Tag Archives: Alex Owen

“A WORKING BAND”: WELCOME THE RIVERSIDE JAZZ COLLECTIVE!

Some New Orleanians will glower at me for writing these words, but all the music marketed as “New Orleans jazz” is not equally satisfying or expert.  The proof is on the city’s streets or on YouTube.  All that’s apparently steaming is not Hot, to coin a new cliché.

But this post is to welcome a new band — the Riverside Jazz Collective — and their debut CD, which is a delight. It’s the brainchild of pianist / arranger Kris Tokarski (whom I admire greatly) and his congenial friends: Benny Amon, drums; Alex Belhaj, guitar, vocal; Tyler Thomson or Andy Reid, string bass; Ben Polcer, trumpet, vocal, or Alex Owen, cornet and vocal; Charlie Halloran, trombone; Chloe Feoranzo, clarinet, vocal.

If you don’t know those names, you need a refresher course in Old Time Modern.

And the repertoire is lively and — even when venerable — fresh and joyous:
STOMP OFF, LET’S GO / IT BELONGS TO YOU/ JUST GONE / HERE COMES THE HOT TAMALE MAN / WABASH BLUES / READY FOR THE RIVER / RIVERSIDE BLUES / DON’T LEAVE ME IN THE ICE AND SNOW / SWIPSEY CAKEWALK / BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES  TO ME / ONE SWEET LETTER FROM YOU / SEE SEE RIDER / MELANCHOLY BLUES / SOCIETY BLUES / WHENEVER YOU’RE LONESOME.

That’s a wholly “traditional” repertoire, with nods to Louis Armstrong, Erskine Tate, Kid Ory, Jelly Roll Morton, Bunk Johnson, King Oliver, Freddie Keppard, Jimmie Noone, Tony Jackson, and more — but happily it isn’t DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS?  Nothing’s routine or stale here.

Here is the band’s Facebook page — where you can learn about their next gigs.

I’d asked Kris if he needed a liner-note writer, by which I meant myself, and I was delighted when he said yes.  Here’s what I wrote, in a very short time, because the music hit me hard in the nicest ways:

In the old days, when one could see the liner notes on the back of the “record,” or the “lp,” those paragraphs served a commercial purpose: to make the undecided purchaser head to the cash register at a trot, clutching the record. Today, the purchaser might read the notes after buying the CD (or perhaps not at all): so I write to share my enthusiasm. And there’s a lot to be enthusiastic about the Riverside Jazz Collective.

Musicians I know speak of “playing tunes,” as in “Oh, we played some tunes,” which suggests that on those occasions there is little written music but much collective joy that comes out of well-earned knowledge of the music. The RJC knows the original records and they may have “roadmaps” as in “Second chorus is stop-time for cornet and piano only,” but they aren’t trying to create imitations of the classics in the best sound. And they have the comfortable ease and friendliness – to us, to each other – of A Working Band, something delicious and rare.

The RJC is interested in “old” songs that are melodically and emotionally durable – from joyous stomps to love songs to one Chicago lament that says, “You know what? I’m going to kill myself,” even if the lyrics are too witty for that to be a real threat. Their repertoire is often “New Orleans jazz,” however you might define it, as it surfaced in other cities, notably Chicago. And one can point to a good number of Ancestors here, from Tony Jackson to Louis Armstrong to Oliver, Morton, Keppard, Bunk, and Ory.

This band also enacts a neat balance between collective improvisation and solos, but they bring a little twenty-first century energy, elegance, and intelligence to their hot reverence. Enthusiasm is the driving force here, not cautious antiquarianism. This band has also heard jazz created after 1927, and that awareness gives these performances a happy elasticity, an optimistic bounce. Hear HERE COMES THE TAMALE MAN for a brilliant example of sonic joy-spreading. I could explain more, but it would cost extra.

It feels good, and it feels real. You know there are mountains of what I’d call “tofu music” being marketed as genuine, but your ears, your feet, and your heart tell you when the jazz has been manufactured in a lab by chemists. I greet the Riverside Jazz Collective at the start of what I hope is their brilliant career. My words are written in a time of ice and snow, but the music warms and embraces. And now IT BELONGS TO YOU.

Visit here — and these compact versions of spiritual uplift can belong to you, either as download or disc; you can hear samples of the music as well.

Welcome to the Riverside Jazz Collective.  They spread joy: I hope they find prosperity and appreciative audiences.

May your happiness increase!

THE OPPOSITE OF DESTRUCTIVENESS IS KINDNESS, OR, TAKE A LOOK AT T WERK’S WORKS

I’m reposting this February 2017 post for a reason.  I’ve never met the string bassist and energetic recordist T Werk Thomson in person, but I’ve admired his work (or werk) from when I first heard it.  Simply, about a year ago, he created in his New Orleans home a recording studio.  Not with ProTools and his MacBook, but with a Presto disc cutter, a supply of “new” 78 recording blanks, and he set out to capture good music in the best old-time ways.  And that music — detailed below — was just splendid.  As well, I applauded the splendid eccentricity of his capturing it as hot jazz, cage-free, organic, and locally sourced.  (Another product of T Werk’s studio is Charlie Halloran’s superb CE BIGUINE.)

At the end of 2017, I and others learned that someone had maliciously vandalized T Werk’s studio and destroyed his disc cutter and all that it needed to make more records.  I won’t go into the dark details — this is a jazz blog, not an episode of a television cop show — but that act seemed spectacularly mean-spirited.  Jo Anna Mae Amlin set up a GoFundMe page here and some people have been contributing.  I encourage you to do so.  As Louis sings in SHOE SHINE BOY, “every nickel helps a lot,” and one can match altruism with desire. If T Werk gets his studio running again, there will be more records for us to enjoy. So even if kindness in the abstract seems more than you can do, kindness with a reward is worth the effort.  If everyone who’s heard T Werk swing out paid in the price of a large Starbucks drink, or a beer, or (for the antiquarians among us) a CD, he would be able to reconstruct his studio quickly.  (And I should point out that Presto disc cutters and acetate blanks are not items one can pick up at the corner store.)

So: help out someone who’s already done a great deal for the music and for us.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled effusions.

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!

A SOUVENIR OF NEW ORLEANS: BRUNCH WITH JOE SIMON’S JAZZ TRIO featuring ALEX OWEN, JOHN EUBANKS, MARK BROOKS at MURIEL’S JACKSON SQUARE (September 25, 2016)

alex-alone

I had known of the engaging young trumpeter / vocalist Alex Owen through his own band, the Messy Cookers, whose debut CD also features guitarist John Eubanks.

Alex and John and friends on another gig.

Alex and John and friends on another gig.

When I visited New Orleans last month for the Steamboat Stomp, Alex and I got together for pleasant conversation and dinner.  And when I heard he would be playing with John and string bassist  / vocalist Mark Brooks as “Joe Simon’s Jazz Trio” for Sunday brunch at Muriel’s Jackson Square , my camera, tripod, and I took over a table for four and had a good time.  The food was both elaborate and pleasing; the service even more so (thanks to Patrick and David L.) but the music was the truly satisfying main dish: lyrical, hot but gentle, entertaining without pandering.

Now, you may see and hear for yourself.  JAZZ LIVES can’t provide shrimp and grits or a salad of fresh greens and fruit, and you’ll have to pour your own coffee. But I’ll wait while you prepare yourself for the musical delights offered by Alex, John, and Mark: gently swinging and never hackneyed.

Usually I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS is a closing number, but it works very well as a welcome to the gig:

I need Fats in my diet:

A good old good one from Mark:

Venerable and hot, courtesy of the ODJB, Condon, and many more:

A memorable 1920 pop tune:

You’ll miss me, honey!

We never get tired of marveling at Irving Berlin’s genius:

A request, handled with style:

Another paean in praise of the state:

And, as a closer to the second set, ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS:

What lovely sounds.

May your happiness increase!

GUILTY, WITH AN EXPLANATION (September 2016)

judges-gavel

I confess that I’ve let some days go by without blogging.  Unthinkable, I know, but I (gently) throw myself on the mercy of the JAZZ LIVES court of readers.

Permit me to explain.  From Thursday, September 15, to Sunday, the 18th, I was entranced by and at the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party.  Consider these — randomly chosen — delights.  Jim Dapogny playing IF I WERE YOU (twice) and some of his winsome original compositions.  Rossano Sportiello, Frank Tate, and Hal Smith swinging like no one’s business.  Rebecca Kilgore singing KEEP A SONG IN YOUR SOUL in the Andy Schumm-Hal Smith tribute to Alex Hill. Andy, on piano, with Paul Patterson and Marty Grosz — once on banjo! — in a hot chamber trio (a highlight being LOUISE).  Wesla Whitfield in wonderfully strong voice.  Dan Block and Scott Robinson romping through HOTTER THAN ‘ELL.  A Basie-styled small band led by Jon Burr, offering (among other pleasures) IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS OF THE MORNING.  A string bass trio — Burr, Tate, and Kerry Lewis — showing that no other instruments need apply.  Harry Allen and Jon-Erik Kellso playing ballads, and Dan Barrett, too.  Tributes to Nat Cole, Harry Warren, Isham Jones, and Bill Evans.  Many videos, too — although they take some time to emerge in public.

I came home late Sunday night and on Monday and Tuesday returned to normal (employed) life as Professor Steinman: John Updike, Tillie Olsen, William Faulkner.

Tomorrow, which is Wednesday, September 21, I get on a plane to New Orleans for Duke Heitger’s Steamboat Stomp.  Obviously I can’t report on delights experienced, but I can say I am looking forward to hearing, talking with, and cheering for the Yerba Buena Stompers, Miss Ida Blue, Banu Gibson, Tim Laughlin, Hal Smith, Kris Tokarski, Andy Schumm, Alex Belhaj, David Boeddinghaus, Ed Wise, Charlie Halloran, James Evans, Steve Pistorius, Orange Kellin, Tom Saunders, Debbie Fagnano, and many others.

So there you have it.  I could sit at home blogging, or I could be on the road, collecting gems, some of which I will be able to share.

My counsel in all this has been the most eminent solicitor, Thomas Langham, who will now offer his closing argument to the jury:

May your happiness increase!

ALEX OWEN’S SAVORY HOT CUISINE

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:

MESSY COOKERS JB cover

and a photograph of the band caught in its natural habitat:

messycookers

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.

Visit here to purchase the disc, or, better still, find the Messy Cookers at one of their gigs.

May your happiness increase!