Tag Archives: Groucho Marx

TWO SOULFUL ECCENTRICS: JEFF BARNHART and SPATS LANGHAM, “WE WISH WE WERE TWINS” (LAKE RECORDS LACD 342)

In 2015, Jeff Barnhart and Thomas “Spats” Langham created a new duo CD.  If you know these musicians, there will be no need to do more than click here.  (The ideal way to get copies of the CD will be at a gig, but you already know this.)

JEFF SPATS two

First off, a word of explanation about my title.  Should anyone think I am satirizing either of these artists by calling them “eccentric,” know that I am using the word in its scientific sense to mean unpredictable, original, singular — they are on their own orbits, which is one of the great pleasures of this recording, because Planet Barnhart and Planet Langham create something larger than themselves while remaining true delightful individuals.  Hot synergy, if you like.

Even though this CD presents only two musicians, it gives extraordinary value. Jeff plus Spats equals a whole repertory company: a swing / stride / blues / ragtime pianist; a wonderful rhythm guitarist who also solos in his own way; an imitable banjo wizard; two singers who can emulate Fats Waller or Al Bowlly, who can croon or harmonize or scat, create hilarious jive, double-entendre or suitable for the kiddies; two comedians; two clowns . . . have I left any of the marvelous facets of these two fellows out?  No doubt when you listen to the CD you will hear and think of more.  The sonic and aesthetic density of this CD — every three-minute performance is so nobly complete and emotionally satisfying in itself, a miniature dramatic performance — makes me long for a 78 rpm issue, say a special LAKE Records eleven-record set in its own heavy cardboard album with (of course) cover by Jim Flora.  That way, we’d have to get up and go to the record player at the end of every performance and either savor it in silence or put the needle back to the beginning.

What variety!  Both Jeff and Spats are wise connoisseurs of songs that haven’t been overdone, but the disc is not overly focused on the obscure — there’s also Waller, Berlin, Coots, McHugh, Whiting — although if you’d asked me before the CD came out, “What songs would you love to have this duo doing?” I would have named a few that are here, but the results are a wonderful banquet of delights.  The disc seems intelligently apportioned between the romantic and the hot, with side-dishes of unclassifiable gratifying music, and there’s even a Barhart original that fits right in.  It’s all fulfilling.  I won’t delineate the particular pleasures and surprises — that’s rather like sending someone into a film that you’ve enjoyed to the utmost and saying, “Keep a close eye on what she does with her pearls in the Florida scene,” and the watcher is so focused on what’s-to-come, waiting for it, that the larger creation is somehow made lopsided.

Just to delineate the variety: EVERYWHERE YOU GO / TRAV’LIN’ ALL ALONE / ALL ALONE / SMOOTH SAILING / SLEEPY HEAD / BLUE EVENING / I COULDN’T GET TO IT / SHAKE IT DOWN / WHAT DO I CARE (What Somebody Said)? / THE BALTIMORE / KING CHANTICLEER / ROSE OF WASHINGTON SQUARE / ISN’T LOVE THE STRANGEST THING? / IT’S YOU / LET’S PRETEND THAT THERE’S A MOON / EVERY EVENING / WITH MY LOVE / SAY IT WITH YOUR FEET – HAPPY FEET / WHEN DID YOU LEAVE HEAVEN? / HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN? / I WISH I WERE TWINS.

Astute listeners will chart the associations — Henry “Red” Allen, Fats, Billie, Doris Day, Ikey Robinson, Bix and Tram, Ellington, Marty Grosz, Russ Columbo, Noone — and more.  But my guess is that the next time you hear, say, I WISH THAT I WERE TWINS, you will think of Jeff and Spats first.

I haven’t had the good fortune to capture Spats and Jeff as a duo, although I have seen and recorded them both — Spats at Whitley Bay for a number of years, Jeff likewise and also in duet with wife Anne (as IVORY&GOLD) . . . but here are two performances of songs you will hear on the CD.

Groucho Marx said that all theatre could be divided into two categories, sad or high-kicking, so it is on that principle that I present the music.

BLUE EVENING (recorded by me at the 2015 Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party) by Spats, Robert Fowler, tenor saxophone; Martin Litton, piano; Malcolm Sked, brass bass:

WHEN DID  YOU LEAVE HEAVEN? by Jeff, Brian Nalepka, and Jim Lawlor — recorded in October 2015 by my friend CineDevine at Jeff and Joel’s House Party (a twice-yearly explosion of good music you should investigate):

Those two performances will give you strength to wait out the days and nights until the CD arrives, I hope.  Hail Barnhart!  Hail Langham!  Hail Paul Adams of LAKE Records!

May your happiness increase!

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THEME AND VARIATIONS: “EV’RYONE SAYS ‘I LOVE YOU'”: CAPARONE, SKJELBRED, MARX, KALMAR, RUBY, and TODD

EV'RYONE

This is not in the order you might expect, but all will be revealed.

THEME:

EV'RYONE cover alt

VARIATIONS:

Zeppo in a Russ Columbo mood, with time out for toast and jam delightfully consumed by Miss Todd, then the equestrian version with a modernized banana:

Groucho with a guitar and some Perelmanesque byplay that references Theodore Dreiser:

And more variations on this pretty theme, audio only:

with a return to the 2015 version, a triumph of passion and control:

I always thought this song had a simplistic melody — lines that one might have played with one finger on a piano keyboard in C, ascending and descending.  But the 2015 version presented here, by Marc Caparone, cornet, and Ray Skjelbred, piano, at the San Diego Jazz Fest, shows me that it’s not only the clever lyrics by Kalmar that make the song memorable.  However, those lyrics — sung sweetly by Zeppo, sung in his own faux-Italian vaudeville fashion by Chico, whistled by Harpo — stay in our minds.  When Groucho demolishes them in the canoe, world-wearily suggesting that love is resistible, “just inviting trouble for the poor [s]ucker who . . . ” the effect is powerful, even before we get to the duck, the oar, and more.  Incidentally, Groucho’s take on romance — sour as it is — is what we could expect from a motion picture whose title everyone would recognize as a polite version of HORSE SHIT?

But I digress.  Beautiful melodic improvisations don’t need sophisticated material.  It’s what you do with it that counts.

May your happiness increase!

HOORAY FOR CAPTAIN SKJELBRED!

Today, November 2, is the birthday of one of our heroes — pianist / composer / singer / poet / imaginer / scholar Ray Skjelbred.  He is an original, even when he is letting the great traditions flow through him; he is both inscrutable and generously open; he continues to improve life in this century.

No formulaic cupcakes with candles for Captain Skjelbred!

I offer instead a small musical mosaic of his own subversive creations — the first three when no one was supposed to be paying attention (someone might call it “making friends with the piano”) that I captured on May 25, 2014, at the Sacramento Music Festival.

Since I envision Captain Skjelbred as a quiet spy in the enemy country of mediocrity and repeater pencils, the fact that I caught him unaware might just be fair play.  He does the same for and to us: in the fourth video, MY GALVESTON GAL (performed with his Cubs — Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, rhythm guitar; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Kim Cusack, clarinet) there is an odd and whimsical phrase Ray creates at 1:50 that makes me say, “What? What?” every time I hear it.

And he does it again, playing the piano, playing music, playing with our expectations — and always gratifying them in ways we didn’t know existed.

Thank you, Captain Skjelbred.  We are grateful you are here.

Music for Groucho — Kalmar and Ruby, 1930:

A little Monkishness, or is it Monkiania?:

Some blues, sun-warmed, locally grown, organic:

And a pop tune from 1933, MY GALVESTON GAL, featured by Henry Allen, Coleman Hawkins, and Benny Morton — much-beloved silliness, with a particularly Skjelbredian interlude at 1:50:

And no one calls him schnorrer. (Julius can explain, or you could look it up.)

P.S.  Should anyone wonder, “Michael, now you’re posting clips that last less than a minute?  Have you run out of things to post?”  The answer is, in a hushed tone, “You have no idea of what remains to be seen.” The idea of a mosaic of orts and fragments appeals to me, and I hope also to the Captain.  Found poetry!

May your happiness increase!

LOVE IN SWINGTIME (JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA 2011)

Jazz isn’t binary by nature, but occasionally it seems to fit Groucho Marx’s whimsical definition of the two kinds of Broadway plays: Sad or High-Kicking.  What was played at Jazz at Chautauqua on September 15, 2011 (the informal Thursday night sessions) went beyond those categories, but they will do for now.  Here are two splendid examples.

LOVE, of course, is personified by Harry Allen, tenor sax; Rossano Sportiello, piano, supported by Glenn Holmes, bass; Bill Ransom, drums — whispering through the Rodgers and Hart MY ROMANCE:

SWINGTIME came out to play with Randy Sandke and Duke Heitger, trumpets; Scott Robinson, Dan Block, and Andy Stein, reeds; John Sheridan, piano; Jon Burr, bass; John Von Ohlen, drums — having a good time with STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY:

Something for everyone!

THE REYNOLDS BROTHERS AND FRIENDS: DIXIELAND MONTEREY, March 4, 2011

If you’d never heard the Reynolds Brothers, you might not give them sufficient credit for being Gods of Hot Jazz.

After all — one fellow plays an amplified National steel guitar, sings, and whistles in the best Crosby manner (that’s John); his brother holds a washboard with a cymbal mounted on top, blows a referee’s whistle to signify when a musical foul has been committed, and has a fine walrus mustache (that’s Ralf).

Most times they are joined by the eternally cheerful and swinging Katie Cavera (smart hat, glowing smile, string bass, vocals) and Hot Man Supreme Marc Caparone (cornet, a wide assortment of mutes, the occasional vocal, and manifester-of-Louis).

It sounds like a truly mixed bag, and when they first appeared at the 2011 Dixieland Monterey weekend, they had the extra added attraction of clarinetist, satirist, and uninhibited man-about-town Bob Draga . . . sitting somewhere between Omer Simeon and Groucho Marx.

Here are eight hot tunes from the Golden Era, complete with odd and occasionally semi-illicit stage behavior: you’ll have to watch for it.  But do they swing!

They started with something everyone knows — LADY BE GOOD.  And it swung from the opening phrase and only got hotter:

Then, after some rodomontade, badinage, and commedia dell’arte, Bob called for HELLO, MA BABY — although from a different corner of the jazz universe, it was a success as well:

ROSETTA used to be a song that everyone played — now, it’s a rare treat.  And to hear Marc swing out on it — a la Red Allen (cornet AND vocal) — is precious:

AT SUNDOWN speaks of pastoral pleasures, and it’s so fitting to have sweet unaffected Katie sing it — one of those Walter Donaldson compositions that works beautifully at many tempos.  And the hilarious unscripted interplay is an extra bonus:

I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY celebrates Fats Waller and 1931 washboard ecstasy — John brings us in, an utterly convincing singer:

OUT OF NOWHERE was another 1931 hit for a fellow from Spokane named Crosby.  Bob finds his way cautiously through the first chorus and is secure in time for what follows:

I love THE OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN, but have never been able to make up my mind about it.  Is it an exultation of life without materialism, a life lived in Nature in the best Emerson / Thoreau way, or is is another Depression-era attempt to say “You lost your job and your house and your family: isn’t sleeping outdoors with nothing at all such fun?”  Comments appreciated — but it’s a great song:

SWING THAT MUSIC begins with some fascinating dialogue, worth considering closely, and eventually goes into the most unusual clarinet / string bass duet in recorded history.  Was it the “feather-nesting” Katie sang of before, or was it Bob’s locally sourced apple juice?  One never knows.  I think I did a good turn for surrealist drama by recording this for posterity:

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