Category Archives: Pay Attention!

PRESTO! “TWERK THOMSON PLAYS UNPOPULAR SONGS”

The CD below is delightfully weird but the results are entirely gratifying. Perhaps that sentence should properly read “and the results”: you decide.

Exhibit A.  The process:

Twerk Thomson with Kris Tokarski and Ben Polcer, and two turntables. Photograph by John A. Dixon.

Twerk Thomson with Kris Tokarski and Ben Polcer, and two turntables. Photograph by John A. Dixon.

Exhibit A.1.a: A Presto disc cutter from eBay:

presto-cutter

Exhibit A.1.b: Blank discs, also from eBay:

presto-discs

Exhibit B. The result:

twerk-cd-cover

Exhibit B.1.a.:

bunk-popular

Exhibit C. The results, continued here.

Exhibiit D.  The explanation.  The story has different parts, which combine. Twerk Thomson is a young yet respected New Orleans string bassist, with a real understanding of the art form, often heard with the Shotgun Jazz Band.  And he, like other musicians and scholars, is fascinated by the intersection of “archaic” sound and the technology of its time. It’s one thing to get musicians into a modern studio — which, at its most “modern,” is a very restrictive environment, where musicians can barely see each other and hear each other through headphones . . . and then try to improvise music that will seem natural to the disc’s purchaser.  But what happens when you record twenty-first century improvisers with the technology of the previous century, the century that gave birth to the innovators they (and we) so admire?  The music I am celebrating in this post, created last year, is a tribute to Bill Russell’s American Music creations. And the new CD sounds wonderful.

But something needs to be said about the Presto home record cutter and discs. Before the computer and the iPhone . . . music used to be packaged tangibly on a variety of discs, and enterprising people could record their own music at home — whether it was Aunt Ella singing and playing hymns or the Paso Robles Wanderers working out the trio of MABEL’S DREAM.  I have found these discs at yard sales, and they’ve never offered something life-changing, such as a broadcast from the Reno Club, but they are tantalizing.  The whole idea is roughly parallel to another piece of archaic technology, the Polaroid camera, but I assure you the discs hold up better.

Twerk told me, “I got my first cutter about a year and a half ago, which ended up being completely useless.  So I ended up buying two more.  They come up on eBay every so often. Finding ones that were affordable was the big challenge.
Blanks come up on eBay as well but they are very hit and miss when It comes to quality. I actually ended up finding a bunch of original presto blanks on there once that were actually still usable. They came in the original packaging which was really cool.  But for higher quality blanks we use a company called Apollo, from California.”

The official version is “The performances herein were recorded live with one microphone into a Presto K8 lathe, cut directly to acetate discs at 78 rpm, and edited only for volume. All Sessions Produced by Twerk Thomson and Recorded by John Dixon, Live at Twerk-O-Phonic Studios, New Orleans, LA.”

The songs: OH, YOU BEAUTIFUL DOLL / OLD FASHIONED LOVE / MY GAL SAL / PRETTY BABY / SOMEDAY, SWEETHEART / SWEET BYE AND BYE (Twerk Thomson, string bass; Ben Polcer, trumpet; Kris Tokarski, piano) / JADA / SHINE  / ONE SWEET LETTER FROM YOU / NOON BLUES / MARIE / YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE / MELANCHOLY BLUES  (Twerk, John Rodli, guitar, vocal on JADA; Kris; Ben; James Evans, C-melody saxophone, clarinet; Charlie Halloran, trombone) / IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE TREE / MAMA’S GONE, GOODBYE / POOR BUTTERFLY (Twerk, Russell Welch, guitar; Alex Owen, trumpet; Bruce Brackmon, clarinet; Marty Peters, tenor saxophone) / HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO? / HOME (Twerk, tenor guitar; Marla Dixon, trumpet and vocal).

Exhibit E: Twerk Thomson on Facebook.

If you’re familiar with any of the heroes recorded on this disc (and you can hear / download / purchase the music on the Soundcloud link above) you will know what to expect: music that is both romping and elegantly controlled, harking back to the Bunk Johnson – Don Ewell – Alphonso Steele trios and slightly larger ensembles.  The “vintage sound” — powerfully focused if somewhat narrower (at first) than we are used to — is so atmospheric.  The discs have occasional surface noise, whooshes and clicks, but the noise is part of the overall effect rather than something added on synthetically.  Everyone plays beautifully and with heart, so the result is not merely the documentation of a gimmick, but a melding of technology and reverent impulse.

I first heard a few of the individual sessions on Twerk’s Facebook page, and thought, “Wow, I hope he puts these into a form that people who want to get away from their computers can purchase and have.”  And he did.  So I can now time-travel to some indeterminate place whenever I want, even while driving to work.  And Twerk has also established Twerk-O-Phonic Studios as a place (a sanctuary for music!) where you can visit and record your own music onto an actual disc — a single artifact, not a mass-produced product — to have, to hear, to admire.  I don’t want this to become such a phenomenon that he no longer has time to play the propulsive string bass he does so well, but a little prosperity would be nice.

I commend this disc to you.  The music on it both embraces and transcends the technology.  And, to me, the complete idea — the musicians, the home environment, the discs — is heartwarming.

May your happiness increase!

THE UNFAILING LIGHT OF LOUIS

Photograph by Jack Bradley, 1969

Photograph by Jack Bradley, 1969

Thanks to scholar and co-producer Ricky Riccardi, another wonderful set of Louis Armstrong recordings has emerged, complete: the Mercury recordings Louis and the All-Stars made between 1964 and 1966, with the pop hit MAME and the lesser hit SO LONG, DEARIE as the most famous among them.

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Ricky has done his usual wonderfully exhaustive job of annotating these digital releases.  Here (from his Louis blog) are the notes as they can be read online. And here is the link to read his notes as a PDF.

The music is available only as a digital download through Apple / iTunes: the complete package is $24.99, each song available at $1.29.  Details here.   And, as I wrote in my post on the the new issue of Louis’ complete Decca singles, if you hate “downloads” for their insubstantiality, I understand.  I too like music in physical packages (my apartment is furnished in Early Music) but we listen to live music and go home without being furious that we can’t take the players with us; in olden days, we listened to the radio, etc.  So if you reject this music because you “hate Apple,” to quote Billie, you’re just foolin’ yourself.

Now, if you are someone who deeply feels Louis, you probably already know about these issues and might already be listening, rapt.  If you are someone new to Louis or one of the people who believes the “beginning of his long decline” happened ninety years ago, I urge you to read on.  First, some facts.

The fifty-three performances are, first, the original contents of the “vinyl” issue: MAME / THE CIRCLE OF YOUR ARMS / SO LONG DEARIE / TIN ROOF BLUES / I LIKE THIS KIND OF PARTY / WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN / CHEESE CAKE / TYREE’S BLUES / PRETTY LITTLE MISSY / FAITH / SHORT BUT SWEET / BYE ‘N BYE / then followed by alternate takes, rehearsal takes, monaural takes of BYE ‘N BYE / FAITH / DEARIE (7) / MISSY (5) / FAITH (8) / SHORT BUT SWEET (6) / CIRCLE (6) / PARTY (5) / THE THREE OF US (3).  The performances are almost all three minutes long — not harking back to OKeh 78s but to the currency of the times, the 45 rpm single that would be played on AM radio.  The other musicians include Buster Bailey, who had worked with Louis in 1924-5; Eddie Shu; Tyree Glenn; Big Chief Russell Moore; Billy Kyle, Marty Napoleon, Everett Barksdale, and more.

Louis, like other innovators, had a long history of taking “popular” material and creating immortal improvisations, so jazz fans dismayed at seeing unfamiliar titles should not be.  Not all of the songs are deathless — a few are paper-thin — but it almost seems as if the worse the material, the more room Louis has to work magic on it.  For me, the finest performances are of songs I doubt others could have done much with: SHORT BUT SWEET, THE CIRCLE OF YOUR ARMS, FAITH, I LIKE THIS KIND OF PARTY, THE THREE OF US (never before issued), SO LONG DEARIE, and others to lesser effect.

Here is the issued take of SHORT BUT SWEET:

A quietly warm melodic statement (helped by Tyree Glenn’s vibes and, for once, a rhythm guitar) leads into an equally warm vocal — on a song that resembles eight other classics — calling it “derivative” would be excessive praise.  Although the lyrics consistently disappoint, as if the writers had made a bet how many cliches they could jam into thirty-two bars, Louis is even warmer, with freer phrasing, on the vocal bridge to the end of the chorus.  And then that trumpet bridge!  “Tonation and phrasing,” passion, vibrato, and courage.  It might not leap out at a listener the way the beginning of WEST END BLUES does, but I know I couldn’t get those eight bars out of my head after just one hearing.

If you do not warm to that, may I suggest an immersion?  If it doesn’t get to you after three more playings, we may have little to say to one another.  But you might want to read to the end to discover the depths of my apparently foolish devotion.  And you might keep in your head what Bobby Hackett said to Nat Hentoff (I am paraphrasing here): “Do you know how hard it is to make melody come alive like that?”

I have a serious sentimental attachment to this music, because when this record came out, I was nearly fourteen.  This was my Louis Armstrong.  This was the heartfelt, occasionally comic entertainer I saw regularly on television — performing two songs with the All-Stars, conversing briefly and jocularly with the host, and then the show would move on to the acrobats, the writer plugging a new book, the actress doing the same for her new film.  I thrilled to these moments: Louis emerging from behind the curtain to sing and play MAME, DEARIE, later CABARET and WONDERFUL WORLD.  I lived in suburbia, a mile’s walk from several stores with record departments, and I recall going to Times Square Stores [known to some of us by our adolescent translation of its initials into Tough Shit, Sonny] or Mays or Pergaments, thumbing through the Louis records I knew by heart, and buying this new one in an excited flurry.  (My mother would have looked patient but puzzled; my father would have said, “Don’t you have enough records?” but not argued the point.) I would have disappeared into my bedroom and played it over and over.  I no longer have my mid-Sixties copy, but this recent release has brought all that experience back.

And what was there on this Mercury record?  Joy is the simple answer, with a substantial emotional range: the mocking dismissal of DEARIE, the celebration of the imaginary hedonist Auntie Mame on the title song, the blues — familiar and impromptu — the cheerful satire of FAITH, and the love songs that were CIRCLE and SHORT BUT SWEET, the alcohol-free gathering of PARTY, and more.  Each song was its own brief dramatic playlet, with a good deal of Louis’ singing and short but very affecting trumpet interludes.

He was no longer the star of the Vendome Theatre show; he was no longer playing 250 high C’s at the end of CHINATOWN.  But those age-related limitations were, to me, a great good thing.  These trumpet interludes are incredibly subtle and moving because his wisdom. Young, he could dramatically create expansive masterpieces, sometimes on record, sometimes legendary and unrecorded.  And those creations are awe-inspiring displays of virtuosity.

But we hear that this older man, with fifty years’ musical experience behind him, knows so much more about what to play and what not to — so an eight-bar passage on any song is intense, full of emotion.  Every note counts, because it has to.  And if you think this is special pleading on behalf of the elderly, ask any improvising musician to listen deeply to one of these solos.

I am not yet a senior citizen.  But I think a good deal about aging and what the proper responses might be to the calendar, the passage of days measured in the speed I climb stairs or the ease with which I carry groceries.  For decades, I’ve looked to Louis as a spiritual model.  I don’t take Swiss Kriss; I don’t tell prospective life-partners “The horn comes first”; I’m not a Mets fan.  But I think the aging Louis — as icon, as artist — has so much to tell us, no matter how old we are now.

The question we must ask ourselves is large: “Since our time on the planet is finite, what should we do with it, even if we have a long time before the final years approach?”  I think his answer, audible on the Mercury sides, is plain: “Do what you and you alone do well.  Do it will your heart.  And strive to do it better and with greater purity of intent for as long as you can.  That action is you, and it will stop only when you do.”

Whether you subscribe to this philosophical notion or not, this music is seriously uplifting.  Thank you, Louis.

May your happiness increase!

“SEPTEMBER SONG”: DAN BLOCK, EHUD ASHERIE, KERRY LEWIS, HAL SMITH (Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, Sept. 15, 2016)

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I think that the creation of beauty is a noble act, a way to brighten the darkness, to refresh the weary: like offering water to the thirsty or helping someone terribly lost find the way home.

These four artists — Dan Block, tenor saxophone; Ehud Asherie, piano; Kerry Lewis, string bass; Hal Smith, drums — made beauty not only possible but tangible and accessible on Thursday night, September 15, 2016, at the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, with their performance of SEPTEMBER SONG.  Absorb it deeply and return to mundane life with your load lightened:

 

Details of the 2017 Party are here.  It’s an extremely rewarding event — a weekend of uplifting music among friends.

May your happiness increase!

“NIGHT AND DAY”: DAWN LAMBETH / CONAL FOWKES at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 27, 2016)

DAWN headshot

A favorite singer, a favorite pianist: you can tell who’s who.

CONAL FOWKES

Thanks to the San Diego Jazz Fest, we get to delight in Dawn and Conal jauntily performing this Cole Porter classic, which I don’t think I’ve ever heard in live jazz performance in decades of watching and listening. Heartfelt unaffected singing, no tricks; ebullient playing.  Conal and Dawn work together splendidly.

Conal played and sang the part of Cole Porter in Woody Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS: if this is typecasting, I’m all for it.

P.S. Dawn and Conal have plans for a duo CD. I’ll share details with all of you when it is completed, but, as they used to say when there were stores, “Look for it wherever better books and records are sold.”

May your happiness increase!

 

AND SEVEN TO GROOVE ON: JON DE LUCIA OCTET PLAYS GIUFFRE, MULLIGAN, BRUBECK at SIR D’S LOUNGE (Part Two), FEBRUARY 6, 2017.

jon-de-lucia-2-6-17-flyerThis is the second half of a wonderful evening of intricate swinging melodic music played expertly by people I admire.  Here‘s the first half.

And now (drumroll from Steve Little on a borrowed drumset) . . . .

Here’s PREZ-ERVATION, a tribute wrapped in another tribute: Ted Brown’s variations on TICKLE-TOE, arranged for this band by Jon himself:

Some pretty Gershwin, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME, arranged by Jimmy Giuffre, a performance I would share with anyone disdainful of “modern jazz” or “cool jazz”:

Gerry Mulligan’s FOUR AND ONE MORE:

The Brubeck Octet’s LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME:

Bill Smith’s IPCA, variations on INDIANA:

The Encore Edition of THE SONG IS YOU, a happy reprise:

Mulligan’s SEXTET, an exhilarating romp to close off the evening:

What lovely music: propelled, sentimental, intricate yet lyrical.  Bless these players.

May your happiness increase!

“MISTER GLOOM WON’T BE ABOUT”: JON-ERIK KELLSO, EVAN ARNTZEN, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, FRANK TATE at LUCA’S JAZZ CORNER (Dec. 22, 2016)

luca-jazz-corner

Feeling lower than a snake’s belly?  Or perhaps is “fump” the objective correlative for now?  (Milt Hinton would be happy to explain.) Is the inside of your skull terribly dark these days?

This might help.  The elixir of life mixes the inspiring shades of Louis Armstrong and Hoagy Carmichael with the real-life inspirations offered us by Jon-Erik Kellso, Evan Arntzen, Rossano Sportiello, Frank Tate and someone holding a video camera — on December 22, 2016, at Luca’s Jazz Corner (1712 First Avenue, New York City).  There are no artistic or audible flaws in this video, but there are a few seconds where the focus blurs.  I wasn’t trying out new special effects, but the bright light from above confused the camera’s little brain.  However, blessedly, the sound is unaltered.  Hear for yourself:

Here is more evidence of the cosmic happiness that took place that night: RUNNIN’ WILD and FINE AND DANDY.  Incidentally, a young musician (I believe he plays trumpet) named Wynton Marsalis came in for the second set.  I am sure that he inspired the band, but I am even more sure that this delicious quartet inspired him as well.  As they did me.

Jon-Erik will be bringing a quartet back to Luca’s on March 23, 2017.  I plan and hope to be there.  You should come too.  (Other heroes — Gabrielle Stravelli, Michael Kanan, Pat O’Leary, and Ken Peplowski — have gigs coming up.)

May your happiness increase!

“I’D LOVE YOU STRONG”: ENRICO TOMASSO PLAYS LOUIS (Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party, November 5, 2016)

one-hour-louis

Today is the day after Valentine’s Day, but we know that romance does not stop when February 14 ends.  Call it what you will, the light of love or the light of Louis or both, but they shine through Enrico Tomasso.  Here, Rico plays and sings his own version of Louis’ 1930 classic at the Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party (on November 5, 2016) accompanied by Keith Nichols, Andy Schumm, Alistair Allan, Claus Jacobi, Jean-Francois Bonnel, Richard Exall, Emma Fisk, Martin Wheatley, Phil Rutherford, Nick Ball.

I suppose it took and takes a particularly sensitized listener to understand the depths of Louis’ romantic passion, playing or singing.  Even Mezz Mezzrow, Louis’ great champion, said in his autobiography that the jukebox owners in Harlem had their machines full of Louis’ records, but that they had to have a few others because not everyone heard Louis so deeply.  But Rico does, and conveys that enthusiastic passionate energy, both singing and playing.  The only thing missing here is Vic Dickenson’s visual joke — holding up TWO fingers while singing about “one hour tonight.”  Sixty minutes is just too brief an interval to love someone effectively.

As is often the case, many thanks to Eric Devine for invaluable technical expertise — Eric is “CineDevine,” an expert videographer and a good fellow.

May your happiness increase!