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BOOK: Jazz Puzzles Volume 2 - Riverboat Jazz. By Dan Vernhettes with Bo Lindstrom. Large softbound 248pp, profusely illustrated. Jazz’edit. ISBN 9782953483147. Available from www.jazzedit.org €40 plus €10 postage.
Although the old theory that jazz moved north from New Orleans by the riverboats on the Mississippi after the closing of Storyville in 1917 has long been known to be only part of the story, no-one can deny the importance of the river in disseminating the music throughout the States. Neither can the influence that the musicians had, who played on the riverboats, particularly those boats of the Streckfus line, be underrated.
As a follow-up to their excellent book Jazz Puzzles which concentrated on musicians from New Orleans, in Volume 2 messrs. Vernhettes and Lindstrom present studies of eleven personalities from New Orleans, St. Louis and elsewhere who spent a significant portion of their creative lives working on the riverboats. The first one we meet is, not unpredictably, Fate Marable from Paducah, Kentucky, a musician who spent more of his life on the river than perhaps any other. In the thirty-odd pages devoted to him his life and musical career are treated, along with the musicians he employed and his exacting methods of managing them. Working with Marable was known as ‘going to the Conservatory’ and reading these pages you can see why. As one musician put it, “You never had a spell playing with Marable without leaving a better musician.”
Before we learn anything about Marable, however, the first part of the chapter gives us an insight into the Streckfus family itself, their steamboats and an in-depth study of the business organisation and their policy towards, and control of, the bands that they employed. Also included are “mini-biographies” of some of the musicians who worked with Marable such as violinist Emil Flindt, pianist Charles Wentzell Mills (later of Versatile 3/4 fame) and trombonist George Brashear.
This pattern of presenting small asides on personalities associated with the main subject is continued throughout the book and helps to give more of a flavour of the atmosphere of the times under discussion. After Marable comes Louis Armstrong whose life is studied up to 1922 when he went to Chicago to join King Oliver. Here we learn of the conditions and business activities of the Jewish immigrants to New Orleans, particularly the Karnofskys who befriended Armstrong; Peter Davies and the Waifs’ Home; and the people Louis encountered in his work in New Orleans such as the Matrangas and the Machecas (there is almost two pages on the Sicilian Mafia) and Tom Anderson of Storyville fame. Armstrong’s three trips with Marable, accompanied by “Baby” Dodds are described and it was during these that he learnt to read music properly, guided by the next subject of the book: multi-instrumentalist and teacher, David Jones.
In the chapter on Charlie Creath the St. Louis ragtime scene of Tom Turpin, Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin is described, as is the local musical organisations Creath was involved with, and the workings of the Musicians’ Unions. The careers of Creath’s fellow Missourian Dewey Jackson, Sidney Desvigne and Armand Piron are described in detail as is the long career of Oscar Celestin and that of Sam Morgan and his brothers.
The penultimate chapter deals with the tragically short life of cornetist Emmett Hardy with excursions into the world of the Shimmy Queens Bee Palmer, Gilda Gray and Mae Murray, and Hardy’s friends the Boswell Sisters. The book finishes with a relatively brief look at the New Orleans Creole cornetist/trumpeter Peter Bocage.
The level of research that has gone into this work is awe-inspiring and the presentation of all the information is excellent verging on lavish. The book is large, measuring 28.3 x 25.9cms (approx. 11 1/8” x 10 ¼” in old money). The layout is three columns of print per page and the quality of the numerous illustrations, maps and photographs (many of which were new to this reader) is superb. There are some inconsistencies concerning some dates that appear more than once which I suspect is due to using more than one source and not checking them off against each other. Sam Morgan’s brother Albert becomes Herbert at one point; and the birth dates of Martha and Vet Boswell are wrong, making Connie the eldest sister rather than Martha. And, strangely, the very comprehensive index is arranged alphabetically by first name rather than by surname, hence Joe Oliver is found under J and Sam Morgan under S, etcetera. These quirks are of little significance, however, and in no way detract from the overall quality of the work.
This is a worthy and magnificent companion to the first volume of Jazz Puzzles and should be on the shelves of every reader of VJM.
BOOK: WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD. The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years. Ricky Riccardi. Pantheon Books. ISBN 978-0-307-37844-6 360pp, hardbound and softbound. Available on www.amazon.com from $15.39 paperback and $31.02 hardbound.
Anyone who has logged on the Louis Armstrong Museum Facebook page has come to know the indefatigable energy of the author regarding everything Louis. That means everything. From his tape-recorded diaries, his letters, films and, of course, his many recordings, Armstrong literally left a house full of material by which to know him and Ricky Riccardi had access to all of it.
Of course, volumes upon volumes have been written about Louis’ pre-1935 recordings but the period covered by this book is often dismissed by critics who had regarded him as passé, a spent force or, worse, an Uncle Tom who reinforced negative Afro-American stereotypes. The author marshals all of the resources within the museum’s archive to refute all of these notions and to offer us a portrait of Louis Armstrong, the man. This is important because there are so many myths around musicians, Louis included, that knowing his private thoughts as he expressed them in his tape-recorded diaries gives us the truth – and this is especially critical as Louis and the rest of the USA grappled with enormous social changes.
The book begins in 1947 with Louis still fronting a large band and still very popular. But big bands were on the wane. In May of that year, he joined Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett and several others for a concert in New York’s Town Hall. Shortly thereafter, Louis Armstrong’s All Stars were born – the classic New Orleans line up but with a more up-to-date rhythm section. In the 22 years that followed, Armstrong became one of the world’s most beloved musicians, and entertainers. He worked almost non-stop, criss-crossing the globe so many times that he literally wore out a number of the musicians in his all stars. Some of his repertoire was set: Indiana, Tiger Rag and pop tunes like La Vie en Rose and Mack the Knife which set critics grumbling that he was through as a creative force and repeating himself continually, (Though I find it amusing that critics never complained that nearly every album Thelonious Monk recorded has the same set group of compositions … but I digress…).
At the same time, Armstrong regularly turned out recordings of pop material (Blueberry Hill, La Vie en Rose, That Lucky Old Sun, etc) backed by lush orchestrations instead of jazz arrangements, which further rankled critics.
As the 1950s progressed, the civil rights movement gathered steam in the US. Louis was taken to task for singing the word “darkies” in a remake of Sleepy Time Down South. But in private, Louis was not to be disrespected because of his race. The author relates how he nearly walked off the set of a movie, Glory Alley, over a racial slight from a studio underling.
The critics came back to his corner for a while after Louis teamed with George Avakian to record the landmark Louis Armstrong Plays WC Handy set. Then again with the Fats Waller album and one more time with Ambassador Satch. But trouble hit on the civil rights front: Louis publicly berated President Eisenhower over his early refusal to interfere in the Little Rock Arkansas school desegregation crisis. (Not long afterward, Eisenhower sent national guardsmen to protect black students going to that school). He also refused to play before segregated audiences in his hometown of New Orleans. Musicians, even some who’d later take a more militant stand, criticized him and his stance cost him a number of tours. But he stuck to his words.
Again, probing the man’s personal words on tape, Louis was a man who would literally bend over backwards to please his audience but take no crap from anyone who didn’t buy a ticket. He was immensely proud of who he was – his first trip to Ghana where he connected with African culture is fascinating—and immensely disappointed and hurt seeing his black audience fall away.
The book also deeply explores his sometimes-contentious relationship with his manager, Joe Glaser. Some have made Glaser into a modern day slavemaster who took Louis’ money and worked him to death. But the author, again drawing from Louis own private words, wanted to work as hard as he could and knew to let Glaser handle the business side so he could concentrate on his horn. Was the relationship perfect? No, but Louis said it brought him peace of mind. Put a price on that.
In the 1960s, Armstrong’s stamina began to ebb. He had been having recurring lip problems since the mid- ‘30s and always bounced back. But the recoveries were taking longer even as is popularity grew. His peak, of course, came in 1964 when his recording of Hello Dolly topped the Beatles and the following year when the song, which forms the title of this book, again put him in the Top Ten. Though he’d still have flashes of brilliance (like his 1970 TV appearance with Johnny Cash), he was struggling, culminating with his final appearance at the Waldorf-Astoria in May 1971, three months before his death.
There is so much to the book that this review cannot do it justice. It is far and away the best jazz biography I have ever read because we get to know Louis in all aspects of his big, wide life. He was an honest, admirable, profane and profound man. Don’t miss this book, although it will probably stay in print as long as Louis’ recordings.
RUSS SHORBOOK: A CITY CALLED HEAVEN. CHICAGO & THE BIRTH OF GOSPEL MUSIC. By Robert M. Marovich. 441pp Hardbound, Softbound and e-book. Pub. By University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-08069-2. www.press.uillinois.edu/
One of the many fascinating interviews that author Robert M. Marovich undertook for this splendid study was with the Barrett Sister’s own DeLois Barrett Campbell, She told the author... “I sang for Mahalia Jackson’s funeral. I sang for Thomas A. Dorsey’s funeral. I sang for Roberta’s funeral- of course, the group did for Roberta. I sang for Sallie Martin’s funeral. Theadore Frye. All of these are great writers and singers, and I had the privilege of singing for them – and just to think that at this age, 81, I still love to sing a good old gospel song… In Gospel you don’t make a lot of money. You don’t get rich. But I can say that the Lord has provided for me all that I needed.”
I think that those last couple of dozen words could be paraphrased about this book and its author.
I can’t see anybody getting rich writing about Gospel music – and I don’t think it should be too controversial to say that interest in this particular musical genus is of a relatively limited appeal -even to the average subscriber to VJM – but there is such a great fund of undiscovered music and history to reveal that when a magnificent study such as this comes along it deserves to be read and should join Anthony Heilbert’s Gospel Sound (can it really be forty four years since this was first published?) Robert Darden’s People Get Ready and a surprisingly small number of other authoritative works that are the essential histories of a truly inspirational music.
The use of Chicago in both the title and content I initially found slightly confusing – Gospel music was not born in Chicago – I’m not sure if it could ever be categorically stated exactly where it was born. I would also venture to say that the academic boundaries and actual musical definitions of what constitutes Gospel music could be as contentious as it sometimes is concerning Jazz and Blues. But Marovich chooses to use Chicago as a recording centre and feels that Gospel music was an artistic response to the great Migration at a time when thousands of southern African Americans migrated to the great City and he beautifully describes the tight knit gospel community that coalesced there - most evidently from the early 1930s.
While I don’t wish to (extend) the assimilation and transformation that has caused most of the absurd controversies in American musicology, my only real problem with this otherwise superlative study is its title and the lack of a real definition of the genre itself.
I reread the first chapters of this book (including the section headed “What Is Gospel Music?”) to find the answer as to whether there is/was any tangible difference between various sacred music’s and that specifically termed as ‘Gospel’ – with no joy. I would have loved to have read just how such an obvious expert and authority on the subject could simply describe the subtle differences to an agnostic such as me. But I’m afraid if it was there, I missed it.
And why, for instance in such a complete and exhaustive study, does a singer such as Washington Phillips accompanying himself on a Dulceola, recording and singing a song called I Was Born To Preach The Gospel not warrant a single entry in the index, while the Reverends McGee & D.C. Rice and others of the fire & brimstone variety, who often relinquished anything musical in favour of the pulpit sermon, warrant proper and equal attention?
If Gospel Music was not born in Chicago, then most of all recorded ‘race’ music was. The great Arizona Dranes is headed as the ‘first gospel recording artist’ and Marovitch rightly acknowledges his debt to the ground-breaking research made by Michael Corcoran that allows us all to know so much more about this superior and inspirational lady. I would still argue with those who site Dranes as ‘highly influential’ in any musical genre – she was not ‘well known’ in her time and her inimitable mixture of barrel house piano and ‘sacred ragtime’ - to say nothing of her Jerry Lee Lewis type performance antics – made her both a truly unique player and character.
Dranes’ detailed biog kicks off an avalanche of detail. Places and named artists from the most obscure (to all but the most dedicated aficionados) to the comparatively well known - from ‘pioneers’ like Thomas Dorsey (matching the professionalism that he showed in the secular world with Tampa Red and others) and the ever up-and-coming force of Sally Martin, to the architects of sacred music in transition like Charles Henry Pace (& his Jubilee Singers) to the groups that epitomised the generally accepted ‘soul sound’ that was generated up through the years by the The Famous Blue Jay Singers of Birmingham to the Soul Stirrers and the Sensational Nightingales.
But this is much more than potted biographies. Marovich is as enlightening with his detailed insights into the industry workings of Gospel’s lucrative music publishing business and the music’s development on radio (two specific studies that still remain neglected in parallel Jazz & Blues research) and the various churches in the City that developed particular groups.
The 1940s post war gospel Quartets- the first ‘rock stars of religious music’ - like the Pilgrim Jubilee Singers are well covered, as are others like The Kelly Brothers & North Fleet Brotherswho, I admit, were new to me, but the first-hand interviews and their placement in this history have prompted me to seek them, or more likely their recordings, out.
By the 1950s ‘The Gospel Caravan’ was in full motion and radio stations were devoting more & more time to sacred music. The recording industry had become ever more important to gospel artists than ever before and Marovich once again demonstrates his great skill as both researcher and interviewer as he uncovers the detail and lives unfold of the most obscure of subjects while relooking at the careers of relatively well documented ‘big names’ like Sister Rossetta Tharpe and Gospel’s ‘first family’, The Staples Singers.
Mahalia Jackson is headed – with much credibility – as “The World’s greatest Gospel Singer” and a look at her story and her involvement with the civil rights movement is given a fresh and affectionate retelling. Other legends within this genre, such as Roberta Martin and her equally famous singers are given due credits. It was Martin’s last recording date in September 1968 that marked the end of an era for many and at this point in history Marovitch quotes and endorses (to some extent) Jules Swerin’s statement that Mahalia Jackson’s death in the New Year of 1972 represented “the eclipse of Gospel’s golden age”. Marovitch conveniently finishes this impressive study at this time and place, declaring that the dominant “sacred expression of black modernity” thereafter would come not from Chicago but from the West coast.
I have to say that this book is far from an ‘easy’ read’ – (well not for me anyway!) There is so much to consider and digest – filled to its literary gunnels, this impeccably researched, crammed with detail (the last one hundred pages of this hefty work are allocated for the notes, bibliography & index!) and comprehensive study deserves to be on every music lovers shelves - particularly the serious student of African American non-secular music... or whatever you choose to call it.
CD: TRUMPETS FARM BLUES. Previously Unissued Classic Blues and Boogie Recordings by Little Brother Montgomery, Champion Jack Dupree, Speckled Red, & Memphis Slim. FROG DGF 82. www.frog-records.co.uk
This compilation is a departure from Frog’s usual offerings of 1920s jazz and blues, being drawn from the library of private tape recordings made by noted British collector Francis Smith of visitors to his farmhouse, Trumpets Farm.
Starting in the late 1950s, American bluesmen began visiting Great Britain and the rest of Europe. Francis Smith hosted some of them, especially the pianists, at his farm, named Trumpets, where they played for the host and in general had a good time. So here we have Little Brother Montgomery, Memphis Slim, Champion Jack Dupree, Roosevelt Sykes and Speckled Red at their informal best.
The notes tell the story that, for the first group of recordings in 1960, they had to wheel a clangy old piano from the village hall and then rent a tape recorder. The sound restorers who included Nick Dellow and Charlie Crump spent many hours restoring the tracks of these old tapes which the years do not treat well. But the results are well worth it.
Little Brother is in fine form. He was a virtual song archive, starting with the 1921 Home Again Blues, the 1944 R&B hit Who Threw The Whisky in the Well, and some instrumental blues in between.
Jack Dupree was an iconic New Orleans-born pianist and singer who influenced Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis but often subordinated his individuality to turn out standard blues and R&B recordings. Here, he’s at his natural best. London Special is an intense and poignant celebration over leaving the segregated Deep South for London where he’s greeted like a celebrity. To-Bac-Awa is a celebration of the New Orleans Indian clubs employing the Caribbean rhythm that Jelly Roll used to call ‘The Spanish Tinge.‘
Roosevelt Sykes, who recorded prolifically from 1929 through the mid-1980s, is on stage in Smith’s living room. He opens with the announcement that he made his first record for OKeh on Union Square and launches into a tearing rendition of 44 Blues. Then he tells his listeners that “some call this song the Cow Cow Blues, but I call it The Cannonball” and proceeds to deliver one of the most exciting piano blues you’ll hear for a long while.
Memphis Slim, who was one of the most prolific blues artists of the 1950s and 60s, is much closer to his earlier roots on these sessions, offering his own version of Cow Cow Blues and several extemporaneous blues.
Speckled Red was ailing and his offerings, while not quite as interesting as the others, are still well worth listening to, especially from a man who had not recorded since 1930.
There are many more hours of tapes from Trumpets Farm. Let’s hope they can squeeze some more reissues from this trove.
BOOK: JACK HYLTON. By Pete Faint. ISBN 978-1-326-06139-5. Published by the author, 272pp Hardbound, plus 90 pp. discography, indexes and references, £25.00. Available from www.jackhylton.com
Everybody has heard of him; almost all of us have had a few, some, or most of his records from the ‘early days’ through our hands at one time or another. But for most of us, that’s who he is; a bandleader who made records in the 1920s. Growing up in the UK after the war, you heard his name fairly regularly in the media, associated with one or another radio show or theatrical presentation, but again; we were kids and, until we ‘got the bug’ for our parents’ music, he was part of our parents’ world, and therefore, unworthy of discussion or further investigation.
This book throws open a door. There was this fellow from Bolton, a Northern town of Victorian terrace houses, back alleys and outside lavs, like those portrayed regularly in 60s ‘kitchen-sink’ TV dramas; of forelock-pulling and ‘trouble at t’mill,’ poverty and ignorance. He took piano lessons, moved with his family to Stalybridge, where he began to perform locally, wearing clogs, as ‘the Mill Boy,’ then went on the road with a travelling troupe, playing seaside resorts. From there, over the following six decades, he became internationally known, and one of the most successful and wealthy men in the European entertainment business.
This book is encyclopaedic in content. The author dedicated 22 years (as far as I can calculate) to the study of this diverse, interesting, self-absorbed, savvy, profligate, beatific, flawed human being, whose life he portrays with great candour, though he admits to keeping quiet about some aspects, out of deference to Hylton’s family.
It’s a fascinating read, like any story of amazing achievement in a spectacular career and the accumulation of worldly goods, big cigars and a series of exotic foreign cars. While I’m on the subject, he wasn’t afraid to shock on that score, driving a couple of Mercedes during the war years and upsetting his (presumably also wealthy and influential) neighbouring compatriots; incurring, incidentally, a series of citations for dangerous driving and speeding in them over the years.
Likewise, he had a taste for the birds and the other pecadillos of those whose travels take them far from home. That much one might expect, from one who seems to have been the ultimate extrovert. What comes, though, as news to me, is the immense respect he commanded both on the Continent and in the USA, as both a bandleader and impresario. An inveterate adventurer, he had the idea of a collaboration with Stravinsky, which eventually turned out to be a rotten idea, to the point that each eventually accused the other of having had it in the first place. He recorded in the USA, which I didn’t know. As he moved from leading his band to staging shows featuring first the band, then variety acts, then theatrical musical productions, he gave a start to dozens of acts at the bottom of the ladder, where he himself had been decades before, one of whom was Arthur Askey, and another, more on my personal early radar: Morecambe and Wise.
He guested on American armed forces’ broadcasts with Glenn Miller, just before Miller’s loss in the Channel in 1944. He engaged Beniamino Gigli on tours of the UK, after the war, and made him a household word. He had the lease for the Adelphi, one of London’s finest theatres, from 1943 until his estate disposed of it, in 1984. He merchandised a range of Jack Hylton juke boxes. He ‘rescued’ bankrupt friends, gave away cars, kept women ‘on the side’ even though he married and remarried with some regularity. He was larger than life, and he was from Bolton. Who knew?
The book, as I say, has a detailed and intimate approach to a man of whom I had really only ever previously seen a single facet; so for those who like success stories of musical and entertainment interest, coupled with material of the kind that used to be published in the News of the World when I was a kid, you probably can’t put it down.
Any objections? There are (for me) distracting sidebars in the narrative, where the chronological account stops dead and a multi-page chapter is devoted to myriad gobbets concerning ‘other players;’ such as biographies of contemporary bandleaders, or members of Hylton’s bands, or later, other impresarios. The other one I have comes from the point of view of a pedant linguist. It’s that I am jarred by simple errors of grammar and orthography in a book that costs good money; and yes, there a good few to be had here. Now, admittedly, most people find this boring and tell me to get a life, but I’m stuck with a proofreader’s eye and a critical nature.
Otherwise, no complaints.
2 CD SET: SIDNEY BECHET: ‘Four Classic Albums.’ Bechet with Claude Luter and others 1949-1951. 2CDs, 47 tracks. AVID LC12869. www.avidgroup.co.uk
Sidney Bechet is, I suppose, the classic love-hate figure for the classic jazz enthusiast, a man whose fierce, driving vibrato on soprano sax defines the sound and much of the appeal of the early Clarence Williams Blue Five sides…and didn’t essentially change over next 35 years. So why bother to collect his later recordings – a rhetorical question I’ve heard from many collectors and one, which I’ve mentally uttered myself on more than one occasion. Indeed, my not inconsiderable selection of his post-war records has, I regret to say, made way on my shelves for music from other, arguably less talented though often no less interesting, performers for that very same reason: that I have enough of his material from the 30s and early 40s and I felt at the time that the French recordings in particular offered little that was essentially different. Listening to these sides again, remastered in super-clarity on these two CDs, I realise that I have done the man less than justice. Partly, though, this is due to the quality of the bands that accompanied him: as Nick Dellow perceptively remarks in his liner notes “…what the French musicians lack in polish, they make up for in verve.” Faint praise, perhaps, but that’s how it was: I’ve heard more than one number by the Claude Luter band (without Bechet) where at least one front-liner was sadly out of tune. Bechet dominates, one might even say, hogs these sessions and that is ultimately their saving grace. His creativity and physical power were, if anything, even greater at this later date than on many of his American recordings, where, I suspect, the A&R men insisted on a fairer sharing-out of the solo work, which didn’t allow him the space to show how passionately he could develop a musical line over several choruses.
Bechet left America for France in 1949, suggesting the country of his birth had little more to offer him musically. One of his reasons must surely have been the lack of opportunity - both on gigs and in recording studios – for him to show off his abilities at length. France was different: he was mobbed pretty well everywhere he performed and the crowds were clear they wanted to hear him rather than the bands who accompanied him. And it wasn’t just the public: film stars and other celebrities gathered round him and, as the liner notes remark “if the USA nurtured his talent, it was Europe that allowed [him] to capitalise on it.” Surrounded by musical acolytes – mainly clarinettist Claude Luter’s band - and armed with a contract to Vogue Records, he turned out one tour de force after another.
These CDs have been remastered by Nick Dellow from four 10-inch (8-track) Vogue LPs, plus a number of extras and unissued takes. Not all the tunes were of themselves attractive or obviously jazz material, but Bechet’s talent was to be able to treat them all alike as vehicles for his enormous improvisational gifts. No doubt the fans delighted in his ability to play chorus after chorus at breakneck speed, such as on Moustache Gauloise (where he takes a rare bow on clarinet), but his power and depth of emotion emerge much more satisfyingly on numbers like Bechet’s Creole Blues, which is both biting and beautiful by turns. Ce Mossieu Qui Parlé is a fine blend of Creole and Calypso and features a fine – and rare - solo from another member of the band, which is normally heard only as an accompanying ensemble, in this instance, from banjoist Claude Phillippe. Trombonist Guy Longnon gets solo spots on Wolverine Blues, In the Groove and En Attendant le Jour; there are two alternate takes of the latter, on the first of which he plays rather better - more smoothly - than on the issued take! A version of Tiger Rag, renamed Panther Dance, is taken at a relaxed tempo and the band performs excellently in this entirely ensemble treatment of the old war-horse. The alternate takes of this and several other numbers, show that Bechet’s ideas were by no means fixed: he was not trotting out pre-arranged choruses and licks, unlike his contemporary Louis Armstrong, who, having created a fine solo, often learned it by heart and reproduced it time and time again. Bechet seems to have treated every performance as a chance to say something new and exciting.
The standard of almost all the music is high, but some of the earliest recordings have a rather flat rhythm section; the second set, from 1950 / 51 swing much more lightly and there are several outstanding tracks: the issued take of In the Groove is a fine relaxed performance, whilst a second, unissued take has an interesting opening chorus with intricate interplay between Bechet and valve-trombonist Longnon. Bechet obviously approved of Longnon – who replaced the less fluent Mowgli Jospin of the earlier recordings – as he gets another good solo spot, on Promenade aux Champs-Elysées, on which Bechet himself also takes a majestic solo; again a second take shows how different the improvisations could be. Curiously, Egyptian Fantasy, which was one of Bechet’s best recordings with his New Orleans Feetwarmers in 1941, suffers from being played too slow and the rhythm section is heavy-footed. Royal Garden Blues is similarly afflicted by thumping percussion and, this time, would have benefited from being played rather slower!
The second CD opens with a fine version of Moulin à Café, with Bechet playing some lovely low-register clarinet: this number, with its sinuous melody, bears a strong resemblance to Bud Freeman’s The Eel, and a passing resemblance to Ory’s Creole Trombone in its final strain as well! Lastic is another calypso-rhythm composition by Bechet and, although his playing is typically fluent, his vocal (at least, I assume it’s his) is quite dreadful. Much the same applies to Madame Bécassine, though the (group) vocal is somewhat less irritating. Francis Blues, on the other hand, is one of the best tracks in the collection, with cornetist Pierre Dervaux getting a chance to show his worth: his muted solo sounds uncannily like Muggsy Spanier. A second take is equally impressive. There are two takes of Casey Jones, of which the unissued version is taken at a brisker tempo and is all the better for it. This is also the case with Down Home Rag: why the slower, plodding version was issued is something of a mystery: the alternate is only 17 seconds shorter, but that makes all the difference.
The final set is nominally with the band of clarinettist André Réwéliotty, though Luter is still there, but three reeds make for some muddy ensemble work in places, especially on Apex Blues and Together. American drummer Wallace Bishop is on half the tracks and his presence is immediately noticeable on Of All the Wrongs You Done to Me, which swings with a ‘lift’ that is missing from several other tracks: Bishop’s precise brush-work behind the piano solo here is a delight. The pianist is Yannick Singéry, who has another excellent solo spot on Together, though he loses his way on Apex Blues, which is in any case taken rather too fast. Sleepy Time Gal is another outstanding track, with Bechet demonstrating how phrasing the melody as much as improvisation on it was – and is – an essential feature of good New Orleans musicianship. He obviously had a soft spot for pianist Singéry, who gets more solo spots than anyone else in this set – and turns in a very good solo indeed on Sleepy Time Gal.
I have just returned from my first visit to Bechet’s birth city, New Orleans, and its French Quarter Jazz Festival. One of several surprises for me – the first of which was the superb quality of the music generally, with a refreshing absence of Preservation Hall-style meanderings – was how negligent the city authorities are in celebrating the musicians who built its reputation. Yes, there’s the Louis Armstrong International Airport... and Armstrong Park. But of Freddie Keppard, Jimmie Noone, Jelly-Roll Morton and a host of others, there is no official mention or commemoration. I made the pilgrimage to the house where Morton lived: dilapidated, run-down in an obviously poorer district of the city, the only sign that he’d ever been there is a small faded photo in the porch window. But there was another surprise: the popularity of the soprano sax with local musicians, both traditionalists and modernists… it was played almost as often as the clarinet. If you’ve never heard Aurora Nealand, a slim giant of a performer on the soprano, that is a lacuna you should rectify in short order. She may not play Les Oignons, but Bechet’s legacy is immediately apparent in the power and attack of her playing. He at least has left an indelible mark on the music of his birthplace.
CD: THE BIG BROADCAST VOLUME 11. Rivermont BSW-1161.
Order from www.rivermontrecords.com or from P.O. Box 3081, Lynchburg, VA 24503, USA.
It seems that every time I make some kind of overarching statement about Rich Conaty’s selections for Big Broadcast CDs, I’m proved wrong by the subsequent issue, and dammit if that isn’t the case here. Having said twice over, that Rich always starts the medley with something of an oddball nature, the eleventh (yes, this is legs eleven) compilation in the series starts with a selection that’s about as mainstream as you get; Lizzie Miles, singing My Pillow And Me. I have to say that Lizzie Miles never disappoints; the version is a lovely vaudeville performance, sung essentially straight, with only a tiny touch of stagey hokum as she starts the second chorus with the words “No-ho-ho-body knows…” The accompaniment is piano by Clarence Johnson, pleasant and unassuming.
Russo and Fiorito’s Oriole Orchestra give us Mandy, Make Up Your Mind in 1924; the unusual feature here is a scat vocal by Nick Lucas that sounds rather like he’s delivering it down a drainpipe with his mouth full, after which he is featured prominently on the banjo.
Cute as hell is the only way to describe Peggy English, whose photo graces the liner notes: her version of Then I’ll Be Happy is jolly, and very much enhanced by Rube Bloom, whose rolling piano certainly contributes half the record’s appeal, much more so than Clarence Johnson on Track 1. She was Jane Gray on other labels, so you’ve undoubtedly heard her elsewhere.
Sticking with the ‘soloist w. pno. acc’ format, Gene Austin performs Someday Sweetheart with one Abel Baer at the ivories. As early crooning goes, it’s very listenable. Back now to band pieces, the immense Jack Crawford (and His Orchestra) performs I’d Walk A Million Miles. The admirable feature of Crawford (apart from his ability to fill the entire frame, corner to corner, of his portrait) is his really appealing soprano sax solo.
A new and amazing one for me follows; Lady Of Havana, a phenomenally rare Electrobeam Gennett by Hogan Hancock and His Orchestra. There is, within this roster, a lyrical trumpeter by the name of Douglas Wellman, whose solo is startling indeed, wonderfully fluid and agile, whose work I am hearing for the first time. Would there were more of him about; but hearing this Gennett has given me the joy of listening to the sound of surprise all over again. It’s a whiff of discovering Bix for the first time again; indeed the style is not dissimilar. He’s entrancing! There’s only one entry for this band in Rust; an earlier side, which is stated to be “known to be of some interest as jazz,” which implies Brian had only heard tell of it, rather than having heard it. I certainly haven’t, but I certainly need to, now. Who out there’s got it?
When My Dreams Come True by the Grey Gull house crew is an Irving Berlin tune from the Marx Bros. film The Cocoanuts. It features Mosiello, Sannella et al. as usual, but there’s a very nice Jimmy Dorsey final chorus that makes the exercise fully worthwhile.
We hop over the Atlantic for the next piece: The Rhythm Maniacs playing Baby-Oh Where Can You Be? This is an unissued Decca test, and one hears immediately the reason for non-issue; it sounds to have been recorded in a cathedral, with the microphone sitting on a gargoyle. Nonetheless, Sylvester Ahola’s trumpet and Polo’s clarinet work make up thoroughly for Maurice Elwin’s rather tentative vocal. The side was remade (presumably with better acoustics) two months on. We stay in London for Jack Payne’s Satisfied, with a nice booty sax solo to emphasise that Adrian Rollini wasn’t the only game in town.
Miff Mole now shows up with Merle Johnston and His CeCo Couriers. This is a really swinging band; Pumiglio, McConville and Brilhart are also very much present. The tune, Sweet Nothings Of Love is a new one to me, beautifully arranged, and I really like it.
Next we have, perhaps (maybe even probably) the first vocal version of Stardust, by Chester Leighton & His Sophomores (actually Ben Selvin.) It was recorded for Columbia and issued on Harmony, with Smith Ballew on vocal. He doesn’t sound too certain of what he’s at, but the surroundings are awesome: Goodman, Dorsey, Klein, McConville… yeah!
OK, time for a change of pace. And it’s one, for a change, that I’ve not only heard, but had (unusual for the stuff Rich puts out!) It’s Bill Robinson doing a master class tap routine, to Keep A Song In Your Soul with a rip-snortin’ accompaniment from the aforementioned: Dorsey T, Dorsey J, Klein M; but now with Lang on guitar, Schutt on piano and both Stan King and Joe Tarto to kick the beat along. What a wonderful record! It pounds along as Robinson’s delightfully smooth voice provides the commentary to what he’s doing. To Fred Astaire: my friend, much as I love your stuff; eat your heart out. I’d rather listen to Bojangles talk, than you sing, and he can dance your pants off.
A test of the Al Rinker Trio features Lazy Day, an unissued vignette of what the Rhythm Boys evolved into, post-Bing. Rich attributes the strength of that Rhythm Boys sound to Harry Barris, but this single issue posits that Rinker may well have been equally responsible for the vocal strength of that trio. Harlan Lattimore, who follows Rinker’s offering, is Bing-lite: Strange As It Seems has Lattimore fronting the Dorseys, Klein etc. as on previous tracks, doing all the zib, zib, zibs, scoops, bent notes and doobie doobie doos of Crosby’s repertoire. The performance is very relaxed, and the side very enjoyable. Don Bestor, who follows, is not the one we think of when it comes to hot performances, but ‘Long About Sundown is a surprise. This 1932 Victor pounds along, with a very credible vocal from Maurice Cross and really punchy sax work from Walter Payne. Swing is starting to come to the fore, and I would guess that Bestor is making a very good attempt to swim in changing currents. He does a damn good job at it, here.
The same thing is happening to Paul Whiteman on the next track, You’ll Never Get To Heaven That Way. It’s a very gentle, swingy arrangement. Ramona does the vocals without any of the piano work she normally features, but there are also a variety of beloved talents in the ensemble. Berigan is here, as is one of my heroes, Bill Rank; Vincent Grande is also there, and Fud Livingston, another old friend. Nice.
London again, and another favourite performer: Fred Elizalde. For me, he is a unique and towering talent. Vamp Till Ready is a spinoff or coexistent twin to Get Happy (see the review of St. James Infirmary for Bob Harwood’s take on such things). It stomps, it rocks; it pulses, and above all it fascinates. I’d as soon listen to Elizalde as any other pianist, even one of the stature of Jelly-Roll Morton.
We stay in London for the moment, as George Scott Wood and His Orchestra, with Sam Browne doing the vocal, perform Adorable, a waltz piece penned by Richard Whiting and George Marion, who also wrote the screenplay for The Big Broadcast. This is the kind of music that used to put stars in my mother’s eyes when I was a kid. A punchy swing number pops the romantic bubble, with Jerry Johnson’s Tea For Two, a very forward-looking front line boasting Artie Shaw and Tony Pastor. It’s a 1934 rendering, but sounds much more ‘immediate pre-war’ than that. In fact, One Little Kiss, from a couple of months later, by Ted Weems, sounds as if it was made a whole lot earlier. This Weems lineup is not, stylistically, anything to do with the band that made Sophomore Prom, nor the one that was to give Perry Como, the bane of my youthful, British television life, his debut in later years.
Bing’s younger sibling, Bob, performs Clouds, the final song written by the prolific Gus Kahn - Walter Donaldson partnership, very much in the style of his big bro; then there’s one of Rich’s classic ‘surprise!’ tracks: Who?, by Ichiro Fujiyama. I’ll guarantee you haven’t heard this one! It’s Japanese made for the Japanese market, complete with local vocal. It’s not great, but it is OK, and as a small window into what was being produced in Japan in the mid-30s other than military hardware, it provides useful insight.
Chick Bullock then goes Chasing Shadows, backed by a band with the usual suspects in the front line: Klein and Pee Wee Russell. Harry Hoffman is said to be on violin, though I’d go rather for Joe V. Bullock’s pretty good on this selection, with some worthy vocal improvisation, though his style is, as always, pretty straight and laid-back. Then Boots and His Buddies, the pride of San Antonio, take us through a swinging and heavily-scored version of Lonely Moments. It’s 1938; times are still hard as hell; this is take 1 and it’s a bit loose and out of tune, but let’s issue it anyway. This is a story we see everywhere in the business at those times.
Rich usually ends on an air-shot, and here he goes again. The last two tracks are by Buddy Rogers and His Orchestra, from 1932. Rain, Rain, Go Away is the ‘pop’ of the moment; immensely popular at the time and now unremembered. Crazy People is faster and hotter, with a lively novelty vocal exchange and hot breaks, ending with whistles, alarms and excursions typical of radio in 1932.
To borrow from Jimmy Wheeler: Aye aye: that’s your lot! By now, if you’ve followed the Big Broadcast series, you’re aware that Rich Conaty is a connoisseur of the unusual and the unheard. If you’re not just into classic jazz, and enjoy hearing stuff that was current in ‘our’ era; dance bands, novelty vocals and popular songs, his taste will please your ear, yet again. Enjoy!
BOOK: EDISON TWO-MINUTE AND CONCERT CYLINDERS. American Series, 1897-1912. By Allan Sutton. Mainspring Press. 398pp, softbound, Illustrated. ISBN 978-0-9915279-7-7. $49 US, $69 Canada, $75 R.O.W. inc. shipping. www.mainspringpress.com
Despite Thomas Edison ‘inventing’ the phonograph in 1877 (French readers will no doubt read this statement with some incredulity) he was slow to capitalise on its entertainment potential. Setting it aside for ten years to concentrate on other inventions, notably the electric light bulb (English readers, too, can gasp at this statement), its re-appearance as a much-improved machine built to play ‘wax’ cylinders was fraught with legal disputes primarily based on the fact the machines were leased rather than sold, and Edison once again retreated from the phonograph. When he did finally see its value as a tool for domestic entertainment in 1897, a new kid was already on the block, in the form of Emile Berliner’s flat disc. That being said the Edison name carried weight among the American public, and his introduction of the Home Phonograph, coupled with a comprehensive catalogue of musical cylinders was an instant success.
Allan Sutton explains at length the production of 2-minute cylinders, starting with ‘one off’ recordings taken ‘in the round’, on banks of phonographs (whereby each record was a ‘master,’ followed by the swift move to pantographing copies from a master cylinder and, finally, to the adoption of the gold moulded process, which allowed mass duplication of copies from a single master cylinder. It is odd that Edison’s laboratory staff had made satisfactory gold-moulded cylinders as early as 1888 and its adoption was mooted as early as 1891, but its universal adoption had to wait until 1902.
In the absence of recording ledgers - lost in the factory fire of 1917 - Sutton has gone back to surviving source material - factory plating ledgers, studio cash books, deletion notices, catalogues, etc., to assemble a discography of significantly greater accuracy than anything published previously. One of the problems facing the author was that cylinders were frequently remade - en masse after the introduction of the gold moulded process in 1902 - often by different artists to the original issue. For VJM readers a case in point would be the many Vess Ossman cylinders remade by the more reliable Fred Van Eps. Sutton has tracked down the remakes with forensic skill, and this alone is worth the price of the book to cylinder collectors.
The catalogue listing is a microcosm of American popular music of the era; patriotic songs about the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Phillipine-American War of 1899, and ‘coon songs’ by the likes of Arthur Collins and Dan W. Quinn dominate the late-1890s and early 1900s catalogue. By 1904 their repertoire and that of other, younger, artists such as Ada Jones and Billy Murray starts to feature songs from the pens of black songwriters such as Bob Cole and Billy Johnson, Will Marion Cook, Tim Brymn, Richard Cecil McPherson (‘Cecil Mack’), Bert Williams and George Walker. By 1905 the ‘cakewalk’ titles had been largely superceded by ‘real’ ragtime - Panama Rag, The King of Rags, Black and White Rag etc.
The contemporary criticism of the short playing time of Edison’s cylinders compared to Victor and Columbia’s 12-inch discs was addressed in 1908 by the introduction of the 4-minute Amberol cylinder, and the resulting mass-deletion and remaking of 2-minute titles saw its slow but inevitable demise by 1912 - a planned process allowing time for owners of old machines to ‘Amberolise’ them by fitting 4-minute gear sets - but not before Sophie Tucker made some superb (and very desirable) 2-minute cylinders, as well as making four-minute cylinders.
The author organises the catalogue in numerical order which has to contend with the fact that Edison initially issued cylinders in ‘blocks’ of catalogue numbers devoted to individual artists. Thus the 2600-2642 block is made up of Vess Ossman’s recordings from 1897 to 1898, plus a few remakes by fellow banjoists Ruby Brooks and Fred Van Eps.
There is little to criticise in this book - its layout is clear, beautifully printed and well-illustrated with contemporary photographs and advertisements; the only errors I spotted were the odd issues from the British catalogue that have not been identified in the text as being imports. Most have been correctly identified, but a few crept past Mr. Sutton’s eagle eye!
Whilst 2-minute cylinders are not core to the average VJM reader’s collecting interests, there are enough readers who do collect cylinders, and to them I heartily recommend and endorse this book - it will enhance their collection and help understand the part Edison cylinders played in the spread of ragtime and syncopated music - and American popular music in general - in the early 20th century.
BOOK: I WENT DOWN TO ST. JAMES INFIRMARY (2nd. Edition). By Robert W. Harwood. Harland Press, 1426 Newport Avenue, #306, Victoria, BC V8S 5E9, Canada. Softbound, 255pp, illustrated. ISBN 978-0-9809743-3-1. US$29.50 including shipping. www.stjamesinfirmary.ca
The creative process, that apparently aleatory, yet in hindsight demonstrably logical path by which works of art and entertainment evolve into new and different forms, is in itself as fascinating as the study of the works themselves.
Bob Harwood uses St. James Infirmary as a case study in musical genealogy. Works of art, he says, don’t come into being as unique flashes of inspiration. They are influenced by what went before, and this particular song blends elements from several antecedents. Forms of artistic expression, he says, (in this case tunes and lyrics) bump into each other across genres and cultural boundaries and lead to fresh, rather than new, creations. In opening the book, Bob quotes Jack Teagarden’s 1941 performance of the tune with the Armstrong All-Stars, where Tea calls it “the oldest blues song I know.” His reaction, to quote part of the book’s subtitle, is: “where did this dang song come from, anyway?” And thus begins the journey.
The book is about a musical enigma, but it could equally well be about any work of art in human history. Every creation is inspired by or bases itself on earlier works, says Harwood. The tune comes from… somewhere, but just where? It pops up in several differing forms, a series of tunes and airs in different eras and venues that bump into one another over time, culminating in one particular rendering’s emergence as an immense hit at the end of the 1920s. The song’s supposed antecedents go back before the turn of the century and in some cases, over the ocean; a cluster of concurrent hand-me-downs; selectively contorted and adapted to a greater or lesser extent by whomever was the performer, sometimes under similar and sometimes totally different titles. There are the supposed ancestors and congeners: The Unfortunate Rake; Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues; Gambler’s Blues; some with musical ‘branches’ that reach out even to the western states where I now live, like Streets of Laredo. Which raises the question: did Billy the Kid know and hum some forebear of St. James Infirmary a hundred and twenty years ago, a few miles from where I sit? Go on, tell me I’m weird.
Although clearly ‘traditional’ and part of the public domain, the version of the song we all know is then legally registered, claimed and defended as the creation of one Irving Mills, under the name of Joe Primrose. Even at the time of the claim, it was obvious that Mills’ claim to have written the tune was as valid as Ferd Morton’s to have created jazz. It was well known in the music world of the day that there were other, earlier versions even within that decade, several of them on record, some attributed to different authors or different sources; some with similar words, others with similar melodies; each version, it seems, spawning the next. Harwood meticulously follows each thread of supposed origin; supports some of them and debunks others.
A handful of names we all know pop up as principal players in the story: Don Redman, Blind Willie McTell, Fess Williams. There are many others, less familiar to jazz and blues enthusiasts, whose fingerprints are also all over the story. Incongruously, even Bob Dylan enters the story late in Act V. It’s a fascinating tale.
Bob Harwood is a rara avis. That this Irish-Canadian finds within him the inspired doggedness to try and unravel this massive ball of tangled yarn not just once, but now for the third time in a decade and a half (the first was Harwood’s A Rake’s Progress, in 2002; then this book’s first edition, six years later) is an enigma in itself. He does it in amazing detail, following each trail to a conclusion or… in some cases, to none. I won’t tread on the Editor’s very fine review of the First Edition in 2008’s Winter issue, because the substance of the work is the same; but rather point out what the changes and differences are between editions. First, this one is longer, because it has new stuff about some of the actors in the drama. And there is an index, where previously there wasn’t. There is closer documentation of the origins of the different lyrical strains in the song, especially the “Let her go, let her go…” verse. The text of each chapter has been entirely rewritten, end-to-end, for clarity (did I say Harwood was dogged?) And in particular, the relationship of the song to The Unfortunate Rake, stated by some to be the indisputable root source of the ditty, is reevaluated and found to be no more solid in that category than anyone else’s theory of the song’s origin.
There is also a discussion in depth about Mills’ assertion and defence of his claim to copyright on the work, or whether the material he claimed to be his was even copyrightable, since it came from the public domain. Then there’s the question of copyright in general and its societal value. As one who has seen my own work and that of colleagues similarly snaffled and locked up for an eon or two, I also have a dog in that particular fight. As clearly occlusive and reprehensible as it may seem, the ‘grab it and go’ practice became common with musical compositions, as Tin Pan Alley grew and the music business became immensely lucrative. Certainly, Consolidated Music Publishing, the owner/operator of Chicago’s OKeh brand, routinely paid black composer-performers including Louis Armstrong $25 per selection for both the recorded performance and the publishing rights to the song. Louis spent the fee in a week, but the royalties went on for decades, and they didn’t go to him. Harwood makes a cogent argument that, since all artistic creation builds on the precedent body of work, the copyright process stops the creative and innovative process cold. As it was for Mills then, or for whomsoever today, it’s not about ethics or truth; it’s a question of who gets to the copyright office first.
The book is one of a kind. Bob Harwood states that this is the end of the story, as far as he has it in him to tell it. This work is unique, so if you don’t have it, get it.
BOOK: SOUTH CAROLINA BLUES by Clair De Lune. Arcadia Publishing. 128pp softbound. ISBN 978-1-4671-1472-1 $22. www.arcadiapublishing.com
South Carolina has a rich musical tradition. This Photo-heavy book offers an overview of many prominent blues musicians who hail from that state.
The opening chapter explores South Carolina’s history as a slave state, featuring artifacts and photos found in the 1940s at the Ashley Plantation in the southwest part of the state just days before its buildings were razed and lands flooded to make way for a power station. The third chapter recounts early blues musicians with some previously-unpublished (or obscurely published) of Pink Anderson, Gary Davis, Josh White and Chippie Hill.
As the book moves forward in time, the scope widens to include some jazz players (Dizzy Gillespie was born there) and many prominent R&B artists such as James Brown, Nappy Brown (no relation), Hank Ballard, Eartha Kitt and Brook Benton.
In the contemporary world, many young white musicians have gravitated to the blues and the book pays tribute to them as well.
The author, a music history teacher and host of a radio program devoted to ‘roots’ music, is a noted collector of historical artifacts and photographs from her home state where love of tradition and the land still runs deep. It shows in the book which is more of a love letter to South Carolina’s own, than an exhaustive history of its musicians or a detailed analysis of their music.
CD: PAUL ASARO AND THE FAT BABIES: Sweet Jazz Music – The Music of Jelly Roll Morton. Rivermont BSW-2238 Order from www.rivermontrecords.com or from P.O. Box 3081, Lynchburg, VA 24503, USA.
I knew it would be great well before I put the CD in the tray and pushed the go button. And it is. The Fat Babies are back, this time with Morton’s music, and it’s the same experience with this CD as with their earlier Waller rendering: forty-eight minutes of delight.
I said of the Waller CD that one of the fun parts was how spontaneous it sounded. Here, the opposite is true. For his band recordings, Jelly arranged and rehearsed every aspect of his pieces tightly, so results would be predictable. With that predictability in place, he could then let the men he had selected, virtuoso performers at the top of their individual talents, be themselves in solo and break passages. The result was what we all know and love: precise, crisp, inspired performances that leave the listener breathless after three minutes of controlled combustion.
Paul Asaro has clearly invested the same analytical energy he brought to the Waller album, in this new endeavour. Whereas, for the Waller album, the band would quickly work out parts from a lead sheet together, then do a take or two and select the one everyone liked best, here Paul started by transcribing the Red Hot Peppers sides (Black Bottom Stomp, New Orleans Bump, Doctor Jazz, Georgia Swing, Boogaboo and Buffalo Blues) instrument by instrument. Andy Schumm, the band’s (newly married; congratulations, Andy!) cornet and altoist contributed Shoe Shiner’s Drag. Then, using the stylistic lessons of the exercise, he arranged a series of Morton piano pieces as Morton might have done them himself, had he arranged them for Red Hot Peppers recordings.
And boy, are they good: Black Bottom Stomp has all the energy of the original; verve and pep, with every player giving everything he has, fully on board. New Orleans Bump has become a favourite of mine from first hearing, especially Andy Schumm’s soulful cornet solo. Freakish is a revelation; first because I have only heard it as a piano solo by the composer and modern pianists, and here, it is played as a band piece, with a beautiful solo from John Otto. The arrangement is totally true to Jelly’s ethos. And unusually for modern bands, there’s a banjo solo (completely in-character: remember, Jelly featured St. Cyr, too.) Doctor Jazz has Paul Asaro doing the vocal and of course, piano solos. It’s scary how well he can imitate the master.
Then a new discovery pops up. It seems a while back, Vince Giordano bought some sheet music items on eBay, and one of them was an unknown Morton composition, a “Slow Stomp” named Croc-O-Dile Cradle. Now you can find out what an undiscovered master sounds like… it sounds great to me! Praise to Vince, to Paul, to all concerned.
Shoe Shiner’s Drag is everything the original Victor was, in mood and execution. Andy Schumm is outstanding, but then, so is the entire band. The only thing better than the performance on the CD would be to be sitting in front of the stage at a live performance. Bert Williams features Jelly’s beloved ‘Spanish tinge’ in the bridge as does Spanish Swat later in the album. The upstairs/downstairs riff of this tune is a delight to the ear, as is the meditative guitar solo. Georgia Swing allows John Otto to shine, with a warbling solo imitative of Simeon’s original, but with a verve of his own making. State And Madison is slow and easy, just as is Morton’s Library of Congress solo, yet the composition benefits from a full-band execution. The trombone/piano bridge sounds so totally typical of a Morton arrangement, it’s difficult to credit that it’s an Asaro invention rather than a transcription. Boogaboo is about as ‘typical’ a Morton tune as you can get, again beautifully transcribed and executed, as is Buffalo Blues. Spanish Swat carries with it that slightly exotic overtone of danger and intrigue that ‘Spanish tinge’ compositions from Morton carry with them. I’ve always loved this tune, and Asaro’s guys carry it off perfectly.
For a complete change of pace, there’s now a version of Tiger Rag worthy of the Peppers, with one of those Morton-signature single-note breaks, the rolling ‘hold that tiger…’ passage from the master’s version, and a rip-snorting performance from all. The album ends with Sweet Jazz Music, Paul’s extended treatment of a short fragment left as a demonstration of a stylistic point Morton wanted to make. Morton made it up more or less on the spot for the Library of Congress recordings, so it never appeared as a finished composition. It is performed here as a trio, with clarinet and drums, like several later Morton Victors, using the verse from Don’t You Leave Me Here as a coda. It is stunning, as a finale.
I said in my review of the Waller CD, that ‘sounds like’ projects usually don’t work: they are either slavish imitation or unrecognizable as the music of the band being eulogised. That’s not so, here. You have a band of superb musicians, led by a piano player who has Morton down pat. They have the latitude and self-confidence to play their own way, within the paradigms laid down by a master in the past and a superb leader in the present. This CD on its own merits is superb, and as a successor to Paul Asaro’s first CD venture with Rivermont, a thoroughly worthy addition to the catalogue.