“I love music that shows passion, daring and surprise.” — Ray Skjelbred
I know there is a mythlogy in jazz of the one night or session when the all-stars are on the stand, never to play together again. But what is more beautiful than a working band? Such assemblages are, at their best, small families, with everyone knowing everyone else’s talents and idiosyncracies. And on a non-musical level, a working band is a sign of economic health: there are enough regular gigs for the musicians to stick together. For me, certain working bands stand out as instantly memorable: the George Barnes-Ruby Braff Quartet; Soprano Summit; the EarRegulars in their various permutations; Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs.
The last-named band is an engaging mixture, at turns ferocious and sweet, of hot Chicago jazz, deep blues, and a rocking momentum that suggests both a Count Basie small group and the closing choruses of an Eddie Condon IMPROMPTU ENSEMBLE.
Through the generosity and foresight of the Dutch jazz scholar and enthusiast Frank Selman, I can now share with you a remarkable interlude created by Ray and his Cubs: that’s Ray, piano and moral leadership; Clint Baker, string bass, tuba, and vocal; Katie Cavera, guitar and vocal; Kim Cusack, clarinet and vocal. They performed at the 2014 San Diego Jazz Fest, and the songs captured are AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL; GET OUT AND GET UNDER THE MOON (vocal by Katie); SPECIAL DELIVERY BLUES / THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE.
Ray told me, “By the way, Clint knew we were going to play Special Delivery that set and he plays bowed bass on that number. But he was playing a borrowed bass with no bow, so he also borrowed a tuba to simulate bowed bass”:
That band! — the epitome of swinging delicacy and force.
The only mystery is why they don’t get invited to jazz festivals these days.
Promoters and producers, lend me your ears!
With gratitude to Ray, Kim, Clint, Katie, Mike, and of course Frank.
This new CD is delightful. To be formal about it, the sounds embrace the ear.
A sample — the first track, Nirav’s IRRATIONAL BLUES. (Don’t let the title throw you: more whimsical than irrational.)
The brief Bandcamp note adds some more detail: Led by longtime musician and swing dancer Nirav Sanghani, the Pacific Six play tight arrangements of early jazz and swing tunes for dancers and more. Their repertoire includes transcriptions of small group swing recordings by Benny Goodman, Johnny Hodges & Coleman Hawkins, fresh arrangements of well-loved standards, and vintage-inspired originals composed and arranged by Nirav.
But here I must add a few words. This is music to dance to, music to dance with (for those of us who listen while seated). It is lively and expert — lovely solos and witty arranging touches throughout. For those who need historical landmarks, let us say “Keynote Records,” or “1945 meets 2022 with affection and swing,” or “late Swing Era with modern flourishes.” Think “Teddy Wilson” or “the Blue Note Jazzmen,” but with singularities beyond copying. It’s a lovely ensemble with brilliant individualistic soloists. But your ears will tell you better than those catch-phrases can.
Another taste? Why not: EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY. You hear what I mean about the refreshing mixture of homage and originality.
The cover photograph shows that this CD captures the band at a swing dance — hence the increased enthusiasm that recording studios don’t always make possible — but the sound is so much better than what one would have heard from the dance floor. Nirav tells me, “There were actually not dancers at the recording, but the night before we played a swing dance in that same hall with the same musicians and I like to think that we carried that energy with us into the session!”
Here are the credits: Nirav Sanghani, guitar, arrangements, compositions (1, 4, 7, 8, 12); Jonathan Doyle, clarinet, alto saxophone; Sean Krazit, tenor saxophone; Justin Au: trumpet; Rob Reich, piano; Jen Hodge, string bass; Riley Baker, drums; Clint Baker: trombone (1, 6, 15).
Recorded on February 23, 2020 at Community Music Center in the Mission District of San Francisco. IRRATIONAL BLUES / IT HAD TO BE YOU / TEA FOR TWO / MOODY TOM / AVALON / I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS / SUNSET SWING / EASY SAUNTER / OH, LADY BE GOOD / ROSE ROOM / EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY / REACTIVITY BLUES / SOMEBODY LOVES ME / THE MAN I LOVE / JUMPIN’ AT THE WOODSIDE //
The music (in digital form) can be found and purchased here for a pittance. It will reward you with pleasure far greater than the price.
Yesterday, “on or about” (as the lawyers say) November 2, was Ray Skjelbred’s birthday. But oddly enough, he has the celebration in reverse, for he keeps giving us presents — of swing, whimsy, empathy, and life-affirming joy.
Here’s a sample, with the Cubs, Kim Cusack, clarinet; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar — captured in flight at the San Diego Jazz Fest, November 28, 2015.
“I just believe in music,” Ray says. And his faith repays us a thousand-fold.
A new recording by a band led by drummer-historian Hal Smith (a man whose scholarship swings) is a delightful event, and EARLY HOURS is a pleasure.
It’s a bracing shot of lively honest music — although the repertoire has deep roots in New Orleans jazz history of all kinds, the result is anything but dusty archaeology. In the nicest ways, this band leaps right out of the speakers at us.
The details. First, this is a digital issue through Bandcamp (an enterprise worth supporting on its own terms, since musicians have much more control over what happens to their own work and how it is presented).
You can listen and purchase here for the basic price of a large Starbucks concoction, although I hope purchasers will be as generous as the music is.
The players are T.J. Muller, cornet, vocal (4); John Gill, trombone (3, 8), vocal (6); Clint Baker, trombone (1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9); Ryan Calloway, clarinet; Kris Tokarski, piano; Bill Reinhart, banjo; Michael Gamble, string bass; Hal Smith, drums/leader.
“You know ’em, you love ’em,” or if you don’t, you will. Hot and ready, as we say.
The repertoire goes deep into New Orleans jazz history as represented on recordings by Sam Morgan, Bunk Johnson, Turk Murphy, the New Orleans Bootblacks, the El Dorado Jazz Band, Ken Colyer, Papa Ray Ronnei, and others: BOGALUSA STRUT, STORYVILLE BLUES, FLAT FOOT, EARLY HOURS, CIRIBIRIBIN, I LOVE MY BABY, SWEET BABY DOLL, YOU TELL ME YOUR DREAM, SNOOKUM. (No “trad favorites,” no overworked chestnuts.)
It’s a splendid mixture of blues, romps, and music for dancing, passionate but exact.
Each track has its own distinctive character and eloquent gifts. The solos are eloquent and “native” (listening will make that adjective real to those who know) but, even better, this is a band, where the ensemble unity and collective understanding is the lovely goal. It thus came as a surprise to me that the sessions were done remotely, between November, 2021 and April, 2022. It says so much about the community of jazz that there is not an iota of remoteness to be heard or felt. Bravo!
Some people want to see the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, the pyramids at Tulum, the Northern Lights . . . . I’ve done some of those things, but what I want in 2022 is to return to the Redwood Coast Music Festival. Keep your monuments: they’ll be around in November. This festival is enduring, but it was made to take a nap in 2020 and 2021 for reasons that should be clear. I was there in 2019 and had the time(s) of my life. So, in less than three weeks, “if the creeks don’t rise,” or “if breath lasts,” (you pick) the OAO and I will be there, grinning and eager, flushed with anticipation.
I should say right here that this post is an unsubtle but perhaps necessary encouragement to all my jazz friends and colleagues to get off their couches and chairs, stop inspecting those books and labels, and enjoy the real thing, fresh, vivid, and multi-hued.
To make it easier to buy tickets, hear sound samples, have questions answered, and more, visit http://rcmfest.org/ (and be dazzled). If someone’s name is unfamiliar to you, the site is the equivalent of an old-fashioned record store’s listening booth.
Kris Tokarski and Hal Smith will be there:
Dawn Lambeth, Marc Caparone, and Dan Walton too:
Jonathan Doyle, Steve Pikal, and Charlie Halloran will be around:
Dave Stuckey and Western Swing pals as well:
Island spice from Charlie and the Tropicales:
Carl Sonny Leyland also:
Thursday and Friday, September 29 and 30:
Again, friends and connoisseurs, that’s http://rcmfest.org/. It is a very congenial experience — even the musicians I know, who are often downtrodden and vocal about it, praise the management, the environment, and more. Good sound technicians, volunteers who don’t shoot first and ask questions later, and a strip of good restaurants in Eureka, a town with a lovely mural and kind feelings.
Also, if you haven’t gleaned it from the schedules, the RCMF is beautifully expansive.
I went to my first jazz party / weekend / festival in 2004, so I speak from experience. As budgetary pressures made themselves ominously evident, festivals shrank. There might still be five sets a day, but the cast of characters was a dozen musicians, changing places on stage. A certain airlessness set in, as if we’d paid for an all-you-can-eat buffet and every dish was based on canned salmon and green beans. And such constriction made itself heard in the setlists.
No, the RCMF has many musicians, simultaneous sets, and a variety of approaches: zydeco, rhythm’n’blues, soul, New Orleans jazz, piano boogie-woogie, Fifty-Second Street flavors, Western Swing, country, Americana, “roots,” Louis, Jelly, Duke, Joplin, and everyone in between. I delight in the rich menu; I despair of getting to hear all the good sounds.
I won’t run through the usual didactic sermon about how festivals require active support (I mean people willing to go there and pay for the music) but I will note that every time a jazz fan doesn’t go to a festival when they could have, an angel dies. Clarence never gets his wings. Do you want that on your conscience?
Butch Thompson, pianist, clarinetist, scholar, bandleader, and superbly gracious human being, just left us on August 14. I had refrained from posting this excellent video because of people crossing in front of the camera, but now it seems precious, and the other members of the trio, Jeff Hamilton, drums, and Clint Baker, string bass, encouraged me to share it with you.
A small irony. NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW is an anthem of the hot jazz Butch created with such ease and energy at the keyboard, but its title is a paradox, for he was the very soul of kindness, making friends out of strangers (even hero-worshiping strangers with video cameras) instantly. I cannot separate the delight of his sounds from the sweetness of the person. Thank you, Butch, for what you did and who you are: they both linger in the mind and heart.
“More than just books”: Eric Whittington’s Bird & Beckett Books (652 Chenery Street, San Francisco, California) is a delightful sanctuary for art, for poetry, for music. And certainly jazz.
July 5, 2022 was an exciting and rare appearance by four of the finest under the banner of RAY SKJELBRED AND HIS CUBS: Ray Skjelbred, piano, vocal; Marc Caparone, cornet; Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums.
They play and sing:
BLUE AIR BLUES (Ray’s selection of a strain from Sidney Bechet’s BLUES IN THEAIR) / Fats Waller’s THAT RHYTHM MAN / Hines’ ROSETTA, vocal by Ray / SOMEDAY SWEETHEART, homage to Joe Sullivan and Bing / ONE SWEET LETTER FROM YOU for Lionel and friends / NOBODY’SSWEETHEART for the Chicagoans / MEMORIES OF YOU for everyone who has memories of Eubie, Louis, Benny, and more / Ray commends the band / OH, BABY! also for the Chicagoans / an intermission / James P. Johnson’s OLD-FASHIONED LOVE / SPECIAL DELIVERY BLUES for Barbara Dane / WHO’S SORRY NOW? for the Blue Note Jazzmen and others / WAITING AT THE END OF THE ROAD for Bing and Berlin and my friends too / I NEVER KNEW for Benny Carter, Pres, and Berkeley Rhythm / PEG O’MY HEART for Miff Mole / Bubber Miley’s IT DON’T MEAN A THING (IF IT AIN’T GOT THAT SWING) and closing with James P.’s A PORTER’S LOVE SONG TO A CHAMBERMAID //
Music that’s at once subversive and very direct, with bold statements and tender little explosions. If you can hear the lovely densities, you are tuned to the correct astral channel; if you can’t at first, listen again. And those who are uplifted, as I am, might consider sending a few cyber-lettuce leaves to the sites listed above. Pussycats need food and water; musicians and venues, also.
TEN YEARS, by the Dave Stuckey – Hal Smith Western Swing All-Stars:
JULIANNE, by Charlie [Halloran] and the Tropicales:
I am very excited by this news that the Redwood Coast Music Festival is returning. It gives my native optimism fertile soil to grow in. This festival is a friendly sustained explosion of some of the best musical talent I know.
Here are some of the glorious people who will be there, singing and playing. Dave Stuckey, Marc Caparone, Carl Sonny Leyland, Clint Baker, Hal Smith, Twerk Thomson, Kris Tokarski, Charlie Halloran, Jonathan Doyle, Joel Paterson, Dawn Lambeth, Brian Casserly, Dave Bennett, T.J. Muller, Katie Cavera, Jacob Zimmerman, Duke Robillard, Jessica King, Ryan Calloway, Riley Baker, Chris Wilkinson, James Mason, Jamey Cummins, Josh Collazo, Tom Rigney, Sam Rocha, Nate Ketner, Dave Kosymna, Alex Hall, Beau Sample, Dan Walton, John Gill, Jontavious Willis, Brian Holland, Danny Coots, and more. And more.
The festival runs from Thursday evening to Sunday evening (September 29 to October 2) and there are either five or six simultaneous sets. Simultaneous. I emphasize this because I got the most charming vertigo trying to plot a course through the tentative schedule, an exercise in Buddhist non-attachment or chess (which I never learned): “I want to see X at 5:30 but that means I can’t see Y then, but I can see Y the next day.”
I’ve only been to Redwood Coast once, in 2019, a transcendent experience and I don’t overstate: the only festival that made me think longingly of hiring a camera crew of at least two friends so that we could capture some portion of the good(ly) sounds. one of the nicest things about this festival is its broad love of energized passionate music: jazz, blues, swing, country, zydeco, soul, rhythm and blues, “Americana,” “roots” — you name it.
Did I mention that there’s room for dancing?
Are some of the names listed above unfamiliar to you? Go here to learn more about the artists and see videos of their work
You can buy tickets here. And maybe you’ll think this is the voice of entitlement, but an all-events pass — four days! — is $135, at least until August 1.
Here’s one more musical convincer from 2019:
Remember, every time it rains it rains PENNIES FROM HEAVEN — in this case, rare musical experiences. But you can’t catch them in your ears or outstretched hands by staying at home.
Or as they say on public radio, THIS JUST IN: Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs (Marc Caparone, trumpet; Clint Baker, guitar; Riley Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums) will be playing a delightful post-pandemic gig on Tuesday, July 5, atBird and Beckett Books (653 Chenery Street), starting at 7:30.
You might hear MICE ISLAND LOVE:
Even though Kim Cusack and Katie Cavera have gigs elsewhere that night, you could also request OH, PETER — because everyone thinks the song and its subject are so nice:
Bird and Beckett is one of my favorite places, temporarily out of reach since I am in New York: a lovely book-and-record store (oh memory! oh memory!) run in the most perceptive hospitable way. You take my seat, please.
And now to the Happy Coincidence portion of our program, although as Poppa Freud is supposed to have said, “There are no accidents.”
I was planning to post the music and commentary below — a precious interlude by Ray at the piano — when news of Bird and Beckett came in. So watch and listen, and get enlightened, and then, if you can get to Chenery Street, hence, begone!
That’s Scott Joplin, Arthur Marshall, and Ray Skjelbred — a thoroughly gratifying melodic corporation if there ever was one — coming together on SWIPSEY CAKEWALK, from 1900, with Joplin composing the trio section, Marshall the main strain, and Skjelbred taking his time to offer us something winning and memorable at the San Diego Jazz Fest on November 25, 2016.
Ray understands that the right tempo — casual and leisurely in this case — brings out the beauty of melody and harmony:
I think of this performance as warmly respectful and also groovy: a wonderful combination.
Ray gets to the heart of the song that perhaps we didn’t know was there, but he always does.
The song is CHINA BOY and I believe the next words of the chorus are GO SLEEP, but you couldn’t find a finer example of being brilliantly awake than this performance.
These five musicians are billed as RAY SKJELBRED AND HIS CUBS, with Ray at the piano, the occasional vocal, arrangements and spiritual-ethical leadership; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Katie Cavera, guitar; Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums. (Study Hamilton’s melodic accompaniment and solo!)
This performance comes from the Sacramento Music Festival (although I may have the rapidly-changing name wrong) in a delightfully compact room on May 24, 2014:
That is compelling evidence of the magnificence of this little band: hot and delicate all at once, plunging forward with the greatest relaxation. I hope our paths intersect before too long.
In 2014, I had the serious luxury of encountering Ray in a variety of settings at a number of festivals and gigs: I look back on those days and those sounds with wonder — both that they occurred and that I was able to witness them and capture them.
While I was sauntering through my archive of unreleased performances by Ray and friends, I found something unusual — although not unusual for those of us who honor and follow him, those of us who have seen him at jazz festivals, moving from one venue to another, becoming friends with each new piano, taking its pulse by playing it, meditatively yet with strong emotions. During the Jazz Fest by the Bay in Monterey, I knew his meditative ways well enough to turn my camera on him before he became part of the ensemble — Bob Schulz’s Frisco Jazz Band, in red polo shirts. And I was rewarded.
Ray told me, “The piano interlude is sort of what I like to do as I adjust to a new piano and setting.” I’ve heard him explore rare Ellington, a Monk blues, Thirties pop songs, and more. I hear the laandmarks of a characteristic blues strain and Bud Freeman’s AFTER AWHILE.
But the interlude so strongly made me think of someone who probably spent no time at the keyboard and who died long before Jess Stacy was born . . . I mean Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote in SELF-RELIANCE, the source of these lines: “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.“
Yes, perfect sweetness, mixed with Chicago grit and California musing. Thank you, Cubs. Thank you, Ray.
News flash (April 14, 2022): the correct personnel is Bill Napier, clarinet; Larry Stein, soprano saxophone; Tom Baker, tenor saxophone; Robin Hodes, trumpet; Bob Mielke, trombone; Tom Keats, rhythm guitar; unidentified, solo guitar; possibly Jim Cumming, string bass.
The beloved and much-missed string bassist and spiritual leader Mike Fay brought recording equipment to gigs — a blessing, as you will hear. I have been privileged to hear some of the results and will share a brief surging interlude, performed live. Mike’s homemade CD read HOT REEDS 1983, nothing else, and that brief description is surely accurate. (I apologize for not having a good photograph of Mike, who moved on in 2017: those I took show him hidden in the rhythm section, which is I think where he always wanted to be.)
Here is a hot track from a live session that stretches over two CDs — wonderful, leisurely and relaxed.
I will post more in future; this hot rendition of THEM THERE EYES is a proven mood-enhancer. Blessings on Mike Fay and his friends, here and in other neighborhoods, and thanks to Marc Caparone and Clint Baker for their detective work.
Let joy be unconfined. It certainly had free room at this July 10, 2014 concert put on by the Dixieland Jazz Club at Rossmoor in Walnut Creek, California. The source of the joy? Ray Skjelbred, piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet and vocal; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, rhythm guitar and vocal; Jeff Hamilton, drums.
I always want to celebrate Ray, someone who keeps finding new paths to embody deep truths about life and art and the spirit, but today I post this jubilant video to say WOW in the name of two celebrations — you might know about them or not. Clint Baker has come back from a serious cardiac incident and is recovering well. If it wouldn’t hurt or embarrass him, a line of people would be at his door wanting to embrace him and to thank him for hanging around. And the quietly brilliant Kim Cusack, admired and loved for a million reasons, is celebrating a birthday. It would be indecent to ask him what the relevant number is, and an irrelevancy: he’s here on the planet and we rejoice in that fact.
And we rejoice in this music.
The news might be dark and the skies cloudy, but anytime we can hear the Cubs — ideally, in person, but also on lit screens and through speakers — it is a glorious day. We know them, we love them.
The title refers to a swing panacea, written by Jimmy Mundy for the Earl Hines band of 1934, named for a libation that mixed rye whiskey with rock candy (sometimes with lemon and herbs) which, I am told, is making a comeback. Whitney Balliett recounted a conversation between Barney Josephson and Helen Humes in the Seventies about the potion, Helen’s drink of choice.
Here’s another version of soothing syrup with a kick, as performed by Ray Skjelbred, piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, rhythm guitar; Jeff Hamilton, drums:
Bring back the Cubs, I say. The world needs their energies.
Ray Skjelbred and the Cubs — that’s Ray, piano and inspiration; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Katie Cavera, guitar; Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton — answer the musical question at the now-vanished Sacramento Jazz Jubilee (d. 2017), with the notes on the music staff written by Johnny Green as their guide, but also the many performances of this tune, including Bing Crosby, Coleman Hawkins, and Django Reinhardt.
I try to collect rather than hoard — the first is a vocation; the second a disorder — but I’ve been hoarding videos of Ray and his Cubs . . . the way I’d store food for the winter, until I have the good fortune to see them again. Soon, I hope. They mean so much more than canned tuna.
That’s 1929. But here’s 2014, at the Sacramento Music Festival — a hot Chicago-style performance (with “surprise vocal”) by the most eloquent Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs, who are Ray, piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Jeff Hamilton, drums:
What a gorgeous serving of energies: “infinite propulsion” characterizes the song but also the Cubs, a band I look forward to seeing again . . . soon.
The pandemic brought us many things that we had not requested, and I will forbear listing them here. But it also brought marvelous musical surprises — our jazz heroes are resilient, and many adapted to the challenge of sewing individual creations into a swinging tapestry. You’ve seen the delightful results: musicians in different “rooms,” which might be thousands of miles away, everyone with headphones or earbuds, making delightful swing harmonies although not able to shake hands or hug. Miraculous and there’s nothing else to call it. Many of my friends have made the technological hurdles seem no more than cracks in the sidewalk, but a new and rewarding group effort has been the merging of the superb singer Alice Spencer with Hal Smith’s Overland Swing Express.
A few words about Ms. Spencer of Austin, Texas. Just as the world is full of restaurants, some producing full stomachs and happy satiety, others producing uneasiness, there are many who call themselves “singers.” Alas, only a small percentage know what it means — that it is more than being personable, chipper, good to look at, well-dressed. Singing is the most personal of the arts, with no keyboard or valves to get in the way, the singer has a message to send us, a story to tell, with only her voice, her dramatic sense, her facial expressions: no tenor saxophone to use as a big shiny prop.
Alice Spencer brings to her songs a remarkable emotional maturity that is beyond her years: put plainly, she sings like a Grownup rather than a Cute Teen.
Her voice has shadings, dark and light; she bends phrases stylishly; she lets us know that she knows what the words mean: she’s not copying famous recordings nor is she singing by rote. And her performances are both emotionally dense and light-hearted: hear her little exhalation of breath at the end of T’AIN’T GOOD — as close to a wordless “Gee, that was fun!” as anyone could create, or the way she wends her way through WHAT SHALL I DO IN THE MORNING? — which, in other hands, could have been maudlin, but when you hear her final sixteen bars and note the sign-off of a gently raised eyebrow, you know that Alice has been having a good time “being sad” and then holding it, gently, at arm’s length. Don’t miss out on the cluster of rapid-fire notes in the middle of T’AIN’T GOOD, either, navigated with accuracy and hilarious style: she might well be the Peggy Fleming of Swing Singing.
I first heard Alice on Brooks Prumo’s THIS YEAR’S KISSES, and wrote this:
And a few lines, once again, for the miracle of nature known as Alice Spencer, who takes familiar music and makes it fresh, who makes songs associated for decades with Billie Holiday into her own without warping their intent, who can be perky or melancholy with utter conviction. She is full of surprises — many singers telegraph what they are going to do in the next four bars, but she doesn’t — although her surprises always seem like the right thing once they have landed. I won’t compare her to other singers: rather, she has an aura like a great film actress, comfortable in many roles. Think Joan Blondell or Jean Arthur, and you have some idea of her great personal appeal.
It would be unkind and unfair, though, to ignore the Gents of the Ensemble: Clint Baker, trumpet; Loren Schoenberg, tenor saxophone; Kris Torkarski, piano; Bill Reinhart, guitar on MORNING and tech-alchemies; Nick Rossi, guitar on GOOD; Sam Rocha, string bass; Hal Smith, drums, leader, arranger.
Because the two tunes are associated with Fats Waller (whose birthday was yesterday) there is a jaunty bounce, a reassuring rocking motion. Clint gets hot, as is his delightful habit; Kris summons up not only Fats but that Wilson fellow c. 1938; Loren evokes 1941 Pres in the Victor studios; Bill knows his way around lovely chords; Nick provides just the right mix of enthusiasm and accuracy; Sam keeps everyone honest; Hal rocks the church.
Here’s T’AIN’T GOOD:
and the larger question, WHAT WILL I DO IN THE MORNING?:
If you have any acquaintance with the great swing traditions of the Thirties and Forties — those sessions made for the jukebox by Billie, Mildred, Midge, Teddy Grace, Fats, Lee, Maxine, Connee, Red, Wingy, Louis Prima, Bob Howard, Putney, Slim Green, and a dozen others — you will understand why I say a) I could no more watch these videos a single time and move on to something else than I could leave my sandwich half-eaten, and b) that I have received ethereal texts from John Hammond, Jack Kapp, Eli Oberstein, and Bernie Hanighen, fighting for the right to sign this band and Ms. Alice up to a long-term contract (of course for very little money, but that’s show business, as the elephants will tell you). On the more earthly level, I ask, “Where is the bright festival promoter who wants to sign the Overland Swing Express up for a weekend of gigs?” But since I know that some of them read JAZZ LIVES, I have hope.
I heard (to quote Don Redman) that Alice Spencer will be making a new digital album sometime soon. Stay tuned.
Ray Skjelbred is more than comfortable with taking risks — not hang-gliding or sky-diving, but performing new songs in front of an audience, as he does here. The clues are simple: “Three choruses.” “My favorite Gershwin song,” and he and his Cubs — Jeff Hamilton, drums; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar — take us to another world:
Those of us who follow Ray, and Ray and his Cubs, might quickly associate them with the bedrock of Chicago jazz: dark-blue musings and skyrocket exuberance, and all that would be true. But their deep soulfulness comes out on a quiet but eloquent ballad performance such as this one.
The question is asked, and asked with feeling, leaving listeners to invent their own answers. Bless Ray, and all his friends.
I did not take the pandemic lightly, and I spent a good deal of last year scared to bits . . . but I’m going. And I hope you will also, if you can.
Details here — but I know you want more than just details.
Although for those who like it very plain, some elementary-school math: four days, more than a hundred sets performed at eight stages, from intimate to huge. Dance floors. And the festival is wonderfully varied, presenting every kind of “roots music” you can imagine: “jazz, swing, blues, zydeco, rockabilly, Americana, Western Swing, country.”
Off the top of my head — when I was there in 2019, I heard the music of Charlie Christian, Moon Mullican, Pee Wee Russell, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Hodges, Pete Johnson, Billie Holiday, and much more. Bob Wills said howdy to Walter Donaldson, which was very sweet.
And here are some of the jazz and blues artists who will be there: Carl Sonny Leyland, Duke Robillard, Dave Stuckey, Hal Smith, Andy Schumm, Dan Barrett, Jonathan Doyle, Jacob Zimmerman, Dan Walton, Marc Caparone, Joe Goldberg, Bill Reinhart, Joshua Gouzy, Joel Patterson, Katie Cavera, Dawn Lambeth, Clint Baker, Kris Tokarski, Nate Ketner, Brian Casserly, Josh Collazo, Ryan Calloway, and two dozen other worthies whose names don’t yet appear on the site. And of course, bands — ad hoc units and working ones.
For the justifiably anxious among us, here is the RCMF’s Covid update: several things stand out. First, California has mandated that ticket sales must be in advance. And understandably, there will be fewer people allowed in any space . . . so this translates for you, dear reader, as a double incentive to buy tickets early. I know that festivals always urge attendees to do this, but you can see these are atypical reasons.
How about some musical evidence?
CASTLE ROCK, by the Jonathan Doyle Swingtet:
WAITING AT THE END OF THE ROAD, by Dawn Lambeth and her Quartet:
REACHING FOR SOMEONE, by the Doyle-Zimmerman Sextet:
HELLO, LOLA! by Hal Smith’s SWING CENTRAL:
SAN ANTONIO ROSE, by Dave Stuckey – Hal Smith’s Western Swing All-Stars:
PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, by Marc Caparone and his “Louis Armstrong All-Stars”:
If the videos don’t act as proof, my words may be superfluous. But to paraphrase Lesley Gore, “It’s my blog and I’ll write if I want to.”
I come to this festival-jazz party circuit late — both late for me and for the phenomenon — September 2004. Chautauqua, California, Connecticut, Newcastle, Westoverledingen, and others. I’ve attended a hundred of them. Meaning no offense to any festival organizer, I think Redwood Coast delivers such quality and such range that it is astonishing. I told Mark Jansen that it was the SUPERMARKET SWEEP of festivals: so much to pick up on in so short a time. And readers will understand that my range is narrow: there is much music on the list of genres above that doesn’t stir me, although it might be excellent.
However: in 2019 I came home with over 150 videos in four days of enthusiastic observation-participation. I slept as if drugged on the plane ride home. I’d been perforated by music of the finest kind.
I also need to write a few darker sentences.
There is a blessed influx of younger people — dancers, often — to music festivals like this one. But festivals are large enterprises, costly to stage and exhausting to supervise. Those of us who want to be able to see and hear live music must know that this phenomenon needs what realistic promoters call Asses in Seats.
So if you say, “Well, I’ll come in a few years when I’m retired,” that’s understandable. But Asses at Home mean that this festival, and others, might not wait for you. Grim, but true.
So I hope to see you there. There are a million reasons to stay at home. But who will come in and dust you?
The Sacramento Music Festival, which we miss, was like a sandwich with the cole slaw coming out of the bread on all sides — tasty but messy, a danger to one’s outfit. Bands of all kinds jostled for audibility both in the open air and in unsuitable venues; the whole weekend had the air of a genial traveling carnival slightly awry.
But wonderful music happened in spite of the distractions. Here are two performances, hidden in the JAZZ LIVES archives for moments just such as this, by Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs, mining deep Chicago gold. They are Ray Skjelbred, piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet and vocal, Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Katie Cavera, guitar. Special effects provided by the winds of fate. (The Cubs should have played BREEZE, but that’s my comic sense, which can be disregarded without harm or wound.)
BULL FROG BLUES:
and that tale of The Ruined Maid, with her new hat and her dubious associations, NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW. And NOW as pronounced by Mr. Cusack is a marvel: young actors at the Old Vic study it but is remains elusive:
These performances are nearly seven years “old” but, as Ray says, “We play in the present tense.”
Julian Barnes has an extraordinary story in his 2005 collection THE LEMON TABLE, “A Short History of Hairdressing,” in which the narrator recounts his life as a series of haircuts.
It amuses me to offer my life in a few lines as a purchaser of recorded music:
Fifty-five years ago, when my mother went shopping in a department store, I ran off and bought a Louis Armstrong long-playing record for $2.79 plus tax. Thirty years ago, I stopped off at Tower Records on my way home from work and bought an Arbors or a Concord CD for $16 and hid it in my briefcase so it wouldn’t be seen and cause an argument. In the past twelve months, although I still buy music from Amazon and eBay and the musicians themselves, the music cornucopia has become Bandcamp.com, where one can hear and purchase all sorts of divinely inspired improvised music — from Bob Matthews to Brad Linde and Freddie Redd, to Gordon Au, Keenan McKenzie, Jonathan Doyle, The Vitality Five, The Dime Notes, Andrew Oliver, Michael McQuaid and two dozen more . . . and now, a wonderful addition to Hal Smith’s catalogue of inspiring music.
This isn’t a collection of howling, meowing, and hissing: no need to open the window and shout “STOP THAT!” at the feline orgy below. Rather, it’s hot New Orleans dance music. Hal [one of the greatest swinging drummers on the planet, and that’s no stage joke] says, of this brand-new session, “a sound somewhere between Bunk’s band (if Don Ewell had been the pianist) and the 1964 ‘Jazzology Poll Winners.'”
Filet of soul — not canned or freeze-dried. I confess to always entering into an emotional relationship with music — those rare and delicious effusions that make me feel warmly embraced. Hal’s new disc does that.
Here, listen. And I believe that Bandcamp waives its fees on Friday, so the musicians get more of the hot savory pie.
The facts, ma’am (thinking of Jack Webb, if you remember):
Hal Smith (drums, leader); Clint Baker (trumpet, vocal on MY LITTLE GIRL); John Gill (trombone); Ryan Calloway (clarinet); Kris Tokarski (piano); Bill Reinhart (banjo); Katie Cavera (string bass). YOU ALWAYS HURT THE ONE YOU LOVE / ARKANSAS BLUES / BLUE MASK STOMP / HONEY BABE / SAN SUE STRUT / BLACK CAT ON THE FENCE / BLUE FOR YOU, BUNK / MY LITTLE GIRL //
Jake Hanna said — often — “What are you waiting for the last chorus of a tune to swing? Start swinging from the beginning!” and this band does, no matter what the tempo. Twenty years ago, a work-colleague would say, “You ROCK!” as
Before I heard a note, I was happy with the tune list. Occasionally I think, “If I hear one more JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH ME or PLEASE DON’T TALK ABOUT ME WHEN I’M GONE or SI TU VOIS MA MERE I will bang my head into the wall — don’t try this, it ruins the paint — but the avoidance of tediously overplayed songs was immediately refreshing. Aside from the homage to Bunk Johnson’s repertoire, there are affectionate glances at Messrs. Morton, Manone, Bechet, and others.
It’s a band with New Orleans in their hearts — strong melodic improvisations, a pulsating supportive rhythm section, and a delightfully idiosyncratic front line making SOUNDS. There is a refreshing reliance on ensemble playing, and a return to one of my favorite things: one player offering a straight but swinging melody while the other improvises around it.
I said it was warm — and warming — music. I hear other bands full of players I admire hewing so closely to the recordings that the collective effect is technically dazzling but a little cool to the touch. The Jazzologists know the score (pun intended) but they romp all on their own. And they don’t fall into the reverent trap of imitating the limitations of venerable senior players. They play.
And it’s a triumph of passion as well as technology. Yes, it was created remotely, with players in six cities — but the groove is such that you wouldn’t know it.
Not for the first time in my adult life have I lamented the disconnect between my ears and heart (those parts that receive the music and revel in it) and my rather stiff stubborn legs. But hearing this disc, I would happily dance around the kitchen, not caring how goofy I might look. It’s that inspiring.
To be a good critic, one must find flaws, or so it seems. That was hard with this session — now on its fifth playing as I write this — but I did find one thing to complain about. I wish this had been a digital two-CD set. Maybe in a few months (what is the feline gestation period?) there can be Kittens?
I love this little band, in all its permutations, and I am not alone. When they get onstage, the question posed above becomes completely rhetorical. They most certainly have music, and they share it with us. Here are five lovely (purple-hued) performances from the 2016 San Diego Jazz Fest, featuring Ray Skjelbred, piano; Katie Cavera, guitar; Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Marc Caparone, cornet; Dawn Lambeth, vocals.
Here’s LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER, evoking Eddie Condon and the first Commodore 78, and the swinging Bing Crosby version a few years earlier:
and James P. Johnson’s song, recorded by Henry “Red” Allen:
and a song associated with Lee Wiley, sweetly sung by Dawn Lambeth:
the beautiful Thirties ballad associated with Billie Holiday:
Finally, Dawn’s exposition of swing frustration (thanks to Walter Donaldson):
To celebrate the publication of his book REALLY THE BLUES, Mezz Mezzrow was the star of a concert at New York’s Town Hall on January 1, 1947 as a benefit for the American Committee for Yugoslav Relief.
The basic band was Muggsy Spanier, Sandy Williams, Sidney Bechet, Mezz Mezzrow, Sammy Price or Art Hodes, Wellman Braud, Baby Dodds. Later in the evening Bob Wilber’s Wildcats were added: Johnny Glasel, Ed Hubble, Bob Wilber, Dick Wellstood, Charlie Traeger, Eddie Phyfe. Coot Grant and Kid Sox Wilson also performed. The concert was recorded on twelve-inch acetates on two machines (hooray!) and ten performances were issued on lp — Jazz Archives JA-39 — but what follows was not.
Quite simply, it is an exultant hymn of praise to Louis.
It’s a life-changing performance of WHEN YOU’RE SMILING by Johnny Windhurst, unlisted in Tom Lord’s discography, with Bechet, prominent, and Dick Wellstood on piano. My guess is that the veterans gave place to the Youngbloods, but it’s Windhurst who catches our ears and our hearts. Rather like Hot Lips Page in his prime, Windhurst seems energetically lit from within, and just when you think he might have had enough or done enough, he takes another chorus. Radiantly.
After Mezz’s announcement, the roadmap (to my ears) is one ensemble statement of the theme, one chorus by Bechet; one chorus by Wellstood; one by Eddie Hubble, trombone; two choruses by Windhurst with Bechet and the ensemble joining in. The tape I was working with was a copy of a reel-to-reel tape where the plastic had started to decay, alas, so there is some distortion and tape squeal. But if you can turn away from Windhurst’s shining Louisness because of these flaws, we don’t have much to say to each other.
Incidentally, the question, “How’s your Louisness?” is, I believe, a co-invention of two of my favorite people, Riley and Clint Baker. . . . it is another way of saying, “How’s your internal spiritual compass?” and “Have you spread some joy today?” They do, and certainly young Mister Windhurst does.