Tag Archives: Red Nichols

SWEETLY UPLIFTING: The MICHAEL McQUAID SAXOPHONE QUARTET

I’ve been thinking about the saxophonist Chuck Wilson, who left us on October 16 (my post about him is here).  Chuck came from a tradition where the saxophone made beautiful melodic sounds and blended with other reeds — he was a consummate section leader.  It’s a tradition sometimes overlooked today, where it occasionally feels that everyone wants to be a soloist, at length.

But the tradition has been splendidly recalled and embodied by our friend, the brilliantly imaginative multi-instrumentalist, Michael McQuaid in his recent musical gift to us: four musical cameos inspired by the Merle Johnston Saxophone Quartet of 1929-30.  The arrangements by Michael — lovely translucencies, swinging and tender — were recorded “with minimal rehearsal” (I emphasize this to hail the professionalism of the players) in the UK on July 27, 2018.

I think of these performances as modern reworkings of classical string quartets, but with a particular harmonic delicacy applied to popular songs of the day, with hot solos implied, delightful counterpoint, and a compositional sense: each arrangement and performance has a wonderful logical shape, a light-hearted emotional resonance.  Each performance rewards repeated listening.  (I cannot play MY SIN just once.)

The remarkable players are Michael McQuaid (first alto); David Horniblow (second alto); Simon Marsh (tenor); Tom Law (baritone).

IT WAS ONLY A SUN SHOWER, which I associate with Annette Hanshaw, Barbara Rosene, and Tamar Korn:

OUT OF THE DAWN, by Walter Donaldson, from 1928, recorded by the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra:

WASHBOARD BLUES, whose arrangement is inspired by the 1926 recording by Hitch’s Happy Harmonists, with composer Hoagy Carmichael at the piano:

MY SIN, by DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson, also associated with Annette Hanshaw:

I wasn’t the only one astonished by the arrangements and the playing, and I wrote to Michael to ask, “When’s the CD coming out?  When’s the concert tour?”  No one else is making music like this anywhere.

Michael responded on Facebook:

Once again, this video features great playing from some of London’s best saxophone players. Their musicality is all the more remarkable when one considers this is closer to sight-reading than a fully-rehearsed ensemble.

A few of you have asked whether I’m going to release these recordings. Well, yes – they’re on YouTube anytime you want! But properly producing a full album of this material would require significant rehearsal followed by hours in the studio, and hence probably a wealthy philanthropic benefactor (please message me if that might be you!).

In the meantime, I’ll keep writing saxophone quartet arrangements until I have a whole concert’s/album’s worth. It’s been great reading your positive words on these videos, and I’m glad if I’ve been able to draw attention to the Merle Johnston Saxophone Quartet and their beautiful 1929 records. Our musical heritage is filled with many such neglected treasures, ready to leap into the present (and the future) with only a little of our time and attention.

Since some readers might not have heard the originals, here (courtesy of generous Enrico Borsetti) is the Merle Johnston Saxophone Quartet playing BABY, OH WHERE CAN YOU BE?:

I haven’t found out much about Merle, except that he played clarinet, alto, and tenor, was born in upstate New York, and lived from 1897 to 1978, and was a renowned saxophone teacher.  Michael told me that Merle’s students included Larry Teal and Joe Allard (each became a highly influential saxophone teacher in his own right), as well as famous players such as Buddy Collette and Frank Morgan. His legacy is probably more lasting as a teacher than as a player or bandleader!

Merle’s recording career — according to Tom Lord — ran from 1923 to 1930, with Sam Lanin (alongside Red Nichols), Isham Jones, Seger Ellis, the Ipana  Troubadours, Jack Miller, a young fellow named Crosby.  He was friends with Leo McConville, and he led his own band called the Ceco Couriers, which alludes to a radio program supported by a product: in this case, CeCo radio tubes, advertised in the October 1928 POPULAR SCIENCE (the tubes “cost no  more but last longer”).

Did Merle leave the New York City studio scene after the stock market crash for the security of a teaching career?  Can it be that no one interviewed him or one of his pupils?  Incidentally, when I do online research on someone obscure and find that one of the resources is this — a JAZZ LIVES post I wrote in 2011 — I am both amused and dismayed.

“Research!” to quote Lennie Kunstadt.  Calling David Fletcher!

And here’s another gorgeous quartet record, this one of DO SOMETHING:

I post the two Merle Johnston “originals” not to show their superiority to the modern evocations, but to celebrate Michael’s arranging and the playing of the Quartet: to my ears, fully the equal of the antecedents.

Listen once again, and be delighted.  I am sure that Chuck is pleased by these sounds also.

May your happiness increase!

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LONDON’S HOTTEST RHYTHM JUGGLERS: THE VITALITY FIVE, “SYNCOPATION GONE MAD”

I’ve had an alarm clock / clock radio at the side of my bed for decades now, and its message is unvarying and irritating. Time to go to school!  Time to go to work! Time to move the car to avoid a ticket! 

But playing the new CD by The Vitality Five, its title noted above, I thought if I could rig up a musical machine that would, at first softly, play one of their glorious lively evocations of a vanished time, I would be much more willing to get out of bed and face the world.

The Vitality 5 is inherently not the same as many other bands performing Twenties hot repertoire.  For one thing, the 5’s reach is informed and deep: of the seventeen songs on this disc, perhaps four will be well-known to people who “like older jazz.”  Be assured that even the most “obscure” tunes are melodic and memorable.  More important to me is the 5’s perhaps unstated philosophy in action.  Many bands so worship the originals that they strive to create reverent copies of the original discs, and in performance this can be stunning.  But the 5 realizes something in their performances and arrangements that, to me, is immensely valuable: the people who made the original records were animated by joyous exuberance.

The players we venerate were “making it up as they went along,” as if their lives depended on it.  Theirs did, and perhaps ours do as well.

So these performances are splendidly animated by vivacious personality: they leap off the disc.  I don’t mean that the 5 is louder or faster, but they are energized.  You can’t help but hear and feel it.

Facts.  The band has been together since 2015, and it is that rare and wonderful entity — a working band.  Two of its members should be intimate pals to JAZZ LIVES readers: David Horniblow, reeds, and Andrew Oliver, piano — they are the one and only Complete Morton Project.  The other three members who complete the arithmetic are special heroes of mine, people I’ve admired at the Whitley Bay / Mike Durham jazz parties: Michael McQuaid, reeds and cornet; Martin Wheatley, banjo; Nicholas D. Ball, drums.

And they are superb players — not only star soloists, but wonderful in ensemble, making the 5 seem much more a flexible orchestra than the single digit would suggest.  They are, as Louis would say, Top Men On Their Instruments.  Each performance has its own rhythmic surge, the arrangements are varied without being “clever,” and the band is wise enough to choose material that has a deep melodic center — memorable lines that range in performance from sweetly lyrical to incendiary.  The back cover proclaims that there are “17 CERTAIN DANCE HITS!” and it’s true.

A final word about repertoire — a subject whose narrowing I find upsetting, as some “Twenties” groups play and replay the same dozen songs: this disc offers songs I’d either never heard before (JI-JI BOO) or not in decades (THE SPHINX) as well as classics that aren’t simply transcriptions from the OKeh (FIREWORKS, EVERY EVENING, COPENHAGEN) — across the spectrum from Nichols-Mole to Clarence Williams to McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and more.

I know it’s heresy to some, but the Vitality 5 performs at a level that is not only equal to the great recordings, but superior to them.  A substantial claim, but the disc supports it.

Visit here to hear their hot rendition of COPENHAGEN — also, here you can buy an actual disc or download their music.  Convinced?  I hope so.

And to the Gentlemen of the Ensemble: if you perfect the Vitality Five Rise-and-Shine machine, suitable for all electric currents, do let me know.  I’ll be your first purchaser.  Failing that, please prosper, have many gigs, and make many CDs!

May your happiness increase!

STOMPTIME! A MUSICAL “CARPE DIEM” AT SEA (April 27 – May 4, 2019)

I’ve never been on a cruise, but I now have one to look forward to in 2019 with the promise of joy afloat on the debut STOMPTIME adventure.

I like things as much as the next person, but I am also a collector of experiences, which are much more durable even though often intangible.  And I believe strongly that we need to seize the day — life, as we know it, has that annoying finite quality — and, in this case, seven days in the Eastern Caribbean to a jazz and ragtime and blues soundtrack — much more alive than Spotify or a pair of earbuds.

A digression: I don’t advertise events or objects (discs, concerts, festivals) on this blog that I wouldn’t listen to or go to, and I pay my way unless some promoter begs me to keep my wallet shut or a musician sends me her CD.  So I am going to be on this cruise, and not for free in return for an endorsement.  Just in case you were wondering.

Here’s one soundtrack for you to enjoy as you read:

That’s not a well-known record, so here’s some data: Red Nichols, Tommy Thunen, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey, Babe Russin, Adrian Rollini, Jack Russin, Wes Vaughan, Gene Krupa, January 1930.

What, I hear you asking, is STOMPTIME?  To give it its full name, it is Stomptime Musical Adventure’s 2019 Inaugural Jazz Cruise.  It will mosey around ports and islands in the Eastern Caribbean, on the Celebrity Equinox leaving from Miami.  Space is limited to 250 guests, and special offers are available to those who (like me) book early.

Here is the cruise itinerary.

With all deference to the beaches and vistas, the little towns and ethnic cuisines, I have signed up for this cruise because it will be a seriously romping jazz extravaganza, seven nights of music with several performances each day.  Who’s playing and singing?

Evan Arntzen – reeds / vocals; Clint Baker – trumpet / trombone; Jeff Barnhart – piano / vocals; Pat Bergeson – guitar / harmonica; BIG B.A.D. Rhythm; Marc Caparone – cornet / vocals; Danny Coots – drums; Frederick Hodges – piano / vocals; Brian Holland – piano; Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet; Nate Ketner – reeds; Carl Sonny Leyland – piano / vocals; Dick Maley – drums; Steve Pikal – upright bass; Andy Reiss – guitar; Sam Rocha – upright bass / vocals
Stephanie Trick & Paolo Alderighi – piano duo.

Even though that list ends with the necessary phrase, “Performers subject to change,” it’s an impressive roster.

Here’s a six-minute romp for dancers by the Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet, whom I follow on dry land and on sea, that I recorded on June 1, 2018, at the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival:

Of course you’d like to know how much a week of pleasure costs: details here.  An interior cabin will cost $1548.13 per person, and there is an additional VIP package for $250.  If this seems a great deal of money, just start repeating to yourself: “A week of lodging, adventure, food, and music,” and do the math.  Feels better, doesn’t it?  My cruise-loving friends tell me that Celebrity is well-regarded — a cruise line catering to adults rather than children, with good food and reassuring amenities.

Amortize, you cats!” as Tricky Sam Nanton used to say.

Two other points that bear repeating.

The great festivals of the past twenty years are finding it more difficult to survive: because they are beautiful panoplies of music, they are massive endeavors that require audience participation. I am a newcomer to this world, having been part of a jazz weekend for the first time in 2004, but I could make myself sad by reciting the names of those that have gone away.  And they don’t return.

Enterprises need support to — shall we say — float?  I know many good-hearted practical people who say, “Wow, I’d love to do that.  Maybe in a few years,” and I can’t argue with the facts of income and expenses.  But we’ve seen that not everything can last until patrons of the arts are ready to support it.  Ultimately, not everything delightful is for free, and one must occasionally be prepared to get out of one’s chair and tell the nice person on the other end of the line one’s three-digit security number on the back of the card.  Be bold.  Have an experience.

I hope you can make this one.

Postscript, just in (July 23) from my nautical-maritime-jazz expert, Sir Robert Cox: “You have picked you ship well as Celebrity Equinox is a Solstice-class cruise ship built by Meyer Werft in Papenburg, Germany. Celebrity Equinox is the second of the five Solstice-class vessels, owned and operated by Celebrity Cruises.”

May your happiness increase!

WONDER-FULL: THE NEW WONDERS’ NEW CD

There are many ways to honor the tradition, in jazz as well as the other arts.  Let us say you are a young musician who falls in love with an artifact — the OKeh record of TIGHT LIKE THIS by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five in 1928.  You can use the recorded music as an inspiration to go your own way, to play something that honors Louis but is your own creation.  Or, equally honorable, you can transcribe the recorded evidence, and offer to a new audience a live performance that comes as close to the original as possible, or one that allows for individual variation within the hallowed architecture of the original.

Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks — the great progenitor — and the newer groups such as the Original Cornell Syncopators and the New Wonders follow the latter path gloriously, sometimes recreating and re-enacting, sometimes honoring the original architecture while painting the interior windowsills periwinkle.

From left, Jared Engel, banjo; Joe McDonough, trombone; Jay Lepley, drums; Ricky Alexander, reeds; Mike Davis, cornet, leader; Jay Rattman, bass saxophone; Dalton Ridenhour, piano. Photograph by Jane Kratochvil

There are many ways in which the New Wonders are special.  For one thing, they offer repertoire that has not been overdone — no SINGIN’ THE BLUES, no STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE.  They draw from recordings made by the California Ramblers, the Chicago Loopers, Tiny Parham, Red Nichols, the Goofus Five, and others — wonderful pop tunes that haven’t been played in ages. And they are a great paradox, for their approach is exact (reproducing pieces of arrangements, both instrumental and vocal, that are not easy to do) but loose.  They are not museum curators, but they are not only playing the songs and moving on . . . and there is a spirit of great fun and ebullience without the least mockery or condescension.  A performance or a recording by the New Wonders is a convincing bit of theatre: as if this group of beautifully-dressed young men had come to your house with the sweet notion of bringing 1927 back for a few hours.  And they do it with love: the music can be precise and tender, or hot and bumptious — all in the space of a few songs.

I saw them create such wonders last August in Brice Moss’ pastoralia, and it was memorable, as you can observe here.  But there were limitations to the sound my microphone could capture, and this was the pianoless New Wonders.  So I am delighted to announce their debut CD, titled THE NEW WONDERS, so that no one can mistake it for anything else.  It’s a delightful banquet of sounds from Messrs. Davis, McDonough, Alexander, Rattman, Engel, Lepley, and Ridenhour, as they playfully work their way through FLAMIN’ MAMIE; REACHING FOR SOMEONE; I’M MORE THAN SATISFIED; BONEYARD SHUFFLE; POOR PAPA; I GET THE BLUES WHEN IT RAINS; I’D RATHER CRY OVER YOU; PERSIAN RUG; CLORINDA; I NEED LOVIN’; SMILE, DARN YA, SMILE; JUNGLE CRAWL; I’M WALKING BETWEEN THE RAINDROPS; SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY; THE BALTIMORE.

I may be accused of ageism, but there is something particularly pleasing to hear these reasonably young (at least to me) musicians immerse themselves in music made by young musicians — an enthusiastic freshness.  And there’s another delightful oddity in the New Wonders’ presentation: the vocal choruses.  In my youth, we made fun of Wes Vaughan, we lifted the needle over Irving Kaufman (unless there was a hot obbligato) and in general, we waited for Bing to come along and make everything all right.  Four members of The New Wonders sing (Lepley, Rattman, Alexander, and leader Davis) and they do it splendidly, not only in solo — verse as well as chorus — but in reproducing the intricate vocal parts from the Chicago Loopers date, CLORINDA and I’M MORE THAN SATISFIED — with great style, earnest without being stiff.  Replaying this disc, I found myself looking forward to those beautifully-executed vocal outpourings, and I think you might share my pleasure.

Al fresco, August 2017

Here you can find out more about Mike and the band, and here is the band’s Facebook page.  And . . . . here is the CDBaby page for the new CD.

But the best way to buy a band CD is at the gig — maybe you’ll get it signed, and you have the direct economic transfer of giving money to the musicians who have just played for you, so here is the event page for the New Wonders’ CD release party — Tuesday, March 13, 2018, from 8-10 PM at Norwood, 241 W 14th St, New York, New York 10011.  Mike points out, “Norwood is a members-only club. In order to attend this event all tickets must be purchased in advance. NO tickets will be sold on the premises.”  And I won’t be able to make this gig, so those of you who are waiting for more videos might have to be in attendance, if possible.  It will be Wonderful.

May your happiness increase!

MORE HOT JAZZ IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN (Part Three): THE NEW WONDERS (MIKE DAVIS, JOE McDONOUGH, RICKY ALEXANDER, JARED ENGEL, JAY RATTMAN, JAY LEPLEY): AUGUST 20, 2017

The days are getting shorter, darker, and cooler.  There’s little that I can do to combat this, but I offer this third part of a glorious August afternoon as a palliative for the descent into winter.

Thanks to the energetic Brice Moss, I was able to attend and record a lovely outdoor session featuring The New Wonders — Mike Davis, cornet, vocal, arrangements; Jay Lepley, drums; Jay Rattman, bass saxophone and miscellaneous instrument; Joe McDonough, trombone, Ricky Alexander, reeds; Jared Engel, plectrum banjo.  There’s group singing here and there, which is its own idiomatic delight.  This is the third of three posts: here is part one, and here is part two — both segments full of wondrous hot music.

And now . . . . a Hot one in Hot slow-motion, no less steamy — NOBODY’S SWEETHEART:

Did someone say “The Chicago Loopers”?  Here’s CLORINDA, with vocal quartet:

A serious question for sure, ARE YOU SORRY?

Another paean to the South from songwriters who may have gone no deeper than Battery Park, THAT’S THE GOOD OLD SUNNY SOUTH:

We’d like it to be a valid economic policy — THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE:

DEEP BLUE SEA BLUES, with a surprising double for Jay Rattman:

Who needs an umbrella?  I’M WALKING BETWEEN THE RAINDROPS:

and an emotional choice, I’D RATHER CRY OVER YOU:

Deep thanks, as before, to Brice, family, friends, and to these splendid musicians, for making an Edenic idea come to life.

And I don’t have the delicious artifact yet, but The New Wonders did and have finished their debut CD.  I am willing to wager that it will live up to the band name.  Details as I know them.

May your happiness increase!

MORE HOT JAZZ IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN (Part Two): THE NEW WONDERS (MIKE DAVIS, JOE McDONOUGH, RICKY ALEXANDER, JARED ENGEL, JAY RATTMAN, JAY LEPLEY): AUGUST 20, 2017

On August 20, 2017, there was a return to Eden.  It didn’t make the papers, possibly because social media wasn’t attuned to hot jazz in bucolic settings (Brice Moss’s backyard in Croton-on-Hudson) but it still felt Edenic, thanks to the New Wonders (Mike Davis, Jared Engel, Jay Lepley, Joe McDonough, Ricky Alexander, and Jay Rattman) and thanks to generous fervent Brice, of course, and Anne, Aubrey, Odysseus, Liana, Ana, and Chester.

This is the second part of the great revelation: the first part is here.  I urge you to visit that first part — not only to hear more splendid music in the most welcoming surroundings, but to read the enthusiastic words Brice has written about this band.  And the proof is in every performance by the New Wonders.

AIN’T THAT A GRAND AND GLORIOUS FEELING, courtesy of Annette Hanshaw:

Tiny Parham’s JUNGLE CRAWL:

A very successful experiment.  The pretty LOVE WILL FIND A WAY, by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake (from SHUFFLE ALONG) reimagined as if Bix and His Gang had performed it:

Not a suggestion, but a command: SMILE, DARN YA, SMILE:

And a serious request: I NEED LOVIN’:

For Red, Miff, and Fud: HURRICANE:

What they used to call Orientalia, PERSIAN RUG, with a completely charming vocal from Mike:

There will be a Part Three, joyously.  Have no fear.  And soon, I am told, the New Wonders’ debut CD will appear.

May your happiness increase!

HOT JAZZ IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN (Part One): THE NEW WONDERS (MIKE DAVIS, JOE McDONOUGH, RICKY ALEXANDER, JARED ENGEL, JAY RATTMAN, JAY LEPLEY): AUGUST 20, 2017

Some people make great art happen without ever picking up an instrument, and Brice Moss is one of them.  I first met him at a concert of Mike Davis’ band, The New Wonders, in downtown Manhattan, about eighteen months ago.

Brice is very friendly and articulate, tall and beautifully dressed, but what’s more important is that he is a card-carrying Enthusiast for Twenties hot jazz.  And although he loves the recordings and lives to go see and hear the best hot bands, he does more than that.  Evidence below.

A Brice Moss lawn party, a few years back, with Vince Giordano, Andy Stein, Evan Arntzen, Jon-Erik Kellso, Harvey Tibbs, and Ken Salvo.

Brice gives yearly lawn parties where his favorite bands play.  I asked him to say something about his generosity-in-action, and he wrote, “I work in social service, in the not-for profit sector, so even with saving up, I can only do these every year or so.  I can think of no more joy-inducing way to spend my meager dough than by hiring the world class musicians we are lucky to have in our vicinity.  As does everyone else, I love the Nighthawks, whom my parents saw weekly since the seventies.

I am smitten by Mike Davis and his guys too.  Mike always sings the lyrics, often including introductory verses I had never heard before.  They do wonderful vocal harmonies.  They are intimate, understated, true to the period and despite differences of instrumentation, very true to the original recordings of the tunes. Pure delight!  This is the fourth time I’ve been lucky enough to be able to bring a band up.  Last year was Mike and The New Wonders as well. The summer before that was a subset of the Nighthawks.  I have also, a couple of years back, had a New Year’s Eve party where I was fortunate to have Vince, Peter Mintun, Mark Lopeman, Bill Crow, and Andy Stein.”

So this summer, when Brice invited me to come up to his lawn party (at a location alternatively identified as Croton-on-Hudson, Yorktown Heights, or Ossining — depending on the whims of your GPS) I was eager, especially when he said the band would not object if I brought my camera.  I thus had the odd and splendid experience of being able to hear and see hot jazz out-of-doors in the most gorgeous pastoral setting.  I also got to meet Brice’s quite delightful family: his mother Anne; son Odysseus; his daughter Aubrey; his sister Liana.  In addition, I got to chat again with Ana Quintana, and petted the New Wonders’ mascot, Chester.

And there was glorious music by Mike Davis, cornet and vocal; Jay Lepley, drums; Jared Engel, banjo; Jay Rattman, bass sax and miscellaneous instrument; Ricky Alexander, reeds; Joe McDonough, trombone.  (Mike also sings splendidly — earnestly but loosely — on many tracks, and there’s also band vocals and band banter.)

The band takes its name from a particular line of instruments manufactured by the Conn people in the Twenties, and Mike plays a Conn New Wonder cornet.  The New Wonders stay pretty seriously in the Twenties, offering pop songs of the day, jazz classics — both transcribed and improvised on — and homages to Bix and Tram, Paul Whiteman, Cliff Edwards, the California Ramblers, Red Nichols and Miff Mole, and more.

A great deal of beautifully-played hot jazz was offered to us that August afternoon.  Here are the first seven tunes, one for each day of the week.

I GET THE BLUES WHEN IT RAINS (fortunately, this song title did not come true at Brice’s party):

THAT’S MY WEAKNESS NOW (with the verse and a second chorus and a third — how much music the New Wonders can, like their ancestors, pack into three minutes):

MY GAL SAL (thinking of the pride of Ogden, Utah):

CHICAGO:

ONE LITTLE KISS (their homage to Cliff Edwards and the Eton Boys, nobly done):

TAKE YOUR TOMORROW (thinking of Bix and Tram):

POOR PAPA:

There are two more lavishly Edenic segments to come.  Not blasphemous, just paradisical.

May your happiness increase!