St. James Infirmary
Struttin' With Some Barbecue
On a Slow Boat to China
Nat Gonella, trumpet + vocals
Archie Semple, clarinet
Roy Crimmins, trombone
Fred Hunt, piano
Bill Reid, bass
Johnny Richardson, drums
In many ways, it's difficult to imagine this was recorded in 1955. Jazz in the USA had moved far in the direction of bop and other modern styles, and the various revival bands in America often sounded either too polished on the one hand or too broadly nostalgic on the other. A useful parallel is 1955's Louis Armstrong plays W.C. Handy, which, while enjoyable in many ways, gives us such broad and grandiose versions of the tunes that it can feel as though we're listening to a tribute to a bygone era rather than experiencing living music.
By contrast, Nat Gonella--a seminal figure in the British Trad Jazz scene, admittedly decisively influenced by Armstrong in his style both as a brass player and vocalist--produced a live set here that, if we set aside our preconceptions, rivals the greats of the previous generation.
I've listened to this album repeatedly for the last couple of years, ever since stumbling upon it in an Intense Media 10 disc box set filled with gems of the European Trad Jazz scene of the '50 and '60s. At first, I wasn't sure what to think of it. I'd never heard Gonella, and the immediate comparison to Armstrong was obvious. As a general rule, we're taught to be wary of imitators, and there are many good reasons for this (some of them social, racial, economic, etc--and all of them compelling). But I found this disc impossible to ignore for long. The performances are too satisfying to leave behind. Gonella's vocal takes on tunes such as "All of Me" and "Ain't Misbehavin'" are simply among my favorites. However much they might owe to Satch, they aren't copies, but real expression. Likewise, the unflagging energy of the band--the real thing, emotionally--can be difficult to find in any era. Because this is a live date (or a series of them compiled), the band isn't as stiflingly precise as studio dates can get. There is a certain natural raggedness to the group, and the balance of the microphones isn't perfect--the wind instruments tend to overpower the rhythm section. But I wouldn't trade that for the spiritual and emotional impact of this record. It has an elusive quality not even found on many live albums: the feel of a real live gig, unpretentious and un-self-conscious.
Archie Semple's clarinet playing seems the perfect compliment to Gonella's trumpet and vocal, in that his family resemblance to Edmond Hall (undoubtedly his template) is undeniable. But like Gonella, his ideas within the style are legitimate, original, and ring emotionally true. Roy Cummins's trombone, like so many of the British Trad trombonists of that era, is full, crisp and lush simultaneously. It's gotten so that I almost prefer the sound of British Trad brass to Americans at times (and for any American jazz musician, this is not easy to admit).
For someone raised with the preconceptions of jazz history as taught here in America, all of this raises some interesting questions: if the mainstream of jazz education and criticism will accept generation after generation of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane imitators of various levels of worthiness; if such offerings can be praised as excellent examples of legitimate jazz, why shouldn't the same level of respect be given to those who have worked in the styles developed by earlier jazz giants? If Mozart isn't derided for following in the footsteps of Haydn, Mahler isn't condemned for his learning from Wagner, or Ravel for his debt to Satie and Debussy, why should Gonella and Semple be ignored in America because they learned their art from the likes of Armstrong and Hall? Their work alone is proof that they are not merely derivative, but instead expanded the great music we have by plowing forward in the style after it had been neglected, in many ways, in its homeland.
In general, the British Trad scene of the '50s and '60s demonstrated far less of the crippling anxiety of influence and cultural baggage than Americans carried with them. This is music of vitality, and sounds as though it could have been recorded yesterday. The box I found it in, for a ridiculously low price, is highly recommended, including albums by Acker Bilk, Ken Colyer, Terry Lightfoot, Sidney Bechet, George Lewis, and others.