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.

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