Tag Archives: Lucian Cobb

GORDON AU PAYS TRIBUTE TO LOUIS ARMSTRONG and his ALL-STARS at LINDY FOCUS

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)
Gordon Au—trumpet/leader
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)
Lucian Cobb—trombone
Jonathan Stout—guitar
Chris Dawson—piano
Jen Hodge—bass
Josh Collazo—drums

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:

So good!  Find it here.

May your happiness increase!

FINE [REMOTE] RIFFING THIS AFTERNOON (April 2020)

One of the nicest things about my jazz-immersion through this blog is the possibility of having dear friends and admired artists — rarely or never met face-to-face.  I think of these two: the saxophonist / composer Keenan McKenzie (still only a cyber-pal) and the singer Laura Windley, whom I’ve had the good fortune to encounter on both coasts.

Let me begin with the most recent expression of good-humored swing and expert rockin’ in rhythm, Keenan’s PARTS AND LABOR, beautifully Basie-fied by Josh Collazo, drums; Noah Hocker, trumpet; William Ledbetter, string bass; Keenan McKenzie, saxophone; James Posedel, piano; Jonathan Stout, guitar:

Keenan’s also a composer of nifty love songs — here’s a favorite, with Laura singing and charming us, along with Lucian Cobb, trombone; Daniel Faust, drums; William Ledbetter, Keenan McKenzie, James Posedel, and Jonathan Stout:

Yes, socially distant but emotionally close.

Now, some history and then some commerce.

I first encountered Laura and the Mint Julep Jazz Band in 2013 (can it be that long ago?) when a friend sent me a copy of their CD, DURHAM ON SATURDAY NIGHT, and I wrote happily about it here.  And the same thing happened again two years later, with their BATTLE AXE, and my pleasure here.  Keenan offered his own wonderful CD, FORGED IN RHYTHM, in 2017 — my post here  — and so I trust these people to make the best music, subtle and groovy.  They are also part of what I would respectfully call the Great Swing Dance Collective, so they pop up with their own groups and as side-people: I video-ed Laura at San Diego (2018) with Michael Gamble’s Rhythm Serenaders, and she sings gorgeously as part of Gordon Au’s evocation of the Louis Armstrong All-Stars.

Now, since Sam Goody’s is just a memory (insert name of your favorite record store chain) those in the know go to bandcamp.com — where we can purchase the music of independent artists on CDs and downloads.  TODAY, MAY 1, Bandcamp has waived all fees, so that whatever you pay goes directly to the artist.  “Good deal!” to quote my hero Sidney.

So, please, instead of wallowing in the torrents of free music offered open-heartedly, go visit https://keenanmckenzie.bandcamp.com/  and  https://mintjulepjazzband.bandcamp.com/ and https://gordonau.bandcamp.com/ — drop some bills in the tip jar, and enhance the gray days of isolation / quarantine / lockdown with music that rewards not only the hearer but the artists.  You’ll find the irritations of daily life diminished because of the sounds.

May your happiness increase!

“FORGED IN RHYTHM”: KEENAN McKENZIE with LAURA WINDLEY, GORDON AU, LUCIAN COBB, CHRIS DAWSON, JONATHAN STOUT, SETH FORD-YOUNG, JOSH COLLAZO (AUGUST 2017)

To paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas, “To one who feels the groove, no explanation is necessary. To one who doesn’t feel it, no explanation is possible.”

This new CD is just wonderful.  Listen to a sample here while you read.  And  that link is the easiest way to purchase a download or a disc.

The irresistibly catchy songs are TRANSCONTINENTAL* / MY WELL-READ BABY* / PARTS AND LABOR / LIGHTS OUT / IF I WROTE A SONG FOR YOU / CINCINNATI / DOWN THE HATCH / CALLOUS AND KIND* / BUFFALO CONVENTION / FORGED IN RHYTHM* / WHEN I’M HERE ALONE* / POCKET ACES / CITY IN THE DEEP / EASTBOUND / THE DWINDLING LIGHT BY THE SEA*.

I don’t write “irresistibly catchy” often, but I mean it here.  The lyrics are clever without being forced, sometimes deeply tender.  “Don’t send me names / Of potential flames,” is one tiny example of the Mercer-Hart world he visits. I emphasize that Mister McKenzie not only wrote music and lyrics, but arranged these originals AND performs beautifully on a variety of reeds.  He is indeed someone to watch, and admire.  He’s also a generous wise leader who gives his colleagues ample space, thus the CD is truly varied, each performance its own pleasing world.

The “tunes” themselves stick in the mind.  Some are contrafacts — new melodies built over sturdy lovable harmonic sequences (SUGAR BLUES, ST. JAMES INFIRMARY, INDIAN SUMMER, and BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA if my ears do not deceive me).  These hybrids work delightfully: it’s as if you’ve met beloved friends who have decided to cross-dress for the evening or for life: you recognize the dear person and the garb simultaneously, admiring both the substance and the wrappings.

The delicious band, sounding so much larger than a septet, is Keenan McKenzie, reeds; Gordon Au, trumpet; Lucian Cobb, trombone; Jonathan Stout, guitar; Chris Dawson, piano; Seth Ford-Young, string bass; Josh Collazo, drums; Laura Windley, vocals*.  You might not recognize all the names here, but you are in for compact explosions of joy when the music starts.

The soloists are playing superbly — and that includes players Gordon and Chris, whom I’ve been stalking for what seems like a decade now (my math is wrong but my emotions are correct) as well as the newer members of the Blessed Swing Flock.  Although they don’t work together regularly as a unit, they speak the same language effortlessly and listen contentedly to each other: Soloist Three starts his solo with a variation on the phrase that Soloist Two has just played.  That’s the way the Elders did it, a tradition beautifully carried forward here.

The rhythm section has perfected the Forties magic of seeming to lean forward into the beat while keeping the time steady.  Harry Lim and Milt Gabler smile at these sounds.  This band knows all that anyone needs to know about ensemble playing — they offer so much more than one brilliant solo after another.  Yes, Virginia, there are riffs, send-offs, and all those touches of delightful architecture that made the recordings we hold dear so memorable.  Without a vibraphone, this group takes some spiritual inspiration from the Lionel Hampton Victors, and you know (or should) just how fine they are.  “Are,” not “were.”

And there is the invaluable Laura Windley, who’s never sounded more like herself: if Joan Blondell took up singing, she’d sound like Laura.  And Joan would be thrilled at the transformation.

The lovely sound is thanks to Miles Senzaki (engineer at Grandma’s Dojo in Los Angeles, California; Jason Richmond, who mixed the music; Steve Turnidge, who mastered the disc).  The nifty artwork and typography — evoking both David Stone Martin and Al Hirschfeld — is by artist-clarinetist Ryan Calloway.

The disc is also available through CDBaby and shortly on Amazon and iTunes: check here for updates on such matters.  And here you can find out more about Keenan’s many selves, all of them musical.

I end on a personal note.  I first began to enjoy this disc at the end of the semester for me (I teach English at a community college) — days that are difficult for me.  I had graded enough student essays to feel despondent; I had sat at the computer for so long so that my neck hurt and my eyes ached.  But this disc had come in the mail, and I’d heard TRANSCONTINENTAL and MY WELL-READ BABY already, so, feeling depleted and sulky, I slipped it into the player.  Optimism replaced gloom, and I played the whole disc several times in a row, because it made me tremendously happy.  It can do the same spiritual alchemy for you, if you only allow it in.

May your happiness increase!

“GET RHYTHM IN YOUR FEET”: MICHAEL GAMBLE’S RHYTHM SERENADERS

Photograph of some of Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders by Sandlin Gaither. Musicians on the record but (very sadly) not pictured: Laura Windley, Lucian Cobb, Dave Wilken, Jason DeCristofaro.

Even for those who are as fortunate and entitled as I am, this world can seem like a tough place.  In the past two weeks, I’ve had conversations with men and women about various remedies: prescriptions for anti-depressants, brisk walks in the sunshine and yoga, finding the truth in Jesus, living a Buddhist or a Judaic life, Louis Armstrong, hugging, coffee, and more.

All of this is true, and not invented for the purposes of a nifty opening paragraph. If something works for you, I would be a mean-spirited fool to mock it.  I find the most evident manifestations of beauty, of joy, of love, in music.

I write to call your attention to a wondrous new CD by Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders, titled GET RHYTHM IN YOUR FEET.  I know that title may seem to some a plain encouragement to dancers — feel the groove, get up on the floor (but watch your floorcraft!) and Swing.  But for me it means so much more.

First of all, any band that uses a song by the Blessed Alexander Hill to announce themselves is already deep in righteousness.  Hill gave himself to the music wholly and is thus a minor deity in my world, and the song says (better than I will do it here) that your ills can be cured by embracing rhythmic music.

The new CD not only says this truth; it embodies it.  Had you been able to peek in my window a few hours ago while I was playing it again to write this blogpost, you would have seen me grinning and clapping my hands to the music.  It’s that joyous and that right.  For those who want to skip to the punchline, you can purchase the disc — in a number of ways — here.  Of course, the ideal way would be to be present at a Rhythm Serenaders’ gig (even, if like me, you flunked ballroom dancing) and buy copies from the band / the leader.  Here is the band’s schedule, so you can see if they are coming to a nicely polished wooden floor near you.

As a relevant digression, here is what I wrote about the Serenaders’ first CD.

“Why is Michael so excited about yet another ____________ CD?” some of you might be muttering to yourselves.  This one sounds deeply genuine, a very honest evocation of, say, 1935-45. The band knows the original 78s but isn’t copying them in every aspect.  The (flexible) tempos seem right, never stiff or too far forward into the beat.  The band isn’t in a hurry to get to the end of the number. The arrangements cheer and inspire; they aren’t little prisons.  The music breathes, is alive, is human — created by real musicians who live in the twenty-first century but who venerate the music of the great Ancestors with every cell of their bodies.  The band can play as hot as you’d want, but they have a tender side (MEMORIES OF YOU) which I cherish as well.  The band has a wonderful rhythm section, delicious ensemble playing, fine soloists, and one of my favorite singers, Laura Windley, whose voice is like the pleasure I take from my first bite into a splendid local apple: just the right mix of crisp, tart, sweet.

And ths CD passes the JAZZ LIVES test: when I come to the last song, I start it up again.

Now for some details: the musicians are Michael Gamble, string bass, arrangements, leader; Jonathan Stout, guitar; Keenan McKenzie, reeds; James Posedel, piano; Jonathan Doyle, reeds; Russ Wilson, drums; Noah Hocker, trumpet; Josh Collazo, drums; Gordon Au, trumpet; Jason DeCristofaro, vibraphone; Laura Windley, vocal; Lucian Cobb, trombone; David Wilken, trombone.  (Not everyone plays on every track, but you’ll have to buy the CD to figure out who’s on the stand at any given time.)

The songs: GET RHYTHM IN YOUR FEET / ROYAL GARDEN BLUES / ON THE ALAMO / IT’S TOO HOT FOR WORDS / NAPPIN’ JOHN / GOT A PEBBLE IN MY SHOE / WHOA, BABE! / OH, LADY BE GOOD! / RIGAMAROLE / HOW COULD YOU? / DOWN HOME JUMP / DON’T MEDDLE IN MY MOOD / BREAKFAST FEUD / MISS BROWN TO YOU / DON’T BE THAT WAY / MEMORIES OF YOU.  (Scholars will note the homage to Teddy, Billie, Benny, Ella, Chick, and Charlie . . . but also to Willie Bryant, Lionel, Cootie, Basie.  Gamble knows his Swing.)

And here’s what Michael Gamble has to say about the CD — modest and perceptive:

For the second record, I wanted to showcase a hotter, older repertoire than the first, and to particularly hone in on songs that would’ve been known to dancers of the mid-to-late thirties: An imaginary “must-have” collection of greatest hits for lovers of the Lindy Hop, Charleston, Balboa, Slow Drag, Shag; all the Peabody and One Step dancers, Savoy Ballroom regulars as well as followers of the Tin Pan Alley hit factories. Stomp tunes such as “Rigamarole” (by bandleader, early jazz disc jockey, and so-called “Mayor of Harlem” Willie Bryant) – a blazing tempo hop-across-the-coals for Jitterbugs of all stripes. Riff-fests like “Down Home Jump” and “Whoa, Babe!” (recorded by pioneering jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton) that served no higher purpose than to pull people onto the dance floor as if hypnotized by that infectious sound.

The other thing I tried to do was to serve up a sweet sample of some of the most beautiful songwriting from that time period, using as a jumping-off point the repertoire Benny Goodman seemed to hold onto over the years as his “cool down” pieces and small group features for himself. Tunes like “On the Alamo” and “Memories of You” are elegant demonstrations of the nostalgic sound that become popular as the Great Depression was winding down. The sentimental-but-smart elocution Laura Windley brings to the band pays respect to vocal performances by Kay Starr, Helen Ward, and of course Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, each of whose work is lovingly represented here.

Nothing more needs to be said, except this exhortation: Buy this CD.  Whatever your mood, it will improve it.

May your happiness increase!

WHAT A BAND! MICHAEL GAMBLE and THE RHYTHM SERENADERS

Yes, Virginia, there are many “swing” “bands” that “play” Thirties and Forties repertoire for dancers and listeners.  I could tell many a tale.  But Michael Gamble and The Rhythm Serenaders really swing, without a quotation mark in sight.  Maybe it’s because their leader is a swinging string bassist who’s thus situated in the heart of the rhythm section that the disc sounds so good.  Maybe it’s because Michael has surrounded himself with musicians who understand ensemble playing as well as their solo excursions.  Musicians, I point out, who understand Buck Clayton, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Allan Reuss, Pete Brown, Dicky Wells, Charlie Christian, Jo Jones, Billie Holiday without copying them.

Whatever magic it took to create this band and this CD is in the hearts and bodies of the creators, I can only imagine.  I can only comment on the gratifying results.

michael-gamble

Their debut CD is an authentic-sounding tasting menu of good things.  If you’re like me, a close listener who has many Swing Heroes and Heroines, the list of people on the disc will immediately act as confirmation that a purchase would be a good idea (you have a birthday behind you or coming soon, correct?):

Michael Gamble, Bass / Keenan McKenzie, Clarinet and Saxes / Jonathan Stout, Lead Guitar / Paul Cosentino, Clarinet and Saxes / Russ Wilson, Vocals and Drums / Brooks Prumo, Rhythm Guitar / Gordon Au, Trumpet / Craig Gildner, Piano / Noah Hocker, Trumpet / James Posedel, Piano / Josh Collazo, Drums / Lucian Cobb, Trombone / Laura Windley, Vocal / David Wilken, Trombone.

And the repertoire: BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD / I NEVER KNEW / SLIDIN’ AND GLIDIN’ / SEVEN COME ELEVEN / PICK-A-RIB / A MELLOW BIT OF RHYTHM / BUG IN A RUG / HE AIN’T GOT RHYTHM / WHO’S SORRY NOW? / WOKE UP CLIPPED / ROSE ROOM / WHAT A NIGHT, WHAT A MOON, WHAT A GIRL / CRAZY ABOUT LESTER /SCOTTIE / SMOKE GETS IN YORU EYES.

You’ll notice that this band has dug deeply and wisely into the music rather than offering the standard two dozen overplayed standards of the swing era.  Rocking tempos with lovely fervent playing and singing throughout.  I guarantee it.

And here’s an audio-visual sampler, quite authentic and lively:

 

Here is the spot that’s hot: where you can purchase this disc. Even if you’re like me, whose swing dancing is the happy motion of my head and my right foot — an imagined choreography much more than a full-body actualized one — you will love the music that Michael and the band create.  It feels real — rhythmically, melodically, and spiritually.  (If you are a swing dancer, you surely have encountered this band somewhere and already have purchased their music, which amounts to a compact party.  Just add bottled water and snacks.)

And here is the band’s schedule: coming soon to a waxed floor near you!

May your happiness increase!

“A VINTAGE SOUND THAT’S ALWAYS FRESH”: THE MINT JULEP JAZZ BAND’S NEW CD

MINT JULEP in action

Jake Hanna would often say, “Start swinging from the beginning!”  He would have loved the Mint Julep Jazz Band and their new CD, BATTLE AXE.  Jake isn’t around to embrace them, but I will and do.

Web

Hear and see for yourself: OLD KING DOOJI, live, from June 2015:

ROCK IT FOR ME, from the previous year:

The musicians on this CD are Paul Rogers, trumpet;  Keenan McKenzie, tenor saxophone/clarinet/soprano saxophone;  Aaron Hill, alto saxophone/clarinet; Aaron Tucker, drums;  Jason Foureman, string bass; Ben Lassiter,  guitar; Lucian Cobb, trombone; Laura Windley, vocal.

Why I love the Mint Julep Jazz Band (unlike a Letterman list, there are not ten items, and they are presented here without hierarchical value):

One.  Expert, accurate, relaxed swinging playing in solo and ensemble.  No matter how authentic their vintage costumes; no matter how gorgeous they are personally, for me a band must sound good.  I can’t hear cute.

The MJJB has a wonderful ensemble sound: often fuller than their four-horn, three rhythm congregation would lead you to expect.  Their intonation is on target, their unison passages are elegantly done but never stiff.

And they swing.  They sound like a working band that would have had a good time making the dancers sweat and glow at the Savoy or the Renny.

They are well-rehearsed but not bored by it all. They have individualistic soloists — the front line is happily improvising in their own swinging style always.  And a word about “style.”  I’ve heard “swing bands” where the soloists sound constricted: Taft Jordan wouldn’t have played that substitute chord, so I won’t / can’t either — OR — let me do my favorite 1974 Miles licks on this Chick Webb-inspired chart.  And let me do them for four choruses.  Neither approach works for me, although I am admittedly a tough audience.  Beautiful playing, folks.  And a rhythm section that catches every nuance and propels the band forward without pushing or straining.  I never feel the absence of a piano.

Two.  Nifty arrangements.  See One.  Intriguing voicings, original but always idiomatic approaches to music that is so strongly identified with its original arrangements.  I played some of this disc for very erudite friends, who said, “Wow, a soprano lead on that chorus!” and other such appreciative exclamations.  Sweet, inevitable surprises throughout — but always in the service of the song, the mood, the idiom.

Three.  Variety in tempos, approaches, effect.  When I listen to BATTLE AXE, I’m always startled when it’s over.  Other CDs . . . I sometimes get up, see how many tracks are left, sigh, and go back to my listening.

Four.  They honor the old records but they do not copy them.  They do not offer transcriptions of solos, although a listener can hear the wonderful results of their loving close listening.

Five.  Unhackneyed repertoire: YOU CAN’T LIVE IN HARLEM / DUCKY WUCKY / SIX JERKS IN A JEEP / SWINGTIME IN HONOLULU / OLD KING DOOJI / EXACTLY LIKE YOU / THAT’S THE BLUES, OLD MAN / NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN / TWO SLEEPY PEOPLE / WHEN I GET LOW I GET HIGH / EVERYTHING’S JUMPIN’ / SAY IT ISN’T SO / BETCHA NICKEL / BATTLE AXE — affectionate nods to Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, Noble Sissle, the Andrews Sisters, small-band Ellington (yes!), Artie Shaw, Lunceford, young Ella, and more. But obviously chosen with discernment.  And the originals by Keenan McKenzie are splendid — idiomatic without being pastiche, real compositions by someone who knows how to write singable melodies and graceful evocative lyrics: TREBUCHET and THE DWINDLING LIGHT BY THE SEA.

Six.  Laura Windley.  There are so many beautiful (male and female) earnest almost-singers in the world.  Audiences admire them while they are visually accessible.  I listen with my eyes closed at first.  Laura is THE REAL THING — she swings, she has a splendid but conversational approach to the lyrics; her second choruses don’t mimic her first.  And her voice is in itself a pleasure — a tart affectionate mixture of early Ella, Ivie, Jerry Kruger, Sally Gooding.  I think of her as the Joan Blondell of swing singing: sweet, tender, and lemony all at once.  And once you’ve heard her, you won’t mistake her for anyone else.

Here is the band’s website — where you can purchase BATTLE AXE, digitally or tangibly.  And their Facebook page.

And I proudly wear their dark-green MINT JULEP JAZZ BAND t-shirt (purchased with my allowance) but you’d have to see me in person to absorb the splendor.  Of the shirt.

Here‘s what I wrote about the MJJB in 2013.  I still believe it, and even more so. BATTLE AXE — never mind the forbidding title — is a great consistent pleasure.

May your happiness increase!

SWINGTIME AT THE LIBRARY with LAURA WINDLEY and the MINT JULEP JAZZ BAND

I haven’t had a librarian say “Shhhhhh!” to me since junior high school, so I know that stereotype might be long gone. But it’s lovely to see a library expand into sweet, swinging music, as it does here.

The wonderful musicians are the warm, easy singer Laura Windley and the Mint Julep Jazz Band: Lucian Cobb, trombone; Paul Rogers, trumpet; Aaron Hill, alto sax and clarinet; Keenan McKenzie, tenor sax and clarinet; Ben Lassiter, guitar; Aaron Tucker, drums; Jason Foureman, string bass. They perform the magical time-travel of bringing a 1938 Cotton Club show with an Ellington small group to the library in Greensboro, North Carolina (videos shot by Our State magazine). I’m very happy to see and hear this, and I am sure you will like it / them, too.

SWINGTIME IN HONOLULU:

ROCK IT FOR ME:

and a rollicking instrumental invention (I think of the John Kirby Sextet in its 1943-44 guise plus gallons of coffee) called MIAMI BOULEVARD:

And here is the band’s website. If they come to the library, what could prevent them from coming to you?  Or the reverse.

May your happiness increase!

ANOTHER MINT JULEP, PLEASE!

mjjb-dosn-cd-cover

A new CD, DURHAM ON SATURDAY NIGHT, by the Mint Julep Jazz Band, featuring the excellent singer Laura Windley, is a honey.

The MJJB is a small hot group — well-versed in playing for dancers, so they set swinging tempos and stick to them.  Their ensemble work is beautifully precise without being stiff, and they really understand the subtle mysteries of swing rhythm.  And the solos are just fine: not only can these young folks energetically pretend that 1941 isn’t really gone, but they can launch their own inventive solos time after time.

One of their main inspirations is youthful Ella Fitzgerald and the small group out of Chick Webb’s band — The Savoy Eight — and they evoke that sound perfectly without turning out pale note-for-note copies of the records.  I heard evocations of Sandy Williams and Sidney Bechet, but also Al Grey and Howard McGhee.

The repertory also looks with affection at the Ellington small groups and Victor band, the Kirby Sextet, the Ink Spots, the Basie band of the same period (I really welcome hearing JIVE AT FIVE, and the MJJB swings it the best way.)

They also find rather obscure pop tunes — which work!: GET IT SOUTHERN STYLE, ONE GIRL AND TWO BOYS, and there’s a nifty original, MIAMI BOULEVARD.

The excellent young musicians on this disc are Lucian Cobb, trombone; Laura Windley, vocals and glockenspiel; Aaron Hill, alto saxophone / clarinet; Keenan McKenzie, tenor saxophone / clarinet; Jared Worford, guitar; Jim Ketch, trumpet; Jason Foureman, string bass; Aaron Tucker, drums.  They aren’t restricted to the world of 1937, but there are no excursions into Sonny Rollins on a Swing chart, if you know what I mean.

Those boys rock,” the folks at the Savoy would have said.

Laura Windley is a special pleasure.  Many youthful singers in the “swing dance” scene have memorized the gestures of their idols — listening to the records so many times that they can mimic those Vocalions — and they, women and men, dress beautifully.  But as singers they lack their own personalities.  All gown, no voice.

Laura’s got her own sweet style with a serious rhythmic underpinning: if she were handed a song she’d never heard before, she could do it convincingly without echoing anyone else.  Her rich voice reminded me of young Ella — that hopeful, wistful, asking-for-love quality — but she can turn corners at a fast tempo, as she proves on the CD’s closer, the band’s romping version of Lil Armstrong’s HARLEM ON SATURDAY NIGHT.

Here’s a small sample from a band-within-a-band:

Laura Windley (vocals), Lucian Cobb (trombone), Aaron Hill (tenor sax), Keenan McKenzie (sitting in on soprano sax), Aaron Tucker (drums), J.C. Martin (guitar), Peter Kimosh (bass).

What you will hear on the CD will convince you that — like Swing itself — the Mint Julep Jazz Band is here to stay.  And that is very reassuring news.

Visit them, hear more from their CD (it’s also available on iTunes and CD Baby), and follow them here.

May your happiness increase!