The CD I present to you is a good idea whose time has come — growing out of the inevitable amusement one would have at a jazz duo CD titled THE BOB AND RAY SHOW. No Elliott or Goulding, just Schulz (cornet, vocals), and Skjelbred (piano) in duets recorded in 2009 and 2013.
Here’s how the duo sounded — on a slightly crowded bandstand — on May 26, 2014, at the Sacramento Music Festival:
The songs on this wonderful CD, each one with singular associations, are ‘T’AIN’T SO, HONEY, ‘T’AIN’T SO (Robison, Bix, Whiteman, Crosby); WININ’ BOY BLUES (Mr. Morton); I AIN’T GOT NOBODY (everyone from Bessie Smith onwards); SHOE SHINE BOY (Louis, Basie, and Bing); SAVE IT, PRETTY MAMA (again Louis, Earl Hines, Don Redman); BECAUSE MY BABY DON’T MEAN ‘MAYBE” NOW (Bix, Whiteman, Bing); PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (Bing, Louis, and almost everyone else from Billie to Dick Wellstood); MANDY, MAKE UP YOUR MIND ( Clarence Williams into the twenty-first century); ‘TIL TIMES GET BETTER (Jabbo Smith); REACHING FOR SOMEONE (Bix and Tram, also Dick Sudhalter); I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA (Bix and Jimmy Rushing); MONDAY DATE (Earl, Louis, and more); KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW (Fats, Ruby Braff, and more); OH, BABY! (Tesch, Sullivan, Condon, Krupa, and more); WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS (Bing, Louis, and many others); WEATHER BIRD RAG (King Oliver; Louis and Earl; Braff and Hyman, and more).
The tempos chosen for this disc are primarily pretty Medium Tempos, reminding us of the infinite variations possible in that sonic meadow, the results neither soporific nor hasty.
I imagine that the improvising duet of cornet and piano goes back to the late eighteen-hundreds, when that brass instrument was a feature of homegrown ensembles and pianos were in many parlors. On record, I think of Oliver and Morton, first in a long line including Louis and Earl, Ruby and Ellis, Ruby and Dick, Sweets and Earl, a long series of trumpet duets with Oscar Peterson . . . a lineage continuing as I write this.
The duo of Schulz and Skjelbred is special — for its consistent pervasive lyricism. Many of these pairings have a playful acrobatic quality, with one of the musicians saying to the other, “Oh, yeah? Top this!” Some of the playfulness becomes cheerfully competitive, assertive or even aggressive. The two players trot along through each song as friendly equals, neither trying to overpower the other. Bob and Ray aren’t out to show off; they like beautiful melodies and the little surprises that can be found within even the most familiar song. Hear, for instance, Skjelbred’s harmonic surprises and suspensions that he offers early in the video of SHOE SHINE BOY.
One of the pleasures of the disc is the easy, ardent yet understated singing of Bob — he is known to burst into song when the mood and the material are appropriate during a session of his Frisco Jazz Band, but I find his vocals particularly charming: a Crosby mordent here or there. His singing — clear, unaffected, gentle — is the expression of his cornet playing, which is a model of middle-range melodic improvisation. (In it, one hears a spring-water clarity out of Bix and Hackett, then a Spanier-intensity when Bob takes up the plunger mute.)
Bob’s partner in these explorations, Ray Skjelbred, continues to amaze and delight: his off-center approach, original yet always elating, his rollicking rhythms, his bluesy depths. Ray takes risks, and his playing is deliciously unpredictable, but it is always in the groove. (With headphones, I could hear Bob say, softly, “Yeah!” at a felicitous Skjelbred pathway — over the rough road to the stars.) Yes, that’s a Sullivan rattle, a Stacy octave, or a Hines daredevil-leap you are hearing, but it’s all transformed in the hands of Mr. Skjelbred, who is one of the finest orchestral pianists I will ever hear — but whose orchestra is shot through with light and shade, never ponderous.
And this is not a disc of two great soloists who happen, perhaps against their will, to find themselves asked to become members of a team and do it with some reluctance. It’s clear that Bob and Ray are musical comrades who look forward to exchanging ideas, celebrating the dear old tunes while making them feel just like new. Incidentally, the disc offers — in the best homage to George Avakian — an example or two of judicious overdubbing, with Bob both singing and playing at once. . . . something we would like to hear and see in real life, but he hasn’t managed such magic on the stand. Yet.
The thoughtful musical conversations Bob and Ray have on this disc are emotionally sustaining. Each performance has its own dramatic shape, its own structure — more than a series of ensemble / solo choruses — and I would send copies of this disc to all the young musicians in and out of this idiom. And a test: I would ask purchasers to pick out what they think is the most “overplayed” song on the disc and listen seriously to the Bob-and-Ray version, to see what magic can be made when two earnestly playful masters go to work on rich materials. Not incidentally, the sound on this disc captures all the nuances without any engineering-strangeness, and the neatly comprehensive liner notes by drummer / historian / writer Hal Smith are a pleasure.
You can hear musical samples here (go to the “CD” section — this disc is at the top of the page). Even better, you can search out Bob or Ray at an upcoming gig and press some accepted local currency into one or the other master’s hand. As I’ve noted, Ray is touring California (that’s San Francisco, Walnut Creek, Menlo Park, Sonoma, and back to San Francisco) between July 8 and the 14th, so you can have the double pleasure of hearing him live and purchasing a CD.
Unlike the shows put on by Elliott and Goulding, I didn’t find myself laughing while I was listening, although I was smiling all the time, at the beautiful, wise, mellow music. Get yourself some.
May your happiness increase!