Thursday, January 26, 2017

Mr. Acker Bilk and His Paramount Jazz Band * ACKER * Columbia Record 33 SX 1248 * 1960

White Cliffs of Dover
Snake Rag
2.19 Blues
Fancy Pants
Lazy River
There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder
Original Dixieland Onestep
Good Night, Sweet Prince
Good Woman Blues
Bottom of the Bottle
Milenberg Joys

Personnel [as listed in the album notes]:

Mr. Acker Bilk * clarionet and titular head 
Mr. Ken Sims * trumpet 
Mr. Jonathan Mortimer * trombone
Mr. Roy James * tenor banjo
Mr. Ernest Price * bass
Mr. Ronald McKay * traps and effects

recorded on the 5th, 7th, and 13th days of April, 1960

As with The Seven Ages of Acker and Band of Thieves, I'm sure I like this album way too much for my own good. From the zany liner notes and bowler hat cover to the vocal clarinet and loose but well balanced band, this is exactly what you'd expect from the golden era of Mr. Acker Bilk's Paramount Jazz Band, and it's probably one of their best albums.

The English Trad Jazz scene has historically been a bit of an anomaly to us Americans, though it's so little known in the United States, in a general sense, that to even call it that might be a little strong. Without putting too fine a point on it, the approach to the ambiance of the music, and sometimes to the social meaning of it, tends to be different on either side of the pond. Whereas the American attitude generally ranges anywhere from solemnity to a festive presentation of the music, there almost always seems a zany, Marx-brothers type approach not far in the background of British Trad. This can get annoying for Americans like myself, and it can be prohibitive to enjoyment of some bands, however well the musicians might play. To some very serious traditionalists here in the US, it can seem downright insulting to the music. Why Acker Bilk's Paramount Jazz Band is an exception, despite their use of comedy, is of interest to me, and something I've spent time considering.

My answer is simply that, for all the silliness of the liner notes, striped waistcoats, bowler hats, and hijinx, this is really fine, soulful music making. Bilk's clarinet is immediately identifiable: you can hear right to his heart and soul every time he picks up the horn. He had unique intangibles that were impossible to measure: like how to "lift" an entire performance when he added his voice, and how the band "goes" with him emotionally.

Over the last couple  of years, especially, I've been an advocate for Acker's music here in Cleveland. Many of the musicians I've played with, some of them considerably older than I am, hadn't really heard his playing before I started putting tunes on set lists and scheduling Acker Bilk themed concerts. I'd send bandmates recordings to listen to and we'd talk about them on set breaks or to and from gigs. The response has often been exactly my feelings about the music: that Acker had a unique lyricism, a very touching voice, and the band had an infectious joy about them. The approval hasn't been universal, or without criticism, but many musicians I've talked to have been very impressed. Even the humor that surrounds Bilk's packaging seems specifically good humored, and not just silly.

This album evokes WWII era nostalgia with "White Cliffs of Dover" immediately, then reaches back to early numbers like "Snake Rag" and "2.19 Blues" which originate with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, respectively. Immediately after that, though, we get an Acker Bilk original, "Fancy Pants", which might seem just goofy and simple, capitalizing on the caribbean/calypso fad of the late '50s and early '60s. On the surface, there's really nothing to this song: It's just made of a few simple, arpeggiated chords, modulates very obviously, upwards, and is nothing to write home about. But all that aside, it's a great little tune, and it's Acker's joyful sound, as usual, that makes it more than the notes themselves. Most impressively, despite all of the stylistic shifts and eras represented on the album (including another Bilk original "Good Night, Sweet Prince" and the howling howler "Good Woman Blues") the band has a unified concept and approach, making the whole program sound as though the tunes could have been written the day they were recorded.        

This is the real addictive thing about Bilk and his band, especially of this era: They play with such joy and zest, and interpret tunes with such freshness, that all eras seem irrelevant when they're playing. It's just music, and their happiness to be sharing it is obvious. For me, this is vintage Acker Bilk, and even though I've only known of his music for a few years now, it's become an indispensable part of my regular listening (and as a band leader, my set lists).

Promotional poster from our first Acker Bilk tribute concert, back in 2015


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