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.
Exhibit A.1.a: A Presto disc cutter from eBay:
Exhibit A.1.b: Blank discs, also from eBay:
Exhibit B. The result:
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!