Both Ray Skjelbred and Carl Sonny Leyland are bright skies in my night sky, deep quirky soulful individualists. Each is a strong-willed person and player. Although they have some of the same ends in mind — swing, lyricism, and a deep immersion in the blues — they always take different routes to get to those ends. Having them sit down at two pianos in a room is a great dream of mine; having them do so in front of a quiet audience with an expert videographer is almost more than I could hope for. But it happened, as you will see.
I was at perhaps their first public conversation — at the Jazz Bash by the Bay, March 9, 2014 — which rings in my ears and heart, although the pianos were widely spaced making them hard to video simultaneously. However, the blessed jubilant evidence remains! — this and this and this, too. (It makes me nostalgic for Monterey, but we’ll be there in March 2020 if the creeks don’t rise.)
But here, thanks to Rae Ann Berry, is a selection from their most recent collaboration. I haven’t posted all of what happened at the Jennings’ house party — there are more than two dozen songs and one prose poem — but you can chase down the delights on your own. Here are treasures.
SONG OF THE WANDERER:
Ray, musing his way through Fats Waller’s CHELSEA:
The Rhythmakers’ YES, SIR!:
KMH DRAG (for Max Kaminsky, Freddie Moore, Art Hodes):
Sonny’s RAT CATCHER’S BLUES:
Sonny’s delicate boogie version of TOGETHER, which I would guess is in honor of Denis Gilmore:
an indigo reading of HOW LONG BLUES:
and a frolicsome SWIPSEY CAKEWALK, so wonderfully orchestral:
Living at a cosmic intersection where Sonny and Ray can create together is a great uplifting boon. Bless them, Rae Ann, and Warren Jennings too.
May your happiness increase!
Kris Tokarski has been one of my favorite solo and ensemble pianists for some years now. It can’t be “many” years, because Kris is perhaps half my age, but my admiration is not limited by the length of our acquaintance. He listens, he creates melodies, he swings, he sounds like himself, and he has a deep appreciation for the past without being chained by narrow historical definitions.
He’s recorded in a variety of settings, but here I draw your attention to two CDs of ragtime pieces done with delicacy and individuality: the first, issued in 2016 on Solo Art, paired him with drummer-scholar Hal Smith and string bassist Cassidy Holden, pleased me and others immensely: read more about it here. KINKLETS from that disc:
The second disc by Kris and Hal, now joined by bassist Joshua Gouzy, issued on Big Al Records, is called RAGTIME – NEW ORLEANS STYLE, VOLUME TWO, and it’s a real pleasure. Hear a sample for yourself here (scroll down the page through the evidence of how well Kris plays with others and on his own).
The premise is a collection of rags that Jelly Roll Morton planned to record — or would have known and played. And it’s not a fanciful vision, as Hal Smith’s solid annotations show — in 1939, Morton discussed with Roy Carew his plans to play Joplin and others in his own style, because, as he told Carew, “he didn’t know of anyone more qualified to do it than himself,” and he envisioned recording thirty or forty rags. (Oh, had he lived for another decade!)
He didn’t live to accomplish this, but we have Tokarski, Gouzy, and Smith to make the fantasy real.
I am especially fond of projects that take a gently imaginative look at the past. Let those who feel drawn to such labors reproduce recordings: the results can be dazzling. It takes decades of skill to play BIG FAT MA AND SKINNY PA and sound even remotely like the Hot Five. But even more entrancing to me is the notion of “What might have happened . . . .?” going back to my early immersion in Golden Era science fiction. An example that stays in my mind is a series of Stomp Off recordings devoted to the Johnny Dodds repertoire, with the brilliant Matthias Seuffert taking on the mantle. But the most memorable track on those discs was Porter’s YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME, a pop tune from 1929 that Dodds might well have heard or even played — rendered convincingly and joyously in his idiom. (It really does something to me.)
That same playful vision applies to this disc. It merges, ever so gently, Jelly Roll Morton and an unhackneyed ragtime repertoire, mixing piano solos and piano trio. That in itself is a delightful combination, and I replayed this disc several times in a row when I first acquired a copy.
Kris plays beautifully, with a precise yet flexible approach to the instrument and the materials. He doesn’t undercut, satirize, or “modernize”; his approach is simultaneously loving and easy. It’s evident that he has heard and absorbed the lessons of James P. Johnson and Teddy Wilson — their particular balance of propulsion and relaxation — as well as being able to read the notes on the page. He doesn’t pretend to be Morton in the way that lesser musicians have done (with Bix, Louis, Monk, and others) — cramming in every possible Mortonism over and over. What he does is imagine a Mortonian approach, but he allows himself freedom to move idiomatically, with grace and beauty, within it. And he doesn’t, in the name of “authenticity,” make rags sound stiff because they were written before Joe Oliver and Little Louis took Chicago. He’s steady, but he’s steadily gliding. His approach to the rags is neither stuffy reverence nor near-hysterical display.
He’s in good company with Josh and Hal. Many string bassists working in this idiom confuse percussiveness with strength, and they hit the fretboard violently: making the bass a victim of misplaced enthusiasm. Not Joshua, who has power and melodic wisdom nicely combined: you can listen to his lines in the trio with the delight you’d take in a great horn soloist. Every note sings, and he’s clearly there with the pulse.
As for the drummer? To slightly alter a famous Teagarden line, “If Hal don’t get it, well, forget it right now,” which is to say that Hal’s playing on this disc is a beautifully subtle, completely “living” model of how to play ensemble drums: gracious yet encouraging, supportive. He doesn’t just play the beat: he creates a responsive tapestry of luxuriant sounds.
The CD is beautifully recorded by Tim Stambaugh of Word of Mouth Studios, and the repertoire is a treat — rags I’d never heard (THE WATERMELON TRUST by Harry C. Thompson, and ROLLER SKATERS RAG by Samuel Gompers) as well as compositions by Joplin, Lamb, Scott, Turpin, Matthews, and May Aufderheide. Nothing overfamiliar but all melodic and mobile.
Here’s another sample. Kris, Joshua, and Hal are the rhythm section of Hal’s Kid Ory “On the Levee” band, and here they play May Aufderheide’s DUSTY RAG at the San Diego Jazz Fest in November 2018:
Hear what I mean? They play with conviction but their seriousness is light-hearted. Volume Two is a disc that won’t grow tired or stale. Thank you, Kris, Josh, and Hal! And Jelly, of course.
May your happiness increase!
The young Canadian piano wizard Max Keenlyside is a fine player and composer, and we had a delightful brief meeting in person at the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, where he played an untitled and incomplete Joplin piece that I’ve titled FRAGMENTS OF JOPLIN. Music here:
I didn’t catch it all on video, but Max told me later that Joplin’s widow, Lottie, gave Brun Campbell a photo of Joplin at the piano, where there is visible part of an otherwise unknown Joplin composition, which Max transcribed, played, and amplified on. (Max also told me that “the full story was written about at length, I think, by Chris Ware in an issue of The Ragtime Ephemeralist, which surely must now be as rare as hens’ teeth.”)
Max’s musical range is broad, as you will see and hear, and I think it’s splendid that he might allow audience members to pick the program from his list. One he chose was James P. Johnson’s romp, RIFFS:
His next piece, Harold Arlen’s lovely IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON, so captivated me that I posted it right after the Festival — but since I can’t be sure that everyone’s already enjoyed it, I post it here again. Fats peeks in now and again, but it’s all Max:
Then, some Morton episodes, always welcome. First, THE PEARLS, which encapsulates the Master at the piano:
and from the Library of Congress recordings, SPANISH SWAT
A properly vigorous TIGER RAG, complete with elbow:
To conclude the set, a new composition by Max, which he explains, THE RED MOON:
And not incidentally, the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival will take place next year from May 29 to June 1, 2019. I’ll tell you more about it as I know . . . because I plan to be in Sedalia, Missouri, for that weekend of joy.
May your happiness increase!
More from the delightful Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet, a band which sprang full-grown to public acclaim in 2017. They are Brian Holland, piano; Danny Coots, drums; Steve Pikal, string bass; Marc Caparone, cornet, vocal; Evan Arntzen, clarinet, tenor saxophone, vocal. They soar; they woo.
Here they are outdoors in the very nice Gazebo Park during the 2018 Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, Missouri.
Their band version of RUSSIAN RAG has some kinship with the Wilbur DeParis performance, but do you know that Fats Waller recorded it, solo, in 1935?
A late-period Waller love song, from the score of EARLY TO BED, 1943, here crooned by Evan:
A romp by the magnificently creative yet short-lived Alex Hill, BABY BROWN:
And a very endearing love ballad, recorded but not composed by Fats, LET’S PRETEND THERE’S A MOON:
The HCJQ has also made a CD — appropriately, the music of Fats Waller. You can purchase it here and hear sound samples also.
This HCJQ will be playing the Evergreen Jazz Festival at the end of this month, and next spring they will be part of the Stomptime Musical Adventure Inauguaral Jazz Cruise, April 27 to May 4, 2019, “departing from Miami to the Eastern Caribbean (San Juan, Charlotte Amalie, Punta Cana, and Nassau) on the Celebrity Equinox for 7 nights of music and fun.”
May your happiness increase!
One of the great pleasures of the 2018 Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival was their Fats Waller tribute concert — guess who was second row center with camera and tripod as his date? I will share videos of the Holland-Coots Quintet playing and singing superbly, but first, something rich and rare, the opportunity to hear Neville Dickie in person. I’ve heard him on recordings for years, but how he plays! Steady, swinging, inventive, and without cliche.
Some pianists who want to be Wallerizing go from one learned four-bar motif to the next, but not Neville, who has so wonderfully internalized all kinds of piano playing that they long ago became him, as natural as speech. Eloquent, witty speech, I might add.
Some might think, “What’s a drummer doing up there with that pianist?” but when the drummer is Danny Coots, it’s impudent to ask that question, because Danny adds so much and listens so deeply. And there is a long tradition of Piano and Traps. I thought immediately of James P. Johnson and Eddie Dougherty, of Frank Melrose and Tommy Taylor, of Donald Lambert and Howard Kadison, of Willie “the Lion” Smith and Jo Jones, of Sammy Price and Sidney Catlett, of Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, and Jimmy Hoskins . . . and I am sure that there are other teams I have left out here.
Danny’s tap-dancer’s breaks may catch your ear (how expert!) but his steady color-filled but subtle support is what I admire even more. He’s always paying attention, which is no small thing no matter what instrument you play. In life.
Here are the four selections this inspired duo performed at the concert: only one of them a familiar Waller composition, which is also very refreshing. Need I point out how rewarding these compact performances are — they are all almost the length of a 12″ 78 but they never feel squeezed or rushed. Medium tempos, too.
A NEW KIND OF A MAN WITH A NEW KIND OF LOVE comes, as Neville says, from a piano roll — but this rendition has none of the familiar rhythmic stiffness that some reverent pianists now think necessary:
TAKE IT FROM ME (I’M TAKIN’ TO YOU) has slightly formulaic lyrics by Stanley Adams, but it’s a very cheerful melody. I knew it first from the 1931 Leo Reisman version with Lee Wiley and Bubber Miley, which is a wondrous combination. But Neville and Danny have the same jovial spirit. And they play the verse! Catch how they move the rhythms around from a very subtle rolling bass to a light-hearted 4/4 with Danny accenting in 2 now and again:
Then, the one recognized classic, thanks to Louis and a thousand others, I’VE GOT A FEELING I’M FALLING. Neville, who certainly knows how to talk to audiences, is a very amusing raconteur in addition to everything else. And the feeling I get when he and Danny go from the rather oratorical reading of the verse into tempo!
Finally (alas!) there’s CONCENTRATIN’ (ON YOU) which I know from recordings by the peerless Mildred Bailey and Connie (not yet Connee) Boswell: I can hear their versions in my mind’s ear. But Neville and Danny have joined those aural memories for me:
What a pair! Mr. Waller approves. As do I. As did the audience.
May your happiness increase!
We continue the further adventures of our Quintet of Superheroes at the 2018 Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival: those real-life vanquishers of gloom and inertia being the Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet: Brian Holland, piano; Danny Coots, drums; Steve Pikal, string bass; Marc Caparone, cornet, vocal; Evan Arntzen, clarinet, tenor saxophone, vocal.
Here‘s Part One, and a little text of approval from Kerry Mills here.
And three more juicy and flavorful examples of this band’s versatility: a hot ballad (vocal by Marc), a Joplin classic, and a searing tribute to a dangerous animal or to Michigan (you can choose) by Jelly Roll Morton.
SOMEDAY, SWEETHEART (I prefer the comma, although you can’t hear it):
What some people think of as “the music from ‘The Sting,'” Scott Joplin’s THE ENTERTAINER, here in a version that owes something to Mutt Carey and Bunk Johnson, who loved to serve their ragtime hot:
Jelly Roll’s WOLVERINE BLUES, in a version that (once we get past Danny’s carnivorous introduction) blows the mercury out of the thermometer:
A Word to the Wise. Get used to these five multi-talented folks, singly and as a band. (“These guys can do anything,” says Brian, and he’s right.) They’re going to be around for a long time. I’m going to be posting their music as long as I can find the right keys on the keyboard.
May your happiness increase!