Tag Archives: recreation

“WHEN LOUIS MET BIX”: ANDY SCHUMM, ENRICO TOMASSO, MATTHIAS SEUFFERT, ALISTAIR ALLAN, SPATS LANGHAM, MORTEN GUNNAR LARSEN, MALCOLM SKED, NICK BALL (LAKE RECORDS)

A wise philosopher — Gladys Bentley or Blanche Calloway — once said, “There are a thousand ways to do something wrong, but only four or five ways to do it right.”  One of the most eagerly-awaited CDs of recent memory, WHEN LOUIS MET BIX,  on Lake Records, is a shining example of beautiful imaginations at work.

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The assertive cover photograph is slightly misleading, suggesting that we might be getting ready for one of those Battle of the Valves scenes so beloved of film directors.  I offer as evidence one of the most musical (having seen this scene from THE FIVE PENNIES when I was perhaps eleven, it made a deep impression):

Beautiful as it is, that scene is all about mastery and power: the unknown challenger coming out of the shadows (the club dramatically silenced) to claim territory for himself, and being accepted by the gracious King, who makes space for him on the regal bandstand.  It might be satisfying but we know it’s not the way things happen.

And this myth isn’t the story of WHEN LOUIS MET BIX, either historically or in this evocative CD.  Consider this fraternal conversation, instead:

Immediately, the ear understands that this CD succeeds at being more than a recreation of a 1927 or 1928 after-hours jam session or cutting contest.  The music on this disc, even when it is searing hot, is carried along by a fundamental gentleness of spirit, an aura of brotherly love and deep admiration.  No skirmishes, no high notes except as they would logically occur.

As I mentioned at the start, there would have been many ways to make this noble idea turn into a leaden result.  One would have been to hew strictly to factoids: to use only songs that we knew Bix and Louis played or recorded, and perhaps narrow the repertoire to a choking narrowness by sticking to compositions both of them had done.  (By this time, certain well-played songs are reassuring to the audience but must feel like too-tight clothing to the musicians, restricting free movement.)  Another would have been to envision the music as competitive: the Bix of BARNACLE BILL pitted against the Louis of POTATO HEAD BLUES.  Nay, nay, to quote the Sage of Corona.

Instead, the repertoire is spacious — Louis and Bix loved melodies — and it offers Broadway show music by Rodgers and Blake next to pop classics of the time, alongside “jazz standards” and obscurities by Morton, Chris Smith, Fats Waller — and one evocative original by Andy Schumm.  And rather than simply say to the noble players in the studio, “All right.  MILENBERG JOYS, and find your own way home,” or “Meet you at the end,” the performances on this disc are delicately yet effectively shaped so that each seems a complete musical expression.  There are small arrangements on each track, and rather than that being an impiety (affront to the Goddess of Hot, who supposedly loathes anything worked out — although we know better) these little sketches make the performances even more satisfying.  Split choruses, four-bar trades, modulations, duet interludes, balanced conversations where X plays the melody and Y improvises around it, stop-time choruses . . . the wonders that musicians had and have accessible to them instead of the possible monotony of ensemble-solo-ensemble.

On that score, one of the reasons it has taken me longer than usual to review this worthy disc is that I kept falling in love with one track so that I wanted to play it all the way to work and all the way home.  By definition, CDs are economy-sized packages of music, and I think I would have been happier (although weighed down) if this Lake Records CD could have been sold as eight 12″ 78 discs in a heavy cardboard binder, to be listened to deeply one at a time, on and on.  But longing for the past, although understandable, has its limits.  And the imagined 78s would have warped in my car.

For the record, and what a record! –the songs are OL’ MAN RIVER / MILENBERG JOYS / CHLOE / MANDY, MAKE UP YOUR MIND / WHO’S IT / PUT ‘EM DOWN BLUES / WHISPERING / MANHATTAN / SKID-DAT-DE-DAT / BESSIE COULDN’T HELP IT (the one Louis-Bix recording overlap) / COME ON AND STOMP, STOMP, STOMP / MY MELANCHOLY BABY / WHEN SHE CAME TO ME/ I’M JUST WILD ABOUT HARRY / THE BALTIMORE.

And the players.  Rico (Louis) and Andy (Bix) are joined by absolutely stellar folk.  And since neither Bix nor Louis tried to take up all the space on a recording, democracy prevails; thus we hear beautiful work from Alistair Allan, trombone; Matthias Seuffert, reeds; Morten Gunnar Larsen, piano; Spats Langham, banjo and guitar; Malcolm Sked, string bass; Nicholas D. Ball, drums.

More evidence:

Through this CD, we are able to travel to an alternate universe, where glorious improvised music evokes and summons up the Great Departed.  And unlike actually attending the after-hour jam session at the Sunset Cafe or the Savoy Ballroom and thinking, “Where is all this beauty going?” we can have this dramatic evocation to visit over and over again (without our clothes smelling of smoke, spilled whiskey, or beer).

Incidentally, may I urge you to do the most venerable thing and purchase the actual physical disc (from Amazon US or UK or elsewhere).  Not only does the glorious sound Paul Adams got through his vintage microphones deserve to be reproduced in the highest fidelity (as opposed to mp3s played through earbuds on a noisy train in the common fashion) but you’ll miss out on wonderfully detailed but light-hearted liner notes by scholar-producer Julio Schwarz Andrade and many wonderful photographs that convey the joy that reigned at this session.

My hope is that Lake Records will continue this series of mystical voyages that make an imagined past into tangible present reality.  I’m sure that Julio, Paul, and the fellows have even more thrilling ideas for us in future.  And I hope that there is an on-the-spot Louis / Bix meeting at the 2016 Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party so that we can marvel again.

Thanks to all the participants for making a visit to the alternate universe possible and so joyous. . . . a world where lyricism, abandon, passion, and expertise shape the music.

May your happiness increase!

CREATING BEAUTY: THE THRIFT SET ORCHESTRA

Festival promoters, swing dance bookers, people who love good music, beautifully played, take note!

(If John Hammond were alive, this band would already have a contract with English Parlophone, be playing at Smalls Paradise, and be broadcasting over WEVD . . . but it’s 2014, and we have to make such things happen for ourselves):

KRAZY KAPERS (take 1):

and another set of KAPERS:

Who are these Swing miracle-workers?  Why, they are the Thrift Set Orchestra, a band based in Austin, Texas.  At their site, you can read the biographies of the individual musicians and learn more about the group. I don’t see a place where one can request an autographed picture of the TSO, but soon that will be necessary, as jazz and swing dance fans coast-to-coast get the message.

If the Thrift Set Orchestra looks familiar to you, it might be because I posted two versions of their THE MOOCHE in honor of the band and of Ellington’s birthday here.

What makes them so special? I have to put them in context. There are many other youthful jazz bands out there devoted to the music of the Swing Era (and by that I do not mean formulaic versions of IN THE MOOD for dancers), and they all serve a useful function.  But few of them play as convincingly and with as much inventiveness as the TSO.

Some bands execute transcriptions of the original arrangements and recorded solos splendidly (no harm done there); other bands offer their own improvisations (likewise); some bands woo audiences with energy and vintage clothing or snappy uniforms and Art Deco stands (visually appealing for those who like spectacle).

But for me the deepest question is always: “What does the music sound like if I close my eyes?  Does it please my deepest self?”

I know it might seem odd, but for me, the test for a new CD is the car — my Old New Car with a decent sound system.  Driving somewhere with a previously unheard disc in the player, I can’t read the liner notes or check who’s soloing on track six.  I can only listen. And my response to the TSO disc was nearly ecstatic. I played it once, then again. And in the next few days I played it every time I drove, even for a five-minute errand. Driving on a main street in a suburban business district, I made sure to lower my windows so that everyone could hear the TSO put their own stamp on NOBODY’S SWEETHEART, BLUE DRAG, or HELLO BABE. No one came over at a stop light to ask the source of this joy, but I am convinced that I did some good, even subliminally, by offering this swinging beauty to innocent bystanders. Spreading joy to children who have never read a book about improvisation.  “Mama, that man had music coming from his car!” “Hush, child! We’re going home right now.”

Back to the sounds. The TSO is a compact, energetic, and accurate jazz-swing orchestra, with players who can read and improvise in an idiomatic yet loose manner, and who can swing convincingly on their own solos. Their ensemble playing is authentic but not stiff, the solos inventive and personal. The band echoes Ellington and Bennie Moten, but it has its own Western Swing spiciness too.  The CD offers a pleasing mix of classic songs and originals, as well as less familiar Thirties evocations (not copies) of Freddy Taylor, Cab Calloway, Bob Crosby, Jean Goldkette, informal sessions at Squirrel Ashcraft’s featuring Bill Priestley on cornet. Guitarist / vocalist Albanie Faletta sings deliciously on BLUE DRAG, and trombonist Mark “Speedy” Gonsalez plays Roy Eldridge’s ROCKIN’ CHAIR marvelously as a feature for the lower-register horn, getting every note splendidly in place. David Jellema’s cornet shines throughout, nimbly evoking early Hackett, and he adds his clarinet to the ensemble when a trio is called for. The two-man sax section of Graulty and Doyle, switching horns, is absolutely a model — and their soloing is individual yet idiomatic in the best way.  Anchored by Hal Smith’s perfect drumming (you could listen to any of these tracks for the drumming alone and be refreshed), the rhythm section rocks — no pianists need apply.

The overall sound of the band is both light and intense, and there is no hint of pretension or stiffness. They don’t sound as if they can’t wait to get back to their post-Coltrane modal studies. The rhythm section is powerful but never obtrusive, and the horns glide from lyrical solos to speaking gutty truths through their horns (trombonist Mark could be our generation’s Snub Moseley, and we welcome him!).  The TSO, in addition, has the sound of a working band: people who are used to playing together and who enjoy each other’s musical company.

Had this CD had simply been expert recreations of recordings, I would have been far less enthusiastic.  Although eleven of the tracks here display some allegiance to recorded performances, each of them has small delicious surprises: brief horn solos where one wouldn’t expect them, a brief horns-only passage in SUNDAY; the welcome presence of a banjo on HELLO BABE; friendly adjustments, adaptations, and inventions: new touches that seem just right, something that Foots Thomas or Bill Challis would have liked just fine.  Witty musical ingenuity rather than idolatrous museum-quality reproduction is the result.

And in case you are someone with a record collection, muttering, “I’d rather hear the originals,” the TSO has some new originals to offer you, danceable melodies with memorable lines — most of them taking a single melodic phrase and moving it around in the best Waller style to create tunes that don’t leave your head.

The musicians are David Jellema, cornet, clarinet; Jonathan Doyle, soprano, alto, clarinet; Lyon Graulty, tenor, clarinet, vocal; Albanie Faletta, guitar, vocal; Westen Borghesi, banjo, vocal; Ryan Gould, string bass, vocal; Hal Smith, drums, performing NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW / SURE FINE / BLUE DRAG / SHAGTOWN JUBILEE / ROCKIN’ CHAIR / SNOWBOUND IN A CABIN / SUNDAY / SUGAR / HELLO BABE / SWEET IS THE NIGHT / WHO’S SORRY NOW? / KRAZY KAPERS / HANG ON EVERY WORD / MAMA’S GONE, GOODBYE / ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM / THE MOOCHE.  Good sound from sessions recorded July 2013.

You can purchase the CD here for $15 plus $3 shipping.

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I predict a brilliant future for the TSO. I’m delighted they exist. We need them — a musical embodiment of Bach’s Rescue Remedy.

And as for its band name — the Thrift Set Orchestra, here’s what its creator Jonathan Doyle told me: “The name came from a thought around the idea of the economy of size of the orchestra, or maybe about an economy of musical style. It might have been about recycled culture too, finding clothes and records in thrift stores and putting all of the styles from the different eras together as one pleases, embracing beautiful and interesting things from the past that have lost value in contemporary society.”

The TSO embodies a beautiful philosophy in their music.

May your happiness increase!