Tag Archives: Ben Polcer

SWINGING FOR THE KID: HAL SMITH’S “ON THE LEVEE JAZZ BAND”

Edward Ory — that’s the Kid to those of us who admire and keep his name and music alive — is a fabled figure.  His 1925-28 Chicago recordings with Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Luis Russell, Johnny Dodds, Lil Hardin, George Mitchell, Jelly Roll Morton, Ma Rainey, even Tiny Parham are bedrock masterpieces of the pre-World War Two jazz canon, and many bands celebrate them.

But the California climate — whether you consider the ground-breaking 1922 recordings or the evidence of Ory’s second career — must have agreed with him, because the music he made from 1943 on, while less celebrated, is as gratifying, to some even more so.  In the middle Forties, Ory’s band was not a formulaic “trad” group; like Bunk Johnson, he played popular songs.  Rather than have a two-beat rhythm section with banjo, tuba, and a pianist playing their impressions of an older style, the Ory band carried a rhythm guitarist, a string bassist who mized 2/4 and 4/4,  and often had the elegantly down-home pianist Don Ewell keeping things light, bright, and swinging.  At its most gliding, the Ory band suggested a fraternal meeting of New Orleanians still in beautiful form and a swing rhythm section with hints of Basie’s . . . quite a lovely blend.

Ory’s music of the Forties and Fifties  has been well-documented on disc, because the band was caught live on radio broadcasts, and, later, for Norman Granz, but I think many lovers of “traditional jazz” associated him with a rough-hewn trombone style over their idea of “traditional” rhythms.  That is, until the superb drummer and jazz scholar Hal Smith assembled a group of congenial players for his new “On the Levee” Jazz Band, its title referring to a San Francisco club owned by Ory, where he and his band played from 1957-61.

I asked Hal about his first awareness of this period of Ory’s music, and he told me, Back when I bought my first Lu Watters record, the owner of the record store handed me the Watters LP, looked at the label and said “Oh — ‘Good Time Jazz.’ I have another Good Time Jazz record here that someone ordered, but never came in to pick up.” The LP she offered me was “Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band, 1954.” I gladly accepted it, and from the first hearing the combination of Ory’s tailgate trombone and the swinging rhythm section (Minor Hall, Ed Garland and Don Ewell in particular) became some of my favorite sounds in Jazz.

Hal later told me, Based on our performances in New Orleans and Pensacola, I think the On The Levee group most closely resembles the GOOD TIME JAZZ ensembles, circa 1953 – 1955. A lot of that is due to Kris’ admiration for Ewell, and Josh Gouzy’s Ed Garland-inspired bass. (Ory’s sound changed considerably after Ewell and Garland left, and even more in the late ’50s and early ’60s).

The band has already played gigs in New Orleans and in Pensacola, Florida, with Clint Baker nobly filling the Ory role; Ben Polcer, trumpet; Joe Goldberg, clarinet; Kris Tokarski, piano; Alex Belhaj, guitar; Joshua Gouzy, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.  And early in 2018 they will again play in New Orleans . . . and will appear at the San Diego Jazz Fest in November.  I am sure that there will be many other opportunities to hail this group in between.

For now, here is the band’s website, and here are a few videos.  Many more are on YouTube, and the site has a whole cloud of audio-only performances, more than enough to roll up the rugs (if anyone does that) and invite the neighbors over for swinging cheer.

WEARY BLUES:

DOWN HOME RAG:

CARELESS LOVE:

PANAMA:

Many bands are playing this repertoire, but few are doing it in this fervent;y swinging way.  And since the club no longer exists on the Embarcadero — 987 would be part of the Ferry Plaza Maketplace — we should embrace this new band, so nicely keeping a jazz legacy vibrantly alive.

May your happiness increase!

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DANCING IN SOUND: KRIS TOKARSKI, JAMES EVANS, HAL SMITH (Bombay Club, Sept. 22, 2016)

Hal Smith, James Evans, Kris Tokarski, at the Bombay Club, New Orleans.

Here are three more beautiful interludes from slightly more than a year ago, in “that quaint old Southern city,” actually at the Bombay Club on Conti Street in New Orleans — an evening with Kris Tokarski, piano; James Evans, clarinet, vocal; Hal Smith, drums.

Earl Hines’ MONDAY DATE (which I am presenting in its streamlined title, having given up on the question of whether it is A, OUR, or MY):

Another visit to 1928 Chicago (just savor Hal’s beautiful rocking drumming!) with THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE at a leisurely grooving tempo:

I almost never make requests, but I did ask James if he would play LOUISE — because I love the song (I think of Bing and Lester and Pee Wee) and I know it is the first name of the beautiful Missus Evans:

Even if you read this post on Saturday evening, November 11, and you are in New Orleans, you are not too late to hear some good sounds from Hal and Kris.  The facts: Hal will be leading his Kid Ory tribute band — the On The Levee Band — at the very same Bombay Club (830 Conti Street) from 8:30-11:30.  The band has Hal, drums / leader; Ben Polcer, trumpet; Clint Baker, trombone; Joe Goldberg, clarinet; Kris Tokarski, piano; Joshua Gouzy, string bass; Alex Belhaj, guitar.  If you can, you should.

May your happiness increase!  

BEAUTIFUL RIGHTEOUS ENERGIES: THE SHOTGUN JAZZ BAND, “STEPPIN ON THE GAS”

I’m late to the party but happy to have been invited.  Even without the proper apostrophe, STEPPIN ON THE GAS, the new CD by the Shotgun Jazz Band, is a total delight, a disc I play all the way through and want to rehear immediately.

The Shotgun Jazz Band has been recording for six years now, and their new disc offers the pleasure of richly-textured, solidly-grounded New Orleans jazz.  Here they are at The Spotted Cat in April 2016, with Marla Dixon, trumpet; John Dixon, banjo; Charlie Halloran, trombone; Tyler “Twerk” Thomson, string bass / vocal; Craig Flory, alto saxophone; Ben Polcer, piano:

This is a 2015 performance that shows their virtues: https://player.vimeo.com/video/147186666“>

 with Marla, John, Charlie, Twerk, and reedman James Evans.

This is a very revealing profile of the band from the “Enjoying Traditional Jazz” blog, written by “a very old guy [from Nottingham, England] who got into traditional jazz late in life, with much to discover, learn and pass on.”  The author calls himself “Pops Coffee” and his blog can be found here.

Back to the reason for this post, STEPPIN ON THE GAS, a consistently lively homage to the great songs — fully vitalized in this century — by Marla Dixon, trumpet and vocal; John Dixon, banjo; Charlie Halloran, “trampagne”; James Evans, C-melody saxophone, clarinet, vocal; David Boeddinghaus, piano; Twerk Thomson, string bass / vocal; and guests Ben Polcer, trumpet; Tom Fischer, alto saxophone / clarinet.  The Shotgun ensemble is its own pleasure (beautifully recorded at Luthjen’s Dance Hall, utilizing the acoustics of that space, without an audience, so that we hear subtle shadings and bold statements).  Special plaudits go to Earl Scioneaux III for engineering and mixing and to Bruce Barielle for mastering the disc.

The songs are GULF COAST BLUES*; WHITE GHOST SHIVERS; HOW AM I TO KNOW? (James, vocal); SHE’S CRYING FOR ME; MOONLIGHT BAY*; SMILES; I HATE A MAN LIKE YOU*; DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE* and band vocal; WHENEVER YOU’RE LONESOME*; ROSE OF BOMBAY; BREEZE*; CURSE OF AN ACHING HEART*; OLE MISS RAG; PRETEND*; MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME (Twerk / band vocal); GUILTY* (not the Al Bowlly ballad); STEPPIN ON THE GAS; DEEP RIVER.  The asterisks are for the tracks Marla sings on, and she is such a varied singer — tender or raucous — that I never got weary of her voice.

The pleasures start immediately with GULF COAST BLUES –David Boeddinghaus, sounding like a modern James P. Johnson alongside Marla Dixon’s powerful but understated blues singing; then James Evans adds his emotive, conversational alto saxophone and Twerk his beautifully centered string bass (a gutty yet swinging accompaniment that — heretically perhaps — is the ideal world that Bessie Smith rarely got to experience on records) . . . to James’ exquisite vocal on HOW AM I TO KNOW (which Louis performed on his first European tour!); a performance of ON MOONLIGHT BAY (one of those songs that hits me in some deep nostalgic part of my being, as does SHINE ON, HARVEST MOON) that lingers over the verse and then turns the second chorus into a shouting near-blues; a very fast, rollicking SMILES (with a stomping Boeddinghaus solo). . . I could go on, but I will leave the rest of the delights for the listeners.

The disc shows off beautiful vocalized instrumental solos, neither timid nor rough, shifting ensembles (this is neither a “recorded jam session” nor a banquet of recreations, but a comfortable middle ground) — where the lead moves around within the band, and instruments pair off in ways we might not expect: subtle harmonic depths, and an unfailing swing. Nothing more to ask for!

The six selections with an expanded front line: WHITE GHOST SHIVERS, SHE’S CRYING FOR ME,  DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE, OLE MISS RAG, GUILTY, STEPPIN ON THE GAS — adding Ben Polcer, trumpet; Tom Fischer, clarinet and alto saxophone — are extraordinary examples of ensemble playing that borders on the ecstatic while being expertly under control — a paradox when seen on the page, but completely understandable when heard.

If someone asks you what hot jazz sounds like in this century, or tells you that New Orleans jazz no longer exists, or that swing is a dying phenomenon — play that misguided soul STEPPIN ON THE GAS.  I would.

Here is the band’s website, with sound samples, and their Facebook page.

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!

PRESENTING DENNIS LICHTMAN AND HIS ALL-LICHTMAN ORCHESTRA!

When I first met Dennis in 2009 at the now-quiet Banjo Jim’s in New York City, we were both younger, and he was restricting himself to clarinet, mandolin, and fiddle, as an integral member of the Cangelosi Cards.

dennis-lichtman

Now see what he’s done!  This video seriously goes where no musician has gone before, and it outdoes Sidney Bechet’s One-Man Band in several ways.  In it, Dennis composes a paean to his musical development, sings, cavorts, and plays violin, clarinet, guitar, mandolin, tenor banjo (and he avoids the difficult non-rhyme), C-melody saxophone, and a few surprises:

Credit where credit is due:

Dancers:  Amy Johnson and Laura Manning.  Band:  Jason Jurzak, Russell Welch, Ben Polcer.  KILLER KOWALSKI PRODUCTIONS.  Director of Photography & Editor: Michelle Nicolette Kowalski.  Production:
Danielle Elizabeth / Tamara Grayson / Russell Welch / Jason Jurzak / Simon Lever / Kerry Genese / Bobby Bonsey / Camila Santos.  Special thanks to Welbourne Farm and Inn and Welbourne Jazz Camp.  http://www.welbourneinn.com / http://welbournejazzcamp.com  © 2016 Triple Treble Music, all rights reserved

It is terribly unsubtle of me to write this, but the festival promoter or club booker or what have you who can see this video and not think, “I ought to hire this fellow.  Think of all the talent I can snag for one salary!” is someone I can’t imagine.  Find Dennis here or here to make those connections.

Keep on keepin’ on, Dennis.  You’re no fool.  Thank you for the joy and the sounds.

May your happiness increase!

CARE TO STOMP? (September 23-25, 2016)

It’s never too early to think about a Stomp.  And not just any Stomp — but the fourth annual Steamboat Stomp, held in New Orleans . . . for the most part, on the river, while the Steamboat Natchez lazily goes up and down the Mississippi, the bands are playing, or the steam calliope is wailing, the food and drink are being offered.

STEAMBOAT STOMP 2016 poster

If my words aren’t sufficiently evocative, let this image sink in:

Steamboat Natchez. Photograph by John Snell.

Steamboat Natchez. Photograph by John Snell.

Here’s the Stomp’s Facebook page where you can learn more, buy tickets, make hotel reservations, and get yourself in the mood for Stomping.  (For those of you who resist the charms of Facebook, please note that the poster has the Stomp’s web address, also information about the chosen hotel.)

I have been fortunate enough to be part of the 2013 and 2015 Stomps — and I brought my self and my camera, so I offer evidence of the delights that took place — and will continue this coming September.

Here are Tim Laughlin, Ray Heitger, Steve Pistorius, and Jeff Hamilton from 2013.

and a delicious performance by Banu Gibson from 2013.

Steve Pistorius, Tom Fischer, and Ben Polcer swinging out in 2015,

the Yerba Buena Stompers that same year,

and Duke Heitger’s Steamboat Stompers from 2013.

Enough to convince you?  If not, please look again at those names on the flyer, and know that the flyer can’t list all the luminaries (Hal Smith is going to be there, for one — as part of Kris Tokarski’s HOT CLASSICISM, a trio including Andy Schumm) — so hot music will surely be happening.  The way the Natchez is set up allows for simultaneous sets: sometimes three at once, so the only problem I foresee is deciding WHICH?  We should all have such dilemmas.

But enough of that.  See you on the boat, I hope.

May your happiness increase!

COOTS IN CHARGE: ALLAN VACHÉ, TOM FISCHER, DUKE HEITGER, BEN POLCER, BRIA SKONBERG, RUSS PHILLIPS, DAN BARRETT, DALTON RIDENHOUR, PAUL KELLER, DANNY COOTS (ATLANTA JAZZ PARTY, APRIL 18, 2015)

Danny Coots, who lives the words on the sign above his head.

Danny Coots, who lives the words on the sign above his head.

Four delights and four comic interludes from the very lovable and talented Danny Coots, with Duke Heitger, Bria Skonberg, Ben Polcer, trumpet; Dan Barrett, Russ Phillips, trombone; Allan Vaché, Tom Fischer, reeds; Dalton Ridenhour, piano; Paul Keller, string bass: recorded at the 2015 Atlanta Jazz Party —

OLD-FASHIONED LOVE:

BEI MIR BIS DU SCHOEN:

MOTEN SWING:

PANAMA:

The 27th Atlanta Jazz Party will take place in you-know-what-city from April 22 to 24, 2016.  Details to come here.

May your happiness increase!