A wise philosopher — Gladys Bentley or Blanche Calloway — once said, “There are a thousand ways to do something wrong, but only four or five ways to do it right.” One of the most eagerly-awaited CDs of recent memory, WHEN LOUIS MET BIX, on Lake Records, is a shining example of beautiful imaginations at work.
The assertive cover photograph is slightly misleading, suggesting that we might be getting ready for one of those Battle of the Valves scenes so beloved of film directors. I offer as evidence one of the most musical (having seen this scene from THE FIVE PENNIES when I was perhaps eleven, it made a deep impression):
Beautiful as it is, that scene is all about mastery and power: the unknown challenger coming out of the shadows (the club dramatically silenced) to claim territory for himself, and being accepted by the gracious King, who makes space for him on the regal bandstand. It might be satisfying but we know it’s not the way things happen.
And this myth isn’t the story of WHEN LOUIS MET BIX, either historically or in this evocative CD. Consider this fraternal conversation, instead:
Immediately, the ear understands that this CD succeeds at being more than a recreation of a 1927 or 1928 after-hours jam session or cutting contest. The music on this disc, even when it is searing hot, is carried along by a fundamental gentleness of spirit, an aura of brotherly love and deep admiration. No skirmishes, no high notes except as they would logically occur.
As I mentioned at the start, there would have been many ways to make this noble idea turn into a leaden result. One would have been to hew strictly to factoids: to use only songs that we knew Bix and Louis played or recorded, and perhaps narrow the repertoire to a choking narrowness by sticking to compositions both of them had done. (By this time, certain well-played songs are reassuring to the audience but must feel like too-tight clothing to the musicians, restricting free movement.) Another would have been to envision the music as competitive: the Bix of BARNACLE BILL pitted against the Louis of POTATO HEAD BLUES. Nay, nay, to quote the Sage of Corona.
Instead, the repertoire is spacious — Louis and Bix loved melodies — and it offers Broadway show music by Rodgers and Blake next to pop classics of the time, alongside “jazz standards” and obscurities by Morton, Chris Smith, Fats Waller — and one evocative original by Andy Schumm. And rather than simply say to the noble players in the studio, “All right. MILENBERG JOYS, and find your own way home,” or “Meet you at the end,” the performances on this disc are delicately yet effectively shaped so that each seems a complete musical expression. There are small arrangements on each track, and rather than that being an impiety (affront to the Goddess of Hot, who supposedly loathes anything worked out — although we know better) these little sketches make the performances even more satisfying. Split choruses, four-bar trades, modulations, duet interludes, balanced conversations where X plays the melody and Y improvises around it, stop-time choruses . . . the wonders that musicians had and have accessible to them instead of the possible monotony of ensemble-solo-ensemble.
On that score, one of the reasons it has taken me longer than usual to review this worthy disc is that I kept falling in love with one track so that I wanted to play it all the way to work and all the way home. By definition, CDs are economy-sized packages of music, and I think I would have been happier (although weighed down) if this Lake Records CD could have been sold as eight 12″ 78 discs in a heavy cardboard binder, to be listened to deeply one at a time, on and on. But longing for the past, although understandable, has its limits. And the imagined 78s would have warped in my car.
For the record, and what a record! –the songs are OL’ MAN RIVER / MILENBERG JOYS / CHLOE / MANDY, MAKE UP YOUR MIND / WHO’S IT / PUT ‘EM DOWN BLUES / WHISPERING / MANHATTAN / SKID-DAT-DE-DAT / BESSIE COULDN’T HELP IT (the one Louis-Bix recording overlap) / COME ON AND STOMP, STOMP, STOMP / MY MELANCHOLY BABY / WHEN SHE CAME TO ME/ I’M JUST WILD ABOUT HARRY / THE BALTIMORE.
And the players. Rico (Louis) and Andy (Bix) are joined by absolutely stellar folk. And since neither Bix nor Louis tried to take up all the space on a recording, democracy prevails; thus we hear beautiful work from Alistair Allan, trombone; Matthias Seuffert, reeds; Morten Gunnar Larsen, piano; Spats Langham, banjo and guitar; Malcolm Sked, string bass; Nicholas D. Ball, drums.
Through this CD, we are able to travel to an alternate universe, where glorious improvised music evokes and summons up the Great Departed. And unlike actually attending the after-hour jam session at the Sunset Cafe or the Savoy Ballroom and thinking, “Where is all this beauty going?” we can have this dramatic evocation to visit over and over again (without our clothes smelling of smoke, spilled whiskey, or beer).
Incidentally, may I urge you to do the most venerable thing and purchase the actual physical disc (from Amazon US or UK or elsewhere). Not only does the glorious sound Paul Adams got through his vintage microphones deserve to be reproduced in the highest fidelity (as opposed to mp3s played through earbuds on a noisy train in the common fashion) but you’ll miss out on wonderfully detailed but light-hearted liner notes by scholar-producer Julio Schwarz Andrade and many wonderful photographs that convey the joy that reigned at this session.
My hope is that Lake Records will continue this series of mystical voyages that make an imagined past into tangible present reality. I’m sure that Julio, Paul, and the fellows have even more thrilling ideas for us in future. And I hope that there is an on-the-spot Louis / Bix meeting at the 2016 Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party so that we can marvel again.
Thanks to all the participants for making a visit to the alternate universe possible and so joyous. . . . a world where lyricism, abandon, passion, and expertise shape the music.
May your happiness increase!