Tag Archives: Prince Robinson

SWING FOR ROMANTICS (1931)

When the conversation turns to the great swinging bands before “the Swing Era,” the names that are mentioned are usually the Luis Russell Orchestra and Bennie Moten’s Kansas City aggregations, Henderson, Ellington, Goldkette, Calloway, and Kirk.  Each of these bands deserves recognition.  But who speaks of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers?  (Is it the name that so embarrasses us these days?)

mckinneyscottonpickers

The song and performance that so enthralls me is from their last record date in September 1931 — DO YOU BELIEVE IN LOVE AT SIGHT? — composed by Ted Fio Rito and Gus Kahn. I am assuming that it was originally meant as a love ballad, given its title and world-view, but the band takes it at a romping tempo. (Was it played on one of their “coast to coast radio presentations”?  I hope so.) Several other marvelous features of this recording have not worn thin: the gorgeous melody statement by Doc Cheatham; the incredible hot chorus by Rex Stewart; the charming vocal by Quentin Jackson; the tenor saxophone solo by Prince Robinson, the arrangement by Benny Carter, and the wondrous sound of the band as a whole — swinging without a letup.

The personnel is listed as Benny Carter, clarinet, alto saxophone, arranger / leader: Rex Stewart, cornet; Buddy Lee, Doc Cheatham, trumpet;  Ed Cuffee, trombone; Quentin Jackson, trombone, vocal; Joe Moxley, Hilton Jefferson, clarinet, alto saxophone; Prince Robinson, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Todd Rhodes, piano, celeste; Dave Wilborn, guitar; Billy Taylor, brass bass; Cuba Austin, drums. Camden, New Jersey, September 8, 1931.  (The personnel offered by Tom Lord differs, but I think this one is more accurate.)

Here, thanks to our friend Atticus Jazz — real name available on request! — who creates one gratifying multi-media gift after another on YouTube — is one of the two takes of DO YOU BELIEVE IN LOVE AT SIGHT?:

I love Doc Cheatham’s high, plaintive sound, somewhat in the style of his predecessor, Joe Smith — and how the first chorus builds architecturally: strong ensemble introduction, trumpet with rhythm only (let no one tell you that tuba / guitar doesn’t work as a pairing), then the Carter-led sax section — imagine a section with Carter, Hilton Jefferson, and Prince Robinson — merging with the brass.  By the end of the first chorus, you know this is A BAND. (I’m always amused by the ending of the chorus, which exactly mimics the end and tag of THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE.  Nothing new under the sun.) And whose idea — Carter’s? — was it to so neatly use orchestra bells throughout this chart?  Lemon zest to the ear.

But then there’s Rex Stewart’s expert and hilarious solo — he wants to let you know he is here, immediately.  I always think of him as one of those bold trumpeters who, as the tempo speeded up, he played even more notes to the bar, rather than taking it easy and playing whole and half notes.  In this chorus, he seems like the most insistent fast-talker, who has so much to say and only thirty-two bars in which to say it.  Something else: at :56 there is a small exultant sound. It can’t be Rex taking a breath and congratulating himself (as he does in WILD MAN BLUES on THE SOUND OF JAZZ) so I believe it was one of his colleagues in the band saying without the words, “Yeah, man!”

Then a gloriously “old-fashioned” vocal from Quentin Jackson, but one that no one should deride.  He told Stanley Dance that he learned to sing before there were microphones, so that you had to open your mouth and sing — which he does so splendidly here.  He’s no Bing or Columbo, wooing the microphone: this is tenor singing in the grand tradition, projecting every word and note to the back of the room.

The final chorus balances brass shouts and the roiling, tumbling Prince Robinson, who cuts his own way amidst Hawkins and Cecil Scott and two dozen others: an ebullient, forceful style.  And by this chorus, I always find myself rocking along with the recording — yes, so “antiquated,” with tuba prominent, but what a gratifying ensemble.  Yes, I believe!

Here is what was to me the less familiar take one:

It is structurally the same, with the only substantial difference that Rex continues to play a rather forceful obbligato to Quentin’s vocal — almost competing for space, and I suspect that the recording director at Camden might have suggested (or insisted on) another take where the vocalist was not being interfered with.  How marvelous that two takes exist, and that they were recorded in Victor’s studios in Camden — a converted church with fine open acoustics.

There is a third version of this song, recorded in 1996 by Doc Cheatham and Nicholas Payton — sixty-five years later, but for me it is a descent from the heights.  You can find it on YouTube on your own.

Whether or not you believe in love at sight (that’s a philosophical / emotional / practical discussion too large for JAZZ LIVES) I encourage you to believe in the singular blending of hot and sweet, of solo and ensemble, that is McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.  One has to believe in something.

May your happiness increase!

A JAZZ VALENTINE, 1931

Yes, I know it’s about five weeks early.  But Emrah has provided us with a double delight — a great romantic ballad in swingtime, beautifully sung by Quentin Jackson, with solos by Doc Cheatham, Rex Stewart, and Benny Carter . . . as well as a Carter reed-section passage and rollicking piano accompaniment from Todd Rhodes.

The whole band — McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in their last sides for Victor, although the band went on for a few more years — is Benny Carter, clarinet, alto saxophone, director; Rex Stewart, cornet; Buddy Lee, Doc Cheatham, trumpet; Ed Cuffee, trombone; Quentin Jackson, trombone, vocal; Joe Moxley, Hilton Jefferson, clarinet, alto saxophone; Prince Robinson, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Todd Rhodes, piano, celeste; Dave Wilborn, banjo, guitar; Billy Taylor, brass bass; Cuba Austin, drums. Recorded in Camden, New Jersey, September 8, 1931:

The delights of this performance are many, and they grow with repeated listenings.  The supple, fluid sweetness of Doc Cheatham’s melody statement; the vigorous “I will play a note or two to every beat” solo chorus, so flavorful and personal, by Rex Stewart; the lusciously slippery Carter reeds; the dashing vocal chorus by Quentin Jackson (play this for everyone who insists that before Crosby, all male singers sounded insufficiently masculine), and the rocking motion of this ensemble, thanks to Wilborn, Taylor, and Austin, refuting another canard, that jazz musicians were waiting to get rid of banjo and brass bass so that Modernity could burst forth.

Happy Valentine’s Day, all you lovers. Start your romantic engines early.  Work on becoming just as swoony and loving as the men and women portrayed on Emrah’s photographs and postcards.

May your happiness increase!

ESSENTIAL LISTENING: CLINT BAKER’S NEW ORLEANS JAZZ BAND “TEARS”

Some time ago on JAZZ LIVES, I had some fun posting two Desert Island Disc lists of my own — one of the Great Dead, one of the Happily Living.

Now, it’s time to revise those lists — because TEARS, by Clint Baker’s New Orleans Jazz Band, is an absolute delight.

It’s not a respectful museum-piece, but a lively, surprising evocation of many jazz eras — one of those CDs you will listen to all the way through and then want to play again.

Clint Baker is one of those blessed players who can swing the band no matter what instrument he picks up.  On Rae Ann Berry’s YouTube videos (and some of mine), the exciting evidence is there: Clint on trumpet, cornet, trombone, clarinet, guitar, banjo, drums, vocal — all superbly.  On this CD, he plays trombone — moving around stylistically from the hot roughness of the late Twenties to the smoothness of mid-Thirties Benny Morton, all with conviction and wit.  In the front line, he has Marc Caparone (punching out that fine lead in the best Mutt Carey manner or looping around in the sky a la Buck Clayton) and Mike Baird (think Johnny Dodds or Prince Robinson).

But the best front line imaginable sinks without a cohesive, friendly rhythm section — like the one on this CD: Dawn Lambeth on piano (more about Dawn in a minute), Katie Cavera on swinging guitar and banjo (ditto); Mike Fay (did someone say “Wellman Braud”?) and the wonderful Hal Smith, propulsive but always deeply sensitive to the band as a whole.

Katie delivers one of her delicious sweet-tart, almost-innocent vocals on SWEET MAN, which is a treat.  And Clint convinces us of the earnest message of WHEN I GROW TOO OLD TO DREAM.  But this CD also has a vocal masterpiece: Dawn Lambeth’s pure, yearning I CAN DREAM, CAN’T I?  And Dawn illuminates four more selections — jazz singing at its best.

Clint favors what he calls “musical whiplash,” which has a rather ominous ring to it — but it’s not what happens when you’re driving, engrossed in a new CD.  No, what he means is a wide-ranging repertoire, a band comfortable with playing music from the ODJB, King Oliver, operetta and opera (Saint-Saens!), Twenties pop and novelty tunes . . . all with precision and abandon, intensity and relaxation.

The CD runs 73;34, and the songs are OSTRICH WALK / I CAN DREAM, CAN’T I? / TEARS / SWEET MAN / ONE HOUR / YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU (the Hot Five song, not Jolson’s) / LOVING YOU THE WAY I DO / MY HEART AT THY SWEET VOICE / WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY MADE / ORIENTAL STRUT / BLUES IN THIRDS / IT’S A SIN TO TELL A LIE / WHEN I GROW TOO OLD TO DREAM.

Need more information?  It’s all here: http://www.katiecavera.net/ctb_tears.html

KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA

It’s possible that you haven’t heard of Ken Mathieson, the leader-percussionist-arranger of the Classic Jazz Orchestra, but this post is designed to remedy this omission right away.

For Ken Mathieson is a truly ingenious man who has made the CJO an equally flexible, innovative orchestra. 

The CJO has been working since 2004, and Ken is a veteran leader, arrangger, and drummer with impeccable credits.  For fifteen years, he was the resident drummer at the famous Black Bull Club near Glasgow — where he supported and learned from Bud Freeman, the aforementioned King, Mr. Carter, Wild Bill Davison, Sonny Stitt, Art Farmer, Bobby Hackett, Al Cohn, Johnny Griffin, Ruby Braff, Sweets Edison,  Teddy Wilson, Tal Farlow, and more.

And he’s offered his own solution to one of the problems of classic jazz performance.  Suppose the leader of a “classic” jazz ensemble wants to pay tribute to Ellington, Morton, Carter, or Armstrong.  Commendable enough.  One way is to transcribe every note and aural flutter on the great records.  Then, the imaginary leader can gather the musicians, rehearse them for long hours until they sound just like a twenty-first century rendition of this or that hallowed disc. 

Admirable, but somewhat limited.  Emerson said that imitation is suicide, and although I would love to have my own private ensemble on call to reproduce the Morton Victors, what would be the point?  (In concert, hearing a band pretend to be the Red Hot Peppers can be thrilling in the same way watching acrobats — but on record, it seems less compelling.) 

Getting free of this “repertory” experience, although liberating, has its disadvantages for some who take their new freedom too energetically.  Is POTATO HEAD BLUES still true to its essential self if played in 5/4. as a waltz, as a dirge, by a flute quintet?  Is it possible to lose the thread? 

Faced with these binary extremes — wanting to praise the past while remembering that the innovations we so prize were, in fact, innovations, Mathieson has steered an imaginative middle course.  On three CDs, he has managed to heed Exra Pound’s MAKE IT NEW while keeping the original essences.

Ken and the CJO have an open-ended and open-minded approach to jazz history and performance.  The original compositions stay recognizable but the stylistic approach to each one is modified.  Listening to the CJO, I heard not only powerful swinging reflections of the original recordings and period idioms, but also a flexibility that suggested that Mingus, Morton, Oliver Nelson, and Benny Carter were on an equal footing, respectfully swapping ideas.

The CJO has an unusual instrumentation which allows it to simulate a Swing Era big band or a hot trio: Billy Hunter plays trumpet and fluegelhorn; Ewan McAllan or Phil O’Malley, trombone; Dick Lee, soprano and alto sax, clarinet and bass clarinet; Keith Edwards or Konrad Wiszniewski, tenor; Martin Foster, alto, baritone, and bass sax, clarinet and bass clarinet; Paul Kirby or Tom Finlay, piano; Roy Percy, bass. 

And what’s most refreshing is that both Ken and his players seem to have made a silent pact with the music to treat it as if it were new: so the solos on CORNET CHOP SUEY do not emulate Johnny Dodds and Kid Ory; the ensemble work on SORRY doesn’t hark back to 1928 Bix and his Gang; the sound of BOJANGLES reflects on 1940 Ellington without copying it.  And the solos exist in a broadly-defined area of modern Mainstream: thus, you are much more likely to think of Roy Williams or Scott Robinson than of Clarence Williams or Prince Robinson. 

I’ll leave the surprises on these three CDs to the buyers and listeners.  But in almost every case I found myself hearing the music with a delighted grim, thinking, “Wow!  That’s what they’re doing with that old chestnut?” 

(Ironically, one of Matheson’s triumphs as an arranger is the wisdom to leave well enough alone.  So one of the memorable tracks on his Louis CD (with the glowing Duke Heitger in the lead) is a very simple and touching AMONG MY SOUVENIRS.) 

The experience of listening to these discs was as if my old friends had gotten new wardrobes and hairstyles — immensely flattering but startling at first.  And Ken seems to have the same playful idea, for his Morton CD is called JELLY’S NEW CLOTHES.  On the back there is the famous portrait of Jelly, his arms raised to conduct, wearing a suit with six huge buttons and pressed white trousers.  On the front, Mathieson has reinvented Jelly as a twenty-first century hip teenager, wearing a short-sleeved yellow t-shirt, earbuds around his neck, the cable leading to an iPod, baggy denim jeans, running shoes.  And Jelly looks happy!

Their three CDs are KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA SALUTES THE KINGS OF JAZZ (Lake LACD 261), JELLY’S NEW CLOTHES (CJO 001), and CELEBRATING SATCHMO, featuring Duke Heitger (LACD 286). 

Details of the CJO’s history and current performing schedule can be found at http://www.classicjazzorchestra.org.uk/diary.htm

Information about their Lake Records CDs is available here: http://www.fellside.com/Shop/Results1.asp?Category=2

LANCELOT ET SES CHEVALIERS

Some weeks ago, I wrote about discovering the Parisian stride wizard Olivier Lancelot. Today, I found an enticing flat package in my mailbox: a CD by Oliver with the clarinetist / altoist Didier Desbois and the washboardist / singer* Stephan Seva, recorded at a concert in 1999.

The trio plays Grandpa’s Spells / Liza / Love Me / Harlem Joys / I Believe In Miracles / Original Dixieland One-Step / Breeze* / Lulu’s Back in Town / Buddy’s Habits / Le Lac des Cygnes [Swan Lake] / High Society / Honeysuckle Rose.

The word “washboard” makes some listeners justifiably anxious, for many players of that instrument are loud, intrusive, unsteady. But Seva is a delicate player, not given to clangorous banging, and his time is just right. In fact, his solo work reminds me of late-period Zutty Singleton. Seva’s tappings and rattlings have a thoughtful sound, as if he was experimenting with his paraphernalia to see what would come out of it.

Desbois is an unusual clarinet player, and his singularity is to be praised. Most clarinetists aim for a full, rounded woody tone — the better to rip off Benny Goodman phrases! — or they growl and sputter, hoping to emulate PeeWee Russell. Desbois has a focused, penetrating, reedy tone, reminiscent of black pre-Goodman clarinetists (Cecil Scott, Benny Carter, Prince Robinson). His approach may take you by surprise when you first hear it, but it is a truly pleasant surprise. He sounds like Pan, if Pan swung this hard, which I doubt. He is also an extraordinary Hodges (and Charlie Holmes) alto virtuoso: his tone on “I Believe In Miracles” is rich but never syrupy, as he glides from note to note.

And then there’s the noble Lancelot himself, someone I have already celebrated as a solo player. But many solo players, in and out of stride, can’t merge their rhythms with other players. Not so Olivier, who proves himself a fine accompanist — in the groove — as Thirties players used to say. And you might, at first, admire his instrumental facility, his sheer mastery of stride conventions, fluidly played and creatively reimagined. But soon you stop saying, “There’s a James P. passage,” or “Hear how Olivier executes that familiar Fats run,” and you admire the serious joy he brings to his own version of the style.

As a group, the trio has its own witty fun — the startling key changes in “Original Dixieland One-Step,” Seva’s heartfelt vocalizing on “Breeze,” and the mournful ending to “Le Lac de Cygnes” — these and other touches give this trio an identity: it’s no one’s repertory band.

Visit Olivier’s website (www.lancelotmusic.com) for information on how to get the CD — and the generous bonus of unissued tracks from this concert. Here they are, in a Parisian club, “Le Petit Opportun,” in 2000.