Although I keep muttering to myself, “I really don’t like jazz violin all that much,” I find myself entranced by the new CD that the jazz violin scholar Anthony Barnett has just issued on his ABFable label. It features about an hour of live jazz from the Embers night club — with pianist Joe Bushkin, violin wizard Stuff Smith, under-praised bassist Whitey Mitchell, and the irreplaceable Jo Jones. In addition, there’s a fourteen-minute solo private tape of Stuff, solo, exploring some of his compositions, as “Sketches for a Symphony.”
Is it the rarity of the performances? I admit that might initially be captivating — but if you gave me the most unknown / rarest music by someone whose work I couldn’t tolerate, I would listen for sixty seconds and take it off. The music itself is splendid: Bushkin’s energetic playing (his characteristic arpeggios and ripples) never falters, and he seems to be having the time of his life, and his trumpet playing is much more convincing than I remember it as being. (He must have been practicing!) Stuff, although not featured throughout the hour, is in peak form, able to swing ferociously with the minimum of notes, possessed of true jazz passion. Whitey Mitchell plays so well that he had me fooled: I would have sworn that Bushkin’s regular bassist, the beloved Milt Hinton, was there under an alias. And then Jo Jones is in prime form, delighting in playing in this band. He and Bushkin had a special rapport — I saw it once, years later, when they came into the midtown Eddie Condon’s and sat in with Ruby Braff and Milt Hinton for an extended, riotous YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY that became MOTEN SWING perhaps ten or twelve minutes later.
But what captured me more than anything else was the intimacy of the two sessions presented here. I was not attending jazz clubs in 1964, being too young, but the taping of the Embers session is done from the bandstand microphone (as far as I can tell) so we get all the musicians’ asides, the teasing, the inside jokes. It has the feel of being part of the band — and part of a vanished scene, as when Bushkin ends the set by saying that they’ll be back at 2 AM, but they can be found at P.J. Clarke’s or The Strollers in the meantime. And the private tape that Stuff made (for himself, or as a demonstration of themes for a larger work?) is entrancing because it is quite clearly a composer playing for himself: you can hear him breathe. It’s a divine kind of eavesdropping on a Master.
Barnett’s CDs have always been wonderful productions: the music is presented as clearly as the original sources allow, there are many rare photographs, the annotations are through without being stodgy.
But wait! There’s more! Something to look forward to. . . .
This one is scheduled for 2010. Did you know that Stuff Smith had a radio gig (sponsored by an eye lotion, Lucidin) for which he assembled an all-star band, drawing on his own group and Chick Webb’s aggregation — including the youthful Ella Fitzgerald? (An early broadcast for Lucidin had him leading a small combo with Jonah Jones, Ben Webster, Teddy Wilson, with vocals by Helen Ward.) I’ve heard some of this music, and it is spectacular — the height of the Swing Era, I think. So look for this next year! For more information (and to order any of Barnett’s CDs and books), visit www.abar.net. Even if you think you don’t like jazz violin!
ABFable discs are available in the United States from CADENCE — the honest Jazz journal: www.cadencebuilding.com.