Wednesday, January 11, 2017

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band * The Complete 1923 Recordings * Off the Record * OTR-MM6-C2 (2006)

On April 5, 1923, jazz history was made in Richmond, Indiana, when Joe "King" Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band laid down the first five of thirty seven recordings they were to ultimately cut that year in various studios. These first were for Gennett, but the band would also record in Okeh's, Columbia's, and Marsh Laboratories's Chicago studios. All of the recordings are important for their historical value, and a good number of the tunes became permanent in the jazz repertoire, among them "Canal Street Blues", "Weather Bird Rag", "Snake Rag", "Sobbin' Blues", and "Dippermouth Blues (Sugarfoot Stomp)".

King Oliver's band is best known for introducing Louis Armstrong to the world outside of New Orleans. Satchmo was known to have said he wouldn't have left his successful playing career in the Crescent City for any other outfit than Joe's. The way the two cornet players worked together is the stuff of legend now, with their special means of communicating which harmonized riffs to dazzle the audience with during solo breaks, their rapport, and the overall brilliance of performance that helped form Armstrong into one of the most potent and important figures in the history of music. The rest of the band was notable as well, though, comprised of some of the most significant early jazz musicians on record, including Lil Hardin on piano, Baby Dodds on drums, Honore Dutrey on trombone, Johnny St. Cyr on banjo, and most importantly for readers of The Jazz Clarinet, Johnny Dodds, Jimmie Noone, and Buster Bailey on clarinet.

Approaching these recordings without preconceptions, especially the historical weight of who Louis Armstrong was to become, the cornetist's perspective seems a bit exaggerated, actually. The soloing star of the show, to my ear (admittedly biased) is Johnny Dodds. Because the twin cornets of Oliver and Armstrong are muted, and because the clarinet seems to have been balanced or focused on properly in relation to the microphone (which was not always the case in Dodds's career), these remain some of the finest examples of Dodds's playing, and New Orleans style clarinet, on record.

His tone is full and rich, and when he reaches for that special piercing quality he had, it never loses strength and body. His solo breaks are confident and directed; his accompanying arpeggios so strong that one could be forgiven for thinking these tunes were movements of a concerto written for him. Taken as a whole they show the strength and depth of Dodds's playing at this point in his career. The contrast between his richness of tone and the lighter playing style of Leon Roppolo of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings or Jimmie Noone (on "Chattanooga Stomp", the one tune credited to him with King Oliver's band) is striking, and serves to really show us why Benny Goodman would have singled him out as having one of the best tones of the clarinetists in Chicago of the 1920s. The October 16, 1923 session at Columbia Studios in Chicago are the only multiple recordings by another clarinetist with the Creole Jazz Band,  this time Buster Bailey.  Bailey is impressively similar to Dodds in approach, with a substantial, rich sound, but the overall mastery of style and comfort with the ensembles isn't quite at Dodds's level.

In the years that followed, Dodds was to gain perhaps even greater fame as a member of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Sevens. On those records he impresses as being a soloist who could follow or precede Armstrong without musical quality being lost. But on these earlier recordings with King Oliver, it is Dodds who strikes me as the great soloist in the band.  We can hear why Lil Hardin, once she became Lil Armstrong, would hire Johnny Dodds for her husband's most important recording dates as a bandleader.  

This particular reissue from Off the Record in 2006 was an attempt to transfer, without noise reduction from original discs. They took great pride in their work, and the booklet has extensive technical information about the exact speed of transfer, styluses used, and grade of original source record. All of that will be of interest to audiophiles and recording engineers who have an interest in future transfer work. In the notes, it's clear that they hoped to get as clean and original a sound as they could, without adding reverb or cutting out too much sound. The results are quite good.

Five good reeds, of course.    

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