Tag Archives: Hal Kemp

“THERE’S SOME KIND OF MAGIC GOING ON”: “COLLEGIATE,” by THE ORIGINAL CORNELL SYNCOPATORS (Rivermont Records, 2021)

Words later. First, this magical video:

I’ve admired Colin Hancock since 2017, when I heard the first disc by the Original Cornell Syncopators — a group of wonderfully gifted college students who were majoring in everything except music — who romped through Twenties tunes with enthusiasm, vigor, and feeling. They are my living answer to “Jazz is dead.” “Young people only want to play Charlie Parker solos.” “No one under seventy really knows how to play Hot,” and other widely-circulated falsehoods.

I knew that Colin and “the Syncs,” as those in the know, call them, had recorded a new CD for Rivermont Records, its repertoire focused on music composed, played, recorded by Twenties ensembles with connections to college life. From what I know of Colin and a number of his colleagues, I expected that the results would be well-researched and historically accurate, and that I would hear music new to me, played idiomatically. I knew that the results would also be fun, spirited, enthusiastic: playful rather than white-gloves dry reverence. I knew the band would be mostly Youngbloods (with the exception of guest pianist Ed Clute and banjo-guitar master Robbert VanRenesse) that they would be ethnically diverse, with women as well as men sharing the limelight as instrumentalists as well as singers.

Yesterday I had errands to do, so I brought the disc with me to play in my car — my mobile studio — and I was astonished by how compelling it was, how fine — well beyond my already high expectations. I know it’s an oxymoron, but the words “ferocious polish” kept coming to my mind as I listened, and if you’d seen me at a red light, you’d wonder why that driver was grinning and nodding his head in time. I hadn’t read the notes (a forty-page booklet, with contributions by Julio Schwarz-Andrade, Colin, Hannah Krall, Andy Senior, Bryan Wright) and had only a vague idea of the repertoire, so in some ways I was the ideal listener, ready to hear the music without the historical apparatus and the assumptions it would necessarily impose.

I will write here what another reviewer would save as the closing “pull quote”: if you take any pleasure in the music that was American pop — not just hot jazz — before the Second World War, you will delight in COLLEGIATE.

You can hear selections from the recording, purchase a CD or download the music here. There are tastes from COLLEGIATE, MAPLE LEAF RAG, CONGAINE, ORIGINAL DIXIELAND ONE-STEP, CATARACT RAG BLUES, SAN, PERUNA, EVERY EVENING, SICK O’LICKS, IF I’M WITHOUT YOU — songs whose names will conjure up Twenties joys, Earl Hines, Jimmie Noone, Scott Joplin, and the ODJB . . but other songs and performances have connections to Ted Weems, Hal Kemp, Curtis Hitch, the Princeton Triangle Club Jazz Band, Jimmie Lunceford, the Cornell Collegians, Zach Whyte’s Chocolate Beau Brummels, Charlie Davis, Stu Pletcher and Carl Webster’s Yale Collegians.

What’s so good about it? The selections are beautifully played — with joy and spirit — and expansively recorded. When the whole ensemble gets going (and do they ever!) I thought I was listening to what the Paul Whiteman Orchestra must have sounded like in its heroic orchestral glory: the band and the recording have expansive life. And the solos are lyrical as well as hot, fully “in the idiom.” A good deal of this music has its roots in the Middle West rather than the South . . . so even though it may strike people who revere Louis as I do as heresy, the disc is delightful living proof that other, convincing, kinds of hot improvised music were being played and sung that owed little to Armstrongiana except for ingenuity and rhythmic enthusiasm.

I think of it as a good-natured rebuke to another stereotype, that “collegiate jazz” of the Twenties was primarily groups of young men jamming on pop tunes and originals of the day — I think of Squirrel Ashcraft and his friends, and it’s true that this CD has a goodly share of small-band hot . . . but that oversimplification is rather like saying that the Twenties = flappers, flivvers, and raccoon coats. The research that Colin and others have done results in a presentation that is imaginative and expansive: the twenty performances here are a kind of aesthetic kaleidoscope, all of it coming from similar syncopated roots but with delightfully varied results. No cliches.

And maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference, but the music produced by college students and graduates a hundred years later has a kind of spiritual authenticity. There is a good deal of thin, fragile “authenticity” out there among people attempting to play “vintage” music: this recording is real, both grounded and soaring.

The ensembles are wonderfully cohesive: that the players aren’t full-time musicians is something amazing. And there are vocal trios. I want nothing more. Everyone here is magna cum laude. And there was, as trumpeter-vocalist Lior Kreindler says in the video, marveling, “magic going on.”

May your happiness increase!