Find your Capezios, please. JAZZ LIVES will wait.
Hal Smith’s “On the Levee Jazz Band” is delightfully subversive in its own way.
Its members are formally dressed in the way that jazz musicians used to be (Coleman Hawkins would never have gone to a gig or a recording session in a tight blue polo shirt with a band name on the left pectoral). They are devoted to the later music of Kid Ory (which, to some, might paint them as an old-fashioned New Orleans jazz repertory ensemble). Thus, they can seem scholarly rather than rambunctious (Hal, aside from being one of the half-dozen best jazz drummers, is a scholar of the music who can tell you what the band name means, to take just one example).
BUT. Let us not be fooled by surfaces.
OTL, as I occasionally call them, is one of the best small swing units now playing. They don’t copy old records; their music is uplifting dance music, and swing dancers have a wonderful time with it. The band rocks; they are informal but expert; their solos soar and their ensembles groove.
Their secret, which no one whispers aloud, is that they are closer to a Buck Clayton Jam Session than to a Bill Russell American Music shellac disc. And in this they are true to the source: Ory kept up with the times; he loved to swing, and he loved to create music for dancing. But you need not take my word for it.
I captured three of the band’s sets at the Evergreen Jazz Festival, and this one is particularly dear to my heart because it is music for swing dancers. In 1959, more or less, the Kid and trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen, old pals from New Orleans, made recordings and gave European concerts which drew on a swing repertoire somewhat looser than the stereotype. Not “Dixieland” or “trad” in their essence, these records captured a particular musical ambiance where disparate personalities were free to roam. The Verve records were particular pleasures of my adolescence, so to hear Hal and the OTL play those swinging songs was a joy, not only for me, but for the dancers.
I should point out here that the band at Evergeen was made up of Ben Polcer, trumpet, vocal; Joe Goldberg, clarinet; guest star Clint Baker, trombone, vocal; Kris Tokarski, piano; Alex Belhaj, guitar; Joshua Gouzy, string bass; Hal Smith, drums, leader. American Popular Songbook, too — two Gershwins, two Wallers! (But — just between us — these are very familiar tunes which have been overdone in less subtle hands. Hear how the OTL makes them soar, with what easy lilting motion.)
And here’s a nod to Bill Basie and the golden days, LADY BE GOOD:
The Fats classic, done at a nice tempo, AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’:
Yes, I GOT RHYTHM, played au naturel, at a sweet Thirties bounce:
and HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, again, made new by a splendid tempo:
This music transcends categories. And as such, it is transcendent.
May your happiness increase!