven and Hartford, and on up beyond the state into the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. Keep up with the best our area has to offer in music.

Multi-Talented Midiri Brothers Join Pianist Jeff Barnhart in Traditional Jazz Bash

Irene Cowern
Jazz duo and twin brothers Joe and Paul Midiri perform.
The first thing that anyone notices about the brothers, even before they've played a single note, is the twin bond.

Traditional jazz fans can double their pleasure as the identical twin Midiri brothers, Joe and Paul, coast-to-coast co-champions of classic jazz, display their parallel musical wizardry at the Elks Lodge in Branford on July 15 at 7:30 pm.

Joe, a jazz and classical clarinet virtuoso and saxophonist, and Paul, his older brother by just 60 seconds who’s fluent on vibraphone, trombone, drums and xylophone, unite in a double bill with the celebrated piano player, singer and entertainer/raconteur Jeff Barnhart, the globe-trotting trad jazz maestro from Mystic.

Presented by Jeff and Joel’s House Party -- a popular periodic celebration that helps keep trad jazz’s sometimes fluttering heartbeat alive and well in Connecticut -- the concert provides an up-close showcase for the acclaimed Midiri twins. As evangelists on behalf of New Orleans jazz, swing and big band and small group formats inspired by such Swing-era titans as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, the New Jersey natives have spread the good word at major jazz festivals, top venues and on their recordings as well.

Naturally, the first thing that anyone notices about the brothers, even before they’ve played a single note, is the twin bond. The industrious Midiris don’t really think all that much about their DNA duality. Instead, their thoughts are focused on honing their craft and individual voices, as well as promoting the cultural and historic importance of their pantheon of mythic jazz heroes.

Joe's patron saints include a diverse array of clarinetists ranging from Goodman and Shaw to classical master Reginald Kell, and such lyrical expressionists asBix Beiderbecke and Johnny Hodges, plus a host of other instrumental heroes, including SidneyBechet, Cootie Williams, and such idiosyncratic originals and geniuses as Pee Wee Russell.

Brother Paul’s favorite mallet masters include Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo, ideal role models to emulate in the Midiris’ various-sized ensembles, including their busy sextet.

“I tell Paul that his age -- one-minute older than me -- really shows,” Joe joked over the phone from the business office for the Midiri Brothers, a two-man jazz industry. Their robust enterprise began in the early 1980s in Jersey and included invaluable hands-on learning experiences with sage, aging Big Band-era vets in Philadelphia, just 20 minutes from their home.

Expanding their sibling swing syndicate, the Midiris flourished in a cozy 10-year stint in Atlantic City, eventually working their way upward to national recognition. Their breakthrough occurred with appearances in the early 2000s at major West Coast festivals.

Of course, before they transformed into the fabulous Midiri Brothers, they were better known as the Midiri twins, genetic karma which they and their parents soft-pedaled. In fact, the twins don’t believe that they even look alike. Joe, however, admits to having trouble telling whether it’s he or elder brother Paul whenever they reminisce over childhood pictures in family photo albums.

Unlike more capricious identical twins, the Midiri brothers never -- as young children, teenagers or even as undergrads at Glassboro State College in the mid-80s -- used their twinness to play pranks on others, like pretending to be the other brother on dates, or when taking exams or at gigs.

“No, not really anything like that,” Joe said of such ID ruses.

“When we were kids, in fact, our parents downplayed the whole identical twin thing. Our friends generically just called me and Paul ‘Twin,’ as in ‘Hi, Twin,’ because they didn’t want to make a mistake. Our parents usually just said, ‘Hey, you,’” he said chuckling over the double dilemma.

Credit Irene Cowern
Pianist Jeff Barnhart will perform with the Midiris at the Elks Lodge in Branford on July 15.

Even today, he adds, the twin bond generates laughs shared between the two close brothers during a break or after a concert.

“People come up to me,” Joe said, “and they’ll tell me with warmth and appreciation, ‘You’re such a great vibes player!’ I just say, ‘Thank you very much.’ I never correct anybody and say, ‘Oh, no, my brother Paul is the vibes player.’”

While the twin connection can be amusing, Joe is totally serious about his own individual musical identity as a traditional jazz savant/swinger, a classical clarinetist and a versatile musician who’s at home with modern jazz, and, he added, can play “whatever style the job calls for.”

Although he can re-create exact renditions of revered solos by Goodman and Shaw, copying by rote would be a betrayal of his true identity as an artist.

“Playing note-for-note replica solos from original recordings,” he said, “would be like going to a wax museum.”

Rejecting that Madame Tussauds approach, the brothers instead create music that captures the vital essence of, say, the classic Goodman chamber groups. Instead of exact reproductions of the originals, Midiri music simultaneously celebrates the old masters while avoiding that waxy, mausoleum-like feeling emanating from stiff replicas that mix rigor with mortis.

Midiri said his approach is inspired by his legion of jazz idols including Goodman, Shaw, Beiderbecke, Ben Webster and Paul Desmond, who “never played the same thing the same way twice” and “were always experimenting.”

Instead of assiduously parroting the venerable original, the clarinetist’s style is rooted in such core elements as feeling, expressive tone, spot-on intonation, originality and spontaneity, which he called “being in the moment.”

“I never program a concert. When I walk on stage, I have absolutely no idea what the first number will be. If I plan it, it’s all stale to me,” Midiri said. 

Asked about what’s going through his mind as he improvises a solo, he describes a Zen-like image that he creates in his mind to help him connect with his listeners.

“When I’m onstage playing,” he said, “I imagine that I’m actually sitting out there in the audience listening to me play. So I’m just as surprised as people in the audience by what I play.”

“Improvising,” he said of his taproot source of inspiration, “comes from your subconscious. If you do it consciously with predetermined ideas, it’s forced…it’s stale.”

Tickets for the Midiri Brothers/Barnhart bash and trad jazz hoedown are $30.00 in advance at (203) 208-1481.

Please submit press releases at least two weeks before publication date to omac28@gmail.com. Comments welcome.

Owen McNally writes the weekly Jazz Corridor column for WNPR.org as well as periodic freelance pieces for The Hartford Courant and other publications.

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