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Jazz guitarist Ron English celebrates life on new record

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After the Sunday service, Ron English mentioned to a woman at his church that the title of his new record was Dance/Cry/Dance.

"Ain't that the truth," she replied.

Maybe the cryptic, eye-catching name of this latest work from Detroit's resident jazz guitar immortal is no more difficult to explain than that. You dance, you cry, then one day you may dance again. The flow of life.

As you might guess, however, English reads more into it.

For one thing, the 10 tracks on Dance/Cry/Dance, which English will recreate live with an eight-piece band on Saturday night at Eastern Market's Trinosophes Cafe, seem to alternate between party and pensive. It begins with the jaunty groove of "Dancers' Serenade,"segues into a New Orleans-style tribute to the late, legendary keyboardist-songwriter Donny Hathaway with "Donny-Rag," and includes the lighthearted tune "Hats Galore and More" composed by organist Glenn Tucker.

"He says he got that name from a sign he would see driving down Gratiot," English says with a laugh.

And yet, there is still a deeper dimension to the title Dance/Cry/Dance in English's view.

"Traditionally, those of us who play this music want to share with other people the feeling we get out of it," he suggests. "Part of that is how you wish to communicate to the listener. That's the focus. But there's also the matter of expression as well. We want to do our own dancing, do our own crying, so to speak. Crying out. So that's the way [the record] is structured, both as expression and as how we want to communicate with others. Everything on [the record] has got a little bit of a dance groove to it, but it mirrors the emotions. That's kind of the cry part."

Ron English has mirrored Detroit's musical emotions long and well. While some other Michigan musicians of his generation jumped to New York to build their reputations, the Lansing native drove to Detroit and immersed himself in the city's vibrant music scene for decades.

In the 1960s and 1970s he became involved with the Artists' Workshop and began playing with the Detroit Contemporary 5, which included such stellar instrumentalists as Charles Moore, Kenn Cox, Danny Spencer, John Dana, and Larry Nozero. Together they created their own artist-run record label, Strata Records.

English played with Detroit's historic Lyman Woodard Organization, to which he pays tribute on Dance/Cry/Dance with the reimagined song "Help Me Get Away," originally recorded in 1973. He has performed Motown magic with the Four Tops, Mary Wilson, and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, to name a few. He has worked in the Fisher Theatre pit orchestra for years, adapting his guitar style to countless musicals and live acts. And he can be heard every Tuesday night when English joins incomparable pianist Charles Boles as part of Boles' quartet at Grosse Pointe's Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe, a gig he has maintained for six years.

The quartet suffered a severe setback recently when its stalwart on upright bass, the aforementioned John Dana, died in October. That's kind of the cry part, too.

"Losing John was distressing, to say the least," English laments. "He and I met at a jam session in 1963, 55 years ago, and went through some life-changing experiences together. I came to 're-up' my Christian faith because of John. He, [drummer] Renell Gonsalves and I worked as a trio, John and Renell and Charles worked as a trio, and Charles and John and I worked as a trio before Charles hired us as a quartet. So we all had significant connection with one another."

English has even managed to continue teaching guitar students for the Marygrove College music faculty, despite Marygrove disbanding all its undergraduate programs this year. "Their community continuing education segment is still going on, so I do my private lessons there," he says. "I have a little class of jazz enthusiasts who've been with me for a while now and they keep getting better. That's a prerogative of music teachers: They get to yell at people."

All these experiences and influences coalesce in Dance/Cry/Dance, a recording more than two years in the making in sessions at Royal Oak's Rustbelt Studios. When the master recording was completed, English turned first to the Detroit Music Factory label owned by Dirty Dog Cafe owner and jazz patron Gretchen Valade, for whom he had co-produced Boles' Blues Continuum three years earlier.

"I said, 'Let's give them right of first refusal, just as a courtesy," English says. "Gretchen has created institutions I think are durable, and that was always what we wanted to do back with Strata Records. That was the aim, self-determination, and that's what Detroit Music Factory has tried to provide. You present the product you want to make, and they take it or leave it. I'm glad and grateful they decided to take it. It's just a wonderful, wonderful period in my life right now."

English will perform a record release show for Dance/Cry/Dance on Saturday, Dec. 8, at Trinosophes Cafe, 1464 Gratiot Ave.; Detroit; 313-737-6606; trinosophes.com; Doors are at 8 p.m.; Tickets are $10.

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