Tag Archives: Ben Polcer

SEVEN MEN AND THE KID: THE “ON THE LEVEE JAZZ BAND” at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST: HAL SMITH, JOSH GOUZY, ALEX BELHAJ, KRIS TOKARSKI, JOE GOLDBERG, BEN POLCER, CHARLIE HALLORAN (November 25, 2018)

Some children get upset if the green beans and mashed potato on their plate are touching.  Some listeners separate “their” music into schools and styles, existing in the same space but kept at a safe distance.  I just read a review of a festival where the writer delineated “trad” and “not trad at all,” which to me is a shame.  Musicians know that they can play any repertoire in inventive ways, move in and out of rigidly defined “traditions” and create lasting satisfying art.

Here’s a shining example, the ON THE LEVEE JAZZ BAND (that’s the cover of their debut CD above).  I’ve posted music from another performance here.  To me, their joyous essence is a mixing of “genres”: soloists who know Blakeney, Darnell Howard, Don Ewell, but who are also aware of Buck Clayton, Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, Steve Jordan, Walter Page, and Jo Jones.  The secret is a flowing 4/4 — music for dancing as well as listening.

This most excellent small band is devoted to the music of Kid Ory in his later decades, led by drummer / scholar Hal Smith, and including Charlie Halloran, trombone, Ben Polcer, trumpet / vocal; Joe Goldberg, clarinet; Kris Tokarski, piano, Alex Belhaj, guitar, Josh Gouzy, string bass. The set presented here was recorded on November 25, 2018, at the San Diego Jazz Fest.

. . . .and study war no more:

A problem with transporting a precious substance:

Hey, Dad — you coming back?

Some early Ellington with a debt to Joe Oliver:

“Honey, are you free on Monday?”:

Gus Mueller, if I recall, said decades after the fact that the title had no hidden meaning — they just liked the sound:

This one always comes in handy:

A song for parents of newborns or anyone embracing transformations:

For further announcements and more good news, visit here.  I’m pleased to say I will see them three times in 2019: the Redwood Coast Music Festival, the Evergreen Jazz Festival, and the San Diego Jazz Fest.  You come, too.

May your happiness increase!

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The ON THE LEVEE BAND at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (Part One: Nov. 24, 2018)

Official Jazz history, which tends to compress and simplify, has often portrayed Edward “Kid” Ory as both a limited trombonist and a man lodged in the earliest decades of the music.  Both of these suppositions are wrong; as far as the first, ask any trombonist how easy it is to play what Ory played, and for the second, Ory’s later groups played for dancers in the Forties and Fifties and thus he was very much aware of the subtleties of the Swing Era-and-beyond four-four rhythmic pulse, as his later recordings show.  Drummer / scholar Hal Smith’s ON THE LEVEE JAZZ BAND takes its name from a club Ory ran in California, and its musical inspiration from those later performances.

Unlike some quite respected traditional jazz bands, the OTL floats rather than pounds, and its horn soloists clearly enjoy the freedom of playing with and among such gliding pulsations.  It’s their secret, one that perceptive listeners enjoy, even if they are not aware of the swinging feel of the group.  At times, they remind me happily of the ad hoc groups of Swing Era veterans recruited to perform “Dixieland” tunes c. 1959-60: think of Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, and Buster Bailey over a grooving rhythm section — playing the opening ensembles correctly and respectfully but going for themselves in solos.

In addition to Hal, the band as it performed at the 39th San Diego jazz Fest featured Charlie Halloran, trombone, Ben Polcer, trumpet, Joe Goldberg, clarinet; Kris Tokarski, piano, Alex Belhaj, guitar, Josh Gouzy, string bass. These selections come from a set the band did on November 24, 2018.

AT A GEORGIA CAMP MEETING:

TISHOMINGO BLUES, with a vocal by Ben:

Joe Oliver’s SNAG IT:

SAN, named for a King:

DUSTY RAG, a feature for Kris, Josh, and Hal — reimagining classic ragtime in New Orleans — that means Morton — style:

SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL:

HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO?:

HIGH SOCIETY / WITHOUT YOU FOR AN INSPIRATION:

What a pleasure this band is.  And here is their website, as well as news of their debut CD here . And here is my review.  I approve!  And the band also has the Gretchen Haugen Seal of Approval, which is not an accolade easily won.

Catch them at a gig; buy the CD.  Have a good time.

May your happiness increase!

WE SAVOR THE RITUALS (WITH A SMALL UPDATE): THANKSGIVING at THE SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (Nov. 21-25, 2018)

Even in the midst of darkness there are always reasons to be thankful.  Here is a detail from the classic Norman Rockwell portrait of a late-November American celebration, make of it and its assumptions (culinary, sociological, political) what you will.

But this post is about another ritual of communal gratitude, another place to give thanks: the thirty-ninth San Diego Jazz Fest, held this year from November 21 through the 25th. My update (as of late November 11) is to offer the flyer below, and to point out something I didn’t know when I’d written this blogpost — that the Saturday night Swing Extravaganza will also feature the wonderful band Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders with the wonderful singer Laura Windley. Add that piece of news into your computations.

I’m sitting here with the band schedule in front of me, and can narrate my own pleasure-map of delights for the weekend.  How about dance lessons, opportunities for “jammers” to play with others of their ilk, a Saturday night swing extravaganza?  Ongoing solo piano recitals featuring Kris Tokarski, Vinnie Armstrong, Stephanie Trick, Carl Sonny Leyland, Conal Fowkes, Paolo Alderighi, Paul Asaro, Marty Eggers, Virginia Tichenor?  Then sets by the Dawn Lambeth Trio featuring Marc Caparone, High Sierra, Grand Dominion, the Chicago Cellar Boys, the On the Levee Jazz Band, the Original Cornell Syncopators, the Heliotrope Ragtime Orchestra, Katie Cavera, Clint Baker, Hal Smith, Yerba Buena Stompers, Titanic, Colin Hancock, Charlie Halloran, Ben Polcer, Joe Goldberg, John Gill, Kevin Dorn, Andy Schumm, John Otto, Leon Oakley, Tom Bartlett, and more.

And more.  At any given moment at the fest, let us say on a Saturday, the music goes from breakfast to wooziness — 9 AM to near midnight — in six separate locations.  Using my right index finger (the highly-skilled instrument for such computations) I counted sixty-six sets of music on Saturday, sets either 45 minutes or an hour.

At other festivals, that would make for transportation difficulties (a euphemism for “How am I going to get to that other building before the band starts?) but since all the action is contained in one building, even people with limited mobility make it in before the music starts.

Did I mention that everyone I’ve ever dealt with at San Diego has been terribly nice, including such luminaries of cheer and comfort as Paul Daspit and Gretchen Haugen?  This is no small thing.

And for those of you who think you will be deprived of Thanksgiving edibles (which means “too much food”) as depicted by Mr. Rockwell above, take heart. There is a splendiferous buffet served on Thursday from 2 to 6 — you can reserve a place there, with a discount for those who do so before November 15: details here.  If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’ll still totter out of there, quite stuffed.

I am a late adopter who hasn’t made all 38 festivals (to explain why would tax all your five wits) but when I did make my way to the Fest, of course it was video camera at the ready.  And here are three sets that pleased me greatly.  I have shot several hundred videos, and that’s no stage joke, but I don’t feel right about using videos of X if X isn’t at this year’s festival.  But the three sets below feature people who are alive and well for this year.  First, here are the Cornell Syncopators featuring Katie Cavera in 2017.  Then, here are the Yerba Buena Stompers in 2016, and here are Marc Caparone and Conal Fowkes paying tribute to Louism also in 2017.

Going back to 2009, I remember when I first started this blog, I used Rae Ann Berry’s videos as glimpses of the Promised Land.  Here, for example, is John Gill paying tribute, beautifully, to Mister Crosby, in 2009:

Why am I concluding this post with PENNIES FROM HEAVEN and John’s beautiful rendition?  It seems an obvious message as far as the San Diego Jazz Fest is concerned, this year or in years to come. Good things are coming, the lyrics say, but you can’t hide under a treeIf you bestir yourself on Monday, November 26, you’ll have to wait a whole year for this opportunity to be grateful amidst friends and lovely heated music.  Take a look here and you will be glad you did.  See you there.

May your happiness increase!

“SWINGING NEW ORLEANS JAZZ: FOR DANCING — OR JUST LISTENING!”: HAL SMITH’S “ON THE LEVEE JAZZ BAND”

Kid Ory hasn’t really opened his California jazz club, nor has he come back in the flesh.  But his music has, joyously and intelligently.

This cheerful development in the twenty-first century is the handiwork of drummer, scholar, and bandleader Hal Smith, who’s been playing gigs with his ON THE LEVEE JAZZ BAND, which focuses on lively renditions of the music Ory played in the middle and later stages of his career.

And they’ve just released their debut CD.

I wrote happily about this band  (with performance videos) in December 2017, and you can see and hear more here.

Although Ory was born in the nineteenth century, he did not cling to a historical vision of the music.  His later recordings swung, and showed he and his musicians embraced performance styles more modern than 1926.  The ON THE LEVEE band is well aware of that gentle but persistent 4 / 4 rocking motion of jazz in the Thirties . . . and even beyond.

The virtues of the band require a brief digression.  I was once at a festival, sitting close enough to eavesdrop as the leader of a small ad hoc group called for a spectacular closing number.  It would be long, loud, with extended high-volume solos, and would conclude with a long drum and long horn solos.  The one horn player looked pained, and said to the leader, “Oh, I don’t want to do that,” to which the leader replied, “Do you want them standing and cheering at the end of the set?  Follow me!”  The horn player grudgingly complied; the chandeliers swung; the audience shrieked.  I thought I’d contracted tinnitus, but it went away. So, in this century, bands have often tried to grab an audience’s attention by manufactured excitement.  Songs are played faster and louder and with less subtlety, because the audience associates excitement with Hot.

Ory and his colleagues, including Joe Oliver, understood that jazz was essentially a dance music, to keep audiences in motion — or at least not blow them out of their seats.  Hal Smith and this new band understand that principle, so although the music is never Easy Listening (“The 101 Strings Play the Cassino Simpson Songbook”) it is easy on the ears and it promotes healing constant motion of the nicest kind.

The CD features Hal, drums and leader; Clint Baker, trombone; Ben Polcer, trumpet; Joe Goldberg, clarinet; Kris Tokarski, piano; Alex Belhaj, guitar; Joshua Gouzy, string bass, performing ORIGINAL DIXIELAND ONE-STEP / WANG WANG BLUES / BEALE STREET BLUES / WOLVERINE BLUES / MAPLE LEAF RAG / MILENBERG JOYS / AT A GEORGIA CAMP MEETING / SAVOY BLUES / WASHINGTON AND LEE SWING / AUNT HAGAR’S BLUES / DOWN HOME RAG / YELLOW DOG BLUES / ROYAL GARDEN BLUES / PANAMA.

I know that song list looks resolutely “traditional,” and listeners might expect a repertory concert rather than swinging dance music.  But here’s evidence of just how light-on-its-feet this band is.

ORIGINAL DIXIELAND ONE-STEP:

MAPLE LEAF RAG (what a nice tempo!):

DOWN HOME RAG:

BUDDY BOLDEN’S BLUES:

WASHINGTON AND LEE SWING:

In addition to the lyrical soloing by Polcer and Goldberg, there’s also the supple but rough-edged (I think of corduroy) sound and attack of Clint Baker, who evokes Ory at every turn.  And for me what makes this band glide rather than lumber is the deliciously mobile rhythm section — no banjo, no tuba, no two-beat — of Hal, striding Kris Tokarski, powerful yet floating Belhaj and Gouzy.  I don’t want to upset those who live for “authenticity,” but everyone in this band has heard 1938 Count Basie as well as Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra.  And the result would have made the Kid smile.

You can, as they say, “follow them on Facebook” here — and visit the band’s very entertaining website here.  The CD is available from Hal, at gigs, at the Louisiana Music Factory, and I think soon it will be on sale in other forms and from other places.

May your happiness increase!

“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!

SPICY DELICIOUS MUSIC: THE DORO WAT JAZZ BAND

Doro Wat is the national Ethiopian dish, a spicy chicken stew.  I recall eating it in Oakland, California.  Exhibit A:

but there’s also Exhibit B, 49 minutes and 52 seconds of spicy music:

and the back cover:

You need read no more.  Listen!

The band is slightly more than a year old, and it’s a wonder: T Werk Thomson, string bass; John Rodli, guitar; David Boeddinghaus, piano; Tom Fischer, alto saxophone; Charlie Halloran, trombone; James Evans, C-melody saxophone, clarinet, vocal; Ben Polcer, trumpet, vocal.  The beautiful recording was done by John Dixon at the Spotted Cat; the singular typography is by SEEK1 and TOPMOB!.

And the repertoire — which tells an educated listener how wise and deep this hot band is: JUBILESTA / OH, PETER / AUNT HAGAR’S BLUES / JAMAICA SHOUT / POTATO HEAD BLUES / TIGHT LIKE THIS /  BUGLE CALL RAG / RUMBA NEGRO (Latin) / RUMBA NEGRO (Swing) / IF I WERE YOU / SAN / OLD FASHIONED LOVE / BLUE BLOOD BLUES.  Just to point out the forbears, how about Ellington, Red Allen, the Rhythmakers, Bennie Moten, Teddy Wilson, James P., Mister Jelly Lord, Louis.  And there’s a delightful freedom in their homages: this music comes from the heart, not from someone’s imposed notion of what “trad” or “New Orleans jazz” is.  It’s free-flowing and glorious.

Here’s T Werk’s own narrative about the birth of a band, verbatim from Facebook:

February 23 at 10:51am ·
About one year ago I got a call from John Rodli asking me if I wanted to play a gig with him at Three Muses on Friday night. I said something along the lines of “Duh, Idiot. Totally down.” Being Rodli, he didn’t book anybody for the gig and asked me to just throw something together last minute. That first gig had Ben Polcer, James Evans, Rodli, and myself on it. After that gig we immediately realized that we had something totally killer going on here. Once we locked down a weekly gig at Three Muses is when this band really took shape. We were able to add two of the most bad ass musicians I know to fill out the band’s lineup. Charlie Halloran and David Boeddinghaus (🛥🏠). With that killer lineup already rolling we had to add Tom Fischer on reeds as well because we’re all totally insane. After playing for a few months we realized that it was time to make a CD. In November we booked off two days to make a record not realizing that we would only need the first 3 hours and 8 minutes of the first day to record the whole thing. As a musician, going into a studio and coming out three hours later with a killer product is one of the best feelings you can have. That being said, we now have our first record available for purchase! A huge shout out goes to John A Dixon for absolutely CRUSHING the art work. Seek 1 & Top MOB for slaying the lettering and Sophie Lee Lowry and the staff at Three Muses for letting us have Three Muses as our homebase week after week. Keep an eye out for a CD release party coming up really soon. Until then you can purchase digital downloads of the album from band camp or through the Louisiana Music Factory later on today. Of course we will also have this CD for sale tonight at Three Muses from 9-12.
I’ve never been so proud to have my name on a record as I am with this one. Polcer, James, Charlie, 🛥🏠, Fischer and Rodli are the best musicians to work with and we get to do it every week. LET’S DO SHOTS!!

I’d say it a little differently: this recording makes me bounce with happiness.  The rhythm section is a thing of joy, and the soloists know how to speak in their own voices and to join as a choir — the goal of having a deeply melodic satisfying good time.  I keep getting stuck on the first track, that growly piece of Thirties Ellingtonia, JUBILESTA.  But I keep on playing this disc.  And you’ll notice I’m not explicating the music: if I had to do that, I’d despair of my audience.  You’ll hear just how fine DORO WAT is very quickly.  It’s restorative music that I’d like everyone to hear.

And from another angle: I was on a wobbly barstool at The Ear Inn last week, talking with my dear friend Doug Pomeroy, and I said, “You know, THIS is a Golden Age right now.”  DORO WAT is very convincing proof.  Thank you, kind wild creators.

May your happiness increase!

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!