For some musicians and many audience members, honoring the innovative music of the past is a nearly academic matter. To them, one should treat a 1927 McKenzie-Condon recording as if it were a Mozart score, and make it come alive in this century through absolute idiomatic fidelity to the original.
This approach, a heartfelt reverence for the past, can have electrifying results. Hearing a trumpet player exquisitely reproduce a Louis solo has always made me want to cheer, and I am sure that Louis would have seen this as an act of love — a love that took skill, expertise, and hours of diligence.
But I wonder if all the truly innovative musicians of the past would have delighted in this form of reverence. Would Bix be cheered to know that somewhere, right now, a cornet player is reproducing his solo on SINGIN’ THE BLUES? I have my doubts; after all, he told Jimmy McPartland that what he liked most about jazz was its innate unpredictability, that no one knew what was going to happen next. Lester Young said that he felt hemmed in by the players who had copied his every mannerism and then presented it as a style.
For me, the most rewarding music balances its obeisances to the past (often encapsulated in recordings) with freshness, the delicious uncertainty of surprise, of risk, of invention within an idiom.
My readers may not agree with this, and I won’t demean the contemporary player who, in honoring an idol, reproduces his every nuance as a tribute and a beautiful piece of “acting.” And innovation has to be aware of context: the young tenor player in the 2014 “Swing Era” big band, soloing on STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, who launches into a Wayne Shorter meditation, pleases me not at all.
I offer here another energized example of how one might honor the past without dishonoring the present — the second compact disc by the Chicago-based hot band, THE FAT BABIES (Delmark Records):
I thought their first CD, CHICAGO HOT, was superb — you can read my encomium here, and this one is even better.
The musicians are Beau Sample, string bass; Alex Hall, drums; Jake Sanders, tenor banjo, Paul Asaro, piano / vocal; Dave Bock, trombone; John Otto, clarinet / alto saxophone; Andy Schumm, cornet / alto saxophone — with incidental singing by the members of the ensemble and arrangements by Schumm, Asaro, and Otto. The songs are LIZA (Condon-Rubens), TILL TIMES GET BETTER, THE STAMPEDE, MABEL’S DREAM, NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW, I CAN’T DANCE (I GOT ANTS IN MY PANTS), 18th AND RACINE (an original by Andy), KING KONG STOMP, EL RADO SCUFFLE, OH BABY, STARDUST, I’LL FLY TO HAWAII, OH ME! OH MY!, THE CHANT, BLUEBERRY RHYME. Experienced jazz listeners will be able to tick off the associations here: James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, the Washboard Rhythm Kings, Joseph Robichaux, Jimmie Noone, Fletcher Henderson, Jabbo Smith, Eddie Condon, Brad Gowans, Hoagy Carmichael, Bix Beiderbecke, and more.
But the Fat Babies do more than reproduce old records. They invent within the familiar architectures; honoring hallowed introductions and endings, they create energetic, personal statements — so that the results sound both idiomatic and fresh, with influences and shadings in motion on every track. The ensemble is lively and flexible; the solos are rewarding; the rhythm section swings along mightily. And there’s a group vocal on I’LL FLY TO HAWAII — more than anyone could ever ask for.
The CD doesn’t sound like a brilliant history lesson. Rather, it sounds like a happy gathering of the faithful who have understood that “going for yourself” — as Fats and Billie, Chick Webb, and Freddie Keppard did — is the true jazz gospel.
Whether or not you share my sentiments about recreation, repertory, innovation, originality, or not, you owe it to yourself to investigate this session. It’s alive, and that’s always a good thing. Revering the dead by making sure what they created never moves again might not be what the dead, once living, wanted for themselves.
May your happiness increase!