Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Halfway House Orchestra * 1925-1928 * Jazz Oracle * BDW 8001

Band leader Albert Brunies's mellow and coolly swinging cornet sets the tone for these recordings, which feature the working band of the Halfway House, a stop on the road between New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain in the 1920s. Like so many others of the era, the Halfway House Orchestra was a dance band filled with jazz players. From the opening of "Pussy Cat Rag" (co-written by Brunies, Cordella, and Marcour) the band is balanced and sonorous. The banjo playing of Bill Eastwood (also a co-composer of "Barataria") and Angelo Palmisano is well recorded for the era--they come across as the light, driving center of the rhythm section on most of the tracks, with the bass, piano and drums also comfortably clear and audible. Balance seems a hallmark of the whole band, both musically and soundwise on these twenty two tunes recorded by Okeh and  Columbia in New Orleans, remastered by John R.T. Davies in the 1990s.

For clarinetists, this disc is important as a document of the last recordings of Leon Roppolo, legendary clarinetist of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, just before he was committed to the Louisiana State Asylum at the age of 23, and Sidney Arodin, whose playing rounds out the album. Roppolo's contributions to the recording catalog of the Halfway House were not to be as extensive or important as those he made with the NORK, as he was only present for the first two on this disc, both dating from the Okeh session on January 22, 1925, but because it's Rapp playing, they're important nonetheless. He and Charlie Cordella shared the reed duties in the band at this point, though after Rapp's departure, Cordella is the only reed player (covering clarinet, alto, and tenor sax) for the next couple of years.

During Cordella's tenure, the band had several significant sessions for Columbia. On September 25, 1925, they produced crisp, impressive versions of "Squeeze Me", "Maple Leaf Rag", "Let Me Call You Sweetheart", and an interesting number by the Bill Whitmore, the band's pianist, called "New Orleans Shuffle." Likewise, April 13, 1926 showed the band in good form, recording "Snookum", "Since You're Gone", "It Belongs to You", and "I'm in Love", all of which were released commercially.    

A year later, on April 15, 1927, the band had a less successful day, recording "Won't you be my loving baby" and "I don't want to remember" both featuring clarinet solos by Charlie Cordella. Neither was released by Columbia at the time, and the clarinet might have been the reason. Thanks to their being released on this disc, we can hear Cordella struggle with his tonguing and intonation--the contrast in quality between his playing and Brunies cornet was likely too pronounced.

The October 24, 1927 session shows Cordella in better form, swinging through solid solos on "When I'm Blue" and "I Want Somebody to Love" (both written by the band's pianist, "Red" Long). Unlike the rejected tunes, there isn't the same drop in quality of playing when the solo is handed over to Brunies.

By 1928, Sidney Arodin (most famous to jazz history as the composer of "Lazy River") takes over the clarinet chair, and his solos over the last eight cuts show how good a move that was for the band. Arodin's playing is strong, confident, and possessed of a sound rare in those days for its solid, mature quality. In fact, his playing sounds shockingly like Artie Shaw's of a decade later on tunes such as "Just Pretending" (recorded on December 17, 1928).

While the whole disc is a pleasure to listen to, clarinetists will particularly want to hear Arodin. While some of the tunes he played were never released by Columbia, such as "I Hate Myself for Lovin' You" and "Let Your Lips Touch My Lips", it wasn't the clarinet soloing that held them back, and tunes like "Tell Me Who" and "Wylie Avenue Blues" give us a glimpse into the playing of a clarinetist who should be more widely known and appreciated.

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