I’m indebted to Flemming Thorbye, whom I’ve never met, for video-recording these two songs and putting them on YouTube, where they held me transfixed through several viewings. The performances might look informal, but it takes a great deal of hard-earned mastery to be so casual. Thorbye captured this band at the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival in Davenport, Iowa, July 2005.
The band was officially billed as Spats Langham and his Rhythm Boys, but this ensemble has a democratic strolling feel: routines are improvised on the stand and no one monopolizes the stage. Even at a distance, you can see the players grinning at each other’s solos, which is not as common as you might think.
The Anglo-American players — what players! — are Thomas “Spats” Langham, guitar and vocal; Tom Pletcher, cornet; Paul Munnery, trombone; Norman Field, clarinet; Jeff Barnhart, piano; Frans Sjostrom, bass sax; Nick Ward, drums.
The first song was one of Jule Styne’s earliest — “Sunday,” whose lyrics make the trek through the week to arrive at the one day when romance can flourish. Bix recorded it as a member of the Jean Goldkette band — with an enthusiastic, cheery vocal by the Keller Sisters and Lynch. Apocryphally, Lynch was the Sisters’ brother, but that might be too confusing a fact to incorporate.
I know “Sunday” from years of listening to jazz sessions that took place on that day: it was and is a comfortable tune to begin with. Ruby Braff and Bobby Hackett did it often, and Jon-Erik Kellso continues the tradition now.
After a few cinematographic shudders, we settle down with Pletcher’s firm, nuanced lead — helped immeasurably by neat improvisations from Field and Munnery. The limber rhythm section moves things along: Sjostrom, as always doing the work of two or perhaps three men, playing rhythm and soloing. After Tom ends his solo with a “Holiday for Strings” lick, Munnery comes on like a supple Harlem trombonist c. 1931, with easy grace. Pletcher’s solo outing is full of Bix sound-castles, beautiful architecture, but I would also have you listen closely to Nick Ward’s rocking choke-cymbal (and then his accents behind Field on what Jo Jones used to call “elephants’ nuts”). Feld is deep into the idiom, but he doesn’t copy anyone’s phrases. Spats (at Pletcher’s direction) takes a winsome vocal, backed by Barnhart and then Sjostrom. When Frans solos, it’s easy to get swept away in his pure sound — but on a second listening, one comes to admire the shapes of his phrases, echoing the whole reed tradition. Jeff Barnhart drifts into some nifty Zez Confrey flourishes in the middle of his solo, paving the way for a fervent but still measured ensemble, driven home by Nick once again.
“Roses of Picardy,” a sentimental favorite from the First World War, is even better. It was the last tune of the set, and (as often happens) all the horns and the players and their instruments had warmed up. I can’t connect Bix with this song, but it was a popular favorite of his teens. Everyone is even more lyrical — Frans, Tom, a very Russellish Field, Langham blending Django and Lang, and Munnery, leading into the final ensemble. Although the audience drowns out Nick Ward’s break, we know it was there, so that will have to do. What great ease!
Some discographical comments:
I first heard Nick Ward, Spats Langham, and Norman Field on a Stomp Off CD, THE CHALUMEAU SERENADERS (1394) which also features the reed wizard Matthias Seuffert in the front line. Spats appeared on only one track — a vocal on a song I associate with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, “Okay, Baby,” but his singing was so wonderful that I sought out the two Lake CDs he had made under his own name — a duet with pianist Martin Litton called LOLLIPOPS (LACD 226) and a small band — also featuring Norman! — THE HOTTEST MAN IN TOWN (LACD 228). The duet album has its serenely beautiful moments; the small band is cheerfully frisky. Norman shows off his beautiful alto work as well on these CDs. And Nick Ward is a quiet powerhouse, rocking the band without getting loud or louder.
I apologize for my not having any Paul Munnery CDs to report on — but a bit of online research suggests that he is a Higginbotham – Nanton man on CD, so I will look for his smaller group, SWING STREET, and his work with a big repertory band, HARLEM.
Jeff Barnhart has made many CDs with multi-instrumentalist Jim Fryer, and he’s also recorded a lovely solo piano CD for Arbors, IN MY SOLITUDE (19324).
I’ve praised Frans Sjostrom elsewhere in this blog and will continue to do so: search out his extraordinary HOT JAZZ TRIO on the Kenneth label (CKS 3417) with Bent Persson, and he also is an essential part of the ensemble on I’M GLAD: TOM PLETCHER AND THE CLASSIC JAZZ BAND (Stomp Off 1353). Tom has appeared on many earlier vinyl issues with the Sons of Bix — have they made it to CD? But most recently, he has impresed me deeply on CD, not as a player, but as a writer and annotator of a most special kind. Many of you will know of Tom’s late father, Stewart (or Stu or even Stew) Pletcher, a wonderfully lyrical player whose most notable recordings were made as a member of Red Norvo’s Thirties orchestra and combos. I was delighted that the Jazz Oracle label issued THE STORY OF STEWART PLETCHER (BDW 8055) in 2007. Marvelously researched as always, it gives a thorough picture of Pletcher Sr.’s playing — through rare recordings, of course, from 1924 to 1937. That would be enough for me. But I was tremendously moved by his son’s essay on his father. It is loving yet candid, a tribute to a man much-loved but not always easy to know. I do not overpraise it by calling it an affecting memoir, honoring both father and son at once.
If you don’t know these players, I hope I’ve given you reason to regret your previous ignorance and repent yourselves of it as soon as possible.
P.S. The espression “What fun!” comes from Liadain O’Donovan — of Kinvara, Dalkey, New York, and San Francisco — and I hope she doesn’t mind my borrowing it.