Tag Archives: Emily Dickinson

“BLUE NOTES THAT FRAME THE PASSION”: RAY SKJELBRED’S TRIBAL WISDOM

Pianist / composer / scholar / poet Ray Skjelbred is one of the rare ones.

I don’t say this only because of his deeply rewarding piano playing — soloist, accompanist, bandleader — but because of the understanding that it rests upon.  Ray understands that he is one of long line of creators — members of the tribe of improvising storytellers, some of them no longer on the planet but their energies still vividly alive.

He doesn’t strive to copy or to “recreate”; rather, he honors and embodies in ways that words can only hint at.  Call it an enlightened reverence that takes its form in blues-based melodic inventions, and you’ll be close to understanding the essence of what Ray does, feels, and is.

Here are some of his own introspections: “I get ideas by trying to hear the world differently, sometimes even misunderstanding sound on purpose. . . . I like to see things differently, to shape a song, to make it mine. I like to make tempo changes, especially fast to slow, I like to make the notes as round and warm as possible and part of that comes from shading a composition with blue notes that frame the passion. I like to fill in harmonies when the melody feels a little bony to me. . . . I think music is an adventure, a chance to shape sound with your bare hands.”

I’ve admired his playing for some years now — before I knew him as a soloist, I heard him through ensembles on recordings led by other musicians, rather in the way one would hear Hines, Horace Henderson, Joe Sullivan, Frank Melrose, Jess Stacy, Zinky Cohn, Tut Soper, Cassino Simpson, Alex Hill, or a dozen others subversively and happily animating the largest group.

There are several ways to experience this magic — Ray making himself a portal through which the elders can speak, while adding his own personal experiences.  One, of course, is to witness his transformations in person.  To do this, you’d have to know where he is going to be playing — check out the bottom of the page here for his appearances in the near future.

Another way t0 have a portable Skjelbred festival is through his compact discs, recent and otherwise, listed here. I call two new issues to your attention.  One, RAGTIME PIANO, is — beneath its rather plain title — a continued exploration of subversive possibilities, witty and warm.

I remember the first time I began to listen to it — with small surprises popping through the surface like small flowers, catching me off guard, subtler than Monk creating his own version of stride piano but with some of the same effect.  Each track is a small hot sonata, with the surprises resurfacing to make the whole disc a suite of unusual yet comfortable syncopated dance music.

The sixteen solo piano performances offer classics, stretched and reconsidered: SWIPSEY CAKEWALK / SOMETHING DOING / WHOOPEE STOMP / LOUISIANA RAG / MOURNFUL SERENADE / DANCE OF THE WITCH HAZELS / PINEAPPLE RAG / AT A GEORGIA CAMP MEETING, as well as Ray’s originals — inspired by everyone from Emily Dickinson to Julia Child: SMILING RAG / LEAN AND GRIEFY RAG / DON’T CROWD THE MUSHROOMS / COCHINEAL RAG / LITTLE ELMER’S RAG / THE PICOT RAG / REFLECTIONS RAG / BALLS AND STRIKES FOREVER.

Another deep lesson in how to get the most music possible — and then some — from the piano can be found in Ray’s PIANO PORTRAITS, which demonstrates his range of endearing associations, from the Hot Five and early blues singers to Carl Kress and Eddie Lang, from Jimmie Noone and early Ellington to Bix, Hines, and Charlie Shavers. It’s a filling and fulfilling musical banquet: SITTING ON TOP OF THE WORLD / FEELING MY WAY / I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA / WEATHER BIRD RAG / SQUEEZE ME / I NEED YOU BY MY SIDE / DINAH / READY FOR THE RIVER / ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS / CLARK AND RANDOLPH / CANNED MEAT RAG / BLUES FROM “CREOLE RHAPSODY” / BLUES FOR MILLIE LAMMOREUX / FATHER SWING / WHEN I DREAM OF YOU / A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND / MY HEART / MUGGLES / UNDECIDED.  Ray’s prose is as forthright and evocative as his playing, so this CD is worth reading as well as hearing for his recollections of Johnny Wittwer, Joe Sullivan, Burt Bales, Art Hodes, and Earl Hines.

Another way to experience Ray, his mastery of “those pretty notes and jangly octaves,” can be through these video performances.  He has been more than gracious to me, allowing me to capture him in a variety of settings.  I offer one here, BULL FROG BLUES, recorded on November 29, 2013, at the San Diego Thanksgiving Jazz Festival — with his Cubs, that savory band: Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Mike Daugherty, drums:

Wherever Ray goes, whatever the context in which he makes music, it’s always rewarding.

May your happiness increase!

WE LIVE IN HOPE (WITH RECORDS)

Whenever we go into an antique store, thrift store, Goodwill or the like, I hope that there is a pile of records.  Most often the results are drab: the Dean Martin Christmas Record, the Hollyridge Strings Play (fill in the blank), 12″ disco hits.  When there are albums of 78 rpm records, often they are middle-of-the-road classical sets, early Fifties red-label Columbias and Deccas.  Something like a sunburst Decca Bing Crosby or a canary-training record is a bombshell in the midst of this assortment.

Who knew that the wine country and environs in Northern California would be so full of possibilities?

Mind you, no Gennetts or Paramounts; nary a Steiner-Davis in the lot.  But I want to report two successful treasure hunts.  (An older generation used to call this “junking,” but somehow the name — to me — suggests pawing through piles of trash.

Here are the gems (ninety-nine cents each plus tax) from a visit last night to the Goodwill in Petaluma, out of a plastic crate full of 78s that, for the most part, were either pre-electric or postwar pop.

The first one:

All I know about this is that “Ed Blossom and His New Englanders” is a pseudonym for the California Ramblers, and from the issue number I would date it as late 1928.  The other side — a familiar tune — was more promising. (I left the sticker on for proof):

But when I looked online for more information (neither side appears in Tom Lord’s discography), this is what I found.  Different label but the same matrix number:

That’s a perfectly amiable dance record, neatly played — but for someone like myself waiting for Jack Purvis to make himself known in the next-to-last bridge, a bit of a letdown.  Still, it serves as a reminder of just how much we should value those hot interludes, because they didn’t appear at every session.

Here’s the second find, and although I have no idea of the accompaniment (again, no listing in Rust), I wasn’t disappointed.  This disc had been well-played, a tribute to its singer:

Not only a Lee Morse record, but one of her originals!  And here is the thing in itself: a fascinating exercise in history in reverse, or influence looking in a mirror.  On the second chorus, Miss Morse sounds like Tamar Korn; on the third, she anticipates Connee Boswell:

The flip side:

And it’s testimony to Miss Morse’s stardom that she was able to change the lyrics of this pop hit to be gender-appropriate, something few artists could do at the time.

We move forward to this afternoon and an antique store on Grant Avenue in Novato — SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY — where I purchased three of these marvels for two dollars each:

These are eight-inch home recording discs, with five of the six sides grooved — three of them divided in two.  None of the discs has any writing on the label, and the store did not have a three or four-speed phonograph, so I paid my money and live in hope — or in Emily Dickinson’s “Possibility.”  What are the odds that these discs contain recordings of a 1943 after-hours jam session?  Slim, I admit.  More likely they are someone playing LADY OF SPAIN or Grandpa’s speech to the Rotary Club.  (In past encounters, I’ve seen those discs — Sister Susie’s hymn recital.)  But one must take risks in this life . . . !

The prize that accompanied these discs was the paper sleeve for a ten-inch Recordio disc — it was also in the pile, but blank and with the coating eroding and cracking.  But you should know that RECORDIO DISCS were manufactured by Wilcox-Gay (of Charlotte, Michigan), and that they were ALUMINUM BASE, PROFESSIONAL QUALITY — meant FOR THOSE BETTER RECORDINGS.

“WILCOX-GAY offers a selection of 6 1/2″, 8″and 10″ sizes in RECORDIO DISCS for your recording needs. Aluminum base discs are manufactured to precision standards and are surfaced with a long-life, mirror-clear coating . . . combined with low surface noise this gives them preferred ratings on all markets.  Fibre base discs are the original RECORDIO DISCS, famous for their long life and excellent reproduction.  They are light, flexible and can be mailed without fear of damage.  Genuine RECORDIO DISCS in aluminum or fibre base can be obtained from your local RECORDIO dealer.  Always ask for them by name.”

“SUGGESTION     Your recordings will last longer if you always keep them in this envelope when not in use.  CAUTION    Do not place RECORDIO DISCS on furniture or any laminated surface.  Under some climactic conditions the dyes used in the manufacture of these discs will discolor certain surfaces.”

Recordiopoint curring and playback needles are the perfect companion for RECORDIO DISCS.  Always insist on Recordiopoint needles and RECORDIO DISCS for use with your Recordio.”

If there’s exciting news in a few weeks when I place these RECORDIO DISCS (they do demand all capital letters, don’t they?) on my phonograph, I will surely let the JAZZ LIVES readership know . . . we live in hope!

JAZZ AND POETRY AND JAZZ

Consider these four pictures, if you will:

Their arrangement isn’t perverse or arbitrary. But it occurred to me that they sum up the two great currents of being in American art over the last two hundred years: the Includers and the Excluders. Those who try to encompass their own huge vision within the bounds of a form; those who pare away anything extraneous to offer us epigrams, tiny cryptic near-riddles. What if Emily Dickinson is really poetry’s Thelonious Monk — sharp-edged, caustically lovely creative force, saying all that needs to be said in her hymnlike stanzas? Perhaps we should only read her to the accompaniment of Monk’s version of “Abide With Me,” which might be his shortest recording? And, to turn the proposition around, doesn’t Art Tatum make much more sense if we hear every solo, every chorus, as his personal Song of Myself ? It’s true, the proposition might need work. Dickinson might really be Count Basie. Consider it. For myself, I’m wondering if Wordsworth is more a James P. Johnson or perhaps even Earl Hines.