Tag Archives: Ray Skjelbred

THE GLORY OF A WORKING BAND: RAY SKJELBRED and his CUBS: KIM CUSACK, CLINT BAKER, KATIE CAVERA, MIKE DAUGHERTY (San Diego Jazz Fest, November 2014)

“I love music that shows passion, daring and surprise.” — Ray Skjelbred

I know there is a mythlogy in jazz of the one night or session when the all-stars are on the stand, never to play together again. But what is more beautiful than a working band? Such assemblages are, at their best, small families, with everyone knowing everyone else’s talents and idiosyncracies. And on a non-musical level, a working band is a sign of economic health: there are enough regular gigs for the musicians to stick together. For me, certain working bands stand out as instantly memorable: the George Barnes-Ruby Braff Quartet; Soprano Summit; the EarRegulars in their various permutations; Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs.

The last-named band is an engaging mixture, at turns ferocious and sweet, of hot Chicago jazz, deep blues, and a rocking momentum that suggests both a Count Basie small group and the closing choruses of an Eddie Condon IMPROMPTU ENSEMBLE.

Through the generosity and foresight of the Dutch jazz scholar and enthusiast Frank Selman, I can now share with you a remarkable interlude created by Ray and his Cubs: that’s Ray, piano and moral leadership; Clint Baker, string bass, tuba, and vocal; Katie Cavera, guitar and vocal; Kim Cusack, clarinet and vocal. They performed at the 2014 San Diego Jazz Fest, and the songs captured are AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL; GET OUT AND GET UNDER THE MOON (vocal by Katie); SPECIAL DELIVERY BLUES / THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE.

Ray told me, “By the way, Clint knew we were going to play Special Delivery that set and he plays bowed bass on that number. But he was playing a borrowed bass with no bow, so he also borrowed a tuba to simulate bowed bass”:

That band! — the epitome of swinging delicacy and force.

The only mystery is why they don’t get invited to jazz festivals these days.

Promoters and producers, lend me your ears!

With gratitude to Ray, Kim, Clint, Katie, Mike, and of course Frank.

May your happiness increase!

BEAU KOO RAY: MUSIC FROM RAY SKJELBRED, SOLO and TRIO (JACOB ZIMMERMAN, MATT WEINER) and SOLO AT THE ROYAL ROOM

Yes, it’s true. Two new CDs from pianist Ray Skjelbred — one solo, one solo and trio, with Jacob Zimmerman, alto saxophone and clarinet; Matt Weiner, string bass. The trio recording pictured above is available here in digital and physical form.

Both trio and solo recordings are available in digital form from Ray himself (19526 40th Place NE, Lake Forest Park, WA 98155) — each one for 17.00 USD.

The disc pictured above has fifteen selections. The trio selections are marked *.

BLUE AIR BLUES* / NOBODY’S SWEETHEART / SOLITUDE* / MEMORIES OF YOU / DINAH* / JACK DAILY BLUES* / RUSSIAN LULLABY* / KMH DRAG / THAT RHYTHM MAN / BLUES FOR ART HODES / BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL* / FAREWELL BLUES* / COQUETTE* / PIANO MAN / SMILING SKIES //

At Bandcamp you can listen to BLUE AIR BLUES (based on a phrase created by Sidney Bechet in 1941 for a Victor record date with Vic Dickenson) and KMH DRAG (in honor of the fabled Max Kaminsky-Freddie Moore-Art Hodes Blue Note record date).

I created a YouTube video of the trio’s SOLITUDE because it left me awestruck:

Ray’s solo piano recital (shown below) is available only from him, directly, and it’s lovely.

I couldn’t bear people not hearing some music from it, so here are two videos, both of them with deep roots in Earl Hines and his world.

HAVE YOU EVER FELT THAT WAY? — which Hines sang on record, also in 1929. Ray’s version is jaunty, but if you know the lyrics, a shirt-sleeved melancholy peeps through:

And the hilarious explosion that is Alex Hill’s BEAU KOO JACK:

The solo performances are ROSETTA / BLACK AND BLUE / MY LITTLE PRIDE AND JOY / SWEET ELLA MAY / ANAGRAM BLUES / HAVE YOU EVER FELT THAT WAY? / I COVER THE WATERFRONT / BEAU KOO JACK / 313 RAG / SAVOYAGERS STOMP / PINKY ROSE / STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE / THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER YOU //

I’ve been entranced with Ray and his colleagues since 1988 or so, when John L. Fell sent me a tape containing BERKELEY RHYTHM, and I have been privileged to meet, hear, and video-record him in person for a several years (my “California period,” 2011-2016, more or less) — something I do not take lightly.

Ray and his music are anything but monochromatic. There are touchstones for those who pay attention: Earl Hines, Jess Stacy, Frank Melrose, the Chicago Cubs, Washington Phillips, Alex Hill, Louis Armstrong, Chicago hot music, the dolceola, Count Basie, Sir Charles Thompson, Donald Duck, Joe Sullivan, Bing Crosby, Emerson, Art Hodes, the Marx Brothers, Western Swing, Jim Goodwin, all beings with their own essential personalities, and art that remains its identity no matter how vigorous the transformation.

His playing is at once emotionally deep and instantly accessible, but it wriggles away from those who would compartmentalize it. All I can say is that it is a series of remarkable balances: joy and melancholy, stomp and contemplation, facility and plainness. He is himself, and that is thrilling.

On the trio recording he is joined, shoulder-to-shoulder, by two people who have their own selves firmly intact, although wildness emerges for those who listen closely. It would be possible to build a Swing Era big band purely on the rewarding cardiac thrum of Matt Weiner’s string bass, where he creates engaging melodies while supplying that mobile foundation. Jacob Zimmerman is an explorer at heart, reminding me of Boyce Brown and Paul Desmond andJimmy Giuffre, early Bird and Pete Brown in turn, while peeking out from behind his latest four-bar surprise.

The repertoire chosen on both discs has deep roots in what academia would call a pre-World War Two jazz canon: Clarence Williams and Carroll Dickerson, Johnny Green and Harry Warren, Blue Note Records, Hershel Evans, Benny Meroff, and more. But this is not a trip to the museum, for both CDs, at points, are lifted up by a kind of playful disobedience. “We can play this song the way everyone expects us to play it, but here and there we need to be elastic, to improvise, not only in notes and rests, but spiritually.” All this music exemplifies play at its best, an art that is both puppy-friendly and as serious as one’s life-work,

The real thing, full of delightful shadings.

I am a serious Bandcamp enthusiast, and have applauded many of their releases. And it might be the only way one can acquire the trio CD in digital form. But I applaud even more the direct offering of support (read “love”) to the artist(s). So although I don’t want Ray to be so busy answering the mail and cashing checks that he doesn’t have time to play, I’d love to find out that his mailbox is full of lettuce. Consider yourself pointed in that direction.

May your happiness increase!

“I JUST BELIEVE IN MUSIC”: HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO RAY SKJELBRED (with KIM CUSACK, CLINT BAKER, JEFF HAMILTON, KATIE CAVERA at the San Diego Jazz Fest, November 28, 2015)

Yesterday, “on or about” (as the lawyers say) November 2, was Ray Skjelbred’s birthday. But oddly enough, he has the celebration in reverse, for he keeps giving us presents — of swing, whimsy, empathy, and life-affirming joy.

Here’s a sample, with the Cubs, Kim Cusack, clarinet; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar — captured in flight at the San Diego Jazz Fest, November 28, 2015.

“I just believe in music,” Ray says. And his faith repays us a thousand-fold.

May your happiness increase!

HOT POEMS and SECULAR HOSANNAS: RAY SKJELBRED AND HIS CUBS SWING INTO SAN FRANCISCO (MARC CAPARONE, CLINT BAKER, JEFF HAMILTON: Bird and Beckett Books, July 5, 2022)

“More than just books”: Eric Whittington’s Bird & Beckett Books (652 Chenery Street, San Francisco, California) is a delightful sanctuary for art, for poetry, for music. And certainly jazz.

July 5, 2022 was an exciting and rare appearance by four of the finest under the banner of RAY SKJELBRED AND HIS CUBS: Ray Skjelbred, piano, vocal; Marc Caparone, cornet; Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums.

They play and sing:

BLUE AIR BLUES (Ray’s selection of a strain from Sidney Bechet’s BLUES IN THE AIR) / Fats Waller’s THAT RHYTHM MAN / Hines’ ROSETTA, vocal by Ray / SOMEDAY SWEETHEART, homage to Joe Sullivan and Bing / ONE SWEET LETTER FROM YOU for Lionel and friends / NOBODY’S SWEETHEART for the Chicagoans / MEMORIES OF YOU for everyone who has memories of Eubie, Louis, Benny, and more / Ray commends the band / OH, BABY! also for the Chicagoans / an intermission / James P. Johnson’s OLD-FASHIONED LOVE / SPECIAL DELIVERY BLUES for Barbara Dane / WHO’S SORRY NOW? for the Blue Note Jazzmen and others / WAITING AT THE END OF THE ROAD for Bing and Berlin and my friends too / I NEVER KNEW for Benny Carter, Pres, and Berkeley Rhythm / PEG O’MY HEART for Miff Mole / Bubber Miley’s IT DON’T MEAN A THING (IF IT AIN’T GOT THAT SWING) and closing with James P.’s A PORTER’S LOVE SONG TO A CHAMBERMAID //

Music that’s at once subversive and very direct, with bold statements and tender little explosions. If you can hear the lovely densities, you are tuned to the correct astral channel; if you can’t at first, listen again. And those who are uplifted, as I am, might consider sending a few cyber-lettuce leaves to the sites listed above. Pussycats need food and water; musicians and venues, also.

May your happiness increase!

JOPLIN, MARSHALL, SKJELBRED, UNLIMITED at SAN DIEGO (November 25, 2016) AND A DON’T-MISS GIG FOR RAY, MARC CAPARONE, CLINT BAKER, JEFF HAMILTON, and RILEY BAKER (JULY 5, 2022)!

NEWS FLASH!

Or as they say on public radio, THIS JUST IN: Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs (Marc Caparone, trumpet; Clint Baker, guitar; Riley Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums) will be playing a delightful post-pandemic gig on Tuesday, July 5, at Bird and Beckett Books (653 Chenery Street), starting at 7:30.

You might hear MICE ISLAND LOVE:

Even though Kim Cusack and Katie Cavera have gigs elsewhere that night, you could also request OH, PETER — because everyone thinks the song and its subject are so nice:

Bird and Beckett is one of my favorite places, temporarily out of reach since I am in New York: a lovely book-and-record store (oh memory! oh memory!) run in the most perceptive hospitable way. You take my seat, please.

And now to the Happy Coincidence portion of our program, although as Poppa Freud is supposed to have said, “There are no accidents.”

I was planning to post the music and commentary below — a precious interlude by Ray at the piano — when news of Bird and Beckett came in. So watch and listen, and get enlightened, and then, if you can get to Chenery Street, hence, begone!

That’s Scott Joplin, Arthur Marshall, and Ray Skjelbred — a thoroughly gratifying melodic corporation if there ever was one — coming together on SWIPSEY CAKEWALK, from 1900, with Joplin composing the trio section, Marshall the main strain, and Skjelbred taking his time to offer us something winning and memorable at the San Diego Jazz Fest on November 25, 2016.

Ray understands that the right tempo — casual and leisurely in this case — brings out the beauty of melody and harmony:

I think of this performance as warmly respectful and also groovy: a wonderful combination.

Ray gets to the heart of the song that perhaps we didn’t know was there, but he always does.

May your happiness increase!

FIVE MINUTES OF HEATED BLISS: RAY SKJELBRED AND HIS CUBS at SACRAMENTO (KIM CUSACK, CLINT BAKER, JEFF HAMILTON, KATIE CAVERA: May 24, 2014) and A BRIEF EMERSONIAN INTERLUDE: RAY SKJELBRED, March 8, 2014.

The song is CHINA BOY and I believe the next words of the chorus are GO SLEEP, but you couldn’t find a finer example of being brilliantly awake than this performance.

These five musicians are billed as RAY SKJELBRED AND HIS CUBS, with Ray at the piano, the occasional vocal, arrangements and spiritual-ethical leadership; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Katie Cavera, guitar; Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums. (Study Hamilton’s melodic accompaniment and solo!)

This performance comes from the Sacramento Music Festival (although I may have the rapidly-changing name wrong) in a delightfully compact room on May 24, 2014:

That is compelling evidence of the magnificence of this little band: hot and delicate all at once, plunging forward with the greatest relaxation. I hope our paths intersect before too long.

In 2014, I had the serious luxury of encountering Ray in a variety of settings at a number of festivals and gigs: I look back on those days and those sounds with wonder — both that they occurred and that I was able to witness them and capture them.

While I was sauntering through my archive of unreleased performances by Ray and friends, I found something unusual — although not unusual for those of us who honor and follow him, those of us who have seen him at jazz festivals, moving from one venue to another, becoming friends with each new piano, taking its pulse by playing it, meditatively yet with strong emotions. During the Jazz Fest by the Bay in Monterey, I knew his meditative ways well enough to turn my camera on him before he became part of the ensemble — Bob Schulz’s Frisco Jazz Band, in red polo shirts. And I was rewarded.

Ray told me, “The piano interlude is sort of what I like to do as I adjust to a new piano and setting.” I’ve heard him explore rare Ellington, a Monk blues, Thirties pop songs, and more. I hear the laandmarks of a characteristic blues strain and Bud Freeman’s AFTER AWHILE.

But the interlude so strongly made me think of someone who probably spent no time at the keyboard and who died long before Jess Stacy was born . . . I mean Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote in SELF-RELIANCE, the source of these lines: “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.“

Yes, perfect sweetness, mixed with Chicago grit and California musing. Thank you, Cubs. Thank you, Ray.

May your happiness increase!

REASONS TO BE JOYOUS: RAY SKJELBRED and HIS CUBS at ROSSMOOR (KIM CUSACK, CLINT BAKER, KATIE CAVERA, JEFF HAMILTON: JULY 10, 2014)

Let joy be unconfined. It certainly had free room at this July 10, 2014 concert put on by the Dixieland Jazz Club at Rossmoor in Walnut Creek, California. The source of the joy? Ray Skjelbred, piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet and vocal; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, rhythm guitar and vocal; Jeff Hamilton, drums.

I always want to celebrate Ray, someone who keeps finding new paths to embody deep truths about life and art and the spirit, but today I post this jubilant video to say WOW in the name of two celebrations — you might know about them or not. Clint Baker has come back from a serious cardiac incident and is recovering well. If it wouldn’t hurt or embarrass him, a line of people would be at his door wanting to embrace him and to thank him for hanging around. And the quietly brilliant Kim Cusack, admired and loved for a million reasons, is celebrating a birthday. It would be indecent to ask him what the relevant number is, and an irrelevancy: he’s here on the planet and we rejoice in that fact.

And we rejoice in this music.

The news might be dark and the skies cloudy, but anytime we can hear the Cubs — ideally, in person, but also on lit screens and through speakers — it is a glorious day. We know them, we love them.

May your happiness increase!

“ROCK AND RYE”: RAY SKJELBRED and his CUBS at the SACRAMENTO JAZZ JUBILEE: KIM CUSACK, CLINT BAKER, KATIE CAVERA, JEFF HAMILTON (May 24, 2014)

The title refers to a swing panacea, written by Jimmy Mundy for the Earl Hines band of 1934, named for a libation that mixed rye whiskey with rock candy (sometimes with lemon and herbs) which, I am told, is making a comeback. Whitney Balliett recounted a conversation between Barney Josephson and Helen Humes in the Seventies about the potion, Helen’s drink of choice.

Here’s another version of soothing syrup with a kick, as performed by Ray Skjelbred, piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, rhythm guitar; Jeff Hamilton, drums:

Bring back the Cubs, I say. The world needs their energies.

May your happiness increase!

“TELL ME AGAIN. WHERE DID YOU COME FROM?”

Ray Skjelbred and the Cubs — that’s Ray, piano and inspiration; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Katie Cavera, guitar; Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton — answer the musical question at the now-vanished Sacramento Jazz Jubilee (d. 2017), with the notes on the music staff written by Johnny Green as their guide, but also the many performances of this tune, including Bing Crosby, Coleman Hawkins, and Django Reinhardt.

I try to collect rather than hoard — the first is a vocation; the second a disorder — but I’ve been hoarding videos of Ray and his Cubs . . . the way I’d store food for the winter, until I have the good fortune to see them again. Soon, I hope. They mean so much more than canned tuna.

May your happiness increase!

INFINITE PROPULSION: RAY SKJELBRED AND HIS CUBS at the SACRAMENTO MUSIC FESTIVAL (RAY SKJELBRED, KIM CUSACK, CLINT BAKER, JEFF HAMILTON, KATIE CAVERA, May 25, 2014)

The Original, itself.

That’s 1929. But here’s 2014, at the Sacramento Music Festival — a hot Chicago-style performance (with “surprise vocal”) by the most eloquent Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs, who are Ray, piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Jeff Hamilton, drums:

What a gorgeous serving of energies: “infinite propulsion” characterizes the song but also the Cubs, a band I look forward to seeing again . . . soon.

May your happiness increase!

THEY HAVE THINGS TO TELL US: RAY SKJELBRED and MARC CAPARONE (San Diego Jazz Fest, November 25, 2016)

Maybe it’s human nature, but many duets between two improvisers become playfully combative. They sound so much like two elementary-school boys arguing over some debated fact or incident. Baseball cards, perhaps, or superheroes. I think of Irving Berlin’s ANYTHING YOU CAN DO (I CAN DO BETTER).

But true artists like Ray Skjelbred, piano; Marc Caparone, cornet, understand that the purpose of art is to pass feelings and sensations back and forth so that a duet isn’t a scuffle but a conversational exercise in friendly synergy. And our engagement in their conversation, which might be elegant or greasy or both, ennobles us as well as them.

The texts for these mellow sermons are two rarely-played Thirties tunes. The first, I’LL NEVER SAY ‘NEVER AGAIN’ AGAIN, I associate with Henry “Red” Allen:

And Dana Suesse’s MY SILENT LOVE, which Ray converted (upgraded), with lyrics, to MICE ISLAND LOVE:

It would be easy for the casual listener / viewer to say, “Oh, that’s just two guys playing duets at a festival. Where’s my favorite band, THE CRASHING CLIMAX, playing?” But music like this is beyond compare, and should it ever vanish from the planet, our skies would be so much grayer. Thank you, Ray, and thank you, Marc.

May your happiness increase!

“FINDING ANOTHER WORLD”: RAY SKJELBRED and his CUBS ASK A DEEP QUESTION (KIM CUSACK, CLINT BAKER, KATIE CAVERA, JEFF HAMILTON, Sacramento, May 25, 2014)

Ray Skjelbred is more than comfortable with taking risks — not hang-gliding or sky-diving, but performing new songs in front of an audience, as he does here. The clues are simple: “Three choruses.” “My favorite Gershwin song,” and he and his Cubs — Jeff Hamilton, drums; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar — take us to another world:

Those of us who follow Ray, and Ray and his Cubs, might quickly associate them with the bedrock of Chicago jazz: dark-blue musings and skyrocket exuberance, and all that would be true. But their deep soulfulness comes out on a quiet but eloquent ballad performance such as this one.

The question is asked, and asked with feeling, leaving listeners to invent their own answers. Bless Ray, and all his friends.

May your happiness increase!

OH, THEY DO: RAY SKJELBRED AND HIS CUBS (November 25, 2016)

I love this little band, in all its permutations, and I am not alone.  When they get onstage, the question posed above becomes completely rhetorical.  They most certainly have music, and they share it with us.  Here are five lovely (purple-hued) performances from the 2016 San Diego Jazz Fest, featuring Ray Skjelbred, piano; Katie Cavera, guitar; Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Marc Caparone, cornet; Dawn Lambeth, vocals.

Here’s LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER, evoking Eddie Condon and the first Commodore 78, and the swinging Bing Crosby version a few years earlier:

and James P. Johnson’s song, recorded by Henry “Red” Allen:

and a song associated with Lee Wiley, sweetly sung by Dawn Lambeth:

the beautiful Thirties ballad associated with Billie Holiday:

Finally, Dawn’s exposition of swing frustration (thanks to Walter Donaldson):

May your happiness increase!

“YOU GET A NUMBER FOR A NAME”: SCOTT ANTHONY with BOB SCHULZ and his FRISCO JAZZ BAND (Sacramento Music Festival, May 26, 2014)

Here’s a parable about someone who fools the “chumps,” who lies for power and profit.  (It’s also Country Bumpkin and City Slicker, or Crime Doesn’t Pay.)

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B (thanks to Amy King):

I’ve been thinking about WISE GUYS of late.  But first, a story.

My friend in graduate school, Sal, once told me, “My father grew up poor, so he had a very loose attitude toward property.  If it was unattached, it became his.  So I grew up thinking that was OK, that ‘everybody does it’ — sugar packets, office supplies.  Nothing big, but it was an attitude.  Then when somebody broke into my car and stole all the Christmas presents I had stashed in the trunk, I thought, ‘Somebody is trying to tell me something.’  Now, I don’t swipe anything.  I buy my own paper clips and it won’t break me.  You know I’m a dog-lover.  If your puppy is stealing a sock or a cookie, you make eye contact and say, ‘Is that yours?’ and he’ll drop it.  Why aren’t we that smart?”

WISE GUYS sounds as if written in 1890, but it was composed by Bonnie Windsor, about whom I know very little except that she collaborated with Tom Glazer on RUGGED BUT RIGHT c. 1952.  Our song was recorded and performed by Julia Lee, Turk Murphy, Pat Yankee, and John Gill.  (In his essay on Julia Lee, Bill Millar refers to its “anti-mobster” theme, but Windsor is describing behavior not limited to the Mafia.)

The message of WISE  GUYS is plain: cheating people is shameful and stupid, because you will be punished.  (Also, Windsor suggests that the people you are trying to fool are smarter than you, hence Bumpkin and Slicker.)

It’s performed here by Scott Anthony, banjo and vocal; Bob Schulz, cornet; Doug Finke, trombone; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Ray Skjelbred, piano; Jim Maihack, tuba; Mike Daugherty, drums, at the Sacramento Music Festival, May 26, 2014:

Any resemblance to real-life characters is, of course, unintentional.

May your happiness increase!

PEOPLE SAY THE NICEST THINGS ABOUT PETER

Yesterday, I posted a video of Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs performing BIG BOY here, and the response was so enthusiastic that I thought, “Let’s have another one right now.”

Ninety-five years ago, people were praising Peter — first instrumentally (Herb Wiedoft, Glen Oswald’s Serenaders, the Broadway Dance Orchestra, Paul Specht, Alex Hyde, Red Nichols)  — then vocally (Arthur Fields with Sam Lanin) and the 1932 “Rhythmakers” sessions that Philip Larkin thought the highest art.

Here, as a historical benchmark, is a 1924 version by Glen Oswald’s Serenaders (recorded in Oakland, California)  — a varied arrangement, full of bounce:

“Peter” remains a mystery – – but we do know that he was “so nice,” as proven by four versions of this secular hymn of praise to his romantic ardor recorded in April and May 1932 by the Rhythmakers, a beyond-our-wildest-dreams group featuring Henry Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Eddie Condon, Joe Sullivan, Jack Bland, Al Morgan, Zutty Singleton. If you don’t know the Rhythmakers sessions, you are honor-bound to do some of the most pleasurable research.

But here we are in 2014, with Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs at the one-day al fresco jazz party held at Cline Wineries in Napa, California. This wondrous little band — having themselves a time while making sure we do also — is Ray, piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Jeff Hamilton, drums. Members of the Cubs have been known to burst into song, but this time Peter’s praises must be imagined or implied.  However, Ray and the Cubs are clearly nice and more: no ambiguity there.

The Cubs continue to delight me for the best reasons.  They don’t wear brightly-colored polo shirts; they are humorous but not jokey; they play hot and sweet music — honoring everyone from Frank Teschemacher and Eddie Condon to Jimmie Noone and Jeni Le Gon — without putting on the kind of show that more popular “trad” bands get away with.  They are what Milt Hinton called GOOD MUSIC, and I celebrate them.  Tell the children that such a thing exists, please.

And a digression (what’s a blog for if the CEO can’t digress?) — OH PETER — no comma in the original — was composed by Herb Wiedoft, Gene Rose, and Jesse Stafford.  Wiedoft played trumpet and led his own orchestra, where Rose played piano and wrote arrangements; Stafford played trombone and baritone horn.  And here is the original sheet music, verse and chorus.

I take a deep breath and point out that “peter” has been slang for “penis” since the mid-nineteenth century. . . . so “When you are by my side / That’s when I’m satisfied,” and “There’s nothing sweeter, Peter, Peter,” in the chorus, has always made me wonder, and the verse, new to me, contains the lines, “I’m missin’ / Your love and kissin’ ? And lots of other things too.”  The lyrics do state that Peter is a real person who has been “stepping out,” but if the song were titled OH SAMMY, would it have the same effect?  (What of Morton’s 1929 SWEET PETER, by the way?)  Perhaps you will propose that I need a more virtuous life, but I wonder if this song was sung with a wink at the audience, even though it’s clearly not a double-entendre blues of the period.  Do think on it.  And please admire my superb restraint in not titling this post IS YOUR PETER NICE?

Note: any connections between BIG BOY and OH PETER that readers might perceive are their own responsibility.

May your happiness increase!

SUCH A BIG BOY!

Ray Skjelbred is one of my favorite artists — his scope is too large to be confined to “pianist,” and his Cubs are a favorite band of mine.  I can’t say that the pandemic has brought an onslaught of pleasures, but the absence of real-time gigs has sent me back to my archives, and I find many unseen video-recordings of Ray and his Cubs, which it is my pleasure to share with you.

The Cubs are a winning team, although they don’t employ the usual sporting goods: rather, they create uplifting music no matter where they are or what the tempo is. This performance of a song associated with Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines took place during Ray’s mid-summer 2014 California tour (here, they are playing for the Napa Valley Dizieland Jazz Society). The Cubs — bless them! — are Ray, piano, occasional vocal, ethical guidance; Jeff Hamilton, drums and slyness; Clint Baker, string bass, occasional vocal, moral rectitude; Katie Cavera, rhythm guitar, occasional vocal, warmth; Kim Cusack, clarinet, occasional vocal; whimsical sagacity. If you know Claude Hopkins, you’ll get the reference to THE TRAFFIC WAS TERRIFIC, but the Cubs’ vibrations come right through.

Speaking of “big boys,” a story of dubious relevance.  Decades ago, my friend Stu (who reads this blog) and I went to lunch at a kosher delicatessen.  I was hungry and ordered a good deal of food; Stu had eaten and said to the very theatrical woman holding her pad and pencil, “I’ll just have an order of fries,” which we did as a matter of course then.  She looked aghast and said, mixing mock-horror and mock-solicitude, “Such a small portion for such a BIG BOY?” but Stu resisted the Sirens’ song.

All I will say is that this performance — by the clock — is a small portion; it would fit on a V-Disc, but it is a tableful of joy.  And there’s more to come.

May your happiness increase!

IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS (July 12, 2014)

Take a deep breath, see that your eyeglasses are clean, ask your neighbor to take a break from leaf blowing . . . and get ready to admire.

What follows is a wonderful assemblage of rewarding details that make a performance soar and shine.  Everybody knows EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY, ninety years old in 2014, and the song flexibly lends itself to many approaches: a slow-drag tempo with the verse (think: Blue Note Jazzmen) or delightedly skittering around the room, making all the turns (any Fifties Eddie Condon performance).

The creators here are Ray Skjelbred, piano and imagination; Kim Cusack, clarinet and vocal; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar, and this took place at the one-day jazz festival at Cline Cellars Winery in Sonoma, California.

The pleasures of this al fresco performance are double: first, the joy of hearing Ray and his Cubs do anything, and second, the little architectural details that delight and surprise, throughout. Ray says this performance takes some of its inspiration from the 1929 Earl Hines Victor recording of the tune, but it’s clear that the record is a leaping-off place rather than a model to be copied.

The DETAILS I celebrate here are Clint’s arco string bass work, Jeff’s tom-toms, Kim’s magical ability to sing and play at the same time, or nearly so, the duet scored for Cusack and Skjelbred; evocations of Jess Stacy’s 1938 “A-minor thing” even if it’s not in A-minor, and the delicious surprise of the bridge of the last chorus:

I so admire the romping large-scale scope of this performance — people confident and joyous in the sunshine — but the details that poke their heads through from below I find thrilling.

Here’s Earl Hines, playing, leading, and scat-singing:

I couldn’t close this blogpost without commenting that Benny Hill used to announce this song on his television show as EVERY BABY LOVES MY BODY, which works also.

May your happiness increase!

ANNIVERSARY STOMP: HAPPY BIRTHDAY to RAY SKJELBRED!

Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs: from left, Clint Baker, gazing skyward; Kim Cusack, arms folded; Katie Cavera, instantly recognizable; Ray, with blue cap, inviting us to come along; Jeff Hamilton, thinking his thoughts.

I’m honored to share the planet with Ray Skjelbred, who turns eighty today.

At the piano bench as well as elsewhere, he is a poet, a teacher, an inventor and then revealer of secrets, a writer of mysteries populated by velvet moles, eagles, and dogs, where no one gets killed.  Tenaciously yet delicately, he walks through walls as if they were beaded curtains.

Ray Skjelbred calls his Cubs “my favorite band,” and it’s easy to see why — a lovely combination of Basie and Bobcats, illuminated by a sweet lyricism at once on-the-porch and Milt Gabler-joyous.

We salute him; we salute his Cubs, who are Kim Cusack, clarinet and vocal; Katie Cavera, rhythm guitar; Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums. These performances took wing at the San Diego Jazz Fest on November 28, 2015.

OH, BABY, DON’T SAY NO, SAY MAYBE:

Kim swears he’s KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW, but the jury is still out:

something for the Apex Club Orchestra, EVERY EVENING:

If my wishes aren’t enough, here’s a HAPPY BIRTHDAY (March 10, 1938) from Bobby Hackett, Pete Brown, Joe Marsala, Joe Bushkin, Ray Biondi, Artie Shapiro, George Wettling, Leo Watson.  Since it’s mislabeled below, I also offer the nostalgic maroon Commodore label, a jazz madeline:

as it appeared on turntables:

To borrow Whitney Balliett’s words, “Bless Ray Skjelbred.  And may he prosper.”

May your happiness increase!

THE WINNING TEAM: RAY SKJELBRED and HIS CUBS at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST: KIM CUSACK, CLINT BAKER, KATIE CAVERA, JEFF HAMILTON and MARC CAPARONE (November 27, 2015)

Were you to call me a “hoarder,” I would be insulted, but I have been hoarding lovely treasures — previously unseen performance videos — since March 12, 2020, which was the last jazz gig I attended.  One of the treasures I dug up recently is a set played and sung by Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs at 2015 the San Diego Jazz Fest: Ray, piano and vocal; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Jeff Hamilton, drums, Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar, with a guest appearance by Marc Caparone, cornet, on the closing song.

I’d held off on these because my place in the room didn’t allow me to see Ray at the keyboard — a pleasure I always want — and the lighting person, believing that jazz is best played in semi-darkness, had made everyone purple.  Whether it was allegiance to the Lake Isle of Innisfree or a secret love of Barney the dinosaur, I didn’t ask, but it was visually unnerving.

The music, however, was and is delightful.

I missed the first bars of James P. Johnson’s AIN’T ‘CHA GOT MUSIC? — but such lapses are, I hope, forgivable:

Many vintage jazz fans know YOU’RE SOME PRETTY DOLL in George Brunies’ UGLY CHILE — but this version has no mockery in it:

Ray loves the optimistic song LIVIN’ IN A GREAT BIG WAY (from the 1935 KING OF BURLESQUE, and so do we.  Bring back the New Deal!

Marc Caparone, cornet, always welcome, joins in for I FOUND A NEW BABY, what George Avakian would call “the final blow-off”:

I know I’m out of my depth when I resort to sports metaphors, but these Cubs always win the game.  Bless them, and I hope to see a Reunion.

May your happiness increase!

 

SKATING TEN FEET ABOVE THE GROUND: RAY SKJELBRED and his CUBS (America’s Classic Jazz Festival, Lacey, Washington: June 28/30, 2019)

An inspiring Cub relic.

Hearing Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs, I recall the folktale where the wind and the sun (having nothing better to do) wager about which one can get a man to remove his coat.  The wind blows, but the man merely wraps his coat tightly around him.  The sun gently beams down on the man, and sweat starts to pour off his forehead, so he is glad to take off that coat.  Persuasion, not force.

That tale stands for so much jazz that I admire.  Sometimes it’s ferocious, even bombastic — ensemble choruses at the end of a performance, and we cheer.  Perhaps I am thinking of the Great Dane puppy who just wants to greet you, and then you’re both on the floor.  Surprise!

But I secretly revere the sweet stealth of music that says, “Come a little closer.  Of course, nothing is happening.  Just set a spell and enjoy,” and, seductively, osmotically, we become spellbound.  The finest example is the Basie rhythm section; then, Duke and Blanton; Fats Waller on PRETTY DOLL; Sir Charles Thompson on Vanguard; and Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs.

Thirteen months ago, give or take a day, what I call the Pacific Northwest edition of Ray and his Cubs appeared as a guest band at America’s Classic Jazz Festival, in Lacey, Washington.  I wasn’t there to record it, but Ray’s faithful videographer RaeAnn Berry was, and so I can share a few videos with you: dancing or skating without ever doing something so mundane as touching the ground.

They are Ray, piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Matt Weiner, string bass; Josh Roberts, acoustic guitar.

OUT OF NOWHERE, June 30:

IDA (for Auntie Ida Melrose Shoufler, of course), June 28:

and with a nod to Joe and Bing, SOMEDAY SWEETHEART, again from June 30:

I could have called this post ADVENTURES IN MEDIUM-TEMPO, and you would have gotten the point as well.  Or, this photograph of two Deities who took human form for some decades to show us how it should be done:

Blessings on Ray, his Cubs, and RaeAnn.

May your happiness increase!

 

FINE RIFFIN’ THAT EVENING: BRIAN HOLLAND, DANNY COOTS, JACOB ZIMMERMAN, MARC CAPARONE, STEVE PIKAL, RILEY BAKER (Jazz Bash by the Bay, March 7, 2020)

Jacob Zimmerman, Riley Baker, March 7, 2020, Monterey, California

Good music for a Saturday night, or anytime.  In performance at the 2020 Jazz Bash by the Bay, this composition wasn’t announced by name, but it’s really Jacob Zimmerman’s RADIATOR — dedicated to Ray Skjelbred — an improvisation on the venerable theme SHINE. (And before you get all het up about SHINE, please read this to get the real story about that song, written by African-Americans as a proud affirmation. But I digress.) The result is some fine riffin’ by Jacob, alto saxophone and head arrangement; Marc Caparone, cornet; Danny Coots, drums; Brian Holland, piano; Steve Pikal, string bass; guest star and friend Riley Baker, trombone.

Righteous stuff, wouldn’t you say?  I look forward to our next reunion, when all the cacophony (emotional, medical, political — you name it) has subsided.  I hear that medical staffs worldwide are working on a vaccine for hateful ignorance, too.

May your happiness increase!

“BUSY DOING NOTHING”: JACOB ZIMMERMAN TRIO (COLE SCHUSTER, MATT WEINER) — a NEW RELEASE on BANDCAMP

First, how about some music? — multi-layered and subtle, full of joy and surprises.  The creators are Jacob Zimmerman, reeds and arrangements; Cole Schuster, electric guitar; Matt Weiner, string bass:

Now, before we move on, a relevant and pleasing cat portrait:

You’ll have to ask Jacob and Elena about the curious feline: I stick to music.

The occasion here is the release of the Jacob Zimmerman Trio’s new record (or CD or download), called BUSY DOING NOTHING.  Don’t let the self-deprecating title fool you: it’s quietly warm music that remains in your feelings and thoughts.

I believe that when Jacob told me about his new project, I said, with all the delicate guile at my fingertips, “I want to write something for that,” and he graciously agreed.  Here is the Bandcamp link.  (My version of this link says “You own this,” because I do, but I hope that acts as an inducement to follow in my path after you’ve listened to LITTLE WHITE LIES.)

And here’s what I wrote about the music.

Some jazz listeners rhapsodize over the seismic power of a large ensemble. But such efforts make me say to no one in particular, before I stop the disc, “Please. Take the pianist, drummer, and all but one horn away. There’s a great Thai place two blocks south. Have lunch on me.” Many of the most beautiful sounds I know have been made by the smallest groups, austerely lovely, energetically romping, each a triumph of intuition and empathy: Lucky Thompson, Oscar Pettiford, Skeeter Best; Pee Wee Russell, Joe Sullivan, Zutty Singleton; Duke and Blanton; Vic Dickenson and Ralph Sutton. And when the instrumentation is “unorthodox,” all the better.

It’s in this spirit that I greet and embrace BUSY DOING NOTHING, a sly title for these trio performances. They have a translucent sparseness yet they are also rich in melody and improvisation. Each chorus seems a complete composition in itself: BILL, for one gorgeous example. These three musicians create lovely textural variations as well as melodic embellishment and sweet harmonic delving, and the results feel honest, fresh but never self-consciously “adventurous.”

CHRISTMAS IN JAIL has a deep-blue moan to it – even though I would suspect that Jacob, Cole, and Matt have done nothing more criminal than parking tickets. Jacob told me that this session was inspired by the Braff-Barnes Quartet and the Jimmy Giuffre Trio – and this track has a close kinship with THE TRAIN AND THE RIVER, which is great praise. For uncomplicated irresistible swing, there’s MY GAL SAL – “good and groovy,” to quote Trummy Young. ALL OF YOU has, in its quiet pensive splendor, echoes of Brahms, if Brahms had been wiser. I WON’T DANCE is charming, expert, and hilarious: “Look what they did there!” is how I felt on first listening. THE BOY NEXT DOOR gave me chills – moving from unaffected tenderness to sophistication and back again.

BLUE ROSE holds a special place in my affections: when I last saw Jacob, an occasion that, pre-pandemic, seems a lifetime ago, at the March 2020 “Jazz Bash by the Bay,” he and Riley Baker joined me for a meal and conversation, then Jacob brought his tiny audio setup to my hotel room so that we could hear a track from this session. It was this, his gift to our hero Ray Skjelbred, an improvisation on a passage from the 1933 Horace Henderson record of HAPPY FEET. When I could form words, I said only, “Would you play that again?” It thrills me to know that I, and you, can play BLUE ROSE forever. There is an arching imagination behind this – composition and the trio’s playing – that makes me very glad. It feels like a three-dimensional aural ballet, airy and solid at once.
LAZYBONES is the soundtrack for a Swing Cowpoke short subject that hasn’t been filmed yet, with Matt, Cole, and Jacob rounding up the out-of-tune rustlers and getting them to play their parts correctly before riding off to educate the next bunch of amateurs. IDA of course harks back – how beautiful Matt’s arco sounds! – to Nichols, Rollini, and Livingston, but Jacob’s entrance reminds me of Lester, ten years later, and the whole performance is a sweet world that we are encouraged to make ourselves at home in. SOMEBODY LIKE YOU is one of Jacob’s discoveries of otherwise-forgotten Walter Donaldson music. It has an unaffected 1927 lope to it, dance music for another time and place, shined up by this trio so that we can delight in it right now. I love Cole’s chiming arpeggios and Matt’s serious two-four dance underneath Jacob’s bright-toned melodies. My only complaint about this track (and others as well) is that they are so sweetly terse that I said, on first hearing, “Wait. Is that over?” THE NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES suggests some lovely Sixties music heard at a distance – another dance, both saying, “Come join us.”

I wonder how listeners in 2021 and beyond will take this music in. It is so rewarding, track by track, that I hope they will not gobble it down in one sitting. I wistfully envision these thirteen performances as being issued as a set of Victor Red Seal or Keynote 12” discs in a cardboard “album” that one would have to reverently play, one after the other, placing each disc on the turntable and lowering the tone arm. The thirteenth side would be shiny and ungrooved, a reminder for us to go back to LITTLE WHITE LIES, in amazed delight at what Jacob, Cole, and Matt create for us. This session is immense fun, but approaching it with joyful astonishment would be right.

When you’ve heard the music, and I hope you will, you will understand that I did not overstate here.  And if you can find it in your heart and wallet to purchase this music on Juneteenth — June 19, 2020, Bandcamp has done something both moral and special.  I quote from their site:

The recent killings of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Sean Reed, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and the ongoing state-sanctioned violence against black people in the US and around the world are horrific tragedies. We stand with those rightfully demanding justice, equality, and change, and people of color everywhere who live with racism every single day, including many of our fellow employees and artists and fans in the Bandcamp community.

So this this coming Juneteenth (June 19, from midnight to midnight PDT) and every Juneteenth hereafter, for any purchase you make on Bandcamp, we will be donating 100% of our share of sales to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a national organization that has a long history of effectively enacting racial justice and change through litigation, advocacy, and public education. We’re also allocating an additional $30,000 per year to partner with organizations that fight for racial justice and create opportunities for people of color.

The current moment is part of a long-standing, widespread, and entrenched system of structural oppression of people of color, and real progress requires a sustained and sincere commitment to political, social, and economic racial justice and change. We’ll continue to promote diversity and opportunity through our mission to support artists, the products we build to empower them, who we promote through the Bandcamp Daily, our relationships with local artists and organizations through our Oakland space, how we operate as a team, and who and how we hire.

Beyond that, we encourage everyone in the Bandcamp community to look for ways to support racial equality in your own local community, and as a company we’ll continue to look for more opportunities to support racial justice, equality and change.

Blessings on Jacob, Cole, and Matt, and thanks to Bandcamp for not only making this music accessible to us but also giving an extra moral push towards a kinder future for all.

May your happiness increase!