Tag Archives: New Orleans music

THE OPPOSITE OF DESTRUCTIVENESS IS KINDNESS, OR, TAKE A LOOK AT T WERK’S WORKS

I’m reposting this February 2017 post for a reason.  I’ve never met the string bassist and energetic recordist T Werk Thomson in person, but I’ve admired his work (or werk) from when I first heard it.  Simply, about a year ago, he created in his New Orleans home a recording studio.  Not with ProTools and his MacBook, but with a Presto disc cutter, a supply of “new” 78 recording blanks, and he set out to capture good music in the best old-time ways.  And that music — detailed below — was just splendid.  As well, I applauded the splendid eccentricity of his capturing it as hot jazz, cage-free, organic, and locally sourced.  (Another product of T Werk’s studio is Charlie Halloran’s superb CE BIGUINE.)

At the end of 2017, I and others learned that someone had maliciously vandalized T Werk’s studio and destroyed his disc cutter and all that it needed to make more records.  I won’t go into the dark details — this is a jazz blog, not an episode of a television cop show — but that act seemed spectacularly mean-spirited.  Jo Anna Mae Amlin set up a GoFundMe page here and some people have been contributing.  I encourage you to do so.  As Louis sings in SHOE SHINE BOY, “every nickel helps a lot,” and one can match altruism with desire. If T Werk gets his studio running again, there will be more records for us to enjoy. So even if kindness in the abstract seems more than you can do, kindness with a reward is worth the effort.  If everyone who’s heard T Werk swing out paid in the price of a large Starbucks drink, or a beer, or (for the antiquarians among us) a CD, he would be able to reconstruct his studio quickly.  (And I should point out that Presto disc cutters and acetate blanks are not items one can pick up at the corner store.)

So: help out someone who’s already done a great deal for the music and for us.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled effusions.

The CD below is delightfully weird but the results are entirely gratifying. Perhaps that sentence should properly read “and the results”: you decide.

Exhibit A.  The process:

Twerk Thomson with Kris Tokarski and Ben Polcer, and two turntables. Photograph by John A. Dixon.

Twerk Thomson with Kris Tokarski and Ben Polcer, and two turntables. Photograph by John A. Dixon.

Exhibit A.1.a: A Presto disc cutter from eBay:

presto-cutter

Exhibit A.1.b: Blank discs, also from eBay:

presto-discs

Exhibit B. The result:

twerk-cd-cover

Exhibit B.1.a.:

bunk-popular

Exhibit C. The results, continued here.

Exhibiit D.  The explanation.  The story has different parts, which combine. Twerk Thomson is a young yet respected New Orleans string bassist, with a real understanding of the art form, often heard with the Shotgun Jazz Band.  And he, like other musicians and scholars, is fascinated by the intersection of “archaic” sound and the technology of its time. It’s one thing to get musicians into a modern studio — which, at its most “modern,” is a very restrictive environment, where musicians can barely see each other and hear each other through headphones . . . and then try to improvise music that will seem natural to the disc’s purchaser.  But what happens when you record twenty-first century improvisers with the technology of the previous century, the century that gave birth to the innovators they (and we) so admire?  The music I am celebrating in this post, created last year, is a tribute to Bill Russell’s American Music creations. And the new CD sounds wonderful.

But something needs to be said about the Presto home record cutter and discs. Before the computer and the iPhone . . . music used to be packaged tangibly on a variety of discs, and enterprising people could record their own music at home — whether it was Aunt Ella singing and playing hymns or the Paso Robles Wanderers working out the trio of MABEL’S DREAM.  I have found these discs at yard sales, and they’ve never offered something life-changing, such as a broadcast from the Reno Club, but they are tantalizing.  The whole idea is roughly parallel to another piece of archaic technology, the Polaroid camera, but I assure you the discs hold up better.

Twerk told me, “I got my first cutter about a year and a half ago, which ended up being completely useless.  So I ended up buying two more.  They come up on eBay every so often. Finding ones that were affordable was the big challenge.
Blanks come up on eBay as well but they are very hit and miss when It comes to quality. I actually ended up finding a bunch of original presto blanks on there once that were actually still usable. They came in the original packaging which was really cool.  But for higher quality blanks we use a company called Apollo, from California.”

The official version is “The performances herein were recorded live with one microphone into a Presto K8 lathe, cut directly to acetate discs at 78 rpm, and edited only for volume. All Sessions Produced by Twerk Thomson and Recorded by John Dixon, Live at Twerk-O-Phonic Studios, New Orleans, LA.”

The songs: OH, YOU BEAUTIFUL DOLL / OLD FASHIONED LOVE / MY GAL SAL / PRETTY BABY / SOMEDAY, SWEETHEART / SWEET BYE AND BYE (Twerk Thomson, string bass; Ben Polcer, trumpet; Kris Tokarski, piano) / JADA / SHINE  / ONE SWEET LETTER FROM YOU / NOON BLUES / MARIE / YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE / MELANCHOLY BLUES  (Twerk, John Rodli, guitar, vocal on JADA; Kris; Ben; James Evans, C-melody saxophone, clarinet; Charlie Halloran, trombone) / IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE TREE / MAMA’S GONE, GOODBYE / POOR BUTTERFLY (Twerk, Russell Welch, guitar; Alex Owen, trumpet; Bruce Brackmon, clarinet; Marty Peters, tenor saxophone) / HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO? / HOME (Twerk, tenor guitar; Marla Dixon, trumpet and vocal).

Exhibit E: Twerk Thomson on Facebook.

If you’re familiar with any of the heroes recorded on this disc (and you can hear / download / purchase the music on the Soundcloud link above) you will know what to expect: music that is both romping and elegantly controlled, harking back to the Bunk Johnson – Don Ewell – Alphonso Steele trios and slightly larger ensembles.  The “vintage sound” — powerfully focused if somewhat narrower (at first) than we are used to — is so atmospheric.  The discs have occasional surface noise, whooshes and clicks, but the noise is part of the overall effect rather than something added on synthetically.  Everyone plays beautifully and with heart, so the result is not merely the documentation of a gimmick, but a melding of technology and reverent impulse.

I first heard a few of the individual sessions on Twerk’s Facebook page, and thought, “Wow, I hope he puts these into a form that people who want to get away from their computers can purchase and have.”  And he did.  So I can now time-travel to some indeterminate place whenever I want, even while driving to work.  And Twerk has also established Twerk-O-Phonic Studios as a place (a sanctuary for music!) where you can visit and record your own music onto an actual disc — a single artifact, not a mass-produced product — to have, to hear, to admire.  I don’t want this to become such a phenomenon that he no longer has time to play the propulsive string bass he does so well, but a little prosperity would be nice.

I commend this disc to you.  The music on it both embraces and transcends the technology.  And, to me, the complete idea — the musicians, the home environment, the discs — is heartwarming.

May your happiness increase!

“CITY OF TIMBRES”: TOM McDERMOTT / AURORA NEALAND

McDermott-and-Nealand

Pianist / composer McDermott and singer / reed wizard Nealand released a new duo — with friends — CD in 2015.  It should be well-known for its imaginative reach, its willingness to experiment without being self-conscious.  When I first began to listen to it, I thought, “Wow, that’s alive!  And that’s unusual,” both compliments.  I also realized that it was dense music — each track a small composed world of sounds and feelings — unlike many CDs now produced which nestle nicely in the listener’s hand.  So it’s taken me some time to write this, because one doesn’t absorb CITY OF TIMBRES all at once.  Any CD that begins with a brief, haunting interlude for piano and overdubbed wordless vocals is surely not going to be more-of-the-same . . . but for those easily scared-off, it soon modulates into a wonderfully idiomatic duet on MOANIN’ LOW . . . Hoagy’s NEW ORLEANS with French lyrics, a musing solo piano etude in 3/4, Aurora’s contemporary opus, MEMORY MADE AND MISTOOK, choro, blues, a nod to Bechet’s Haitian recordings, and more.  It can’t be summarized easily, but the overall result is an engaging mixture of soaring reed eloquence, wry and compelling singing, rollicking or pensive piano . . . all combined in sharp, savory, unpredictable ways.  And those web-searchers who want their music in quarter-teaspoon “sound samples” might search in vain.  Buy the disc / take a risk!

Here are Tom’s comments on the music, from his website.

My CD with Aurora Nealand, “City of Timbres” will be out this week, and I am thrilled. As promised in the liner notes, here is info on each of the songs. Thanks for reading and listening!

1) Aleman Remixeada. This piece began its life as a slow habanera -”Tango Aleman”- on the CD, “The Crave,” and a souped-up disklavier version was used on the same disc as a hidden track. I took this disklavier version to Aurora and she enthusiastically agreed to sing a new melody I wrote on top, very slow-moving as a counterweight to the frenzied piano. The result is spooky. Written originally for my good friend Gabriela Aleman, it translates in Spanish and Portuguese as “Remixed German”!

2) Moanin’ Low. A minor jazz standard that’s been done by Billie Holiday and others. This piece perfectly shows off the duality of Aurora’s vocals: whispery soft one minute and howling like a banshee, or Ethel Merman, or perhaps both, the next. We get to play lots of fun rhythmic games too; the slow stride feel gives us plenty of space for that.

3) Make Me a Pallet on the Floor. Also called “Atlanta Blues,” this is one of two New Orleans standard on the disc. I do my best James Booker 8-to-the-bar impersonation, and Aurora puts some Pres Hall clarinet on top of it. And sings with that verve of hers.

4) La Nouvelle Orleans. I had recorded this as a duet with singer Sarah Quintana, and done nothing with it. Pulled it off the shelf, added a little accordion dust from Aurora and voila! A little side trip to the other side of the water, and a different take on the great Hoagy Carmichael.

5) Casa Denise. Aurora and I both have the Brazilian choro bug. This is one of my originals, first recorded on the “Choro do Norte” CD with six players from New Orleans and Rio, then reprised on my Van Dyke Parks McD best-of compilation, “Bamboula.” Michael Skinkus, used elsewhere for Cuban spice, plays the Brazilian pandeiro here.

6) A Valsa Entre Quartos. Another original, and the only piano solo here. Originally called “iPhone Waltz,” since I recorded and transmitted it that way initially, it begins in C minor and ends in C# Minor. ”Waltz in Two Keys” or “Bitonal Waltz” were too dry for potential titles. So I came up with the metaphor, “A Waltz Between Rooms.” Then it occurred to me that this could qualify as a Valsa Brasileira, a Brazilian Waltz, so I sent it to my friend and Brazilian music scholar Alexandre Dias who pronounced it indeed a Valsa Brasileira, but not a choro valsa: an MPB valsa a la Chico Buarque or Tom Jobim. I’ll take it.

This title was created around the time my mother passed; and as I think of passing as moving from one space to another, I think my Mom may have helped me with this—I’m not good with metaphors!

7) Memory Made and Mistook. We follow my only solo with Aurora’s only solo: an original sonic extravaganza that builds from a vocal-with-accordion riff to a huge pop/rock climax. She had this in her recorded-but-not-released bag of tracks and I’m really happy to have it here.

8) Picture in a Frame. A Tom Waits tune from his fantastic CD, “Mule Variations.” That disc’s combination of savagery followed by beautiful sentimentality has made a big impact on me. Aurora in whispery mode mainly; she was going to add accordion but had to hit the road so I filled the void with a synthesized pad and things worked out fine.

9) Tropical Mood. Also known as Tropical Moon, (and we spell it both ways on the album), this is a driving instrumental from Sidney Bechet’s early jazz-caribbean fusion LP “Haitian Moods.” Michael Skinkus on several instruments here.

10) Opulence. A French waltz that Aurora and I recorded initially on my cd “New Orleans Duets.” It has the multi- thematic form I love in choros, rags, marches, musettes: AABBACCA or some variation thereof.

11) La Ultima Noche Que Pase Contigo. A song I first heard when the Jesuits played it for me circa 1974. A Cuban tune made famous by a Mexican bolero group, Los Panchos, with Eydie Gorme. I haven’t sung on disc since the LP era; this is the Spanish vocal debut for both Aurora and I.

12) Four Hands are Louder Than Two. Aurora laid down the piano choruses, then I went to work with cowbell, toy piano, cinquillo vs tresillo, boat whistle and a lot of synthesizer. Deep fun for me.

13) Mississippi Dreamboat. Track 12 ends with a boat whistle, and here the boat comes in. It was Aurora’s idea for me to play the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata as accompaniment. Fender Rhodes added for the solo.

14) Visions of Saint Lucia. This is my first attempt at writing a French West Indies tune, in this case a mazurk, the Creolized mazurka. Once again, I like the ambiguity of the title; I put it out there to help me get to that part of the world quicker.

20 seconds after the final notes, there’s a snippet from a 1944 private 78 my Mom recorded: a few seconds of a piano reduction of the Grieg Piano Concerto. So the album begins with the habanera, the root rhythm of New Orleans music, and ends with my mom, the root rhythm of moi.

I hope this helps! Take care, McD

Details about ordering CITY OF TIMBRES or Tom’s other recordings, here.

May your happiness increase!

SARAH SPENCER STOMPS IT DOWN (June 7, 2015)

SARAH SPENCER

I feel so fortunate to have met the delightfully authentic Sarah Spencer about 72 hours ago.

Although Sarah didn’t bring her tenor saxophone to Tamar Korn’s Sunday afternoon soiree at Casa Mezcal, she did sit in and sing a 1928 Ma Rainey blues, HEAR ME TALKIN’ TO YOU.  Her singing initially hits with the force of a phenomenon that should be reported on the Weather Channel, but those who listen closely will hear an entreaty, a tenderness beneath the seriously forthright power.  She’s accompanied by Andy Stein, baritone saxophone; Ehud Asherie, piano (the latter bringing some Ellington and Hines down to New Orleans):

If you weren’t at Casa Mezcal, you have another chance right away to immerse yourself in Sarah’s swinging world — a Saturday-night gig on June 20 from 8 to midnight.  It’s at the Windmill Tavern at 400 Hollister Street, Stratford, Connecticut.  The phone number for reservations is 203-378-6886.  No cover, no minimum.

Sarah explains, “The band is Sarah Spencer’s Transatlantic Band and we play New Orleans Music – from Piron to Professor Longhair (and always hot and dirty!)  People can check out my website here.  The personnel for the gig is Sarah Spencer, tenor sax and vocal; Fred Vigorito, cornet; Bill Sinclair, piano; Art Hovey, tuba and string bass; Molly Sayles, drums.  It looks like there is a load of room to dance so people should come with their dancing shoes and be prepared to shake it in good New Orleans fashion (or any other way they see fit)!”

You know what to do.  And obviously so does Sarah.

P.S.  I told Sarah that her photograph was terrifying, and she grinned and said, “That’s my best butt-kicking, hard-blowing, get outta ma way cos I’m comin’ through photo — my cutting contest face.  But I’m a big squishy inside.”  She is both of those people, and I hope you get a chance to find out for yourself.

May your happiness increase!