Tag Archives: George Mitchell

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!

HOT CLASSICISM: The TOKARSKI-SCHUMM-SMITH CHAMBER TRIO IN CONCERT, JANUARY 13, 2016

Kris Tokarski Trio

Here is video evidence of an extraordinary trio concert of the Kris Tokarski Trio — Kris Tokarski, piano; Andy Schumm, cornet / clarinet; Hal Smith, drums — performed at the Old US Mint, New Orleans, on January 13, 2016.  The stuff that dreams are made on:

Albert Wynn’s PARKWAY STOMP:

Tiny Parham’s CONGO LOVE SONG:

Doc Cooke’s HERE COMES THE HOT TAMALE MAN:

SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY:

Mister Morton’s ode to Joe Oliver, MISTER JOE:

FROG-I-MORE RAG (or FROGGIE MOORE, if you prefer):

In honor of Danny Altier, MY GAL SAL:

ANGRY:

RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE:

Please note: these lovely performances, simultaneously delicate and intense, aren’t copies of the recordings, but evocations of cherished multi-layered creations.  Yes, you’ll hear echoes of Beiderbecke, Keppard, Dominique, Oliver, Noone, Simeon, Livingston, Hines, Morton, James P. Johnson, Alex Hill, Catlett, Benford, Singleton, Stafford, Pollack, Krupa, Dodds . . . but what you are really hearing is the Kris Tokarski Trio, graciously embracing present and past, leading us into the future of hot music.  And in its balance, the trio reminds me of the legendary chamber groups that embody precision and passion in balance, although Mozart, Brahms, and Dvorak created no trios for piano, cornet, and trap kit.  Alas.  They didn’t know what was possible.

I’m thrilled that these videos exist, and although I am fiendishly proud of my own efforts, these are much better than what I could have done.  Now, all I want is the Kris Tokarski World Tour, with a long stopover in New York.

Here is Kris’s Facebook page, and here is  his YouTube channel.  Want more? Make sure your favorite festival producer, clubowner, concert promoter, or friends with a good piano and a budget experiences these videos.

May your happiness increase!

BEAUTIFULLY POLISHED BRASS

Here’s something good.

And another taste:

CHRIS HODGKINS CDI don’t ordinarily like surprises, because so many of them feel as if someone has crept up behind me and popped an inflated paper bag to watch me suddenly soar up to the ceiling — but the most lovely surprise is meeting someone new and finding out that (s)he has deep joyous talents you’d never known of before.

Such a person is trumpeter / composer Chris Hodgkins.  In fairness, I’d already heard Chris play (on recordings only, alas) and admired him as a thoughtful lyrical trumpeter — someone who admired Louis, Ruby, Brownie, Humphrey Lyttelton, without imitating a phrase.  And I hear the same kind of tenderness I always heard in Joe Wilder’s playing.  (In the interest of accuracy, I will note that I first heard and wrote about Chris a few years ago here.

The two YouTube videos above offer music from the new Hodgkins CD, BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD, which I celebrate here as an outpouring of sophisticated yet gentle Mainstream jazz.

I had the opportunity to write a few words for this disc, and they will serve as my enthusiastic endorsement:

Chris Hodgkins and friends do not have the international reputations they deserve, but they create endearing music that doesn’t reveal all its secrets at once.

Aside from two originals and the poignant BLACK BUTTERFLY, the repertoire suggests a formulaic Mainstream set that one might hear at a jazz party. But that narrow assumption vanishes once the music begins, for Chris, Dave, Erika, and Ashley offer serene yet searching chamber jazz, refreshing improvisations on familiar songs. (Although I suppose that SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE is now arcane to all but a few listeners.)

I delight in the delicately streamlined instrumentation, reminiscent of sessions by Ruby Braff and Warren Vache. Hearing this music, I am breathing in the light-hearted interplay, without the conventions of four-bar trades or ensemble-solos-ensemble. The players have created an airy, open music, full of pleasant wanderings but solidly grounded in melody and beating-heart rhythms.

And this music gladdens on many levels: a musician could analyze and admire subtle rhythmic displacements, chord substitutions, shifting textures. A casual listener would say, “What is that? That sounds beautiful,” and both responses would be true.

Chris is a master of his instrument. He can modulate from what Agatha Beiderbecke heard in her son’s playing, a “sudden perky blare,” to what Ruby Braff recognized in Lawrence Brown’s “a wonderful little cry.” I hear echoes of a grand tradition – everyone from George Mitchell to Clifford Brown and beyond – but Chris is himself throughout.

Emotionally warm music comes out of the emotions of the players – not only their love of sounds and textures, but a love for the people who have gone before and who have created personal art. On this CD, one hears everyone’s affection and admiration for the great ancestors, but Chris cites two people in particular.

One, his older brother, played trumpet, so Chris heard Louis and Morton and more, but, as he says, “When I was about 14 or 15, my brother said, ‘You don’t want to hear it, you want to play it!’ so he got me a trumpet from a second-hand shop and I never looked back.”

Later, Chris played with guitarist Vic Parker. “He was born in Cardiff, played in London before and during the war. In 1940 he worked at the Embassy Club in Bond Street playing accordion and double bass with Don Marino Barreto. He can be seen in Barreto’s band during a nightclub sequence in the musical film Under Your Hat. He came back to Cardiff and I used to work with him in the Quebec every Monday and Wednesday. We had a little duo, just playing standards, and he would sing in a Cardiff accent. When you’re young, you forget so much. You can be handed the keys to the kingdom and you don’t notice. Working with Vic was like that: he was in his late 60s then, one of the nicest guys you could meet.”

Chris has also played alongside Pete Allen, Rod Mason, Kathy Stobart, Humphrey Lyttelton (whose passionate influence I hear), Buddy Tate, and Wild Bill Davison.

Chris is also a wise generous leader, someone who knows that Being Out Front Always is hard on one’s chops as well as on band morale, so each performance makes his colleagues equals rather than subordinates. One of the most moving performances here is A NIGHTINGALE SANG IN BERKELEY SQUARE, an etude for piano and two double-basses, both celebration and elegy for wartime Britain, with death, romance, and endurance intermingled.

And those colleagues! Bassist Erika Lyons appeared on a BBC master class with Ray Brown, and studied with Buster Williams, Rufus Reid, and Hal Galper. Now she plays jazz festivals all over the world. Pianist Dave Price is a deep student of jazz piano from the Thirties to tomorrow, and he has worked with Tubby Hayes, Tony Coe, Nat Adderley, and Peanuts Hucko among many others. Bassist Ashley John Long is known not only for his work with Hans Koller, Bobby Wellins, Keith Tippett and others, but for his compositions for film, television, and the concert hall.

Together, they make BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD what jazz recordings should be, no matter what genre: warm, wide-awake, deeply personal.

If you go to the channel that Chris has created on YouTube, you can hear two more beauties from BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD and more lovely music.

The CD offers SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE, A NIGHTINGALE SANG IN BERKELEY SQUARE, DROP ME OFF IN HARLEM, A KISS TO BUILD A DREAM ON, STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE, SUNDAY, ANGEL EYES, LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE, BLACK BUTTERFLY, JEEPERS CREEPERS, BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD, ALMOST LIKE BEING IN LOVE, SWINGING AT THE COPPER BEECH, BUDDY BOLDEN’S BLUES, YOU’D BE SO NICE TO COME HOME TO, VP, JUST FRIENDS — and it’s beautifully recorded. Here you can find out more — including how to purchase the disc, which I do recommend.

May your happiness increase!

RED HOT CHICAGO at the WHITLEY BAY CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY: MATTHIAS SEUFFERT, ANDY SCHUMM, DUKE HEITGER, GRAHAM HUGHES, MARTIN SECK, JACOB ULLBERGER, PHIL RUTHERFORD, NICK WARD (November 3, 2013)

Erastus was very pleased, and told me so.  He wasn’t alone.

One of the things the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party does best — perhaps with no equals — is to offer vivid panoramas-in-sound of what our heroes sounded like . . . not exactly copying the records, but swinging out in devoted, accurate loving style

Here’s one such example: four beautiful evocations of hot Chicago 1927, in honor of Johnny Dodds’ Black Bottom Stompers (and its close relatives) — brought to life again in 2013 by clarinetist (and Dodds scholar) Matthias Seuffert, Andy Schumm, Duke Heitger, trumpet; Graham Hughes, trombone; Martin Seck, piano; Jacob Ullberger, banjo; Phil Rutherford, brass bass; Nick Ward, drums.

The players in this video are really in there, as they used to say: I delight in the intricate ensemble dance they do and their intense yet loose soloing.

WILD MAN BLUES:

WHEN ERASTUS PLAYS HIS OLD KAZOO:

MELANCHOLY:

WEARY BLUES:

More of these uplifting sounds to come in November: details here. I am gently nudging those JAZZ LIVES readers who can attend this year’s Party to not wait: both seating and hotel rooms sold out months in advance in prior years.

May your happiness increase!

ENRICO TOMASSO’S “AL DENTE”: TASTY!

Rico CD front better

It has been my great good fortune to meet and hear trumpeter / singer Enrico Tomasso several times at the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party.  Because of his deep understanding of jazz from the beginnings to the present, Rico has often been asked to “be” someone else: Louis, George Mitchell, or Roy Eldridge, for a variety of jazz repertory projects.  A versatile player, he has no trouble summoning up the great demigods, but in the process, his own personality — subtle yet powerful — shines through.  He’s delightfully versatile — like a compelling stage actor who can be Lear one week, Stanley Kowalski the next, without strain.  (He’s also a marvelous singer.)

Now, at last, he’s made a small-group CD under his own name — just Rico and rhythm — and it’s delicious.  (In keeping with the beautiful productions of Woodville Records, the sound is first-rate; excellent notes by Alyn Shipton, and fine photographs by bassist Andrew Clyndert.)

Rico CD back

Although many of the songs on this disc have strong associations with great trumpet players (Louis, Roy, Bobby Hackett, Clark Terry) what we hear is a mature artist — playfully taking chances — creating his own paths through familiar material.

Many compact discs topple under the weight of sameness, offering ten or twenty performances in a row that sound so similar, but Rico has always held variety as an artistic principle, so he manages to change the sound and mood from track to track — with the help of three very sympathetic players, John Pearce, piano; Andrew Cleyndert, string bass; Bobby Worth, drums.

Here’s a taste of Rico in person, being himself:

You can feel his exuberant personality from the first note, and that personality comes through on the CD, whether he’s being tender (THE GOOD LIFE), gently swinging (GONE AND CRAZY), or witty (BROTHERHOOD OF MAN).  His tone, glossy, whispery, or gritty, is always a pleasure.

And even if you own the “originals” of LITTLE JAZZ, THE GOOD LIFE, JUBILEE, or others, this CD will be a delightful introduction or re-introduction to a great musician.

If Rico had the publicity he deserves, jazz listeners worldwide would be speaking of him in the same breath with Ruby Braff and Warren Vaché.  His music — deeply emotional yet always swinging — is consistently superb.  AL DENTE (which I take to mean “perfectly cooked” rather than “chewy”) is a beautiful representation of his art.

May your happiness increase!

“MISS LIL”: LILLIAN HARDIN, HOT COMPOSER / PIANIST: BENT PERSSON, MATTHIAS SEUFFERT, STEPHANE GILLOT, JENS LINDGREN, MARTIN SECK, MARTIN WHEATLEY, MALCOLM SKED at the WHITLEY BAY CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY (October 27, 2012)

The splendors of the 2012 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party continue in a set celebrating the compositions and recordings of Miss Lil — Lillian Hardin — in the Twenties.  On the marriage license she was L. H. Armstrong, but she did more than keep house: she wrote songs and led hot recording sessions.  And she was one of the few early women to do these things successfully.  In addition, without Miss Lil, husband Louis might have stayed comfortably as Joe Oliver’s second cornetist for many years . . . material for an alternate-universe science fiction novel.

Lil’s recording career continued on through the Thirties — with a brilliant series of Decca sessions, a few featuring Joe Thomas and Chu Berry — and the Forties.  As a child, one of my first jazz records ever was a 12″ Black and White 78 of “Lil ‘Brown Gal’ Armstrong” with Jonah Jones, J. C. Higginbotham, Al Gibson, and Baby Dodds — among others.  She played and recorded with Sidney Bechet and Chicagoans . . . always exuberant, energetic.

Early on, I remember being swept up in the force and joy of Louis’ Hot Fives and Sevens, and only later coming to the sessions that paired Lil with Johnny Dodds, George Mitchell, and others — powerful music where the players’ delight was absolutely tangible.  As it is here!

Here are a half-dozen 2012 performances featuring Matthias Seuffert, clarinet; Bent Persson, cornet; Staphane Gillot, reeds; Jens Lindgren, trombone; Martin Seck, piano; Martin Wheatley, banjo; Malcolm Sked, bass.

GATEMOUTH (or GATE MOUTH, one of those locutions designed to state that one had a large orifice up front):

PERDIDO STREET BLUES:

MY BABY:

GEORGIA BO BO (from “Lil’s Hot Shots,” the Hot Five on another label, not well-disgused:

DROP THAT SACK (as above):

TOO TIGHT:

May your happiness increase.

“RED HOT! THAT’S WHAT!”: THE FAT BABIES ON DISC: “CHICAGO HOT”

Sometimes — even in this age of instantaneous communication — we are surprisingly insular.  I had heard a good deal about this marvelous Chicago hot jazz band called, oddly, THE FAT BABIES.  I knew they would be superb because of the musicians I knew: Andy Schumm, cornet and more; Paul Asaro, piano;  Dave Bock, trombone and more; John Otto, clarinet and alto saxophone; and Jake Sanders, tenor banjo — all players I had heard in person and of course admired.  Alex Hall, drums, and Beau Sample, string bass / leader, were names new to me, but I figured that musicians are known by the company they keep.

At the 2012 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party I acquired a copy of their new Delmark CD, CHICAGO HOT, and before I had a chance to listen to it, I also became the happy owner of WHAT A HEAVENLY DREAM — a Fats Waller and his Rhythm project led by Paul Asaro, this on the Rivermont label.  You can read my unashamedly ecstatic review of the Rivermont CD here.

CHICAGO HOT

CHICAGO HOT is accurately titled.  I was listening to it in the car today, and if you’d seen a very happy man at a stop light grinning like mad and clapping his hands and bobbing his head . . . three guesses as to that man’s identity.

Before I begin to explain and rhapsodize — for I can do no less — if you visit the band’s website here, you can hear samples from the CD.  The personnel is as mentioned above: Schumm, Bock, Otto, Asaro, Sanders, Sample, and Hall — with tuba legend Mike Waldbridge joining the band for the final track.  The song titles will state where this band is at: SNAKE RAG / LONDON CAFE BLUES / SAN / ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND / I SURRENDER, DEAR / DARDANELLA / BLACK SNAKE BLUES / HERE COMES THE HOT TAMALE MAN (with vocal interjections that I have taken as this post’s title) / FROGGIE MOORE / WILLOW TREE / WEARY BLUES / LIZA / PLEASE / SUSIE / TIGHT LIKE THIS / STOMP OFF, LET’S GO.  So you’ll note the exalted Presences: Papa Joe, Jelly Roll, Louis, Fats, James P., Keppard, Doc Cooke, Bix, Miff, Bing, and their pals.  No vocals or jiving around — no funny-hat stuff — just CHICAGO HOT.

The Fat Babies have accomplished something brilliant on this disc and, I gather, continue to do so regularly in front of living audiences at Chicago venues and elsewhere.  That is, they easily handle the question of “transcription,” “imitation,” “emulation,” “evocation,” and creative reinvention.  What do all those words mean?  Put plainly, although many of the performances on this disc are based on hallowed recordings, I never got the sense that these living players were attempting to “play old records live.”  Their success, for me, is in the way they imbue these monumental artifacts with their own personalities, playing within the style but feeling free to move around in it.

Thus, for one example, Paul Asaro, when faced with a thirty-two bar solo on a song made immortal by Louis Armstrong in 1928, doesn’t place on himself the burden of “becoming” Earl Hines or “reproducing” Earl’s famous chorus.  No — Paul Asaro plays Asaro in those thirty-two bars, drawing on a deep knowledge of Morton, Waller, and a thousand other sources.

Dave Bock sounds like someone who’d be first call for a 1929 Henderson date; John Otto moves from Rod Cless to Darnell Howard.  Andy Schumm, who has legions of starry-eyed admirers who want him to do nothing but become Bix before their eyes, evokes the tougher, more vibrato-laden work of Dominique and George Mitchell with a lovely mix of power and delicacy.

And that rhythm section!  I could listen to Asaro, Sanders (very wistful single-string solos and driving rhythm), Sample (somewhere Milton J. Hinton is grinning admiringly), Hall (who moves nimbly from the heavy brushwork Tommy Benford favors to evocations of Chauncey Morehouse, early Jo Jones — before Basie — George Stafford, Wettling, and other heroes) — swinging!

That swing is worth noting in itself.  Too many recordings / concerts devoted to some historically-accurate notion of what “early jazz” sounded like are at a distance from loose, happy swing.  Now, I know that what constitutes “swing” and “swinging” changes from decade to decade and from individual subjective perception, but the Fat Babies don’t feel compelled to imitate the rhythmic conventions of a 1923 recording just because the Gennett disc captured a particular sound.  But they don’t “update” in annoying ways: there are no quotes from ANTHROPOLOGY or BLUE SEVEN.

Too many words?  Take a look at this, recorded by my friend Jamaica Fisher Knauer:

To quote Chubby Jackson, “Wasn’t that swell?”  Or Alex Hill, “Ain’t it nice?”  (As someone who has a smartphone but doesn’t center his life around it, I must say that this video — and others by “victorcornet21” are the only reason to even considering buying an iPhone.)

I don’t write this about all that many discs, but CHICAGO HOT is a splendidly essential purchase if you feel as I do about hot music, exquisitely and expertly played.

And a postscript.  Liner notes are sometimes as energetically effusive — and just as accurate — as the blurbs on the back cover of a best-selling book.  But Kim Cusack, reed wizard and singer, doesn’t do such things.  He is outspoken and candid about the music he loves and the arts he practices — so notes by Kim are both a rare honor and testimony to his joyous endorsement of this band.

And — as a bonus — I learned from those notes what the band’s (to me) odd name was.  It comes from an expression young Beau Sample heard in his home state, Texas: “It’s hotter than a fat baby.”  Now you know.

May your happiness increase.

THE HOT ANTIC JAZZ BAND at WHITLEY BAY (July 9, 2010)

This one’s for Nancie Beaven, one of this blog’s most ardent readers, currently ensconced in Connecticut.  Nancie is a  great admirer of the Hot Antic Jazz Band and of its cornetist, Michel Bastide.  Several times during the 2010 Whitley Bay International Jazz Festival, I had ample opportunity to see why. 

The HAJB also sported Bernard Antherieu, clarinet; Philippe Raspail, saxophone; Martin Seck, piano; Christian Lefevre, brass bass; Philippe Guignier, banjo.  (The regular banjoist is Jean-Pierre Dubois but that week-end was attending his daughter’s wedding.  I apologize to all the musicians I omitted, mis-identified, or mis-named: it took the help of several people (Bill Lowden and JC from Les Rois de Fox-Trot) to get me this close to accuracy.  

A lovely melody by a composer new to me, called HOW STRANGE:  

SUNDAY, in honor of Bix, the Jean Goldkette band, and even the Keller Sisters and (their brother) Lynch:

CHICAGO RHYTHM, suggesting not only a time and place, but also Jimmie Noone in his heyday:

Finally, an enthusiastic solo piano reading of THE PEARLS, by “Jelly Roll Martin”:

Some band!

NATE CHINEN: “FIGS AND STONES”

Nate Chinen writes about jazz for The New York Times, JazzTimes, the Village Voice, and he also has a thriving blog, “The Gig”: http://thegig.typepad.com/blog/2010/04/mossy-stone.html#more

Until this year, I would have perceived him as living on the other side of the Jazz Divide, because we clearly loved very different — even irreconcilable — music.  But my opinion changed last January when Nate sent me a friendly email:

I don’t believe we’ve met, but I wanted to get in touch. I’m working on a JazzTimes column about the “new” strain of jazz traditionalism, and the ways in which the culture(s) of swing and bebop have continued to thrive, often well out of the reach of mainstream-media coverage. You struck me as an ideal person to sound off on such matters, so I’m wondering whether you might have some spare time this afternoon or evening. We could speak by phone or I could shoot you a few questions over email. Please let me know, in any case. I’ll look forward to making your acquaintance.

I was delighted — someone was graciously asking whether I would like to discuss my favorite subject!  So we spent an hour on the phone.  Nate asked pertinent questions, listened closely, and let me talk.  I told him that this “new traditionalism” was deep and inventive.  It wasn’t simply young people copying old records. 

I spoke at length about the performances I had seen in New York and elsewhere — musicians comfortable with many approaches to improvising, able to encompass Bud Powell, Art Tatum, and James P. Johnson in a single solo without seeming exhibitionistic or synthetic.  I told Nate about nights at The Ear Inn, where musicians of different “schools” found a common language  — connecting George Mitchell and Don Cherry — that was communal, genuine, and satisfying.  (I also urged him to join me there some Sunday, and he said he would.) 

Of course, I mentioned the names of my living heroes (my readers will be able to name a dozen) throughout the conversation, in hopes that he would understand that jazz — the religion of JAZZ — was very much alive here and now. 

As our conversation progressed, Nate was enthusiastic about his inventing a new name for the old — derisive — term for people who loved older jazz players and styles.  In the ideological wars of the Forties, they were “moldy figs,” defending their territory against the interlopers Bird and Dizzy.  Nate had come up with “mossy stones,” and his coinage made me think of a quotation from W.B. Yeats’s “Easter 1916.”  If I had been worried at the start that Nate was uncomprehending or hostile to my sensibilities, this phone conversation had given me reason to relax.

Yesterday, Nate informed me that the article had been published:   

Figs & Stones

Some time ago Michael Steinman, a professor of English at Nassau Community College, was out to dinner on vacation when the conversation turned to jazz. Hearing of his love for the music, someone at another table proudly claimed that he had been at Carnegie Hall in the early ’60s, for a concert that included tenor titans John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. “I told him my taste in jazz went back a bit further than that,” Steinman recalls. “He looked at me and said, ‘Wait a minute. Are you a moldy fig?’”

The fact that you’re here, dear reader, probably means you know that them’s fightin’ words. To be seen as a moldy fig, at this point in jazz’s post-history, is to be lumped together with the loonies and curmudgeons, hopelessly out of step, terminally uncool. Like Renaissance faire habitués and Civil War reenactors, the moldy fig longs for some receding point on the timeline, striving to transplant its bygone values to an inhospitable soil. Jazz, for such a creature, is a firm ideal, lovingly and narrowly circumscribed.

What’s funny is the fact that “moldy fig” connotes two distinct jazz factions that should be fundamentally at odds. The term originally referred to the early jazz traditionalists who saw the music as having peaked in the 1920s. Soon it was also leveled at swing adherents who decried the advancing tide of bebop. Both meanings were in circulation in the 1940s, reflecting a pair of schisms in jazz at the time. As Bernard Gendron once put it, in a definitive essay on the subject: “The first of these conflicts pitted swing against the newly revitalized New Orleans jazz that it had previously supplanted, and the second against the bebop avant-garde movement that threatened to make it obsolescent.”

Pluck in the face of obsolescence is what unites the moldy figs of both persuasions today: the Benny Goodman fan club, say, with members of the Sidney Bechet Society. The term has even become a badge of honor among some listeners—though not for Steinman, who runs a blog called Jazz Lives. “Traditionalism to me is not tuba and banjo,” he writes in an explanatory note, distancing himself from the moldiest of fig trappings. But he’s clear about the music he loves—“[My] heroes include Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Eddie Condon,” he writes—and he uses his platform to champion it.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the moldy-fig legacy as it applies to the next wave of jazz traditionalists. While the music has advanced (I’ll refrain from writing “evolved”), the shadow of obsolescence has been lengthening. It no longer stops at the breakthroughs of bebop, or the refinement of modal jazz. So even though jazz’s mid-century modern constituency still has a lot to be thankful for—the Jazz Icons DVD series, for one, and present-day paragons like tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander—the center of the music no longer reflects that reality.

Perhaps you can identify. Depending on your tastes, you might be among the jazz diehards disillusioned with what’s become of the jazz media, with its fetish for newness. You nod your head when you hear of the death of jazz, as it’s commonly understood. Well, don’t look now, but you might be a mossy stone.

Allow me to explain. A mossy stone is a jazz adherent whose core stylistic allegiance is to the music pioneered in the 1940s, streamlined in the ’50s and diversified in the ’60s. This region of inquiry begins with bebop and ends with free jazz, cutting off at the early stirrings of fusion. Wynton Marsalis, once disparaged by critic Gene Santoro as a “latter-day moldy fig,” actually fits this bill: Though vocal in his advocacy of swing and earlier jazz, he’s a modernist at heart, as his own track record proves. (Listen again to his last few albums on Blue Note.) But you could despise Marsalis and still be a mossy stone. All it takes is a tacit understanding that jazz innovation peaked by about 1967, and that nothing of real, lasting value has changed in the music since.

Right about now you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of a mossy stone. Simple: I made the term up, while pondering the distance between results in critics’ polls and readers’ polls. Obviously I’m riffing on the aphorism “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” with its valorization of forward motion. I’m also invoking the Rolling Stones, and rock, with its progressive connotations. A mossy stone finds no traction in the straight-eighth groove and fusionlike flow of so many jazz albums today. He or she appreciates the Monkish aspects of a pianist like Robert Glasper or Jason Moran, but not so much the hip-hop inflections. You can be a mossy stone at any age—I bet there are more than a few working at the high school level—as long as you possess the same stubbornness exhibited by the moldy figs all those years ago.

As someone sympathetic to the mossy stone agenda—I too have wondered why young musicians can’t occasionally carve up a standard, or just swing a little—let me offer a reassurance. Moss may be disconcertingly similar to mold, but that’s fine. As Gendron observed, regarding the two schisms in 1940s jazz: “Both contests were fought on much of the same discursive terrain.” Likewise, the mossy stone and the moldy fig have two very different record collections, but they’re cousins in many respects.

Of course moldy figs have had a longer time to refine their contrarianism, honing an admirable combination of staunch defiance and pragmatic resignation. When I mentioned my new bit of jazz taxonomy to Steinman, he picked up on this right away, despite his reflexive wariness about labels, especially those dreamt up by jazz critics.

“Have you read ‘Easter, 1916,’ the Yeats poem?” he asked. Yes, but it had been a while. When I consulted the text, I found its vivid image of a stone planted in a stream. The water moves, as do the reflections of clouds along its surface. A horse and rider splash along. “Minute by minute they live,” Yeats writes. “The stone’s in the midst of all.”

Anyone who’s been interviewed dreads being misquoted, so I was thrilled to find that Nate had paid me the great compliment of accuracy.  And he had given me a short solo at the start, middle, and end — generous journalism.   But the piece does raise a few issues for me, and since Nate invited me to address them here, I will take him up on it. 

I am delighted that he gives such serious attention to this “new traditionalism.”  It would be very easy to depict this phenomena as more evidence of The Death of Jazz: “See, all we have left is these shrinking audiences on cruise ships and jazz parties listening to stale perfomances of jazz-by-rote.  People who are almost dead listening to music that certainly is.” 

Although I am not ready for Medicare, it would also have been easy to satirize or stereotype me: an eager chronicler of a moribund art, recording its final wheezes.  I am pleased that neither of these approaches color Nate’s essay in the slightest.    

But I find it curious that the musicians whose names I utter in his essay are all dead.  It suggests that my “new traditionalism” is entirely antiquarian, as if I did not delight in current performances by players very much alive.  Yes, my iPod is full of now-dead players, but I’ll bet Nate listens to some dead folks, too.  He even writes obituaries of them, as in the case of John Bunch. 

Was it that Nate didn’t want to turn his essay into a list of names?  Or was it that he did not want to offen worthy players by omitting their names?  I admire tact, but Nate’s editing makes me and the Mossy Stones (who share my initials) seem to be the Emily Griersons or Miss Havishams of Dixieland, if you will.

At first glance, changing Figs into Stones sounds wonderful.  But “moldy fig” is such an archaic term that only those deeply involved in jazz history (“Jazz Battle” or “Squabblin,” if you like) would even recognize it.  True, I am pleased to no longer be compared to rotting produce.  And Nate does generously praise the “mossy stones” for their insistent devotion to the art they love. 

But do these names really matter? 

Given the minute notice jazz gets in the larger media, is this meditation on nomenclature the most profound way to bring attention to rewarding music?  And, given the divisive nature of much of the writing purportedly about jazz, is setting up a new sub-category of listeners a good thing?  Perhaps we should be attempting to bring the “schools” and “allegiances” together, so everyone could be open to music that could go back to ragtime and forward to hard bop and beyond. 

But this is the beginning of a deeper conversation — an optimistic one, not mourning the death of jazz but celebrating the life around us.  Nate and I agree that there is astonishing music to be heard and loved, now and in the future. 

And my invitation to dinner at The Ear Inn is still open!

SEUFFERT-HAGMANN, INC.

Three more hot performances from “South Side Special,” recorded live at the Whitley Bay International Jazz Festival, July 11, 2009, featuring the incendiary combination of Matthias Seuffert (clarinet), Rene Hagmann (trumpet), Paul Munnery (trombone), Martin Seck (piano), Jacob Ullberger (banjo / guitar), Bruce Rollo (bass), and Olivier Clerc (washboard) — concluding their program of music associated with Johnny Dodds and colleagues.

First, PERDIDO STREET BLUES (associated, as Matthias points out, not only with Dodds and Mitchell but also with Louis and Bechet, in a famous Decca session from 1940 whose results belie the stories of musical acrimony).  Catch Maestro Hagmann in charge of the ensemble:

Then, WILD MAN BLUES — not taken at the melodramatic tempo we know from 1927 recordings by Louis and Jelly Roll Morton, but as a swinging bounce — the tempo at which Dodds recorded it in 1938 with Charlie Shavers, Teddy Bunn, John Kirby, and O’Neil Spencer — as “His Chicago Boys” in 1938:

Finally, BALLIN’ THE JACK (or is it BALLIN’ A JACK?) — not the more widely known Chris Smith composition, but one whose title surely has the same erotic implications:

Hotter than that!

Many of the hot jazz recordings of this period can be heard at the Red Hot Jazz website: http://www.redhotjazz.com/jdbbs.html

MATTHIAS SEUFFERT’S MANY SELVES

I was first impressed by the playing of reedman Matthias Seuffert on a few Stomp Off releases several years ago.  One, the BLUE RHYTHMAKERS, paired him with Bent Persson and Keith Nichols; another, PERCOLATIN’ BLUES (by the Chalumeau Serenaders)  found him with Norman Field, with Nick Ward on the drums.  Happily for me, I was asked to write the liner notes for the second volume of a Johnny Dodds tribute organized by “Pam” Pameijer — a session also featuring Jon-Erik Kellso and Jim Snyder.  On all of these discs, I had the opportunity to marvel at Matthias’s fluent technique and gritty intensity — when he’s playing Twenties clarinet, he could show Johnny Dodds a few things; when he’s playing Thirties tenor, he echoes the early, rhapsodic lines of Hawkins.  But, best of all, Matthias is his own man, choosing novel approaches for each song.

Seuffert-Sportiello CDHis originality and down-home ardor are well demonstrated in two very different contexts.  One is a CD, SWINGIN’ DUO BY THE LAGO (Styx CD 1026, available from CDBaby)  that I fear hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, considering its personnel includes Matthias, piano king Rossano Sportiello, and tenor star Harry Allen.  Recorded in 2005 and 2006, it finds Matthias in seven duets with Rossano, three quartet selections with Harry, Rossano, and drummer Anthony Howe, and three “bonus tracks,” featuring Matthias with a piano-less rhythm trio.  On it, Matthias takes wise and refreshing approaches to the sometimes familiar songs: rubbing the sharp corners off Monk’s ASK ME NOW to make a clarinet-piano duet of it that suggests both a cooler, more pensive Goodman; on a Benny Carter line, BLUE FIVE JIVE, he has all the tough swagger of a late-Fifties hard bopper.  Standing next to Harry Allen, Matthias is never combative, but it’s clear that this is a meeting of equals, whether the song is a tender CHELSEA BRIDGE or an assertive LESTER LEAPS IN.  I read about this consistently rewarding disc thanks to John Herr; it’s also music for people who say they dislike jazz — soothing without being soporific, easy to take but never “easy listening.” 

At Whitley Bay, I could greet Matthias face to face (he’s charming) and hear his “South Side Special,” a tribute to the Chicago ambiance that produced some classic Twenties sides with Johnny Dodds, George Mitchell, and Natty Dominique.  Matthias’s front-line partner was the revered Swiss multi-instrumentalist Rene Hagmann, who played magnificiently on trumpet and the reeds.  (I also saw him play air trombone with the Swiss Yerba Buena Creole Rice Jazz Band — more about them in a future posting — and Bent Persson raved about Rene’s real trombone playing to me.)  The band also included Paul Munnery (trombone), Bruce Rollo (bass), Martin Seck on piano (who’s usually a charter member of the Red Hot Reedwarmers), Jacob Ullberger on banjo (a Swedish colleague of Bent’s), and the dazzling young Swiss washboardist Olivier Clerc.  Here they are!

I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t recall the title of this first song (I believe it comes from the Dodds Victor sessions — surely one of my readers will know?) but I wasn’t about to leave it off the blog for such a trifling detail:

Matthias announced this one, pianist Lovie Austin’s MOJO BLUES:

For the more literal-minded members of the audience, this selection might have required a leap of faith.  Johnny Dodds Plays Cole Porter?  But YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME existed in 1929, and it pleases me to imagine the Dodds brothers playing this on the gig, where pop songs of the day might well have been requested.  Matthias and the group show that it’s no stretch, aesthetically:

Finally, they concluded the session with BROWN SKIN (or perhaps BROWNSKIN) GAL:

I should point out that all of this ferociously hot music was created around lunchtime: so much for the legends of jazzmen who, like bats, are nocturnal.  The sun was shining outside, although we knew such things were of lesser import.