I know that many of my metaphors and analogies are about food (the result of blogging-while-hungry) but in this case I have good reason: listening to and celebrating the second CD, THAT’S MY HOME, by The Messy Cookers Jazz Band, led by trumpeter Alex Owen:
and a photograph of the band caught in its natural habitat:
Here you can listen to samples from the CD — ideally, while you read about it below. (The CD stands up wonderfully without my text, I assure you.)
There is a certain kind of “modern performance practice” that I like and admire very much. It’s based on a deep reverence for and knowledge of a beloved tradition, where the musicians treat the music tenderly but with light hearts, knowing that the way to show love for an innovative art form is to gently innovate within its idioms. (As an early unpublished draft of Emerson’s “The American Scholar” points out, “Krupa was never made by the study of Krupa.”)
So while this amiable twenty-first century approach to jazz classics isn’t imitative, it isn’t self-consciously “innovative,” either. RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE is light and energized, not recast as a samba or a dirge. Jazz scholars can very well appreciate the sounds of the Messy Cookers — they are expert, passionate, and precise — but so could an audience that doesn’t have a wall of E+ Halfway House Orchestra 78s, an audience in the mood for lyrical syncopated dance music.
It isn’t atmospheric but amateurish busking. And it isn’t repressed archaeology.
One of the nicest aspects of this CD (and of the Cookers as an organization) is their subtle flexibility. The collective ensemble has Alex, trumpet / vocals; James Evans, clarinet, saxophone, vocals; Benjamin “Benny” Amón, drums; Andy Reid, bass, vocals; John Eubanks, guitar; Albanie Falletta, guitar / vocals; Steve Pistorius, piano. Notice, no trombone, tuba, or banjo. And as Alex explains in his notes, the instrumentation shifts from song to song — with smaller units within the band for variety and liveliness, also to reflect the different ways in which the Cookers reconfigure themselves for actual gigs. The overall effect is streamlined but fulfilling: I never missed the instruments I was supposed to miss by the laws of jazz orthodoxy.
And although the songs on this disc might qualify for Social Security and Medicare, coming to us before the Second World War, everything is happily energized here. “Play it like you mean it!” seems to be the underlying principle, vocally and instrumentally, and the results are charming and convincing — not a group of people who have tried to become “authentic” in an intensive weekend. I love the group vocal congregational responses on HESITATION BLUES and MILENBERG JOYS, and even though I’ve heard BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE often enough, Albanie’s tangy singing makes it come alive for me. Alex gets plus points for including THAT’S MY HOME on his disc, making it the title cut, singing it naturally and soulfully, refusing to imitate Louis. James Evans’ ferocious alto and intensely satisfying singing make WHO’S SORRY NOW? a modern evocation of the Rhythmakers, which is a great thing indeed.
Some of the names on this disc — Reid, Amón, Eubanks, Falletta, and even the leader — might be less familiar than Evans and Pistorius — but the band is delightfully unified at the highest level. Alex is a splendidly casual player and singer, and by that I mean he makes the difficult seem matter-of-fact; his lines ring and sing. Everything he does has a rhythmic bounce, no matter what the tempo, and he is a superb leader, letting everyone have a turn, creating witty, varied ensembles that rock in the best modern way.
When I was finished with my first playing of this disc, the only natural thing was to play it again. It’s delightful music. And not only would I suggest that you indulge yourself in purchasing a copy, but perhaps one for a younger person who likes jazz — so that (s)he can be reminded that this lovely raucous delicate art is still being practiced in the most exultant ways in this century. And for us, it’s a wonderful hopeful sign of vibrant life in the art form we cherish (and worry about).
Oh, and in case “Messy Cookers” makes you wonder whether the rangetop is a war scene of burnt-on food, take heart: I am sure that Alex and company mean it as the best sly compliment to music and musicians who create something loose, exuberant, spicy, and tasty.
May your happiness increase!