Monday, January 30, 2017

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






  

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Mpingo Documentary by Sir David Attenborough featuring Acker Bilk * 1992

Catching a reference to it on social media earlier today, I dug up a 1992 tv/e documentary called  Mpingo: The Tree That Makes Music, by Sir David Attenborough. It's a wonderful film giving excellent footage of mpingo wood, from the trees in Tanzania all the way to the concert halls and pubs of Europe.



When first clicking, I had no idea it would feature so much jazz clarinet. The great Acker Bilk was, in fact, the very first clarinetist shown (or even heard) on this documentary, near the seven minute mark, performing what appears to be a humble pub gig. Then, while showing off the manufacturing process of Buffet clarinets around the twenty minute mark, we're treated to Barney Bigard's classic performance of "Clarinet Lament (Barney's Concerto)" with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. At around 37:30 we're back at Acker Bilk pub gig, getting the chance to hear him, without strings or extended orchestration, launch into his most famous tune, "Stranger on the Shore." After this clip, Bilk offers his opinion that the clarinet is essential to jazz performance--which is not the sort of thing clarinetists are used to hearing when jazz is discussed, but Acker makes it clear he feels something is missing from a jazz band without it. It's great to hear him mention the light and dark qualities, the shadings the clarinet possesses in contrast to other instruments, noting that mpingo wood is responsible for the special warmth and tone quality of the instrument. Overall, it's a unique little moment of grateful reflection for the instrument, and a brief but eloquent argument for the clarinet's importance in our music.

One of the most moving moments of the documentary, for me, was hearing a conservationist named Robert Lamb describe the sound of the clarinet, in terms that I think will resonate with all of us who play this instrument: "What you're hearing is nature's voice: a direct connection between nature and music." This is highly recommended viewing for clarinetists and anyone interested in this remarkable wood.



Sidney Bechet * May 26, 1938 * with Trixie Smith and Grant & Wilson * Decca

May 26, 1938 was unique in Sidney Bechet's career: on this day he recorded ten tunes, all of them entirely on the clarinet. Maybe his soprano sax was in the shop, maybe he forgot it, or maybe he simply didn't feel like playing it that day, but whatever the reason, his clarinet chops were ready to go. One thing we can say without reservation: the sides he cut on May 26, 1938 in Decca's New York studios with singer Trixie Smith document some of his finest clarinet work.

What can I say about his playing on "Freight Train Blues"? It's an anthology of his greatest clarinet techniques, and he is so well miked that we really, finally, get a sense of his total sound quality. Trixie Smith is laid back as a singer, but a perfectly cool partner to Bechet's heat. The rest of the band includes Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Sammy Price on piano, Teddy Bunn on guitar, Richard Fullbright on bass, and O'Neill Spencer on drums. On "Trixie's Blues" the band gets the perfect soft bumping groove, and imprompu head riffs are woven and embellished by Bechet and Shavers throughouot. Bechet's clarinet is really in astonishing form for this date, and he delivers as close to a definitive performance as we could hope for on "My Daddy Rocks Me With One Steady Roll" (Parts 1 & 2). In his sound we can hear everything--from his warmest pumpkin bread chalumeau to muscular, biting altissimo. The interplay between Bechet and the muted Shavers is a type of contrapuntal perfection: they seem ideally suited for this sort of vocalist-fronted combo. Trixie is at her best when she's singing a blues; the more popular tunes like "Jack, I'm Mellow" or "My Unusual Man" are less convincing, and she falls a bit into vaudeville style. But the masterful blues sides by this band more than make up for anything else.

Later that day, the same backing band recorded with Coot Grant & Sox Wilson, a girl/boy vocal duo with more vaudeville pretensions, and a considerable step down from the musical quality of the Trixie Smith recordings. Bechet's clarinetistry is good and solid; once again the Decca recording engineers capture him exceptionally well, but these are comparatively forgettable sides. By the last tune of the day, "Blue Monday on Sugar Hill", Bechet seems to have run out of inspiration, delivering a competent but very common solo by his standards. Still, on the whole, this was a remarkable day in Bechet's recorded output, especially from the standpoint of the clarinet. Fans of Sidney Bechet are going to want to hear them. 


[ Note: My review is based upon the remastered versions found in the Universal boxed set. I can't vouch for other transfers...]


Monday, January 23, 2017

Sidney Bechet and the New Orleans Feetwarmers * 1932

Sweetie Dear (Jordan/Cook)
I Want You Tonight (Bechet/Maxey)
I've Found a New Baby (Williams/Palmer)
Lay Your Racket (Bechet/Maxey)
Maple Lead Rag (Joplin)
Shag (Bechet)

Sidney Bechet * clarinet, soprano saxophone
Tommy Ladnier * trumpet
Teddy Nixon * trombone
Hank Duncan * piano
Wilson Myers * bass, vocals on "I Want You Tonight" and "Shag"
Morris Morand * drums 
Billy Maxey * vocal on "Lay Your Racket"

In 1932, Sidney Bechet and Tommy Ladnier declared fleeting independence from commercial music, broke free from Noble Sissle's orchestra, and on September 15, recorded six of the finest sides of their careers. The New Orleans reed man and Louisiana trumpet player had met, oddly enough, in Moscow in 1926 while touring through the Soviet Union, and had recorded with Sissle's group just prior to their own small combo formation. They named the group the New Orleans Feetwarmers, and though the vogue for small ensemble hot jazz was quickly fading, these sides shout like a cry of freedom, remaining among Bechet's crowning achievements.

The New Orleans Feetwarmers weren't just a studio organization, but a gigging band, playing around White Plains, NY, and in Jersey City while they built up repertoire. The night before these historic recordings were made, the sextet opened New York's Savoy Ballroom, billed as "Ladnier and Bechet's New Orleans Feetwarmers."  

Bechet gets composition credits on half the numbers. His clarinet soloing is unusual and aggressive on "Sweetie Dear"--a study in his shocking brilliance. He's soulfully bluesy on "I Want You Tonight", but nothing can prepare anyone for his soprano sax tour de force on "I've Found a New Baby." From his masterful use of delay, seemingly stepping in and out of time over the barlines, to his fast triplet figures, jazz just doesn't get better than this. He pivots from lyrical and dazzling within split seconds, diving and soaring at will. Anyone who believes New Orleans style jazz is somehow less advanced than more self-consciously intellectual and modernist styles needs to check this out. The Soprano Sax virtuosity continues on his own "Lay Your Racket" and, especially "Maple Leaf Rag", which is up there with "I've Found a New Baby" as an unsurpassably brilliant interpretation of the tune. Throughout these recordings, his use of trills on both clarinet and soprano sax is exciting and unique, worthy of study for all musicians hoping to expand their ideas.

For as brilliant as they sounded, the New Orleans Feetwarmers weren't long for this world. The tastes in New York had already shifted, and Hot Jazz was becoming increasingly unfashionable as the sweet music crooners began taking over the gigging scene. The great depression was taking it's toll and most nightclubs couldn't afford hiring a five or six piece band on a regular basis, opting instead for a pianist alone (Chilton 90). It would be another couple of years before Benny Goodman's band could bring back a hotter style, albeit primarily in the form of a big band.

If the Feetwarmers had overarching societal problems contributing to their demise, there were also internal problems. Bechet and Ladnier quarrelled over leadership and billing, and at one point after a gig, drummer Morris Morand  got into a fight with Bechet, even threatening to kill him (Chilton, 95). Bechet, as usual, moved on quickly to join Willie "The Lion" Smith at Pod's and Jerry's Club, and the Feetwarmers were no more. In the end, they left us one brilliant session, consisting of six tunes, among which are two or three that will never be topped. For that we can all be grateful.    



Recommended reading:

Chilton, John. Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz. OUP (New York). 1987

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Jelly Roll Morton 1930 (featuring Lorenzo Tio, Jr; Albert Nicholas and others ) * CD 323 from JSPCD Jazzbox903 * Remastered by John R.T. Davies

For as disappointing as Volume Two of JSP's Jelly Roll Morton box is from a clarinetist's perspective, Volume three is a real treat, at least for most tracks. This disc covers the Red Hot Peppers recordings from sessions in 1930. Of particular interest to clarinetists will be two gems, "Little Lawrence" and "Harmony Blues", featuring Lorenzo Tio, Jr.. Tio was the youngest of a family of clarinet players and teachers whose influence on the history of jazz clarinet would be difficult to exaggerate. Junior taught Sidney Bechet, Jimmie Noone, Omer Simeon, Johnny Dodds, Barney Bigard, Albert Nicholas, and other important jazz clarinetists of the early 20th century, and the foundation of the New Orleans sound is evident in his playing on these records--lush, round, and soulful. Despite his activity in both New Orleans and New York over the course of his career, he actually recorded very little (only a few sessions with Clarence Williams, Sidney Bechet, and Morton), so these sides are an absolute must for jazz clarinet aficionados.

The rest of the CD is taken up with various clarinetists who generally do a good job, including Happy Caldwell, a mystery clarinetist who might have been Ernie Bullock or Jerry Blake, and Albert Nicholas, who is in much better form for these recordings than the ones from a year or so earlier. His tone is full and mellow--the sound we generally associate with his playing. His chalumeau solo on "Low Gravy" sounds particularly influenced by Jimmie Noone, and he's focused on even more on "Strokin' Away." "Blue Blood Blues" is perhaps the best of the bunch, beginning with a truly beautiful chalumeau melody, which seems to portend the chalumeau work of Acker Bilk and Terry Lightfoot some thirty and forty years later.

The disc is rounded out with two tunes featuring a mystery clarinetist of lesser quality, but the songs themselves ("Gambling Jack" and "Fickle Fay Creep") are well worth hearing.





Friday, January 20, 2017

Jelly Roll Morton 1928-29 (featuring Russell Procope, George Baquet, Albert Nicholas, & Barney Bigard) * CD 322 from JSPCD Jazzbox903 * Remastered by John R.T. Davies

When starting this blog over six years ago, I knew it would take a while before addressing recordings like these. The repertoire is important, because many of the tunes are great and the composer/bandleader was a giant of jazz, but the clarinet playing is generally bad and sometimes awful. My goal for this blog was (and remains) to build a substantial body of reviews demonstrating true greatness of clarinetists throughout the various eras. Unfortunately, the overall recorded catalog of music that was created in the 1920s and 30s, which is arguably the most important era for the clarinet, was a bit indiscriminate as to the quality of players. Many of the greatest virtuosi (Jimmie Noone, Benny Goodman) were recorded right alongside some of the worst clarinetists ever documented in the studio. The poor players are almost universally flat, can't handle high notes especially, their tone is overwraught and weak from overblowing,  they break notes, their tonguing his ham fisted, their rhythm is bad, and unfortunately, they are too often copied as "authentic" by amateurs and doubling professionals alike.

While blues grittiness and pitch inflection are an essential part of playing jazz clarinet, an overall flat and flabby tone is not competent playing, no matter who is doing it. Neither Sidney Bechet nor Jimmie Noone played this way--their styles, while far apart in terms of timbre and instrumental approach, are worthy models of imitation. The same can be said of many Johnny Dodds recordings, such as the sides he cut with King Oliver. But Dodds, like many others, struggled at times with his pitch, and we should be honest about those moments. Now a word of caution: we shouldn't take this too far as no one plays spot on in tune, in a mechanical sense, every time. You can find plenty of examples of variable intonation, especially if you're tracking note to note, in any of the great players--including classical virtuosi who work within even more limited intonational parameters. But as a rule, the great players aren't sagging consistently below pitch, or riding a quarter tone sharp either.

This collection demonstrates the big step down in clarinetistry in Jelly Roll Morton's bands after the initial recordings with Omer Simeon and Johnny Dodds. A young Russell Procope (who had improved somewhat by the time he played with Ellington) plays flat on December 6, 1928's "Red Hot Pepper" and his solo on "Deep Creek Blues" is a real disappointment for such a beautiful tune. We can only imagine what a player like Noone or Bechet would have done.

By July 9, 1929, Procope had been replaced by George Baquet, who isn't any better. His clarinet is particularly bad on the out chorus of "Burnin' the Iceberg" and haunts "Courthouse Bump" and "Pretty Lil" from the same date as well. His intonation is so bad it sounds almost like a drunken parody at times. His low level playing continues on the next day's session, flabbing his way through a solo on "Sweet Aneta Mine" and sticking out horribly for his flatness on "New Orleans Bump (Monrovia)."

The torture continues on July 12, 1929, when Baquet rasps, flabs, and squeaks his way through "Down My Way", "Try Me Out", and "Tank Town Bump." I can't stress it enough: This is not 'authentic' jazz clarinet playing; it's just incompetent. Frankly, this sort of playing is unlistenable for any serious clarinetist, revealing that the standards for our very difficult instrument were sometimes poorly maintained on recordings, even by the most important band leaders. The clarinet playing is so bad the recordings would have better without a clarinet--and unfortunately, perhaps in part because of hideous performances like these, many bandleaders started deciding exactly that.

By November 13, 1929, Jelly Roll had replaced his clarinetist again, this time for a Red Hot Peppers session featuring Albert Nicholas, the childhood friend of Sidney Bechet who was to record successfully with him later in life. These recordings are not Nicholas's greatest recorded work by a long shot--he tends to be on the flat side, and his solos aren't great-- but he's at least a step up from the truly abysmal playing of Baquet.

Even Barney Bigard can't rescue this album, though his clarinet playing is better than most on the disc. The final four tunes, recorded on December 17, 1929, feature the Jelly Roll Morton Trio with Bigard on clarinet and Zutty Singleton on drums. Bigard struggles with his high clarion, altissimo intonation, and his attacks. Even though his ideas tend to be decent (he was a far more competent clarinetist at this point than anyone else on the Jelly Roll Morton sessions from these years) that really isn't saying much. His playing is excruciatingly out of tune on tunes like "Turtle Twist" and "My Little Dixie Home." This isn't good Bigard...it's actually embarrassingly bad for someone who was to play better (if inconsistently) in the future.

So why bother writing a review like this? Well, there are a couple of reasons. One of them is to say there have to be professional standards. If  a player can't handle the instrument on a basic level of musicianship, they can do real damage to the estimation of the instrument overall. Players like Buddy DeFranco and Artie Shaw routinely dismissed or disparaged the early New Orleans players, implying or openly saying they weren't important to the history of the instrument in jazz. If all anyone had heard were these Jelly Roll Morton sides, or some of the Hot Fives session where Johnny Dodds struggled with his intonation, this could be understood as an act of professional self preservation as much as anything else. This disc features such bad clarinet playing, it makes you want to go back in time with a saw and savagely adjust their barrels. But to dismiss all of New Orleans clarinet because of this would be terribly wrong. All one has to do (and should do) is listen to some Jimmie Noone as an antidote.

This disc earns a broken reed for clarinetists.


Thursday, January 19, 2017

Jimmie Noone with Kid Ory * 1944 * Essential Media Group CD (not numbered) * 2011 reissue

Last year, I stumbled across YouTube recordings of some of the very last performances of Jimmie Noone, from just weeks before he died in 1944, after joining Kid Ory's band on the Orson Welles Radio Show. Today, I'm happy to report that this CD reissue, with no liner notes or mention of the historical importance of the contents, appears to be a remastered collection of air checks dating from the last days of Jimmie Noone.

Jimmie's unique staccato technique and soaring altissimo are immediately identifiable on "High Society", though as I mentioned last spring, his playing of the 'test solo' suggests he might have been having trouble breathing at the time.

Though the cover says this is Noone with Kid Ory, I don't believe for a second that all of the tracks feature Jimmie on clarinet. The second track, "Sugar Foot Stomp" features a clarinetist who can only be considered incompetent compared to a master like Noone. The mystery clarinetist has a rough tone, plays out of tune, and is rhythmically far sloppier than Noone.  

Tracks 3, 4, and 5 feature Noone again on "Muskrat Ramble", "That's A Plenty" and "Panama Rag"--the only recordings of Noone on these standards, so far as I know. The lilting staccato, lightness of touch and velvety roundness of tone without sacrificing power are all there--that unique inimitable quality of Noone's distinctive Creole style. He doesn't take a 'solo chorus' on any of these, Ory opting for the band to remain with a polyphonic approach throughout. True lovers of this style will recognize that Jimmie is actually soloing the entire time, and while the rest of the band has its roughness (the lead trumpet is at times pretty poor), Jimmie is uniformly brilliant--showing an entirely different approach to this music than we often hear.

Track 6 is entitled "Jimmy's Blues" and is actually a version of "Tin Roof Blues. Noone isn't the clarinetist. Whoever it is, he was nowhere near the virtuoso of Noone. His tone is rougher, has none of the distinctive Noone style, and he plays flat. This is likely the clarinetist from "Sugar Foot Stomp." My guess is this was played as an homage to Noone after his passing.

Yet another clarinetist seems to be present on "Savoy Blues." The clarinetist's tone has more of that velvety quality we associate with Creole clarinet, including his altissimo and high clarion notes, but his technical figurations sound less like standard Jimmie Noone and in fact very much like Barney Bigard. Likewise with "Weary Blues." The soloing is very good, but if this is Noone, the soloing style is very different than any other recordings of his.

With "C'est L'Autre Can Can", we're perhaps back in the hands of a mystery clarinetist, but I wouldn't try to guess who. "Blues" sounds like it might indeed be Noone again...but perhaps not.

The transfers on this disc aren't the best quality, and the lack of notes and/or clarity about the personnel make this it bit frustrating, but to have several of the very last performances of Jimmie Noone commercially available at all makes up for most of the frustrations. The search for an audiophile level remaster of these (and more if they exist), with good historical information on the performances remains, but until those are available, Jimmie Noone fans will definitely want this disc.  



   

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Johnny Dodds by G.E. Lambert * A.S. Barnes & Co. * 1961

That this slim paperback volume, only 88 pages total, put out as part of Barnes & Co's Perpetua "Kings of Jazz" series in 1961, is the only book length study we have of Johnny Dodds, might seem monumentally depressing if not for a couple of facts: First, sad as it might be to say, it's more than we have for Jimmie Noone. Second, while its brevity is disappointing, the content is solid and interesting.

Chapter One give a brief seventeen page outline of Dodds's life and career. Lambert discusses the racial divide in the New Orleans of Dodds's youth, with two distinct musical styles developing: one Uptown, where the black [ or "Negro"] community developed a more blues-based music, the other Downtown which favored more refined Creole orchestras. [pg 4]. Dodds operated between the two communities. As Lambert put it "Dodds himself was a Negro...but by this time a degree of mixing was standard in New Orleans bands. For example, when Johnny took his first full time professional engagement, it was with Kid Ory's band; Ory is [sic] a Creole from La Place, a small town ear New Orleans, who first brought his band into the city in 1913."

In 1920, Dodds replaced Jimmie Noone in King Oliver's Creole Orchestra in Chicago, where he entered the most noted part of his career. The roaring '20s were to be the decade in which Johnny made his mark, recording classics with King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Jelly Roll Morton. And while some of his work from the 1930s, when he was leading bands himself, might feature even more definitive solos for clarinetists to study, it's his work from the '20s that will undoubtedly remain the most famous.

Dodds remained in Chicago even after the center of gravity for jazz shifted to New York in the 1930s, and like so many of his generation of New Orleans style players, his contribution was too quickly neglected. Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as Sidney Bechet, Edmond Hall, Louis Armstrong, and Barney Bigard, he didn't live long enough to get a second wind with the New Orleans revival starting in the 1940s. As Lambert puts it:

"The biography of Johnny Dodds is a tragic one, rising through his quick success in New Orleans, on to the triumphant years in Chicago with the Oliver band, and the many fine recordings he made while leading his own group at Kelly's Stables, only to fade suddenly into the twilight obscurity of the last ten years of his life. He was admired by all the musicians who heard him in the early days--even Benny Goodman, a musicians far removed in style and temperament, has said that he never heard anyone get a finer tone out of the clarinet than Johnny Dodds--while the majority of his 1920 recordings are numbered among the ageless classics of jazz." [pg 16]

Lambert's analysis of Dodds's playing is keen and sensitive to fluxuations and changes throughout Chapter Two, which deals with the recordings.

In the third and final Chapter, the author offers his assessment of Dodds's contribution to jazz, and some of the points he makes are so profound, it's surprising and gratifying that anyone was publishing them in 1961. For example, when discussing the solo breaks Dodds made on the King Oliver recordings, Lambert points out:

"Almost any of the breaks by Oliver or by Dodds on these records are as perfected rhythmically as anything in later jazz, but the emphasis and the style were different, and unless we realize this we cannot help but fall into the error of constantly undervaluing the work of the New Orleans musicians. They were not simply pioneers whose place in jazz history was to pave the way for Louis Armstrong and his successors, but men with a fully developed and valid way of playing. It is true that an approach to this sort of jazz can be made neither with the techniques of the European academy, nor if one wishes to find in jazz a pleasant appendage to European culture." [pg 66-67]  

These observations are no less relevant today then when they were first published. Although it is a very slim volume, it's filled with such insights, pointing towards a reconsideration of this remarkable musician and his playing.

Fortunately for us, it will continue to be available for the foreseeable future, as Amazon now offers it in Kindle format.

Sidney Bechet with Noble Sissle 1931-1938

After the brilliance of Sidney Bechet's playing on the recordings with the Clarence Williams Blue 5, his releases with Noble Sissle and His Orchestra in 1931 are a disappointment. Relegated mostly to section playing on baritone sax, there is little to hear beyond the occasional eight or twelve bar solo during competent (but decent) commercial dance arrangements.

Despite this, the increasing public demand for big bands must have made the stability of such gigs attractive, and Bechet returned to the studio with Noble Sissle and His International Orchestra in 1934. There's nothing bad about the arrangements; the band sounds good enough, especially when compared to similar outfits from the early '30s, but Bechet was a bad fit in this sort of music, and for the most part seems disinterested even in the brief solo passages he's given. An artist like Bechet was just never meant to be used as filler between a vocalist and an arrangement. If he was a basketball player, he'd be described as a "volume shooter" or one "needing the ball in his hands." Musically he was a point guard, rather than a center. On this set, even his more inspired playing on "Polka Dot Rag" seems out of place. This didn't stop him from continuing, however, fully into the Swing Era, and it didn't stop Sissle from featuring him on numbers. 

Considering the great success of Benny Goodman after 1935, it is somewhat surprising to hear Bechet still on soprano sax for his solos on tunes such as 1936's "You Can't Live in Harlem." With all of the band's forces at work, the soprano has difficulty distinguishing itself timbrally, and however good Bechet's solo, he doesn't soar the way Benny could in an eight bar break, or how he himself could in a small ensemble context. If nothing else, recordings like these can help us recognize the comparative brilliance of Goodman in similar orchestral circumstances, demonstrating how difficult it is to musically succeed in them. The one occasion Bechet seems properly used comes on their final orchestral recording with him on "Dear Old Southland" where he's given a bravura introduction and multiple choruses. Working within an arrangement that fits his playing better, we're given us a tantalizing glimpse of what could of been, had his talents been better showcased in this large ensemble setting. 

Perhaps inspired by the success of combos such as the Goodman Quartet, by 1937 Noble Sissle seems to have realized small group work would be worth pursuing with Bechet, and the results were far more interesting. Of the six sides that were recorded by "Noble Sissle's Swingsters" and "Sidney "Pops" Bechet with Noble Sissles Swingsters" in 1937 and '38, five were written or co-written by Bechet, and several of them are important examples of Bechet's work as a player and composer. "Okey Doke" and "Characteristic Blues" are chock full of clarinet blues techniques and, on the latter, even a High Society 'test solo' quote, rounded off with a glissando. Sidney seems far more relaxed and in his element, able to stretch and give fuller range to his musical thought. Likewise, "Viper Mad", "Blackstick", and "When the Sun Sets Down South (Southern Sunset)" are good examples of his work from this era.    
  
So what are we to make of the Noble Sissle era? We can be grateful that the bandleader kept Bechet employed and active in music, documented on recordings, and that he eventually decided to record to his great soloist's strengths. While the lion's share of the recordings with Sissle aren't representative of Bechet's importance or brilliance, there are few, especially from the last sessions, which no student of Bechet would want to miss.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers (featuring Omer Simeon and Johnny Dodds) 1926-27 * CD 321 from JSPCD Jazzbox903 * Remastered by John R.T. Davies

[This review covers the first disc of the five CD JSP boxed set of Jelly Roll Morton remasters by John R.T. Davies.]

If you've listened to a lot of early jazz before checking this out, the first thing you recognize is just how good the band is. In terms of ensemble playing, the colors of the instruments and how they are used by Morton are just as good as it gets. The Red Hot Peppers are as hot as the best King Oliver and Louis Armstrong recordings, while the colors and subtlety of tone are as good as the bands of Bix and Tram. The compositions are second to none, being the work of one off the greatest composers of any genre in the first half of the 20th century. The featured clarinetists are Omer Simeon and Johnny Dodds (with some help from Barney Bigard).

Omer Simeon, who was once called the "unsung hero" of the jazz clarinet by Barney Bigard, takes the clarinet part for the very first set, recorded in Chicago on September 15, 1926, demonstrating his excellent control of the horn and music on "Black Bottom Stomp", "Smoke-House Blues", and "The Chant." These tunes really show a depth of orchestrational ideas, ensemble sensitivity,  and formal innovation not often matched in jazz, and Simeon is a perfect fit.

Someday Sweetheart has one of the earliest (if not the first) jazz bass clarinet solo, also by Omer Simeon. Omer's tone is much more beautiful than many post-bop bass clarinet solos we hear these days. Those who play this instrument ought to have an honest sound concept--strong, balanced, rich-- and this Simeon solo is a great place to start.

Simeon's playing is also on display in his breaks to open "Doctor Jazz": he then adds a clever solo made memorable by his four bar whole notes. When it comes time to trade licks the blow over the ride out chorus and breaks, Simeon shows himself once again to be one of the top clarinetists of the '20s.

"Cannon Ball Blues" is a great example of ensemble color and balance once again, the group communally composing and highlighting the well directed arrangement. There is something natural about this band--it doesn't strain at the music or at expression, but simply goes about its business creating a thoroughly satisfying blues, like late afternoon sunlight on a front porch. Sometimes it's important to just be in the music, rather than trying to say anything. Recordings like these are a perfect antidote for the cult of overwrought self expression.

The first of the Red Hot Peppers recordings featuring Johnny Dodds is called "Hyena Stomp", and the difference in the band is immediately felt. Less genteel than Simeon, more aggressive in his overall sound concept, a tune featuring rhythmic guffawing seems a great way to introduce him. Yet even with all of that, Dodds seems much more at home and relaxed in the Red Hot Peppers than in the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Sevens. In fact, perhaps because of Jelly Roll's dictum that an ideal jazz performance should be "sweet, soft, plenty of rhythm", Dodds is able to show a wider range of artistry and emotion. And for all their entertaining novelty qualities, none of Jelly Roll's numbers really descend into typical novelty shallowness. Instead, they seem like emotional or biographical vignettes. "Billy Goat Stomp" is another perfect example. There is actually something beautiful in this minor key tune and the subtle colorations of the band, amidst the bleating effects!

Of all the tunes he recorded, few are as closely associated with Johnny Dodds as "Wild Man Blues." He cut it no less than three times--the first on May 7, 1927 with the Louis Armstrong Hot Seven, the second just a few weeks later with Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers on June 4, 1927, and the third over a decade later, with himself as leader of Johnny Dodds and his Chicago Boys, paradoxically recorded in New York City on January 21, 1938. To compare and contrast the three is instructive. My favorite is last one, as he gives himself the melody and shows his range of soulful talking style on it. Of the two earlier recordings from 1927, I prefer the Red Hot Peppers to the Hot Sevens, but any way you cut it, it's a a special treat to hear the same man playing the clarinet parts in two important ensembles, just weeks apart.

"Jungle Blues" is another tune that uses effects but entirely avoids 'novelty' or faux-exoticism.  Thanks to the gentle balance of Morton's rhythm section, Johnny is really allowed to sing, giving us the beauty of his tone shining through all his soulful figurations.

The grittier, rougher Dodds chalumeau is on display for "Beale Street Blues," and his section playing is lively and confident on that remarkable, complicated tune, "The Pearls."
 
The last two  tracks on this album--"Wolverine Blues" and "Mr Jelly Lord"-- are taken from a session recorded in Chicago on June 10, 1927, and are of particular importance to jazz clarinetists, as they present the Dodds brothers as a trio with Jelly Roll Morton. Aside from their own musical qualities, they set precedent for the Benny Goodman trio eight years later, which was to blossom into the Goodman Quartet and Sextet; perhaps the most important work of Benny's career. Dodds is impressive throughout, grooving grittily but fleetly through "Wolverine Blues" and with that special sense of laid back, in the pocket rhythm he had on "Mr. Jelly Lord." The relaxed, perfect counterpoint between Morton and Dodds is a fitting way to end this collection, which moves from surprise to surprise and strength to strength.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Sidney Bechet & The Clarence Williams Blue Five * 1923-1925

Accidents of history are a strange thing, but sometimes all we know hinges on them. Had Sidney Bechet not gotten deported from England in 1922, for instance, we might legitimately wonder how long it might have taken for him to make studio recordings, and whether his influence on the likes of a young Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong would ever have taken place. Shortly after his deportation, he was hired by pianist and composer Donald Heywood as part of a traveling show called How Come. It was while on tour with this show that the young Duke Ellington heard him in Washington D.C., an experience that Duke recalled for the rest of his life.

"I have never forgotten the power and imagination with which he played," Duke said of the experience. [Chilton, pg.56] In 1962, Ellington was to expand upon this, saying:

"Yes, there were some very good Lester Young imitators. Lester was one of the very potent influences. Charlie Parker had plenty of imitators. Johnny Hodges too. And there was a time when there was hardly a tenor player in the world who didn't try to sound like Coleman Hawkins. But we mustn't leave out the greatest--Bechet! The greatest of all the originators, Bechet, the symbol of jazz! [...] I consider Bechet the foundation. His things were all soul, all from the inside. It was very, very difficult to find anyone who could really keep up with him. He'd get something organized in his mind while someone else wass playing, and then he'd play one or two choruses--or more--that would be just too much."  [Stanley Dance, The World of Duke Ellington, 10]  


Listening to the first recordings of Sidney Bechet immediately after hearing the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band recordings of 1923 or Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens, while paying attention to the timeline, is a revolutionary experience for anyone raised on standard histories. Many year ago, when I finally discovered Bechet for myself, my reaction as a clarinetist and soprano sax player, was simply that trumpet and cornet players must have had the greatest PR agencies on earth working for them to lay any claim to originating jazz solo style! I mean no disrespect to the great Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, or the others, but I can't hear how much any of what that they did, conceptually, hadn't been mastered by Bechet long before they added to it.

I don't really have the time to do an analysis of these important recordings, so will refer readers interested in further analysis to John Chilton's important study: Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz. Oxford University Press. NY: 1987. Here let me just mention some highlights as I see them:

There is a pride of place to "Wild Cat Blues", as it's our first Bechet recording and the first great jazz saxophone on record.

"Kansas City Man" shows a fully formed blues soloist: we don't need to hear him grow into the music or go through and apprenticeship phase.

"Achin' Heart Blues" documents a clarinet soloist more advanced than either Johnny Dodds or Leon Roppolo.

"Shreveport Blues" is not only a demonstration of Bechet's mastery of lyric playing, but his double time figurations behind the cornet aren't the sort we hear other players struggling to master: he already has the music entirely within his scope and is comfortably throwing down exactly what he wants.

His lightening runs behind the melody in "Old Fashioned Love" are all musically substantial and emotionally relevant -- in this way he stands out in contrast to other flashy players, including Frankie Trumbauer and Jimmie Noone on some of their virtuosic choruses.

On "House Rent Blues" he builds perfectly balanced solo through interconnected triplet breaks. On "Mean Blues" he shows his lyrical ability to create a counter melody more interesting than the original. I can't stress enough how superior he seems to compared to everyone else out there at the time these were made. The listener remains glued to his lines no matter who is playing the lead at the time. Perfect variation after variation unfolds until the end.

"Texas Moaner Blues" features his first work with a young Louis Armstrong, this time on clarinet and soprano sax. His solo concept is clearly far in advance of Armstrong at this point, and Satch seems to have learned a lot, when we check out later recordings.  

Bechet's next recording was backing blues singer Sippie Wallace on "Off and On Blues." His clarinet is rich,  powerful, and his blues fills and choruses are perfectly conceived.

On "Mandy Make Up Your Mind" we get a little soprano sax work comping, but the big solo is taken by Bechet on sarrusophone! And it sounds great!

On the last of the early Armstrong/Bechet sessions, "I'm a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird", it is once again Bechet who is the true soloist in the band, building a commentary of baroque ornamentation around Armstrong's statements of the theme, and motivic response to the vocal chorus.

According to Fabrice Zammarchi's notes to  The Complete American Masters of Sidney Bechet, the last two Clarence Williams Blue Five sessions were behind vocalists on January 8, 1925. They feature typical accompaniment by Bechet and tasteful solos.

Shortly after this era, Bechet returned to Europe and wasn't documented again on American records for several years of the important roarin' '20s, which fixed the canon in many jazz fans' minds. We can be grateful that Clarence Williams took the opportunity to showcase his talents between 1923-1925, or history might have lost perspective on the man Ellington considered the foundation and eptiome of jazz itself.

Victor Goines * Untamed Elegance Suite * 2016

The history of jazz is shockingly compressed: while it took European 'classical' music centuries to move from baroque polyphony through gallant and romantic styles to modernism, jazz compressed it all into a big bang of a couple of decades. Because of that, if instead of always searching for the next "new thing", we go back and re-investigate these styles, we'll paradoxically find there is much more "new" work to be done, with plenty left to reach audiences.
Victor Goines' new Untamed Elegance Suite is a great example. Here's a movement entitled "Laboratories of Ideas." The tune sounds like vintage Jelly Roll Morton era writing, with a catchy melody and section parts, but it's original. The solos, while fitting into the context of the style, also make use of language developed through the bop era--so we're not talking about "historical performance" or getting back to a recreation of early jazz, but contribution to a living tradition. This is the sort of thing I've been working on in my own compositions and soloing style for several years, although on a small group level. So far, I have preferred as much ensemble improvisation as possible, deriving directly from the New Orleans polyphonic concept and going up through modern contexts, but Goines' work suggests a great way forward in larger contexts as well.

I encourage people to check out this exciting new work. 


Thursday, January 12, 2017

Louis Armstrong * The Hot Fives and Sevens * remastered by John R.T. Davies 1991/2007 * JSP Records * JSP100

[ Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens sessions are deservedly considered among the most important jazz cornet and trumpet recordings of all time. Over the course of these recordings, Armstrong revolutionized brass soloing, and study of these four CDs worth of material is not only a pleasure, but everyone interested in jazz history. What follows in this post is not, however, a discussion of Armstrong's contribution so much as a summary of the clarinetists and their contribution to these recordings. ES ]



Before picking up this box set of reissues, meticulously remastered by John R.T. Davies, my CD collection was limited to the Columbia remasters from the late 1980s. Those recordings weren't without their charm, and there is a warmth to the Columbia Masterworks approach that I enjoyed for many years. One of the first things I noticed about Davies's work, though, after its directness of sound, were the key changes of some of the performances. The Columbia Masterworks version of "Lonesome Blues" was in B. This is course highly unlikely, but as it was one of the first solos I'd transposed, I never questioned it until hearing the Davies remasters in the more sensible key of Bb. I haven't gone through these recordings with a fine toothed comb to discover all of the key differences, but would bet Davies's choices turn out to be the more accurate ones.


The Hot Fives 1925-1926 (Disc A)

Despite his work as a bandleader, and many other examples as a distinguished sideman, the original Hot Fives and Hot Sevens sessions are probably the recordings most people associate with Johnny Dodds. This can be a blessing and a curse. On the blessing side, these cuts really do demonstrate his unique tenacity, soul, drive, and creativity. Those are big pluses. On the curse side, for one reason or another, they didn't capture Dodds's often rich, deep sound particularly well, and on some sides (particularly from the first session in 1925) he struggled to keep up to pitch. These recordings have been considered so representative that some writers have even suggested Dodds's vibrato tended to function below the pitch as a rule. I'm not sure this is true, and if we listen to all of his other recordings (especially the sound he produced on the King Oliver sessions in 1923),we hear a fuller, more in tune Dodds. It has been said that Dodds disliked the recording studio and distrusted microphones. Considering how much of an acoustical challenge it is to record a clarinet, and that the focal point of these sessions was Armstrong rather than Dodds, we shouldn't rush to judgement on the subject of his sound. As far as the pitch is concerned,  perhaps at times Dodds was overblowing to compensate for balance against an open cornet rather than the muted recordings of the Oliver band. All caveats aside, however,  Dodds was far greater, in terms of intonation, control, and content, than his immediate successor in the Hot Fives and Sevens, Jimmy Strong ( heard on Disc C).

Throughout all of the Hot Five sessions on Disc A, Dodds's ensemble figurations are solid, as usual. On "Don't Forget to Mess Around" he takes solos on both alto sax and clarinet, moving well between the instruments. Immediately after that,  on "I'm Gonna Gitcha", Dodds flashes his hot tempo soloing style. For those not impressed with Dodds's technique, or who consider him an especially rough player (including many respected modern jazz players), I'd just point out that the types of figurations here (common in his playing) aren't really that easy. His clarinet chorus on "Dropping Shucks" is relaxed, vintage Dodds. "Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa" show off his bluesy howling, and maybe the top highlight of the first disc is Johnny's heartfelt statement of the melody for "Lonesome Blues," setting the table perfectly for Satch's vocal.

The Hot Sevens and Fives 1927 (Disc B)

The sound quality on this disc is even better than Disc A, and seems more accurate, with less need to imagine what the players might have really sounded like. Having said that,  Dodds's tone is still pretty harsh compared to some recordings before and after these sessions.  May of 1927 was a big month for the band, though, as some of the most enduring numbers they recorded came between the 7th and the 14th. The band is in full, swinging, comfortable sound on "Willie the Weeper" and "Wild Man Blues" with Dodds taking a gritty solo on the latter with plenty of talking quality and double time flashes.

After this is a brief interlude for "Chicago Breakdown" of May 9th, with a large group that included Earl Hines on piano, and Boyd Atkins on clarinet, soprano sax, and alto sax (his solo chorus is on soprano).

The next sessions took place between May 10 and 14, 1927, Johnny Dodds announcing his return to the band with a "rip-your-head-off" blues statement on "Alligator Crawl." He's enthusiastic on all of these numbers, including "Potato Head Blues", "Melancholy Blues", "Weary Blues" (where he gets breaks similar in style to those he played so often with King Oliver), "12th Street Rag" and others. Finally, with the September and December sessions of 1927,  Dodds's sound is more reminiscent of his playing with King Oliver or afterwards as a bandleader--more mellowness and richness added to the raw power--and despite the harshness of the earlier tracks, these recordings from 1927 seem to me the zenith of Dodds's work in Armstrong's band.  


1928-29 (Disc C)

Armstrong's brilliance continues on Disc C, which begins with a reformation of the Hot Five in Chicago in June and July of 1928. Pops's vocabulary continues to grow, but the Johnny Dodds era was over, and he was replaced by Jimmy Strong, whose playing didn't live up to Dodds's. Strong's sound was flabby in comparison, and his playing was flat. His sloppiness on "Fireworks" highlighted the difficulties he had as a clarinetist. Even when outlining arpeggios competently (as on "A Monday Date"), he was uniformly bad sounding and flat in pitch. Oftentimes young players will hear recordings like these, because they happen to be classics of the genre thanks to the brilliance of Armstrong and Earl Hines, and wrongly think that this sort of clarinet playing was considered great in its day as well--that this was the way a jazz clarinetist was supposed to sound. One of the reasons I'm writing this post, though, is to point out, gently,  that it just isn't true. This is just bad clarinet playing, no matter how you cut it. Johnny Dodds (especially on other recordings where he was recorded better), Sidney Bechet,  Jimmie Noone, Leon Roppolo, and others from the era were the standard bearers, and players like Strong ought to be understood as really poor quality in comparison.

Don Redman took over the clarinet duties (as well as alto sax) for a session under the name of Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five, in Chicago on December 5, 1928. His clarinet work is confined to a few long tones underlining the melody in "Save It, Pretty Mama" and some clarion figurations on the final statement of the theme, opting to solo on the alto otherwise.

Redman and Strong combine forces for another weak overall clarinet performance on the December 12th date. Armstrong seemed unwilling to give either of them extended clarinet solos by this point, so only their ensemble playing is left. Even on "St James Infirmary", a good tune for clarinetists, the clarinet is left mostly to pre-arranged parts, with only the occasional strained and out of tune altissimo yelp. The post-Dodds era was, overall, really disappointing for clarinetist
The Fourth disc of this set is a bit beyond the bounds of what was advertised. None of the groups go by the name of Hot Fives or Sevens, and most of the tracks are from the era of Louis Armstrong leading an orchestra of larger size, with a saxophone section patterned after Guy Lombardo's, so there is little specifically for the jazz clarinetist. An era had ended, and the Hot Fives and Sevens were now a part of music history. Johnny Dodds's contribution has remained a lasting legacy and influence because of them, but players who have come to him through these recordings should look for his other recordings with King Oliver, and leading his own band, where they will find even more dimensions to his art.

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.

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.    

The Hot Club returns to BLU Jazz +

We're thrilled to be returning to a tradition we helped start last year: the 2nd Annual Bash at BLU Jazz+ hosted by Eric Seddon's Hot Club! This year, we're paying special tribute to the great Pete Fountain, "Mr. Mardi Gras" himself. Other than my originals, all the tunes will be those recorded by the late New Orleans jazz clarinet master--making BLU once again the hottest spot north of NOLA on Mardi Gras!
The band will include:
Eric Seddon on clarinet
George Foley on piano
Jim Davis on Cornet
Kevin Richards on guitar
Gene Epstein on upright bass
Bill Fuller on drums

Buy your tickets while there are still some available! 


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Stan Hasselgard on JazzWax

There is an interesting and informative article over on Marc Myers' "JazzWax" blog about the short life, tragic death, and odd times of Swedish jazz clarinetist and shooting star Stan Hasselgard. Myers asks how great Stan was, and how great he might have been. My opinion has always been that Hasselgard would have been the premier bop clarinetist going forward, because he sound was so much better than his contemporaries--he retained the full, relaxed sound of the great swing era players without falling into the pinched, overly refined and locked in classical thing...and the public has shown over and over again that they prefer that big relaxed sound (a la Pete Fountain, Artie Shaw, et al).
Myers brings up the point that Hasselgard couldn't read music and was self taught...but I don't think these hurdles are as large as critics sometimes think. It didn't hold Django back, and there are many stories of jazz musicians learning theory/how to read later in the game (Gene Krupa, Art Pepper, and others). I think Stan would have caught up...he was a fine player with an obviously incredible ear. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Nick Fatool (January 2, 1915-September 26, 2000)

The history of jazz clarinet is in many ways linked to the history of jazz drumming. When we think of Benny Goodman, we almost automatically think of Gene Krupa, Artie Shaw is linked with Buddy Rich, and Jack Sperling comes to mind on so many of Pete Fountain's classic albums. Beyond that, the interaction between Buddy DeFranco and Art Blakey on 'Mr. Clarinet', and Bill Smith with the likes of Shelly Manne and Joe Morello are enjoyable and instructive to anyone who is a fan of great ensemble playing. Really, because of the dynamic range of a drumset, the choice of drummer is essential for a clarinetist, and I was even warned as a young player to choose wisely once I became a band leader.

The drummer in my current band, Bill Fuller, is of a drumming lineage that stretches back through his father to the days of early jazz in Cleveland. His dad even gigged in University Circle with a teenage Artie Shaw when that clarinet master was learning his trade here. The first gig I played with Bill, a few years back, he mentioned to me on a set break that, while he'd idolized Joe Morello as a teenager, he'd soon grown to consider Nick Fatool an ideal jazz drummer. "The other players in the band play for the audience, but the drummer should play for the band: he should be the ultimate facilitator," was how Bill summed it up that night, and he felt Nick Fatool was the best example of that approach.

While Fatool is less well known to the general population than Krupa or Rich, it's significant that some of the very best and most important jazz clarinet recordings were made with him backing the band. Artie Shaw's first classic Gramercy 5 recordings were made with Fatool on the skins, and to see him in action, you can check out the classic film Second Chorus. Later in his career, he backed up Pete Fountain on several classic albums, so his contribution to the history of jazz clarinet recordings actually spanned a couple of different generations.

I also encourage folks to check out "Special Delivery Stomp" to hear this understated drum master's brush work.

Happy 102nd birthday, Nick Fatool!