Tag Archives: Benny Amon

“BENNY AMÓN’S NEW ORLEANS PEARLS” WINS THE COVETED JAZZ LIVES “GFP”* AWARD: BENNY AMÓN, WENDELL BRUNIOUS, STEVE PISTORIUS, FREDDIE LONZO, ALEX BELHAJ, TOM FISCHER, TYLER THOMSON, JOE GOLDBERG, TIM LAUGHLIN

Let us start with the glorious evidence.

That’s the opening track of Benny’s new CD, and when the band shifts into tempo after Benny’s interlude I find myself in tears of joy.

Benny Amón is one of my heroes  And hero Benny can also write.

Often I’ve felt complete awe and incredulity for my experiences playing music in the city of New Orleans. I have been incredibly fortunate to gain mentors, many of whom are featured on this recording session, who have taught me to play New Orleans traditional music with the right feeling and spirit while also encouraging me to find my own voice as a musician.

This recording session is snapshot of that journey after spending most of my 20’s living in this beautiful city. The session is comprised of some of the most treasured musicians to come from this city and some of the greatest to have moved here. This exchange of generations, of cultures, of perspectives of music and life is what has helped make this recording session so successful.

My most important mentor and collaborator over the past several years, Steve Pistorius is featured prominently on this record whether it be ragtime duets, trios with horn players, or in the 7 piece ensemble. As Wendell Brunious likes to say, Steve is the #1 interpreter of the Jelly Roll Morton style of piano. Steve contributed much by writing out good melodies and chords as well.

Speaking of Wendell Brunious, we have worked together often at Preservation Hall over the past few years. Wendell is one of the best trumpet players and entertainers in the whole world and comes from one of the most important musical families of New Orleans. He is a gem that we cannot take for granted.

Freddie Lonzo is another of the New Orleans born and raised musicians who I have been working with over the past years at Preservation Hall and also at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe. He is one of the few trombone players left who understands how to play New Orleans style tailgate trombone. His positive energy and humor is infectious, as is his singing.

Tom Fischer has been in New Orleans for longer than I have been alive and his dedication to excellence on both clarinet and alto saxophone is evident on this record.

New Orleans’ own clarinetist Tim Laughlin recorded two songs on this cd that turned out beautifully. He is one of the my first and most important mentors in New Orleans.

Tyler Thomson also known as “Twerk” by many, is absolutely on fire on this record. Bringing incredible power and solidity to the bands he plays with. He would make Pops Foster, Chester Zardis, and Alcide Louis “Slow Drag” Pavageau proud.

Alex Belhaj is a dear friend of mine who moved to New Orleans a few years ago and he is a frequent collaborator with the Riverside Jazz Collective. His fine banjo and guitar playing is featured in the 7 piece band.

Joe Goldberg is another transplant to New Orleans who has earned the respect of all the top players in both the traditional and modern jazz scenes. His clarinet and soprano saxophone playing as well as his singing is featured on a couple of songs.

As a final note I would like to add a reflection on the actual site of the recording session. George Blackmon, an old friend and excellent studio engineer moved his entire set up to the Scandinavian Jazz Church (Formerly known as the Norwegian Seamen’s Church) to record the bands. The sound he got in that beautiful old church is reminiscent of old New Orleans dance halls where the New Orleans Jazz Revival bands led by such luminaries as Bunk Johnson and George Lewis used to play and record. The Jazz Church unfortunately was sold and since has been closed down after over a 100 years of service to the New Orleans community. The Church hosted jazz concerts and jazz prayer services for decades. The Church generously allowed us to record and use their facilities free of charge. This recording, and the accompanying videos produced, will stand as a last testament to this beautiful and historically important New Orleans institution.

Most importantly, the music on this record is an authentic and timeless account of the New Orleans Jazz scene as I experienced it at this time of my life; full of life, and joy. I am proud to release this music and hope that you enjoy it!

You  might think that Benny has said everything that needs to be said, but I want to add some perceptions he might be too modest to write himself.  Although he turns 30 this year, he is a mature artist with large heartfelt visions and sensitivity.  He is a spectacularly fine drummer.  He makes beautiful sounds, he plays for “the comfort of the band,” he knows dynamics and timbres, and he swings no matter what the tempo.  But he’s more than a wonderful percussionist.

Much of what is marketed as jazz these days — although it says it is inclusive — is a matter of boundaries and barriers, enacted in terms of repertoire and colleagues.  “Ourselves alone,” as the Irish used to say. Benny understands the music as spacious, its boundaries easy and flexible.  That doesn’t mean the new CD takes an iconoclastic approach for novelty’s sake, but it does mean that his vision of New Orleans jazz is easy and loose.  There are echoes on this disc of Bunk Johnson, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Johnny Dodds, Jimmy Blythe, and Zutty Singleton — but also Eddie Condon, Billie Holiday, James P. Johnson.  Sidney Bechet is in town, but it is the later rhapsodic French Bechet; the Bunk echoes are of the “Last Testament” session.  I am tempted to write a track-by-track guided tour, but why spoil your surprises?

Benny’s gracious understanding also extends to the musicians he chose for this disc.  He has opened his musical house to friends who can really play and sing, people who are individualists.  And the welcome includes Elders and Youngbloods, which makes the session particularly earthy, fresh, and sweetly -surprising — it has some of the feel of a cross-generational down-home jam session where everyone is grinning their faces off at what they are hearing and what they are part of creatively.  It isn’t trad-by-the-numbers; it isn’t busker-stomp; it isn’t formulaic in any way.  And the repertoire is splendidly unhackneyed without being consciously esoteric.

Many CDs offer a huge plateful of The Same Thing, the musical equivalent of an eight-pound plateful of shrimp with lobster sauce.  But I have played this disc half a dozen times from first to last, enraptured.  There are full-ensemble pieces, one-horn, piano-drums trios, a gorgeous drum solo (BENNY FACE, as melodic as any orchestral piece), piano and drums, a few vocals (Goldberg on MY BABY; Brunious on BACKYARD; Lonzo on CALIFORNIA) — and speaking of BACKYARD . . .

How fresh and heartfelt that is!

Now I must explain the “GFP Award.”  I’d asked Benny to send me a copy of the disc when it was ready (handsome art direction there, too) and when I got it in the mail, drawn by whatever magnetism, I played it that night and wrote him immediately that it was, and I quote, a GIANT FUCKING PLEASURE (I use the vernacular when possible) and he asked me to please use that language in my blog.  I am too restrained to make it the heading . . . but the disc makes me happy.  You can buy the physical disc or a digital download here.  Don’t miss an opportunity to be uplifted.

Bless Benny and his friends.  They bring such joy.

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!

CAPTAIN PISTORIUS SETS A COURSE FOR JAZZ: “STEAMBOAT DAYS”

Long before I’d ever met Steve Pistorius in person, I knew his music: consistently alive, full of good feelings even when he was playing or singing the saddest blues.  I’d heard him solo, playing full, orchestral piano, and heard that piano bubbling through ensembles in exuberant down-home ways.  I had the honor of meeting him and hearing him in person at the first Steamboat Stomp in New Orleans (that would be 2013) and I have had the pleasure twice more.

pistorius-four

From the left, that’s Benny Amon, drums; Orange Kellin, clarinet, Steve himself, and James Evans, clarinet, saxophone, and vocal. These four gentlemen have just come out with a CD, called STEAMBOAT DAYS, and it’s wonderful.  And — should you want to go immediately to gratification, you can buy copies at www.stevepistorius.com.

pistorius-cd

As usual with Steve, the repertoire is a mix of sweet reassuring surprises — New Orleans and New Orleans-inspired jazz without the hackneyed Bourbon Street bounce.  And this quartet is both original — they inhabit 2016 — and comfortably mellow.  I had the privilege of writing a few lines for the disc . . .

Technically speaking, this is a compact disc, as you see when you slide the plastic article into the player. But I prefer the archaic term “record,” in the broader sense: an accurate depiction of something memorable, a way of capturing something evanescent for posterity. This record enshrines for us something rare and cheering: actual improvised music being made on the spot by musicians, without artifice. Although much of the repertoire is sweetly venerable, we know immediately that this creativity, singular and collective, exists now. STEAMBOAT DAYS doesn’t strive to imitate historical recordings or legendary bands — no conscious homages to Noone, Mezzrow-Bechet, Wilber-Davern. Let those who wish to “play old records in high fidelity” do just that. This is a record of what Steve, James, Orange, and Benny felt like playing in the moment. Thus it is genuine and irreplaceable. And varied, with stomps, blues, pop songs both tender and mournful, genuine make-out music (SWAY), a handful of Creole seasoning, and a properly dark roux.

The music is occasionally raw — as in so intense in its emotion that polish becomes an afterthought — yet at the same time highly expert. At once delicate and ferocious, it is a lace tablecloth with a tiger underneath. Although New Orleans jazz, according to the Sages, is an ensemble art, the four soloists amaze and delight throughout. James and Orange complement each other — tonally and stylistically — I think of different varieties of ivy growing exuberantly up a wall. Steve and Benny are all the rhythm section anyone would ever need, a truly orchestral pianist and a percussionist who makes beautiful rollicking noise. This is an expandable quartet, with the singing of Steve (whose seriousness is porous to let deep feeling come out) and James (who so tenderly offers his heart to us) — also a rousing pleasure on C-melody saxophone, with his own sound.

Many hour-long recordings start out glossy and appealing but by the time I am twenty minutes through, I am looking for some other way to amuse myself. Don’t my socks need to be paired? These selections tumble one upon another, and my only problem is that, having heard KATHLEEN for the first time, I didn’t want to go on to the second track without walking dear Kate home a few more times.

This is A BAND, so delicious. They do not archaeologize; they are warm rather than scholarly-chilly. They do not play at the music. They ARE the music. May they have ten thousand opportunities to keep pleasing themselves and us.

For the record, the songs are I’LL TAKE YOU HOME AGAIN, KATHLEEN / SINCE MY BEST GAL TURNED ME DOWN / GULF COAST BLUES / I WANT YOU JUST MYSELF / THE YAMA YAMA MAN / WILD CAT BLUES / CRYIN’ FOR THE CAROLINES / LE MARCHAND DE POISSONS / QUIEN SERA [SWAY] / SATANIC BLUES / A MILLION DREAMS / POOR KATIE REDD / FORTY AND TIGHT / RIVERSIDE BLUES / STEAMBOAT DAYS.

But wait!  There’s more!  You don’t have to take my word for it.  How about the set that the Quartet performed at the Steamboat Stomp last month (September 24, 2016) on the Natchez?  That’s Tom Saunders on bass sax, in for Benny Amon on drums.

Can do.

SATANIC BLUES:

RIVERSIDE BLUES:

STEAMBOAT DAYS:

CRYIN’ FOR THE CAROLINES:

FORTY AND TIGHT:

I’LL TAKE YOU HOME AGAIN, KATHLEEN:

SHREVEPORT STOMP:

THE FISH VENDOR (LE MARCHAND DE POISSONS):

You’ll want a copy of the CD to complement the videos, I assure you.  And this band is a life-enhancer.

May your happiness increase!

ALEX OWEN’S SAVORY HOT CUISINE

I know that many of my metaphors and analogies are about food (the result of blogging-while-hungry) but in this case I have good reason: listening to and celebrating the second CD, THAT’S MY HOME, by The Messy Cookers Jazz Band, led by trumpeter Alex Owen:

MESSY COOKERS JB cover

and a photograph of the band caught in its natural habitat:

messycookers

Here you can listen to samples from the CD — ideally, while you read about it below.  (The CD stands up wonderfully without my text, I assure you.)

There is a certain kind of “modern performance practice” that I like and admire very much.  It’s based on a deep reverence for and knowledge of a beloved tradition, where the musicians treat the music tenderly but with light hearts, knowing that the way to show love for an innovative art form is to gently innovate within its idioms.  (As an early unpublished draft of Emerson’s “The American Scholar” points out, “Krupa was never made by the study of Krupa.”)

So while this amiable twenty-first century approach to jazz classics isn’t imitative, it isn’t self-consciously “innovative,” either.  RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE is light and energized, not recast as a samba or a dirge.  Jazz scholars can very well appreciate the sounds of the Messy Cookers — they are expert, passionate, and precise — but so could an audience that doesn’t have a wall of E+ Halfway House Orchestra 78s, an audience in the mood for lyrical syncopated dance music.

It isn’t atmospheric but amateurish busking.  And it isn’t repressed archaeology.

One of the nicest aspects of this CD (and of the Cookers as an organization) is their subtle flexibility.  The collective ensemble has Alex, trumpet / vocals; James Evans, clarinet, saxophone, vocals; Benjamin “Benny” Amón, drums; Andy Reid, bass, vocals; John Eubanks, guitar; Albanie Falletta, guitar / vocals; Steve Pistorius, piano.  Notice, no trombone, tuba, or banjo.  And as Alex explains in his notes, the instrumentation shifts from song to song — with smaller units within the band for variety and liveliness, also to reflect the different ways in which the Cookers reconfigure themselves for actual gigs.  The overall effect is streamlined but fulfilling: I never missed the instruments I was supposed to miss by the laws of jazz orthodoxy.

And although the songs on this disc might qualify for Social Security and Medicare, coming to us before the Second World War, everything is happily energized here.  “Play it like you mean it!” seems to be the underlying principle, vocally and instrumentally, and the results are charming and convincing — not a group of people who have tried to become “authentic” in an intensive weekend. I love the group vocal congregational responses on HESITATION BLUES and MILENBERG JOYS, and even though I’ve heard BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE often enough, Albanie’s tangy singing makes it come alive for me. Alex gets plus points for including THAT’S MY HOME on his disc, making it the title cut, singing it naturally and soulfully, refusing to imitate Louis.  James Evans’ ferocious alto and intensely satisfying singing make WHO’S SORRY NOW? a modern evocation of the Rhythmakers, which is a great thing indeed.

Some of the names on this disc — Reid, Amón, Eubanks, Falletta, and even the leader — might be less familiar than Evans and Pistorius — but the band is delightfully unified at the highest level.  Alex is a splendidly casual player and singer, and by that I mean he makes the difficult seem matter-of-fact; his lines ring and sing.  Everything he does has a rhythmic bounce, no matter what the tempo, and he is a superb leader, letting everyone have a turn, creating witty, varied ensembles that rock in the best modern way.

When I was finished with my first playing of this disc, the only natural thing was to play it again.  It’s delightful music.  And not only would I suggest that you indulge yourself in purchasing a copy, but perhaps one for a younger person who likes jazz — so that (s)he can be reminded that this lovely raucous delicate art is still being practiced in the most exultant ways in this century.  And for us, it’s a wonderful hopeful sign of vibrant life in the art form we cherish (and worry about).

Oh, and in case “Messy Cookers” makes you wonder whether the rangetop is a war scene of burnt-on food, take heart: I am sure that Alex and company mean it as the best sly compliment to music and musicians who create something loose, exuberant, spicy, and tasty.

Visit here to purchase the disc, or, better still, find the Messy Cookers at one of their gigs.

May your happiness increase!