Sometimes the fabled past, unearthed, falls short of our expectations. The rare recordings of the memorable band occasionally seem small: “Is that what we were waiting for all these years?” we ask.
But one disc by Ev Farey’s Bay City Jazz Band (TradJazz Productions CD 2123) has been a delight rather than a disappointment.
I first became interested in this music as after reading Jim Leigh’s insightful and witty memoir, HEAVEN ON THE SIDE — where he writes about this gig at the Sail ‘N. And in the wake of Jim’s recent death, I have been listening even more to this disc — with great pleasure.
The band is led by cornetist Ev Farey (someone still playing beautifully — I can testify to this from seeing him in person just a few weeks ago); Jim on trombone; Tito Patri, banjo; Art Nortier, piano; Walt Yost, string bass . . . . and the remarkable Bob Helm on clarinet.
Some bands conspicuously exert themselves, as if they had to get our attention — but the 1958 Bay City Jazz Band knew how to take its time, to be intense without strain. An easy-rocking momentum dominates the disc, whether the band is emulating Oliver on SNAKE RAG or building slow fires under RICHARD M. JONES BLUES and RIVERSIDE BLUES. No one gets much out of the middle register; there are no long solos. The emphasis is on a communal ensemble and each selection moves along on its own swinging path. But the music is bright, imaginative, with no one tied to the original recordings.
The mood overall is lyrical — I found myself admiring Farey’s gentle, down-the-middle melodic embellishments, his singing tone, his amiable gliding motion. Helm has long been celebrated as a nimble soloist but his ensemble playing doesn’t sound like anyone else’s (except perhaps his own version of Dodds and Simeon.) Leigh’s concise, homegrown ardor fits in neatly. On recordings of this sort, often the front line and the rhythm section seem to be running on approximately parallel tracks — the two trios meet at the start and end of selections. Not so here.
The repertoire comes from an imagined 1926 Chicago, with an emphasis on early Louis with a sideways glance at Morton and contemporaries: STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE; JAZZIN’ BABIES BLUES; HOUSE OF DAVID BLUES; GEORGIA BO BO; NEW ORLEANS STOMP; SMOKEY MOKES; GUT BUCKET BLUES; SAN; MECCA FLAT BLUES; COME BACK SWEET PAPA; SAN; SKID-DAT-DE-DAT; WILLIE THE WEEPER; MILENBERG JOYS. Turk’s tribute to Helm, BROTHER LOWDOWN, is here, as is another Murphy discovery, GOT DEM BLUES, an 1897 composition believed to be the earliest published blues.
And in case you were wondering about the sonic quality of 1958 tapes, they were recorded close to the band and have been well-treated, so the music comes through nicely.
One of the particular bittersweet pleasures about this issue is that Jim Leigh wrote the notes. Here’s an excerpt:
The music here can speak for itself. There is quite a lot of tape wound on the band during my time on board, and this is some of the very best. Helm would not have been comfortable to hear it said, but he is the star as he had been three years earlier with our ElDorado JB, as he was so often, with no matter whom. As always, it is impossible to say whether he was more brilliant as a soloist or an ensemble player; it is all one pure stream of music and there was no virtue he valued more highly than what he called continuity. From having been lucky enough to play with the man many times in different groups, my impression is still deep that Helm’s presence on the stand invariably brought out the best in his band mates. Not through competitiveness, but rather the joy he communicated and the sheer pleasure of listening to/playing with such a musician.
To hear samples from a wide range of the TradJazz Productions CDs — featuring Bob Helm, Ev Farey, Hal Smith, Claire Austin, Darnell Howard, Leon Oakley, Jim Leigh, Frank Chace, Bud Freeman, Clint Baker, Earl Scheelar, Russ Gilman, Floyd O’Brien, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Baby Dodds, Natty Dominique, and others, click here.
To purchase LIVE! AT THE SAIL’N and learn about the Trad Jazz Production label’s other issues, click here. (I understand that there’s a new Leigh CD, just released . . . . more about that soon.)
May your happiness increase.