One of the great rock songs in classic hot music: that is, you’ll rock back and forth in your chair. Guaranteed. And here’s a splendid version by four of the best: Albanie Falletta, resonator guitar, vocal, tour guide; Jon-Erik Kellso, Puje trumpet; Evan Arntzen, clarinet; Jen Hodge, string bass.
Boundless enthusiasm and contrapuntal joy free of charge.
This was performed at Cafe Bohemia, 15 Barrow Street, New York City, before the lights went out on Broadway. Happily the city and the music blaze again all over town.
Albanie explains it all, but if you crave an even more detailed socio-geographical-musical history of “Milneburg,” the New Orleans neighborhood that the song is named for, visit here. And about the composer credits: the introduction is by Jelly Roll Morton (thus my title) appended to the New Orleans Rhythm Kings’ composition GOLDEN LEAF STRUT, which is its own universe.
But the rollicking music is its own glorious explanation:
That satisfies all of our daily food group requirements and more.
Tishomingo, Mississippi, is a tiny town: between 1910 and 2020, the census recorded a population of 423 at its height in 1940. But in 1917, Spencer Williams wrote TISHOMINGO BLUES. My guess is that Williams knew the city only by hearsay, and was entranced by the sound of its name (he was living in New York City). But it’s a delightfully moody jazz classic with evocative lyrics.
It’s also a very durable song: musicians love it and it sticks in the memory. Here is a splendid dark yet hopeful rendition from the Thursday-night-pre-pandemic-band-of-heroes who graced Cafe Bohemia, 15 Barrow Street, on January 30, 2020: Albanie Falletta, vocal and resonator guitar; Jon-Erik Kellso, Puje trumpet; Evan Arntzen, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Jen Hodge, string bass:
I hope that it’s not too cold and inhospitable where you are. If it is, play this music again. You’ll feel warmed.
If the hot jazz classic THAT DA DA STRAIN is known at all these days, it might be for the versions recorded by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Muggsy Spanier and his Ragtime Band, or Bud Freeman and his Famous Chicagoans. But this 1922 tune has not been forgotten, not by a long shot. The delightful evidence will appear below, I promise.
First, some history.
Wild Bill Davison called this tune “baby talk” when explaining its title to an audience, and another musician linked it to the Dadaist movement in art. Each to their own.
I had forgotten that the song — lyrics by Mamie Medina, music by J. Edgar Dowell — had lyrics. (I haven’t found out anything about either of them.)
And here they are sung, wonderfully and energetically, by Ethel Waters. She’s joined by Joe Smith’s Jazz Masters: Joe Smith, cornet; George Brashear, trombone; possibly Clarence Robinson, clarinet; Fletcher Henderson, piano:
How could you resist a song whose first words of the chorus are DA DA, DA DA (repeated)? I am avoiding the knotty question of whether the hyphen belongs in the title or not: see below.
And for those who want to play it on the piano while the gang sings along, here is the treasure, the Thing In Itself, thanks to the Detroit Public Libraries.
and now, the recent past, as delineated in my title. Jon-Erik Kellso, Puje trumpet; Evan Arntzen, clarinet; Albanie Falletta, resonator guitar; Jen Hodge, string bass. Performed at Cafe Bohemia, 15 Barrow Street, New York City, on January 9, 2020.
“Isn’t that wonderful?” I want to ask rhetorically, but on second thought, want to make it a statement: “Damn, that’s wonderful!” — the splendid mixture of down-home porch music, New Orleans flavors, and heat.
(I know this post isn’t about me, or ME, but performances like this are why I carry a heavy knapsack with cameras, batteries, tripod, and notebook. My body complains but my soul leaps.)
These four sterling musicians are doing the thing in various places: keep track of them for pleasure, pure and delicious. And Cafe Bohemia will host Matt Rivera and the Hot Club of New York starting Monday, January 9, 2023 (7-10 PM). Read all about it here.
Sometimes change is frightening; in this case, the promise of changes to be made is a delight.
Here are four heroes, raising the room temperature in the best ways: Jon-Erik Kellso, Puje trumpet; Evan Arntzen, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Albanie Falletta, resonator guitar, vocal; Jen Hodge, string bass. Performed at Cafe Bohemia, 15 Barrow Street, New York City, on January 9, 2020.
Be careful. It’s HOT.
Halcyon days. And so wonderful that these four creators are still on the scene. Follow them in person to gigs if you want these joys aimed right at you.
for the historically-minded, here’s the 1924 Gennett recording by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians:
and the 1928 Columbia by Thelma Terry and her Play Boys (with Bud Jacobson, Gene Krupa, and Thelma propelling it all on string bass):
Ninety years later, the song explored by living people in a jazz club, our friend-heroes Jon-Erik Kellso, Puje trumpet; Evan Arntzen, clarinet; Albanie Falletta, resonator guitar; Jen Hodge, string bass.
Performed at Cafe Bohemia, 15 Barrow Street, New York City, on January 9, 2020. Remember that date: it will show up on the final exam.
“Why January 9?” you ask.
After a long hibernation, Cafe Bohemia has once again opened to present fine live jazz, and on January 9, 2023, the Hot Club of New York, the lovely creation of Matthew “Fat Cat” Rivera and his heroic friends, returns in the flesh to 15 Barrow Street.
Details as I learn them, but the phrases “rare jazz on 78s from the original source,” and “jam session” did stick in my head.
For now, let’s savor the glories of January 9, 2020, while we dream ahead to 2023.
Legend has it that this was Al Capone’s favorite song, and another accretion of story has it that Sal was a legendary madam of an Evansville, Indiana bordello. We do know that MY GAL SAL was composed by Paul Dresser, whose brother Theodore was known for large novels, shocking in their realism. (Vic Dickenson changed the first line of this ditty to “They called her Syphillis Sal,” which seems relevant.)
But here’s a legendary performance by four heroes who happily are still with us, making the best hot lyrical sounds: Jon-Erik Kellso, Puje trumpet; Evan Arntzen, clarinet; Albanie Falletta, resonator guitar; Jen Hodge, string bass. Performed at Cafe Bohemia, 15 Barrow Street, New York City, on January 9, 2020:
Magical music created by friend-heroes. Catch them at their gigs and be uplifted by their generous joyous sounds.
This new CD is delightful. To be formal about it, the sounds embrace the ear.
A sample — the first track, Nirav’s IRRATIONAL BLUES. (Don’t let the title throw you: more whimsical than irrational.)
The brief Bandcamp note adds some more detail: Led by longtime musician and swing dancer Nirav Sanghani, the Pacific Six play tight arrangements of early jazz and swing tunes for dancers and more. Their repertoire includes transcriptions of small group swing recordings by Benny Goodman, Johnny Hodges & Coleman Hawkins, fresh arrangements of well-loved standards, and vintage-inspired originals composed and arranged by Nirav.
But here I must add a few words. This is music to dance to, music to dance with (for those of us who listen while seated). It is lively and expert — lovely solos and witty arranging touches throughout. For those who need historical landmarks, let us say “Keynote Records,” or “1945 meets 2022 with affection and swing,” or “late Swing Era with modern flourishes.” Think “Teddy Wilson” or “the Blue Note Jazzmen,” but with singularities beyond copying. It’s a lovely ensemble with brilliant individualistic soloists. But your ears will tell you better than those catch-phrases can.
Another taste? Why not: EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY. You hear what I mean about the refreshing mixture of homage and originality.
The cover photograph shows that this CD captures the band at a swing dance — hence the increased enthusiasm that recording studios don’t always make possible — but the sound is so much better than what one would have heard from the dance floor. Nirav tells me, “There were actually not dancers at the recording, but the night before we played a swing dance in that same hall with the same musicians and I like to think that we carried that energy with us into the session!”
Here are the credits: Nirav Sanghani, guitar, arrangements, compositions (1, 4, 7, 8, 12); Jonathan Doyle, clarinet, alto saxophone; Sean Krazit, tenor saxophone; Justin Au: trumpet; Rob Reich, piano; Jen Hodge, string bass; Riley Baker, drums; Clint Baker: trombone (1, 6, 15).
Recorded on February 23, 2020 at Community Music Center in the Mission District of San Francisco. IRRATIONAL BLUES / IT HAD TO BE YOU / TEA FOR TWO / MOODY TOM / AVALON / I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS / SUNSET SWING / EASY SAUNTER / OH, LADY BE GOOD / ROSE ROOM / EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY / REACTIVITY BLUES / SOMEBODY LOVES ME / THE MAN I LOVE / JUMPIN’ AT THE WOODSIDE //
The music (in digital form) can be found and purchased here for a pittance. It will reward you with pleasure far greater than the price.
“On the night in question,” as they say on police procedural television shows, Jen Hodge, string bass, and Albanie Falletta, resonator guitar:
I recently uncovered much more music from this night — before the world went into its nightmarish nap — and hope to share it with you. What wonders were created! And, fortunately for us, the four heroes are alive and well and playing / singing beautifully today.
Who could resist such a request? Thank you, Sigmund Romberg, of course.
And thank the EarRegulars for this sustained joy from The Ear Out (that’s located on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 3:30 in front of The Ear Inn, 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City).
On July 25, 2021, they were Jon-Erik Kellso, Puje trumpet; John Allred, trombone; James Chirillo, guitar; Neal Caine, string bass, with NOLA guest Shaye Cohn, cornet, joining them. And here’s a masterpiece of chamber jazz, no exaggeration: solos, swing, ensemble telepathy, lyricism:
I’ve posted several other luminous performances from this session, with guests Jen Hodge, Josh Dunn, Rafael Castillo-Halvorssen, and Tamar Korn: THEM THERE EYES, IF I COULD BE WITH YOU ONE HOUR TONIGHT, and ONCE IN A WHILE. They don’t need explication, although they (and this burst of pleasures) remind me of someone from the UK — obviously deep into her own preferred variety of jazz — who used to comment on my postings, “Too swingy.”
She meant it as a criticism: I take it as the highest compliment.
The EarRegulars and friends deserve our most reverent thanks. And our physical presence: every Sunday afternoon from 1 to 3:30, at 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City.
And a self-referential postscript: in some unimagined context, should someone ask me, “Michael, what have you done with your life? I understand you were a college professor for decades . . .” I would point them to videos like this as the achievements I’m most proud of.
They make it look and sound so easy, which is one of the marks of great art — what Castiglione called “sprezzatura,” or an inspired nonchalance. Or, bcause it’s from the Louis book, it translates as “hot cosmology.” An extraordinarily lovely interlude by the EarRegulars plus guests, performed for all and sundry (did the passers-by feel the love as they trotted by?) on Sunday, July 25, 2021, at “The Ear Out,” in front of The Ear Inn, 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City.
The creators — bless them in long meter — are Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; John Allred, trombone; James Chirillo, guitar; with Rafael Castillo-Halvorssen, trumpet; Shaye Cohn, cornet, Josh Dunn, guitar; Jen Hodge (sitting in for Neal Caine), string bass.
And their facial expressions will tell you their communal pleasure in the music they made float on the air.
“Hi, hi!” to quote Louis. Or to quote an enthusiastic friend of mine, “Wow wow wow.” More to come.
By the time I began to attend live jazz happenings in New York City, 1970, the block of Fifty-Second Street once known as “Swing Street” had lost its marvelous coloration: banks and stores now stood where for, about a decade, there had been a line of jazz clubs where one could hear the most magnificent music, with musicians playing not only their own gigs but visiting others’. Ben, Bird, Billie, Big Sid, Bechet, Big T — among a hundred others. All that remained was a few dozen photographs and some record dates that tried to simulate the energies that bubbled up every night.
But in 2007, when Jon-Erik Kellso started a Sunday-night residency at The Ear Inn, 326 Spring Street, often with guitarist Matt Munisteri — the group was not yet called The EarRegulars — those sessions were the closest thing to Swing Street glories that I had ever seen, as the original quartet would delightfully grow with friends coming to add their voices to the swinging choir.
Since May of this year, Jon-Erik has been holding sessions outside The Ear Inn, and they provide the same emotional and aesthetic uplift. The music says in every note: We are not dead. We can still create joy. And we are happy to offer our wise feeling joy to you.
This happened again — most gloriously — on the afternoon of July 25 . . . a fairly quiet time in Soho, with many people having found some way to get out of the city. But those who remained in front of 326 Spring Street will, I propose, never forget what they saw and heard.
And the musicians were similarly transported: watching the performance that follows, please note the facial expressions of the musicians: Jen Hodge’s smile, James Chirillo’s approval, so evident, even behind the double mask. I’ve posted an exuberant sample from that day — the closing performance, THEM THERE EYES, featuring Tamar Korn — and here’s another wonder, James P. Johnson’s IF I COULD BE WITH YOU ONE HOUR TONIGHT:
They make it look and sound so easy, which is one of the marks of great art — what Castiglione called “sprezzatura,” or an inspired nonchalance. An extraordinarily lovely interlude by the EarRegulars plus guests, performed for all and sundry (did the passers-by feel the love as they trotted by?). The creators — bless them in long meter — are Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; John Allred, trombone; James Chirillo, guitar; with Rafael Castillo-Halvorssen, trumpet; Shaye Cohn, cornet, Josh Dunn, guitar; Jen Hodge, sitting in for Neal Caine, string bass. Wondrous lyricism, a great feast of sounds for our ears and hearts.
I feel so much gratitude to them and their peers: I hope you feel it also.
Music like this gives me hope. It was created right in front of my eyes, at a place reachable by public transportation in New York City (with a parking garage right across the street); it was created in this century by four people I love and admire. So it can and will come again, like the little purple crocus that grows in cracks in the concrete. It has beauty; it has durability. What’s a global pandemic to this? Kid stuff.
The details? Cafe Bohemia, 15 Barrow Street, Greenwich Village, New York. Sean Cronin, string bass (sitting in for Jen Hodge that night for a few); Albanie Falletta, resonator guitar; Ricky Alexander, clarinet; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet. Edgar Sampson, composer.
I urge you: listen. Do not take this spiritual phenomenon casually, because it is the breath of life:
Matthew Rivera, music lover, filmmaker, scholar, writer, record collector, broadcaster, someone devoted to sharing not one but several Gospels, has been someone I admire for a few years now. I first heard him playing wondrous music on WKCR-FM, then met him in person in Greenwich Village, playing rare jazz 78 rpm records to live people in public — imagine that! — then as the Proprietor and Democratic Guide of the Hot Club of New York, which holds free Zoom sessions every Monday night from 7-10 PM, where you can hear surprising music and lively discussion. (Visit the site to get the Zoom link.) In October 2019, I did a video interview with Matthew, which you can see here. Matthew also presents on various aspects of jazz — in a relaxed erudite way — for the New York Adventure Club. I predict we will read, see, and hear more from this flourishing young man.
Some music to get you in the mood: OUT OF NOWHERE, by Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Django Reinhardt, and Veronica Lake (thanks to Emrah Erken for the clear transfer):
It was a real pleasure to be able to write a profile of Matthew for the remarkable and durable (the January 2021 issue is their sixtieth) The Syncopated Times — that issue’s cover story is devoted to the splendid Jen Hodge. Matthew’s story can be read here (with illustrations) but I trust that the good-natured Andy Senior, editor of TST, will forgive me for offering the full text here, under the same elastic law that allows the person doing the cooking to sample the soup to see if it’s done. I encourage you to subscribe to TST — which is why I have been running an ad for it at the bottom of JAZZ LIVES posts for many moons now.
But here’s Matthew himself.
APOSTLE OF SHELLAC: MATTHEW “FAT CAT” RIVERA
Born in 1996, in Louisville, Kentucky, Matthew Rivera is making jazz vibrate to new audiences in many ways. I met him first as a sound-phenomenon on the radio: who was this young man playing rare hot music from 78 rpm discs he treasured, and offering wise commentary? He started “Hot Club” 78-listening sessions in New York jazz clubs, regularly at Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village, New York, then founded the Hot Club of New York, which has free Monday-night Zoom sessions, he continues to broadcast; he gives erudite yet relaxed presentations of jazz for the New York Adventure Club, and has a book in progress.
MS: Did jazz hit you like a conversion, or was it a gradually growing fascination?
Both. We’re fascinated when music catches us off guard, but we’re converted when we return to it. For instance, I first heard Billie Holiday’s “Did I Remember” on a movie soundtrack and I was smitten, but my ear truly changed after I sought out the recording and heard it again and again. I try to balance my love for the familiar with fascination for the unfamiliar, though often the familiar wins out. To use Amiri Baraka’s phrase, we have to “Keep Digging.”
MS: Was there jazz on the family soundtrack when you were growing up?
There were only scraps of jazz to hear or see in my youth. Maybe I’d see something in a movie, or hear a blues based tune on the oldies station. That truly sad fact indicates jazz’s position in our contemporary world. Somewhere we lost sight of the ongoing struggle for jazz’s power. The incredible thing you have to stress about jazz history is that in 1938 everyone was listening to jazz. Whether you wanted to or not, or even whether you knew it or not, in 1938, near a high point in the industrialization of music, it was impossible to escape an essentially non-conformist music that spoke about the conditions of life in America. That didn’t happen simply because people liked jazz then or because it was a new thing, it happened because of the tough fight the musicians put up to be seen and heard. What we may have forgotten is that this struggle, like all social struggles, is recurring. The fight for jazz was obviously not won forever in 1938. On every level—socially, economically, in essence politically—the situation today is completely different from the height of jazz’s popularity. We have to change our strategy. I have no prescription for how to change things, but I spend a lot of time thinking, “How did we get here?”
MS: I first encountered you as a disembodied voice, broadcasting music rarely if ever heard in public, such as Red Allen’s 1935-36 delights, on an afternoon jazz program on Columbia University’s WKCR-FM, in 2017. How did you get there?
I arrived at Columbia in 2014 with the music of Jelly Roll Morton and Coleman Hawkins stuck in my head. My friend Evan Sennett and I had just made a movie in Louisville about two friends of ours who are searching for a fictional jazz musician, and I added in lines like, “I like Prez better than Hawk.” It was just a complete fantasy about my friends also liking jazz from the ’30s. I was walking around campus on the first day thinking “I bet no one here knows who Bunny Berigan is,” having no clue about the incredible jazz legacy of Columbia’s radio station or that I was standing on the sundial in the middle of campus where Red Allen had once played. Then someone approached me with a box of LPs to promote WKCR. The first thing I saw was a Bunny Berigan record. When I picked up my jaw, I found out where WKCR was, and there I eventually met the great Charles Iselin who was hosting a multi-part show on Red Allen. Shortly thereafter, a tall, boisterous man in a seersucker suit and pink socks appeared and did a voluminous impression of Red Allen driving his car around Times Square, said a few things about the California Ramblers, made a point about Tommy Ladnier that trailed into Muggsy Spanier, and then stormed out of the station to catch the subway. When I caught my breath, Charles told me that was Phil Schaap.
I went to Columbia to study film, though I ended up studying English and anthropology instead because of professors like Ann Douglas, Brent Edwards, and Robert O’Meally who incorporate jazz heavily into their literature courses and teach cultural history. My love for jazz came about initially from movies. My parents wisely took me to see The Aviator when I was eight and I remember being affected not only by the planes and movie cameras, but by the jazz age soundtrack. Later on I saw Anatomy of a Murder one summer at the Palace Theater. After I saw Duke Ellington in that film and heard the truly ‘noirvana’ soundtrack, I went to Highland Records in Louisville and asked if they had any Ellington LPs. They didn’t have any, which only added to my curiosity. I felt provoked to hear the music whenever I could.
When I showed up at WKCR, I already loved jazz, but I didn’t quite yet realize its importance or vastness. That came from Phil Schaap and older students like Charles Iselin, David Beal, and Francis Mayo. Suddenly I was thrown into a tradition of 24-hour birthday broadcasts, memorial broadcasts, morning listening sessions, five-hour profiles, and discographical inquiries. I came to the station thinking Star Dust by Louis Armstrong, Easy to Love by Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday, Burgundy Street Blues by George Lewis, and If I Were a Bell by Miles Davis were all I would ever need to know and now I’m seeing Charles spinning these heavy, fragile 78s and listing off personnel and dates from fat red volumes. Early on, Fran Mayo organized a caravan — three vans of students — to drive to Bessie Smith’s grave and pay our respects. Not long after that the Norwegian solographer Jan Evensmo showed up at the station. Charles and I spent the day listening to rare Roy Eldridge airshots with him that only exist at the station. I learned about the station’s efforts to save Eldridge’s collection when it washed up on the beaches of Far Rockaway during Hurricane Sandy. I heard Schaap’s 45- minute mic breaks, I learned about the Dizzy Gillespie red chair, I saw the thousands of interview reels in the vaults. I was in the middle of complete and total love for music which up to that point I had only known in solitude.
Ultimately what amazed me about WKCR was what I would learn more formally from Phil Schaap when he became my mentor without me even realizing it. First, I learned from him that all music is present tense and not to get caught up in ideologies about progress or overvalue either the future or the past. Secondly, I learned not to be a swing chauvinist or a BeBop chauvinist. One of the most beautiful traditions we have on WKCR is our back to back Ornette Coleman and Bix Beiderbecke birthday broadcasts and I have learned, albeit rather belatedly, to love both dearly. Ultimately, I learned that music has a social and political function, and this, and the biographies of musicians, is inseparable and essential to understanding the sounds I loved. I learned from friends at WKCR and my teachers at Columbia to hear the essential spirit of the music’s makers. I learned to appreciate the very real connections that popular taste and criticism have largely overlooked. I learned that tastes are mutable, therefore I can’t let my taste or the taste of others guide my ears or changes my direction. I learned to follow musical daring.
MS: For those who don’t know Phil Schaap, who is he?
Phil is a radio host, educator, sound engineer, and historian—simply a worker for jazz and the hardest working person I’ve ever met. There is an unbelievable passion in the man who speaks on air for 45 minutes straight listing record personnel, dates, and Dodgers scores by heart, remembering what he ate when he met Duke Ellington, flipping, cuing, EQing, and playing a 78 in a matter of seconds, excerpting the eight-bar Chu Berry solo and playing it twenty times in a row, working for jazz like he is running a lifelong marathon. What he teaches is basically music appreciation, not performance. Phil has aimed to get musicians better gigs, to teach listening to experts and newcomers alike, to introduce new generations of listeners to jazz, and to make jazz sound better through high quality sound productions.
I never would be able to learn as much as I have without Phil because he taught me how to find the music, not just to settle with what I already knew. Because of his unusual methods and his aversion to mediocrity, people like to imagine Phil as a modern version of Balzac’s Père Goriot: a tragically misunderstood artifact from a different world. But Phil became a friend, a mentor, and my main influence because his mission is to bring people to jazz. He showed me what work needed to be done, and what a worker for jazz should be.
The other person I have to explain and give a big shout out to is CHARLES ISELIN! When I met Charles, I was interested in 78s because I had seen Crumb and was curious about the records in that movie. I’m a collector at heart and I don’t think that’s a shameful or embarrassing thing if the collector reflects upon him or herself, reads some Walter Benjamin, and remembers to shower once in a while. I asked Charles if he had any 78s and he went back to the archive and hauled out a box of records he had just bought. Flipping through the stack, I noticed Who by Frankie Newton on Bluebird, not because of Newton, who is now my hero, but because of Mezz Mezzrow, whose book Really the Blues I had just read and loved! Charles grinned and put on Who. I think that devil knew I was about to get hooked on some deep s*** because sure enough that night I went on eBay and bought a Red Allen Vocalion though I didn’t even have a way to play it. He showed me that the 78s were the closest I could get to the music.
MS: What led up to your founding the Hot Club of New York, whose central purpose is offering listeners “a chance to hear scarce records in their historic and aesthetic contexts, and to discuss jazz in a relaxed environment”?
Remember, I’m a filmmaker who likes jazz, but slowly there were events that led to the Hot Club. I met Parker Fishel and David Beal, two righteous fellows who loved the music, and particularly loved the Blues which was always the heart of it. That’s the main thing: the Blues is the spirit and when jazz loses the Blues, jazz loses the spirit. Everyone from Freddie Keppard to Cecil Taylor knew that. So I know that anyone who loves the Blues, like Parker and David do, is going to be a friend. Parker invited me over to his place to listen to Pete Brown records, and David and Ben Young showed up too. That was the first Hot Club I went to, and the beginning of the Neo Hot Club Movement. I’d never had that experience, other than with Charles, of listening to the music deeply and quietly, and lovingly. That’s the experience I’ve always tried to recreate with the Hot Club, whether it was at a dressed up cellar in the Village or on Zoom on Monday nights.
MS: They call you “Fat Cat.” But you’re not a bulky plutocrat.
Yes, I hope that handle is unlike me in more ways than one—like Tiny Parham. That really gets us to the first official Neo Hot Club: Morristown, hosted by Melissa Jones. Phil, Ben, Charles, Emily Fenster, Sam Engel, and a whole bunch would drive or ride the train out to Morristown, New Jersey, to listen to rare 78s on a top of the line sound system. I still didn’t have a turntable or anything at that time. I was only listening to my 78s at WKCR, which didn’t sound as good as at Melissa’s. On the ride back from Morristown once, Phil mentioned a Sippie Wallace 78 of which he had only known two copies to exist. There was his, and there was Johnson “Fat Cat” McRree Jr.’s, a collector and jazz festival host from Virginia. I was shocked because I had just bought the record for $8 on the internet, only it had a sizable dig in the grooves near the end. So the next time we went out to Morristown, I brought the Sippie Wallace record and showed it to Phil. It was the first time I had ever seen him impressed by anything. He was sweating, his eyes were bulging like a Crumb cartoon, his voice was cracking, and he told me to put on the record which I’m already in the middle of doing. As we were all listening to this unbelievably emotional, soulful blues record with Louis Armstrong and someone who wants to sound like Bechet, it gets to the chip in the grooves and Phil goes absolutely berserk, stands up in his chair, his face red, shouting “That’s Fat Cat’s copy!! You’re the Fat Cat! Fat Cat Rivera.” I had bought Fat Cat McRree Jr.’s copy for eight dollars.
MS: You took piano lessons for ten years: tell us your James P. Johnson story.
My first encounters with music were encounters with the piano. My uncle and grandmother both played and inspired me to play. I took lessons with a true friend Calvin Pinney, a kind, churchgoing woman who would not stand for rushing or fast tempos and would have no deviation from the notes on the page. I still have her look of “You didn’t practice, did you?” burned into my mind. I took lessons up to the point where I was playing Bach two-part inventions and the four Gershwin preludes pretty solidly. Then I found a transcription of James P. Johnson playing If Dreams Come True. I listened to that music non-stop, I tried to play it, and it basically broke me down completely. I realized then, I can read music, I can interpret the old masters, I play the Rodgers and Hart songbook at a party for tips, I can even slide into Gershwin, but I can’t do THAT. I realized I was an audience member.
MS: It’s obvious you aren’t traveling this rocky road alone.
I learn from my peers, and it’s here I must thank Colin Hancock, the single most important jazz scholar living today and one of my best friends. Vince Giordano has helped me quite a bit, and with his working orchestra, The Nighthawks, he has shown us all the power of the jazz age ten piece big bands. I didn’t realize it until about ten years later, but one of my first introductions to jazz, watching The Aviator, was an introduction by Vince Giordano who performed most of the music for that film. Not to lift the curtain, Michael, but you are also an important peer and friend. Al Vollmer, David Sager, Ricky Riccardi, Scott Wenzel, Jan Evensmo, Lloyd Rauch, Andrew Oliver, Scout Opatut, Evan Arntzen, Lucy Yeghiazaryan, and countless others have taught me more than a thing or two about jazz. Still the people I learn the most from are my close friends Sam Fentress, Alex Garnick, Evan Sennett, Aaron Friedman, Laura Cadena, and Sophie Kovel, and most importantly my love, Elena Burger. They are all tuned in to our generation. They understand what the Hot Club mission is about and the sociality and politics of art and history. In their own individual ways, they are all non-conformist thinkers which is what I want to be. Then there’s the rarest of them all, a non-conformist thinker who understands jazz: my professor Ann Douglas who wrote Terrible Honesty and has guided me in everything from Charlie Parker to Raymond Chandler. She is someone I am honored to say is my friend.
MS: How does jazz fit into your other passions — politics, film, American culture? Are there connections between Charlie Johnson and your literary heroes?
Jazz is the most specific of these topics because it relies essentially on an attitude and outlook towards life. It is the best part of American culture, but it is obviously not all of American culture. The outlook is, plainly enough, the Blues outlook—an honest square look at all of life’s nasty stuff that is deeply hurt by it and still finds a way to laugh it off, to see light not only at the other side of the tunnel but in the tunnel itself. Though not always successful at looking, or at laughing, and not always the most approachable thing, if you judge jazz at its best (as we should always judge) it’s the only light. I appreciate other music through jazz—certainly Cuban son, Puerto Rican plena, Old Time mountain music, Cajun, gospel, Dominican merengue, Hawaiian hula, Bach, Bob Dylan, West African palm wine, Greek rebetika—but I’ve learned I basically appreciate everything that has the Blues outlook. Outside of jazz, film noir and noir literature have been the strongest expression of this Blues spirit. The spirit, of course, predates the modern Blues as well, and it can be seen in the novels of Balzac and the poems of Sappho. Although Charlie Johnson, as a person and artist, was basically nothing like David Goodis, they both dug into the Blues with a feeling, as a song by Duke Ellington is titled.
MS: How did you get from being “A 78 record collector” to founding the Hot Club of New York, and what do you see as its future?
Through the path people like Phil, Charles, Melissa, David, and Parker have shown me, I have seen that jazz is a social phenomenon. There’s a book called Musicking by Christopher Small which says the music is more than the object on stage, but the entire social interaction, the space, the love and the people. Dancing, record collecting, record listening, and most certainly performance attending are all acts of musicking with almost as much importance for the social space as the performance itself.
This way of understanding music is lost on us. Generally, we have lost sight of the need for an audience. If there are more musicians on stage than audience members in the house — which I’m sad to say I have witnessed — then it’s only public practice. I realized the same thing about collecting the records. If I’m only playing them for myself I’m not getting them all they’re worth. Even having the 78s is only half the battle. I’ve got to play them for people, and I have to find people who want to listen and teach more people to want to listen. The ultimate mission of the Hot Club is to introduce a new audience to jazz, and to create a space of active jazz musicking.
Melissa Jones, whom I first met as a classmate at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Swing University, basically lives this idea of music, supporting and bringing together the jazz community in any way possible. I’ve already mentioned the Hot Club of Morristown. Melissa would host young musicians and listeners at her house, feeding all of us to the gills. It didn’t matter who we were as long as we loved jazz. I think the most important part of the Neo Hot Club came from Melissa as she constantly reminded me of jazz’s ultimate cause: to bring people together. She exemplified an angel of musicking to a generation of young jazz people, and when the future hit all too soon this year I took her cue to begin hosting Zoom Hot Club meetings on Monday nights. Her presence there has continued to bond the group of listeners from all backgrounds. I dedicate this interview to Melissa Jones.
MS: What are some prizes of your collection? Do you have desert island discs?
Well, assuming I can take a ship the size of the Titanic to the island…. My number one is Out of Nowhere by Coleman Hawkins with a stunning muted trumpet by Benny Carter on HMV.
I’m also grateful to say I have a mint copy of Cecil Scott’s Lawd, Lawd on Victor, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band’s Chattanooga Stomp and Camp Meeting Blues on Columbia, Chick Webb’s If Dreams Come True on Columbia, Jack Purvis’s Down Georgia Way, Charlie Johnson’s Charleston is the Best Dance After All, both takes of Louis Armstrong’s Star Dust, Armstrong’s Struttin’ With Some Barbecue on OKeh, a west coast pressing of Art Karle’s Lights Out with my favorite Frankie Newton solo, Tell Me, Dreamy Eyes by Perley Breed’s Shepard Colonial Orchestra on Gennett (thanks to Colin Hancock), Wipe ’em Off by the Seven Gallon Jug Band, Noah’s Blues by Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Ice Freezes Red by Fats Navarro, My Baby’s Blues by the Blues Man on Juke Box, a vinylite pressing of Coleman Hawkins’s Talk of the Town, a vinylite of Bird of Paradise on Dial and my favorite Charlie Parker Thriving on a Riff on a beautiful sounding vinylite Savoy. Every record I own is one I could never part with! A test pressing of With a Smile and a Song, an unissued side from a Teddy Wilson session with the beautiful singer Sally Gooding and the tenor great Chu Berry, is a crown jewel.
MS: Does record collecting feed the music or vice versa?
Through collecting records I came to understand that there are alternative ways to listen to and find music. Jazz came to have a context, and context is never icing on the cake. Context is always the thing itself when you get down to it. We’ve lost sight of that fact through the current ways of distributing music, and that’s why I think we are left with an understanding of music that is supporting an ideology that handicaps the music and strips it of its active life. Jazz is not an abstract music just like Pollock and Krasner were not abstract painters. Pollock painted about the censorship of the cold war; he danced around the oppressors to say exactly what they were afraid art was capable of saying, which is what the jazz musicians he was listening to had already done. Jazz musicians danced around power to create something seemingly nonsensical to the unhip, but explicitly communicative to its righteous audience. Spotify, YouTube, and all of the current ways of distributing music decontextualize and deactivate music. The way these apps envision music shows exactly where those in power want it to be: in the background. Ironically, their outlook inadvertently acknowledges the importance and power of jazz. It’s our way out.
MS: You’ve been doing intriguing research on Frankie Newton. Why is he a hero?
Frankie Newton is important to me because he was on the first 78 I heard, and he has since become more important to me because he showed me the way to the music. For someone who was dead for over forty years before my birth to show me the way is nothing short of the ultimate vision of jazz’s power. The same can be said of Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, or Billie Holiday, but for me Newton has had the loudest voice because whenever you find him, he is never caught up in the zero sum game of the culture industry, playing hide and seek to make a living and still not lose his soul. Perhaps Coltrane equals him in this regard. Newton was politically minded, but even before I knew about his politics I knew about his activities as a painter.
As someone who was balancing playing jazz records and making films and studying literature I found any character who delved into another medium from a jazz perspective to be fascinating and exceptional. The more I’ve learned about Newton, combing through newspapers, periodicals, and an interview disc I found in a junk shop, the more I’ve found that his position on the margins of jazz popularity shows the fault lines in our understanding of the music, and a point of view that contrasts revealingly with the more famous artists of his time. Moreover, and most importantly, Frankie Newton is a truly great musician. He is the best kind of soloist—he speaks for the whole group when he solos, not just for himself. I’m always curious to hear what he has to say.
MS: We feel the same way about Matthew Rivera!
Although I’ve thanked a lot of people in this interview, ultimately there are two groups of people to whom I’m most grateful. First, my parents and family in Kentucky, Indiana, Alabama, and Puerto Rico, and secondly, the pioneering jazz musicians of every generation. They are the original jazz workers, and all I want to do is work for them.
Matthew can be found broadcasting (from his apartment) via wkcr.org on Mondays 12-3 PM EST. Join the Hot Club of New York at http://hotclubny.com(there’s also a HCNY Facebook page) where you can find the Zoom link for his Monday night sessions from 7-10 PM. Information about his programs for the New York Adventure Club can be found at https://nyadventureclub.com.
Jen Hodge is the real deal — as melodically propulsive ensemble player or soloist, singer, bandleader, or jazz-instigator / investigator. (Now we can add “whistler” to the list of credits, by the way.) So I’m not at all surprised that her new CD, THE GIRL IN THE GROOVE, is lively, varied, and flavorful. Incidentally, the second link will lead you to Jen’s online CD release party via Facebook, on Friday, October 2, from 9-11, EDT. Consider yourself invited.
And since Jen and friends often play for swing dancers, the music on this disc has a definite warm pulse, felt rather than being a matter of volume, that is consistently cheering. That’s evident from the first notes of the aptly named HODGE PODGE (all right, it was named for Johnny Hodges) that keeps the bounce of late-Thirties Ellington without being a museum piece. Brad Shigeta growls and snarls his way through the main strain of HERE LIES LOVE before involving the rest of the band in the swinging elegy. Incidentally, any 2020 CD that has a little-played Ralph Rainger composition, made famous by Bing Crosby, has already curled up at the foot of my bed — even before Mike Daugherty’s stop-time chorus and the singular Chris Davis and Joseph Abbott.
What could be more overdone than I GOT RHYTHM, you ask? Not in Jen’s version, which begins with her winsome singing of the verse, rubato, over Josh’s guitar tapestries . . . sliding into a rocking vocal chorus with the band taking turns around her — then taking things to a cheerfully higher level with vocal twists and turns. Jen’s singing is sweetly unfussy and genuine, charming because she isn’t imitating anyone, just having a good time sharing the song with us. SUMMERTIME, also teetering on the brink of extinction, sounds both fresh and ominous — March of the Aliens, and they are coming to your town in the next hour! — but it continues on its own singular path with Joseph Abbott’s lyrically clear improvisation on the melody, then Brad Shigeta’s affectionate snarl (he means no harm) and Abbott’s sky-blue tones as the band riffs somewhat menacingly underneath. You’ll have to hear it to understand.
USE YOUR HEAD, an old-time-modern original by Jen, starts off at marvelously low volume — as if the band had decided to jam the insinuating composition in whispers. Apparently the lyrics are a series of instructions to a prospective lover, auditioning for the gig. I hope so. More blessed to give, and all that. When the performance was over, rocking itself to a kind of pleasurable summit, thanks to Clara Rose as well as the band, I was only disappointed that Jen didn’t come back to sing a half-dozen more choruses. Yes, it’s 2020, but it’s a song that would have done nicely for Clara, Mamie, or Bessie in 1931. Or Fats Waller, any decade. I played it three times before moving on, and I expect to repeat the pleasurable experience tomorrow. Come for the philosophy, stay for the swing.
I must halt matters here and praise Jen’s string bass playing. As wonderful as the other musicians are on this CD — and they damned well are — my ears kept coming back in delight to the lines she was creating under and through the ensembles, and her concise swinging “speaking” solo work. And her arco passage on DEAD MAN BLUES is so poignant, so focused. And, just for the record, she plays with equal beauty and conviction in person: I have shared videos of Jen at Cafe Bohemia, where no one talked through a single solo, because every solo kept us rapt.
Then there are the arrangements, mostly group efforts by the band, three by Jen herself, and HODGE PODGE by the sterling Alan Matheson. On Joseph Abbott’s THE EARTHQUAKE DRILL, I had to look at the band personnel again to remind myself that this was a compact, flexible, sauntering sextet — no piano — because so much was going on in this fast blues, and not only a SING SING SING interlude for clarinet and drums. You could — and you will want to — listen to the whole disc several times, once focusing on the soloists, once on the charts, once . . . you will figure it out. It sounds happy and natural: this band floats on the fun it creates.
Every jazz CD needs some side-glances at The End, to keep the hoodoo away: this one has not only HERE LIES LOVE, but a jaunty variation on the “New Orleans Function” theme, where FLEE AS A BIRD turns the corner into DEAD MAN BLUES — less Morton than Manone, I think, until the final choruses, reminiscent of MOURNFUL INTERLUDE, providing a splendid trot home from the imagined gravesite. Be not afraid: nothing’s dead on this disc, even with some ancient repertoire, frisky and bold.
Speaking of frisky and bold, there’s Jen’s soulful rendition of UP ABOVE MY HEAD, which has the appropriate words, “I really do believe / there’s joy somewhere.” How true for this disc. And although the original composition reaches all the way back, Jen’s version hints both at a revival service and something Charles Mingus might have invented and played — spirituality with a deep (mildly whimsical) seismic motion.
And the CD ends with a lovely tribute — not only to generations of trumpet players who gently begin STARDUST with the verse — but to the much-missed swing matriarch and Sage, Dawn Hampton, who left us a YouTube video of her whistling that composition in the most heartfelt manner. Jen’s whistling reminds me not only of the mysterious Maurice Hendricks (look him up, do), but also of someone whistling — earnestly and passionately — on her way home from school or a tennis match. And, in ways that surprised me, of Louis: I felt the same chills up and down my spine. I don’t write such praise lightly.
Hereyou can pre-order the digital CD (it will slide down the birth canal on October 2) and hear samples. It’s a wow.
Albanie Falletta and Jen Hodge, another night at Cafe Bohemia, creating beauty.
Great art doesn’t need a museum with guards or a concert hall: sometimes it happens right in front of us, and this was one of those moments: my last trip into New York City to be transported by live music before the world we all knew began to distort in front of us, a visit to Cafe Bohemia on 15 Barrow Street in Greenwich Village for the last of the Thursday-night-jazz-prayer-meetings. March 12, 2020.
I’ve posted music and written about that ominous and uplifting evening here and here— and I can still see in my mind’s eye the stairway down into the nearly-empty subway station, the feel of a produce-section plastic bag wrapped around my hand (I hadn’t found gloves for sale yet) so that I would touch as few surfaces as possible. A new world, and not an easy one. But I digress.
The music. The magical transmogrifiers I capture with my camera are — I use the present tense on purpose — Albanie Falletta, voice and resonator guitar; Kevin Dorn, drums; Sean Cronin, string bass; Josh Dunn, guitar; Evan Arntzen, tenor saxophone; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet. The sad text that they make joyous — the great paradox of art — is Einar A. Swan’s 1931 WHEN YOUR LOVER HAS GONE.
That paradox fascinates me. If you look at the individual facial expressions as the alchemists below make their wise feeling ways through this venerable lament, they are not morose. Rather, they are the concentrated faces of people intent on making the result of their work (lifetimes of practice and contemplation) come out right. Were they to “break up their lines to weep,” to quote Yeats, the song would fail as each one retreated into their private universe of grief. And there is always enough to grieve about. But I think of Basie and Jimmy Rushing singing and playing the saddest song with a glint of mischief under their labors, embodying and celebrating the powers of art.
Here I’d like to quote from the unpublished journals of Sammut of Malta:
Nothing is ever strictly functional in music because all music is ornamental.
Music is not necessary for our well-being even if we come to need it on an emotional level. The fact is that if organized sound were never a thing, we’d still be here. But that’s what make something as simple as a triad so amazing. There’s really no practical reason for it to exist. But we wouldn’t want to be here without it. So that’s why I’d suggest there’s never any such thing as JUST A II-V-I progression.
We are such complicated humans and simplistic beasts all at once who can never see past our own noses. So when I hear a bass line—any bass line— I like to remind myself of its ultimate meaninglessness outside of my ears, but it makes it more special for that reason.
Or, as Hot Lips Page once told Steve Lipkins on the band bus, “Look, an Eb don’t mean shit unless you bring something to the fucking note.”
What Albanie, Kevin, Sean, Josh, Evan, and Jon-Erik bring to that Eb and all the other notes in this performance is precious — wafting past us in time, evaporating, but memorable. Bless them for moving us so.
And I will restate some thoughts that are even more pertinent in June:
This should be obvious, but people under stress might forget to look at “the larger picture,” that others have a hard time also. I’ve created this post for free, but what follows isn’t about me or what’s in my refrigerator. The musicians didn’t receive extra money for entertaining you. How can you help them and express gratitude? Simple. Buy their CDs from their websites. Help publicize their virtual house concerts — spread the news, share the joy — and toss something larger than a virtual zero into the virtual tip jar. Musicians live in a gig economy, and we need their generous art more than we can say. Let’s not miss the water because we ourselves have let the well run dry. Spiritual generosity means much more than a whole carton of hand sanitizer, or a really cool leopard-print mask.
What you give open-handedly to others comes back to your doorstep. Musicians remind us that there’s more to live for than lunch, and we must prize them for their pointing this out in every Eb.
It’s distressingly easy to make a paper-thin tribute to Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars: start with the “Greatest Hits,” add a Louis-caricature, stir in high notes, fast tempos and a dash of audience-clapping, and stand back. Or one could decide to be “innovative” and “harmonically adventurous,” but I will not even consider those possibilities, because the room is starting to spin.
But Gordon Au is a studious and deep musician and individual, so that when I heard he was planning a tribute to the music that Louis and his world-famous band created over nearly twenty-five years, I was eager to hear it. And the results are subtle and gratifying. You can find out more here while you listen. I’ve picked two songs from this recording that are — sadly or wryly — currently appropriate:
and a song I wish were not so relevant, the somber BLACK AND BLUE:
That should send listeners who get it right to the link to download and purchase. But perhaps some of you need more information.
Gordon writes, “I grew up listening to Louis Armstrong. Last year I had the chance to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time: bring the music of Louis & the All-Stars to swing dancers. I heard a few hip DJs play Louis for lindy hoppers over the years, but I always wished there were more, and I knew that I myself would love dancing to the All-Stars. I wanted to give dancers the chance to hear the music of the All-Stars with a live band, and to dance to it and fall in love with it.
Last December, that wish came true. At Lindy Focus XVIII, I presented a tribute to Louis Armstrong & His All-Stars with a dream team of 10 musicians, and finally got to share that music I love with hundreds of people dancing their hearts out, late at night in a packed ballroom, surrounded by smiling faces, at the largest lindy hop event in the nation. And now I’m happy to share it with all of you.”
1. Squeeze Me (79 BPM)
2. All That Meat and No Potatoes (110 BPM)
3. Twelfth St. Rag (128 BPM)
4. I’ll Walk Alone (88 BPM)
5. Back o’Town Blues (74 BPM)
6. Blueberry Hill (96 BPM)
7. Faithful Hussar (133 BPM)
8. Someday You’ll be Sorry (105 BPM)
9. Unless (87 BPM)
10. My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It (141 BPM)
11. Beale St. Blues (105 BPM)
12. Lovely Weather We’re Having (88 BPM)
13. C’est Si Bon (143 BPM)
14. Yellow Dog Blues (88 BPM)
15. Black and Blue (99 BPM)
16. Don’t Fence Me In (106 BPM)
17. Saint Louis Blues (118 BPM)
18. Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now (130 BPM)
All tracks adapted/arranged by Gordon Au (Gordonburi Music – ASCAP)
Laura Windley—vocals (1,2,4,6,9,10,16-8)
Jim Ziegler—vocals (1,2,5,8,10,12,14), trumpet (8,14)
Keenan McKenzie—soprano sax (2,3,6,8,10,12-15,17), clarinet (4,5,8,9,16,18)
Jacob Zimmerman—clarinet (1-4,6-15,17)
And if the combination of music and words were not enough, I would add my own of the latter. I don’t remember if I asked Gordon if he needed some prose or I insisted on writing something (I did see Louis live on April 23, 1967 — that would be my opening credential) and he graciously agreed. So here’s mine:
“I tried to walk like him, talk like him, eat like him, sleep like him. I even bought a pair of big policeman’s shoes like he used to wear and stood outside his apartment waiting for him to come out so I could look at him.“
The magnificent cornetist Rex Stewart remembered the monumental effect Louis Armstrong had when Louis came to New York in 1924. More to the point, he recalled without embarrassment his awestruck attempts to gain some of Louis’ splendor by magic. (How lucky for him and for us that Rex had his own splendor for four decades.)
I write this to remind readers of Louis’ life-changing power, and to point out that musicians began trying to emulate him nearly one hundred years ago – when Louis himself was not yet 25. Somewhere I read of a group of players, stripped-down to their underwear, shivering in an unheated basement, hoping to catch cold so that their singing voices would be closer to his. Everyone wanted some of his celestial power: Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, Connee Boswell, Bing Crosby, Bobby Darin, and many others. As I write, musicians are posting their versions of Louis’ WEST END BLUES’ cadenza on Facebook.
Trying to capture his essence, his admirers have taken many diverse paths. The most shallow efforts have been grotesque: a distended grin, waving a handkerchief as if drowning, and growling a few chosen phrases, ending inevitably with an extended “Oh yeah!” (If you knew nothing of Louis, you might think, “Someone get that man to a hospital now!”) Such approaches resemble a jazz version of demonic possession, and we have it on good authority (clarinetist Joe Muranyi) that Louis hated such imitations. Some trumpet players misunderstood Louis’ mastery simply as his ability to play an octave higher than anyone else had, but they mistook range for music. Only those who understood Louis’ art perceived that it was essentially a singer’s craft, melodic to its core, offering songs that any listener, skilled in jazz or not, could appreciate immediately. It was emotive more than exhibitionistic.
This is especially true in the period of Louis’ greatest popular appeal – his triumphant quarter-century of worldwide fame, recognition, and affection. Those who don’t understand his final sustained triumph suggest that his All-Stars period was marked by a desire for larger audiences, “popularity” at the expense of innovative art, and the limitations of an aging man’s playing and singing. To this I and others would say “Nonsense,” a polite euphemism selected for these notes, and point out that the splendidly virtuosic playing of Louis’ earlier years was – although dazzling – not as astonishing as, say, his 1956 WHEN YOU’RE SMILING or THAT’S FOR ME. Ask any trumpeter whether it is easier to copy Louis’ solo on NEW ORLEANS STOMP – the most brilliant amusement-park ride – or to play LA VIE EN ROSE as Louis did. (Those who are struck by this CD might investigate the original recordings and be amazed, and they might follow their amazement to the best book on the subject, Ricky Riccardi’s WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS.)
Gordon Au understands the sweet ardor at the heart of Louis’ last quarter-century, and he also understands that sincere admiration of an innovator’s art requires loving innovation as well as expert imitation. I’ve been admiring Gordon’s playing for over a decade now, and it has always had subtle Armstrongian qualities while remaining perfectly personal: a clarion sound, hitting those notes squarely, a love of melody, but also an essential whimsy: Gordon’s phrasing is not predictable, nor are his particular choices. His solos have their own arching structure and they always deliver pleasant shocks. He moves with quiet daring and great wit between declarations and subversions.
Elsewhere in these notes, Gordon has eloquently written of his own journey to the music of Louis’ All-Stars, so I will leave that to him, and I will not debate those who felt Louis had abandoned his “pure jazz” for “showmanship” by choosing CABARET over POTATO HEAD BLUES. The All-Stars repertoire, in performance and on record, was delightfully varied, from funky New Orleans blues to pop songs new and venerable, as well as Louis’ own compositions and attempts at pop hits — perhaps a broader palette than at any other time in his career (even though we have heard tales of the Creole Jazz Band and Fletcher Henderson playing waltzes and tangos). I have always loved Gordon’s spacious imagination, and it is evident here not only in his playing and arranging, the musicians he has working with him – wonders every one! – but the songs chosen. A dull tribute could have been Greatest Hits (I might not be writing for this project had it included WHAT A WONDERFUL . . . . and DOLLY!) or it might reproduce an All-Stars concert, inexplicable to those who aren’t Louis-scholars. But Gordon understands that UNLESS and BLACK AND BLUE are both music and must be cherished – and performed – with amiable reverence.
The result of Gordon and the band’s deep understanding makes for truly gratifying music, even for those who had never heard the originals. I know the originals, and my experience of listening has been a constant happiness, the warm thought, “Listen to what they are doing there!” And since this band was conceived for swing dancers, the music is always groovy, rocking, and stimulating, no matter what the tempo. The slightly enlarged instrumentation and Gordon’s imaginative arrangements make for a more varied experience than the All-Stars I heard in person in 1967 (I know that is a heretical statement). At their finest, Louis’ group was a collection of inspired soloists, but they could also sound skeletal: three horns, three rhythm, and a “girl singer” – but we were so dazzled by Louis that we did not care how much open space there was in the performances. Gordon’s vision is far more orchestral, and the band pleases on its own terms from first to last, with delightfully jaunty singing by Laura Windley and Jim Ziegler, who do us the compliment of sounding just like themselves, sailing along.
I also know that Louis would be delighted not only with the music here but would have been thrilled to be invited to perform with this band. He left for another gig far too early, and I regret that this collaboration never happened, but I can hear it in my mind’s ear.
“I’m so excited, y’all!” Laura bursts out at the end of DON’T FENCE ME IN. I am also. You can hear the effect the band had on the dancers. And it will offer the same magic to you as well.
Ultimately, here’s my verdict on this lovely musical effort:
If I learned that a few dear friends were going to drop by in fifteen minutes, I would rush around tidying, straightening out the bed, looking to see what you could serve them . . . a flurry of immediate anxiety (“Does the bathtub need to be cleaned and can I do it in the next two minutes?” “Where will people sit?”) mixed with the pleasurable anticipation of their appearance. As an aside, JAZZ LIVES readers who wish to see the apartment — equal parts record store, video studio, yard sale, and library — will have to make an appointment.
Since I “live” at Cafe Bohemia (15 Barrow Street, Greenwich Village, New York) only intermittently, and it’s already tidy, thus, not my problem, I could simply relax into a different kind of pleasurable anticipation. It happened again when Jon-Erik Kellso began to invite people up on to the bandstand near the end of the evening of January 2, 2020 — another of the Thursday sessions that cheer me immensely. The result reminded me of some nights at the 54th Street Eddie Condon’s when guests would come by and perform.
Let me give you the Dramatis Personae for that night and then we can proceed to two of the marvels that took place. The House Band: Jon-Erik, trumpet; Ricky Alexander, clarinet; Albanie Falletta, resonator guitar / vocal; Sean Cronin, string bass / vocal. The Guests: Bria Skonberg, Geoff Power, trumpet; Arnt Arntzen, banjo; Jen Hodge, string bass. Arrangements were quickly and graciously made: Sean handed the bass to Jen for these two numbers; Bria stayed on, Geoff went off for one and came back for the second.
JAZZ ME BLUES, with Jon-Erik, Bria, Ricky, Albanie, Arnt, and Jen:
SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL, with Albanie singing and Geoff back on the stand:
Much better than apartment-tidying, I’d say. And I’d wager that even the Lone YouTube Disliker, who hides in the bathroom with his laptop, might give his death-ray finger a rest. More beautiful sounds will come from Cafe Bohemia, so come down the stairs.
and they (and friends) transported everyone in the room. It all happened at my new second home, Cafe Bohemia (15 Barrow Street, Greenwich Village, New York City) on Thursday night, January 2, 2020. And the makers-of-magic are Albanie Falletta, vocal and resonator guitar; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Sean Cronin, string bass; Ricky Alexander. Their text: HESITATION BLUES. And how moving!
There will be more videos from this session, but — for those who like to live their lives close-up to reality (that is, getting sensation from people rather than from a lit screen) — Albanie, Jon-Erik, Evan Arntzen, and Jen Hodge will be performing at Cafe Bohemia tomorrow evening at 8 and 10 PM . . . reason to put your shoes back on and leave the chair in front of the computer. Seriously. Life is larger than any of our phones.
I don’t have grandchildren*, but I can imagine myself gathering the younguns around and telling them, “Younguns, Grandpa knew Nirav Sanghani when he was only a swing dancer, before he began to lead a band!” They would be properly awestruck. As I am by Nirav’s debut CD, its pretty cover displayed above.
Some facts: the CD is immensely danceable music, the tracks at righteous groovy tempos, with a mix of classic standards and riff-based originals. Nirav is one of the young musicians mentored by Clint Baker, so you know that he has taken all the right impromptu classes and scored high on the real-life exams (in front of audiences). And he understands rhythm guitar (rather than attempting to become a Famous-Solo-Guitarist-Clone) and playing for the band. The band is a compact sextet of wise individualists, and they rock in solo and ensemble. Beautiful sound . . . . and a digital download costs $8. I am sure that Elders like myself could also buy a physical disc from Nirav at any of the swing events he and the Pacific Six adorn.
The band: Justin Au, trumpet; Jacob Zimmerman, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Rob Reich, piano; Nirav Sanghani, guitar; Jen Hodge, string bass; Riley Baker, drums; Clint Baker, trombone (on BAKER BOUNCE only).
The songs: BAKER BOUNCE / DOODLE RHYTHM / MARIANAS / BLUE (And Broken-Hearted) / IRRATIONAL BLUES / SOMEDAY SWEETHEART / WHO’S SORRY NOW? / LULLABY OF THE WAVES / WHISPERING. arch 26, 2019
Recorded August 19, 2018 at Community Music Center, San Francisco, CA.
From the first notes, the band floats on a well-connected four-piece rhythm section: Reich, Sanghani, Hodge, and Baker have listened hard to the great small groups of the Forties and the wartime Basie influence is so happily evident (although none of the cliches are). I noticed happily that more than a few of the tracks began with a rhythm-section introduction, reminiscent of the great small groups and also clearly setting the tempo for dancers. (Incidentally, that rhythm section has its own delicious quirky approach: hear the opening chorus of WHISPERING to get at it: hilarious and completely effective.) IRRATIONAL BLUES is beautifully evocative of the 1938 Kansas City Six, with a guitar introduction by Sanghani.
And the horn soloists (Zimmerman switching from clarinet to saxophone on some tracks; a terse, lyrical Au — with the impassioned Clint Baker, jazz parent, adding huge trombone sounds on the first track) are wonderfully idiomatic but never imitative. Eddie Condon would surely admire their interplay on BLUE and on SOMEDAY SWEETHEART. The jazz fans in the audience might think of 1946, of Savoy Records, of swing-to-bop; the dancers will be too busy dancing to consider such erudite matters.
Nirav’s originals are made of familiar materials but each has its own little surprises, and the arranging touches are well-shaped but never overfussy. I know that if I heard this on the radio or on a DJ’s playlist, I might not immediately call each of the players by name but I certainly would insist on knowing about the band and buying a few copies of the disc.
I propose that people who enjoy this CD pass along copies of it to dance organizers who might be out of touch with the best Bay Area jive so that we can spread the swinging word(s).
My only complaint about this disc is that it isn’t a two-disc set.
Here is the band’s Facebook page, and here, perhaps even more important, is the Bandcamp page where you can hear the sounds and download the music.
If you have a swing dance event coming up, this would be one of the many fine bands to hire. If, like me, you don’t, you surely will want to have the music in your home, your ears, your car . . . the possibilities are endless, and gratifying.
*Because I don’t have grandchildren, I am expecting like-minded younger JAZZ LIVES readers to visit us in assisted living, bearing new CDs, organic fruit and vegetables. I think that’s not too much to ask.
I sat down for a meal with string bassist / bandleader / singer Jen Hodge last year in New York City, and I was pleased to encounter a person I could admire as much as the music she’s been making: candid, friendly, playful, intelligent. And her new CD reflects all these qualities. Since it doesn’t have liner notes, I offer — unsolicited — a few paragraphs.
First, facts: the Jen Hodge All Stars are Jen, string bass, vocals; Chris Davis, trumpet; Connor Stewart, clarinet, tenor saxophone (whom I also met and admired); Josh Roberts, guitar; Marti Elias, drums. You’ll note the absence of trombone and piano — for the true traditionalists — but you won’t miss them. In fact, this instrumentation gives the disc a remarkable lighter-than-air quality. The band soars and rocks. Here’s a taste. Admire their dynamics, too:
As soloists, each of the players is superb and sometimes superbly quirky: their imaginations are not hemmed in by constricting notions of appropriate styles, regions, or dates. No one quotes from Ornette (at least I didn’t notice it if it happened) but everyone on the disc knows that the music didn’t stop when Lil and Louis separated. The soloists fly with a fervent lightness, and they couldn’t be better as ensemble players.
A particular pleasure of this disc is that its members tend to burst into song, at widely spaced intervals, individually or in combination — a very touching duet on SMOKE RINGS for one. On SHOUT, SISTER, SHOUT, Jen is aided and abetted by the hilariously expert “Jen’s Male Chorus,” whose identities you will learn after purchasing the music; other vocals are by Arnt Arnzen, Bonnie Northgraves, and Jack Ray — he of the Milk Crate Bandits. HEY LET’S DRINK A BEER is given over to Jen and Bonnie, who suggest vocally they are Fifties carhops at the drive-in, on roller skates — perilously cute but they also know judo.
One could divide the CD’s repertoire into the Familiar and the New, the Familiar being DARDANELLA; BLAME IT ON THE BLUES; IF I COULD BE WITH YOU ONE HOUR TONIGHT; SHOUT, SISTER, SHOUT; SMOKE RINGS, VIPER’S DREAM; HELL’S BELLS; STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY; ROCK BOTTOM; ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM. But that designation of “The Familiar” would not be so accurate. The JAZZ LIVES audience could hum or even sing perhaps seven of those songs, but I would be hard put to do the first eight bars of Fletcher Allen’s VIPER’S DREAM, Art Kassel’s HELL’S BELLS, or Tiny Parham’s ROCK BOTTOM.
Incidentally, I am not revealing too much by writing that Jen has a Platonic crush on Tiny Parham, which comes out with her recording a Parham song or two on each of her CDs. It was not possible in this universe for Jen to ask Tiny to the Junior Prom, so these bouquets must suffice.
Here’s the hilariously quirky HELL’S BELLS, flying along in sixth gear:
And “The Familiar” songs are never handled routinely: each performance has a pleasing surprise at its center. On my first listening, I was now and again happily caught off balance: I thought I knew how a band would end — let us say — IF I COULD BE WITH YOU — but the arrangement here was not predictable, although it was not so “innovative” to violate the mood of the song. ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM has traces of the Braff-Barnes Quartet versions, with a brief and delightful excursion into Jo Jones’ solo patterns of his later decades. STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, worn threadbare through repetition, is lively and fresh here. The “New” material sometimes hints at familiar chord shapes: MY DADDY ROCKS ME, THEM THERE EYES, but the originals are cleverly enticing.
All I know is that I’ve played this disc several times straight through “with pleasure” undiminished. And I know I am not alone in this. I delight in hearing evidence that the Youngbloods are swinging so hard, with such taste, and individuality . . . and I delight in the particulars of their music.
I’m happy to announce that another small swinging group of hot-jazz-plus individualists exists, and there’s recorded evidence to prove their ability to spread good sounds. This new band’s motto is CRIMINALLY GOOD MUSIC, and their cover picture is of leader Jack Ray, furtively walking off with a plastic milk crate that wasn’t his a minute before but is his now. But since you can’t listen to a plastic box, the band has released a debut EP:
And you needn’t fear Jack and friends: all they want would be your ears. The MCB is an international band: Jack (who plays tenor banjo, sings, and composes) has rounded up some Vancouver friends — string bassist Jen Hodge and reedman Connor Stewart among them — and the New Orleans trumpet star Kevin Louis — to make a disc that has wonderful echoes of songs and swing but ultimately has its own distinctive personality.
There is a good deal that initially sounds familiar on this disc: New Orleans street rhythms, the prominence of the banjo — which in this case, is an excellent thing, since Jack truly knows how to play it. But the MCB offer pleasing surprises to even the most jaded listener. Many of the originals here seem for a moment to borrow a cadence or two from jazz classics, but if you blink, the echo is gone and the song has gone its own way, refreshingly. The instrumental voicings, as well, move in and out of the familiar, and for those wanting to know Who or What this band “sounds like,” I kept thinking of Gordon Au and the Grand Street Stompers, and those who know me will know that is high praise. But there’s also a distinct folk flavor here (it doesn’t get in the way of the swing, lest you worry) and by the time I’d played the disc twice, I had come to think of Jack and friends as writers of musical vignettes: each one brief, memorable, quirky, unpredictable.
They deserve an attentive (although gleeful) listen.
Here‘s their Facebook page and website. You can see videos of the band in action hereand buy / download their CD here. Every human need (at least as far as it relates to the lively music of the Milk Crate Bandits) gratified.