Sunday, August 28, 2011

Barney Bigard on tenor sax

Barney Bigard is one of my absolute favourite clarinettists. His warm, woody tone enhances hundreds of recordings by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and others. However, his tenor sax playing was also excellent - he initially made his name on that instrument, increasingly turning away from it in favour of the clarinet during his time with Ellington. Back in April 1937, Metronome magazine reported that he 'hates playing tenor but dotes on clarinet' and 'wants Duke to get a straight tenor man.'

Here are two recordings by Luis Russell's Hot Six in 1926. Plantation Joys in particular 'all but [leaps] off the grooves with energy and powerful, on-the-beat rhythm', to quote Richard Sudhalter in his excellent Lost Chords.

Here Bigard features with a typical 'slap-tongued' solo in King Oliver's band. The group abounds with fellow New Orleanians such as Albert Nicholas, Kid Ory, Paul Barbarin, Bud Scott and Oliver himself.

Ellington's band lacked a specialist tenor soloist before Ben Webster's arrival in the late 1930s. Until then, Bigard was called upon to contribute occasional sax solos. His efforts are first rate:

Thereafter, Bigard seems to have focused exclusively on clarinet. We are blessed and also deprived by his choice.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Spine-tingling moments in jazz

All jazz fans have their favourite moments on record wherein all the inspiration, emotion and skill of the musicians seems to coalesce into a living, breathing reality. Though the thrill of hearing these classic jazz recordings for the first time may be gone, their appeal seems to grow ever stronger through familiarity with these spine-tingling moments.

Here's one such moment for me: King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, playing "Mabel's Dream" back in 1923. As the final chorus of this take begins, Joe 'King' Oliver unleashes some of his most achingly emotive muted playing, not so much leading the band as wailing in the foreground. I can listen over and over again, yet each time I am moved.

Don't miss this moment at 2.14...

Monday, August 22, 2011

Lizzie Miles with Jelly Roll Morton

I only just discovered this recording of singer Lizzie Miles, accompanied by Jelly Roll Morton. The song is "I Hate a Man Like You" - it must be masochistic of me to enjoy her accusations so much!

How would this 'text' be interpreted from more recent cultural perspectives? Its relevance today seems undoubtable, whatever we choose to make of it...

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra at their spookiest

Of all the masterpieces recorded by Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra, "Take Me Away from the River" probably wouldn't feature in many people's top tens, yet it's been a consistent favourite of mine for years now.

What do I find to enjoy here? Well how about the slick reeds section, fantastic tuba playing from John Kirby, the imaginative harmonies and some spooky sound effects for starters? Ikey Robinson is on vocals.

Friday, August 19, 2011

"Here's a number that all the musicians in the world love to play..."

Louis Armstrong claimed that "all the musicians in the world" loved to play Tiger Rag. Perhaps this is a slight exaggeration - many jazz musicians roll their eyes when it is requested! In spite of this, the versions below sound vibrant enough.

Here's the famous boxer Jack Johnson leading his jazz band in 1929. Is that Chick Webb on drums?

Now here are western swing pioneers the Light Crust Doughboys in 1936:

And stringsman Roy Smeck on the ukelele:

But who could top Louis Armstrong himself, live in Copenhagen, 1933:

Thursday, August 18, 2011

King Oliver's underrated twilight years

There's a sad story to be told in the slow but inexorable decline of Joe 'King' Oliver. Hitting his peak in 1923, or even earlier, the once mighty cornettist and bandleader bore the brunt of ill fortune and also made several poor career moves. All of this is discussed elsewhere.

I'm more interested right now in the different story told by Oliver's records. There are some fine moments by King Oliver's later orchestras. True, these high points often reflect the work of star sidemen like Henry 'Red' Allen, Kid Ory, Albert Nicholas, Barney Bigard, Omer Simeon and Paul Barbarin, but occasionally Oliver himself emerges from the ensemble with an inspired chorus of his own.

Moreover, there is a heavy cloud of sweet melancholy permeating these recordings that must be the work of the bandleader himself. Consider 'I Must Have It', 'You're Just My Type' or 'Someday, Sweetheart' (A similar flavour can be heard on selected recordings by Tiny Parham and Clarence Williams).

On many other occasions, the finely-wrought classicism of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band seems to have been replaced with a rawer 'hot jazz' approach, as is the case on 'Wa Wa Wa'. The structured looseness is still present, but the emotional impact is quite different.

Oliver's later recordings occasionally show what would seem to be modern innovations. Take note of the final chorus of 'Sugar Foot Stomp' - the interplay of the trumpets, trombone and saxes shows an understanding of riffs and their cumulative energy rivaling anyone at that time. I can almost hear the 1930s Basie band swinging through 'One O'Clock Jump' in these horn lines.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Johnny Dodds takes charge

Clarinettist Johnny Dodds features on some of the greatest jazz records of the 1920s. His mellow lines snake through the richly textured ensemble sound of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, while he brings a more acerbic flavour to Louis Armstrong's famous Hot Fives and Sevens. And there he is again, wailing along with George Mitchell and the rest of Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers. Dodds was clearly a musician many jazz greats wanted by their sides.

Yet the listener whose experience with Johnny Dodds stops at these recordings, seminal though they undoubtedly are, misses the man at his best. Dodds at his finest, his most creative, confident and comfortable self, can be found on less celebrated recordings - those where he is the dominant (though not dominating) musical force.

Here he is guesting with the Dixieland Jug Blowers, exhibiting some imaginative ensemble improvising. Listen to his low register playing at 2.06!

Next we have "Too Tight", with Dodds at his most movingly blue:

Finally, here he is with fellow clarinettist Junie Cobb on two electrifying performances - "Chicago Buzz" and "East Coast Trot". Dodds is the player further away from the recording horn, and he inspires Cobb (a player of varying quality) and the rhythm section with his blazing runs. He inspires me too!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Great Baby Dodds

I wouldn't usually choose to listen to an extended drums solo, instead skipping the track or going out of the room to make a cup of tea. If you share my occasional disinterest in percussive excursions, listen to the recording below and be converted.

Warren 'Baby' Dodds is featured here on an improvised drums solo. He claimed one of his goals was to play melodies on an instrument many regard as purely rhythmic, and based on this evidence, he achieved it.

And here he is with Mutt Carey's New Yorkers, a true all-star aggregation. Throughout, Dodds' playing is driving yet relaxed - listen especially to his characteristic rims work behind Edmond Hall's clarinet solo.

Another of Dodds' goals was to play 'for the benefit of the band'. Mission accomplished!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Fred Gardner's Texas territory band

Some of the hottest recorded jazz from the 1920s and 30s comes from so-called 'territory bands', groups based in areas outside the major centres like New York and Chicago. Territory bands are especially exciting for the jazz fan because they are far less familiar than the 'name' bands like those led by Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington, and therefore offer a range of delightful surprises. Here's a group I've recently enjoyed immensely - Fred Gardner's Texas University Troubadours. The cornet solos are appealingly Bixian.

No Trumps (really Darktown Strutters' Ball):

Daniel's Blues:

Papa's Gone:

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Little Ramblers - Crosswords

The California Ramblers recorded with almost obscene frequency during the 1920s, under a baffling array of pseudonyms. I enjoy their small-group records chiefly for the commanding bass sax of Adrian Rollini, however Rollini is regularly joined by other fine hot musicians including Bobby Davis, Chelsea Quealey, the Dorsey Brothers and Red Nichols.

Those still labouring under the once-fashionable idea that this music is somehow not 'real' jazz need only listen to this record. Here the Little Ramblers exhibit hot breaks and solos, a myriad of different ensemble textures, infectious rhythmic momentum and an overall concern for balance in an arrangement - many of the features of Jelly Roll Morton's celebrated Red Hot Peppers records.

While the vocal may not be to modern tastes and the arrangement is almost certainly based upon a stock chart, these are concerns common to much of the jazz of the 1920s.

Here's Crosswords - enjoy it for what it is. I particularly like the high-stepping rhythm and the passages where the bass sax and trombone play in harmony:

Monday, August 1, 2011

'...with orchestral accompaniment.'

Accompanying a vocalist by definition attracts minimal attention, and yet it requires many of the most challenging skills in jazz. One must listen constantly, select notes with great care and work hard to support the mood a singer is creating.

It's an enjoyable endeavour, however. The cooperative aspects of music are often the most rewarding, for musicians and audiences alike, and this is certainly the case with vocal accompaniment.

Here are four examples of superb accompanying, beginning with Cyrus St. Clair (tuba) and Ed Allen (cornet) as they perfectly match Bessie Smith's passionate despair on Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out:

Next up is the lovely Lee Wiley, who is blessed with the remarkable cornettist Bobby Hackett as her helper:

Eddie Lang's guitar accompaniment graces hundreds of records from the 1920s and 30s, and here he is on film with Bing Crosby:

And of course Lester Young on tenor sax, accompanying Billie Holiday. Holiday's mother claimed she couldn't tell the difference between her daughter's voice and Young's sax from the next room, and their collaborations are justifiably famous:

The hot & spiky clarinet of Edward Inge

An almost forgotten man, at least as far as jazz criticism is concerned, Edward Inge played reeds with some of the greatest jazz bands of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. His clarinet playing is especially idiosyncratic, featuring strings of eighth-notes unleashed with piquant fury.

Inge, like William Thornton Blue, Edmond Hall, Omer Simeon and Raymond Burke, imbued his solos with an old-fashioned 'hotness' that really shows where the metaphor 'hot jazz' came from: spice, not temperature. These players also give the impression they could make your ears bleed if they chose - I call this sort of playing 'spiky clarinet'.

Here's Edward Inge with the latter-day McKinney's Cotton Pickers:

And here are two records from his long stay with Don Redman's underrated orchestra of the 1930s: