The received wisdom is that long-playing records (and then CDs) allowed jazz musicians “room to stretch out,” and in many cases that is a boon. But I admire those musicians of all styles who can “get it done” in two choruses, smile, and step back.
Here’s a wonderful example: Bent Persson, cornet, and Goran Eriksson, banjo and stop-time percussive effects, romping through WEARY BLUES in the finest Louis Armstrong-Johnny St.Cyr manner, a performance that feels like the most rewarding dinner on a plate the size of a saucer: compressed, heated, expert:
It’s supposed to rain and be gray for the next three days . . . but in my heart the Louis-sun is blazing bright.
This 1915 composition is not only one but several paradoxes. It’s a multi-strain ragtime composition, not a blues, and it is anything but WEARY. For more about Artie Matthews, who had a rich life when he wasn’t composing, click hereto read an impressive biographical sketch by Bill Edwards.
Appropriately, the gentleman pictured above resembles some of us in early-pandemic, with a bundle of hand sanitizer, wipes, masks, gloves, and angst.
An electrifying performance of the WEARY BLUES is our centerpiece today. It leads us back to mid-March of this year. I won’t write about my experiences as the familiar world constricted, because everyone has their stories. But I am sure that none of your stories has such an inspired soundtrack.
This performance comes from my March 12, 2020, trip to Manhattan. Should I call it my “last” night in the city or my “most recent” one? Both are accurate, but the latter sounds more hopeful. And the music below radiates hope: created at Cafe Bohemia on 15 Barrow Street on that Thursday night by Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Evan Arntzen, clarinet; Albanie Falletta, resonator guitar, Sean Cronin, string bass, and guest Josh Dunn, guitar.
As you drink it all in, please admire the beauties below: a tempo both leisurely and intense, an ensemble that knows all the strains (so beautifully directed by Maestro JEK), eloquent lessons in individual approach and timbre, graduate work in the art of building solos and ensemble playing. Although there are only five players, this performance has all the orchestral density of a composed piece, yet it’s invented in front of our glistening eyes. There was only a small audience at Cafe Bohemia that night for this set — more cautious people were huddling at home or nervous at the grocery store — but now the audience can be world-wide:
What’s the paradox here?
The song is called Weary, but it’s joyously exuberant. Let it be our theme song as we turn aside from weariness to embrace life-affirming emotions.
Another treat from Boxing Day 2019, at 15 Barrow Street, New York.
by these Creators: Eddy Davis, banjo; Conal Fowkes, string bass; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Evan Arntzen, clarinet and tenor saxophone.
Eddy Davis and Conal Fowkes, Cafe Bohemia, Dec. 26, 2019.
and, from a slightly different vantage, the Quartet for that night —
This beautiful joyous-sad evening seems so many years ago. Eddy Davis moved to another neighborhood, much to our sadness; Cafe Bohemia has become quiet for the uncertain future. But Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet, Evan Arntzen, clarinet and tenor saxophone, and Conal Fowkes, string bass, are afloat and we hope to embrace them when the world seems less threatening. Until that happens, savor their groovy version of Artie Matthews’ WEARY BLUES, and use it wisely, so that it will keep weariness away from you.
And wait for the real ending!
In case you missed the postings devoted to that night, here is some more music. And here and here.
Kris Tokarskihas been one of my favorite solo and ensemble pianists for some years now. It can’t be “many” years, because Kris is perhaps half my age, but my admiration is not limited by the length of our acquaintance. He listens, he creates melodies, he swings, he sounds like himself, and he has a deep appreciation for the past without being chained by narrow historical definitions.
He’s recorded in a variety of settings, but here I draw your attention to two CDs of ragtime pieces done with delicacy and individuality: the first, issued in 2016 on Solo Art, paired him with drummer-scholar Hal Smith and string bassist Cassidy Holden, pleased me and others immensely: read more about it here. KINKLETS from that disc:
The second disc by Kris and Hal, now joined by bassist Joshua Gouzy, issued on Big Al Records, is called RAGTIME – NEW ORLEANS STYLE, VOLUME TWO, and it’s a real pleasure. Hear a sample for yourself here (scroll down the page through the evidence of how well Kris plays with others and on his own).
The premise is a collection of rags that Jelly Roll Morton planned to record — or would have known and played. And it’s not a fanciful vision, as Hal Smith’s solid annotations show — in 1939, Morton discussed with Roy Carew his plans to play Joplin and others in his own style, because, as he told Carew, “he didn’t know of anyone more qualified to do it than himself,” and he envisioned recording thirty or forty rags. (Oh, had he lived for another decade!)
He didn’t live to accomplish this, but we have Tokarski, Gouzy, and Smith to make the fantasy real.
I am especially fond of projects that take a gently imaginative look at the past. Let those who feel drawn to such labors reproduce recordings: the results can be dazzling. It takes decades of skill to play BIG FAT MA AND SKINNY PA and sound even remotely like the Hot Five. But even more entrancing to me is the notion of “What might have happened . . . .?” going back to my early immersion in Golden Era science fiction. An example that stays in my mind is a series of Stomp Off recordings devoted to the Johnny Dodds repertoire, with the brilliant Matthias Seuffert taking on the mantle. But the most memorable track on those discs was Porter’s YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME, a pop tune from 1929 that Dodds might well have heard or even played — rendered convincingly and joyously in his idiom. (It really does something to me.)
That same playful vision applies to this disc. It merges, ever so gently, Jelly Roll Morton and an unhackneyed ragtime repertoire, mixing piano solos and piano trio. That in itself is a delightful combination, and I replayed this disc several times in a row when I first acquired a copy.
Kris plays beautifully, with a precise yet flexible approach to the instrument and the materials. He doesn’t undercut, satirize, or “modernize”; his approach is simultaneously loving and easy. It’s evident that he has heard and absorbed the lessons of James P. Johnson and Teddy Wilson — their particular balance of propulsion and relaxation — as well as being able to read the notes on the page. He doesn’t pretend to be Morton in the way that lesser musicians have done (with Bix, Louis, Monk, and others) — cramming in every possible Mortonism over and over. What he does is imagine a Mortonian approach, but he allows himself freedom to move idiomatically, with grace and beauty, within it. And he doesn’t, in the name of “authenticity,” make rags sound stiff because they were written before Joe Oliver and Little Louis took Chicago. He’s steady, but he’s steadily gliding. His approach to the rags is neither stuffy reverence nor near-hysterical display.
He’s in good company with Josh and Hal. Many string bassists working in this idiom confuse percussiveness with strength, and they hit the fretboard violently: making the bass a victim of misplaced enthusiasm. Not Joshua, who has power and melodic wisdom nicely combined: you can listen to his lines in the trio with the delight you’d take in a great horn soloist. Every note sings, and he’s clearly there with the pulse.
As for the drummer? To slightly alter a famous Teagarden line, “If Hal don’t get it, well, forget it right now,” which is to say that Hal’s playing on this disc is a beautifully subtle, completely “living” model of how to play ensemble drums: gracious yet encouraging, supportive. He doesn’t just play the beat: he creates a responsive tapestry of luxuriant sounds.
The CD is beautifully recorded by Tim Stambaugh of Word of Mouth Studios, and the repertoire is a treat — rags I’d never heard (THE WATERMELON TRUST by Harry C. Thompson, and ROLLER SKATERS RAG by Samuel Gompers) as well as compositions by Joplin, Lamb, Scott, Turpin, Matthews, and May Aufderheide. Nothing overfamiliar but all melodic and mobile.
Here’s another sample. Kris, Joshua, and Hal are the rhythm section of Hal’s Kid Ory “On the Levee” band, and here they play May Aufderheide’s DUSTY RAG at the San Diego Jazz Fest in November 2018:
Hear what I mean? They play with conviction but their seriousness is light-hearted. Volume Two is a disc that won’t grow tired or stale. Thank you, Kris, Josh, and Hal! And Jelly, of course.
WEARY BLUES was written in 1915 by Artie Matthews as a ragtime piece, and the earliest recording we have (I believe) is this quite warm and well-seasoned 1919 rendition by the Louisiana Five:
Then it was recorded by many people — it’s terribly catchy with many breaks and it has a natural momentum. I will only offer this piece of history, because my feeling everyone should know this hot record by heart:
But this blog isn’t about archaeology; rather, it’s about gratifying music performed NOW. Down in the basement of Fat Cat (75 Christopher Street, Greenwich Village, New York City) on Sunday, January 29, 2017, Terry Waldo and his Gotham City Band created something beautiful and blazing hot out of WEARY BLUES. The cooks were Terry, piano; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Jim Fryer, trombone; Evan Arntzen, reeds; John Gill, banjo; Brian Nalepka, string bass; Jay Lepley, drums.
The savory dish, herewith:
Why do I live in New York? Many reasons, but the possibility of wandering down the stairs on a late Sunday afternoon, making my way through young people focused on beer, ping pong, billiards, conversation, and hearing THAT is one of the chief reasons to be here and stay here.
For my readers: may the most heavy WEARY BLUES you ever feel be just this light upon your heart.