NOW HEAR THIS: Hal Smith and “OH, KATHARINA!”

 I’d posted this YouTube clip of the JAM SESSION AT COMMODORE (1943) on OH, KATHARINA! in my recent tribute to Sidney Catlett, who would have been one hundred years ago on January 17, 2010.  Here it is again, for a different reason.  Listeners like myself have spent their lives drinking in the sounds — as a child I would put my head against the cloth of the speaker grille — but I know that we don’t listen in the same way musicians do. 

So it’s a particular pleasure to be able to reprint drummer and jazz scholar Hal Smith’s “close reading” of this performance, with special emphasis on Sidney’s playing within and through it.  The piece was published in the Bulletin of the Hot Club of France, and it’s a joy:

OH, SID!

By Hal Smith

 A majority of jazz fans would probably agree that Sidney “Big Sid” Catlett was one of the greatest drummers of all time—if not the greatest! Many of Sid’s recordings have been written about at length, but one of his masterpieces is seldom mentioned: “Oh, Katharina” (recorded for Commodore 2 Dec. 1943 with Eddie Condon’s Band). Sid’s playing is so exemplary on this side that it cannot be ignored.

Condon had some exceptional musicians on the session. Joining the guitarist/leader and Catlett were: Max Kaminsky-cornet; Benny Morton-trombone; Pee Wee Russell-clarinet; Joe Bushkin-piano; and Bob Casey-bass. (Catlett had worked with Russell, Kaminsky and Condon since 1933. He knew exactly what to play to bring out the best in all three).

 The other tunes recorded on 2 December were jazz standards—“Rose Room,” “Basin Street Blues” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out.” “Oh, Katharina” was definitely the odd number. Supposedly it was a favorite of Bix Beiderbecke’s. That must be the reason it was included on this date, for it has little to offer as a vehicle for swinging or improvising. The melody is uninspiring and the lack of melodic or chordal movement makes it difficult to keep one’s place in the song.

On the master take, the full ensemble plays the first chorus. The chosen tempo is edgy and despite Condon’s strong 4/4 guitar, Casey’s powerful bass and Sid’s wide-open hi-hat and rim shots the band sounds uncomfortable. Bushkin plays the second chorus and the leader temporarily drops out. Almost instantly, the tempo seems to float downward, gently. (Perhaps Sid made eye contact with Bushkin or Casey?) However it happened, the tempo change brings a collective sigh of relief and the proceedings begin to swing. For the first half of the piano chorus, Sid varies the hi-hat beat from what he used on the first chorus. Instead of open and ringing, he plays the cymbals open-and-closed, gently accenting the second and fourth beats. A stinging rim shot launches the second half and a move to ride cymbal, with rim shots in unexpected places.

With the tempo now settled, Condon re-enters the rhythm section in time for Pee Wee Russell’s chorus. Sid tightens things up, playing closed hi-hat, acting as interested listener in a conversation with Russell. However, some well-placed rim shots act as a safety net in the most abstract moments of the dialogue (bars 15-16).

Next, Kaminsky and Morton split a chorus, which also has a conversational quality. Max seems to be telling a story and Sid’s perfectly-timed rim shots (bars 8-9, 11-12) are the approbation. Benny Morton was another old friend of Catlett’s. By 1943, the drummer knew instinctively how to back the great trombonist and actually anticipates Morton’s phrasing on bar 24.

Finally, it is Sid Catlett’s turn to solo and what a solo it is!!! With Bushkin providing discreet stoptimes, Sid begins with solid quarter notes, leading into a barrage of double-stroke rolls (bars 1-4). There is a double-time feel, but Sid feints doubling that meter for just an instant (bars 5-8). Next, his incredible hand-to-foot coordination is displayed by his use of bass drum accents and rhythmic patterns on a choke cymbal (bars 9-12). The virtuoso solo takes on a dense texture, redolent of Chick Webb (bars 13-16) then comes a sudden release of tension and eighth notes between rim shots and bass drum (bars 17-18). Bars 19-20 call to mind Catlett’s early inspiration, Zutty Singleton. Sid keeps Zutty’s style going through bar 27, with accented rolls and bass drum “bombs.” The solo comes to a magnificent climax in a crescendo of accented triplets.

Kaminksy, obviously inspired by what he just heard, tears into the final chorus even before the end of the drum solo! With the tempo in just the right spot, the band is on fire! The final ensemble is underpinned by Sid’s ringing hi-hat and on bar 12 he adds the perfect touch—solid afterbeat rim shots—played to the conclusion of the rideout chorus. The proceedings end with a wide-open cymbal crash and a bass drum “button.”

Sid Catlett’s monumental drumming on “Oh, Katharina” is a genuine work of art. In this writer’s opinion it ranks with “Steak Face,” “Rose Room,” “46 West 52,” “Hallelujah,” “Sleep,” “I Never Knew” and “Afternoon Of A Basie-ite” as one of Catlett’s greatest recordings. It should be heard by every jazz enthusiast!

One response to “NOW HEAR THIS: Hal Smith and “OH, KATHARINA!”

  1. Agree 101 per cent, Hal!

    Big Sid could make a drum solo a musical experience – as opposed to a merelt technical one a la Buddy R…

    …and this Eddie Condon side is Catlett at his music best!

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