Imagine a jam session after hours in Chicago, circa 1934 or so (the date, being imagined, is flexible). Waiting their turn to play are Pee Wee Russell, Rod Cless, Omer Simeon, Boyce Brown, Guy Kelly, Jess Stacy, Earl Hines, Cassino Simpson, Frank Melrose, Joe Sullivan, Wellman Braud, Truck Parham, Zutty Singleton, George Wettling, and others.
No, the late John Steiner didn’t record such a gathering of saints and heroes.
But a modern evocation of such a gathering is to be found when one of my new-irreplaceable-favorite jazz groups, the FIRST THURSDAY JAZZ BAND, comes to play.
They are Ray Skjelbred, leader, piano; Steve Wright, reeds, cornet; Dave Brown, string bass, Mike Daugherty, drums. Everyone in the quartet has been known to sing a chorus or two. It’s a thrifty, focused, engaging quartet — listeners get more than their money’s worth!
I’ve shared some YouTube videos of the band, performing at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant in Seattle, Washington — and more are at the bottom of this blogpost.
But there’s good news tonight, as a famous radio broadcaster used to say. The First Thursday Jazz Band has just come out with their debut CD — drop evertyhing and pay attention, please!
It’s an old-fashioned production: recorded on the job (but with a sweetly attentive audience) in good sound, with a variety of songs and approaches — one of those CDs you can listen to the whole way through and come back to again right away.
If you know anything about Ray Skjelbred, you know that he rocks — and he loves both classic and unusual material. And people who admire him can argue (in the nicest of ways) if he is a greater soloist than an accompanist. Like Stacy, Ray is so fine backing up someone else that occasionally I want to listen to the track again just to hear his bubbling down-home fills and figures.
Ray’s partner in the rhythm section is the quietly propulsive Dave Brown. String bassists tend to get less respect than they deserve, but rhythm is Dave’s business. And business sure is swell. He has a big plush sound (no amps, thank you kindly) but he doesn’t need one. And his time is neither stodgy nor over-eager: I think of the Blessed Walter Page when I hear Dave play.
Mike Daugherty (the man with the red drum) is a jovial player with fine time and a whole galaxy of sonic effects from his kit. He doesn’t opt for the usual tricks, but often just stays on his snare with a rich, padding brush carpet, or moves around his set in a way that feels just right. No showboating, no look-at-me, not ever.
Steve Wright should get triple or quadruple pay, but I don’t think he’d even entertain the notion of asking for it. A sweet alto player (a style I miss a great deal) with deep but casual lyricism, a clarinet player who can be Russell-tart or Darnell Howard-smooth, and a neat, unflurried Bixian trumpeter — sweetly to the point.
That’s the band — and these fellows are having a good time purling through the repertoire. Their quiet pleasure comes through from the first note.
The CD is called simple RAY SKJELBRED and the FIRST THURSDAY BAND, and it’s on the Orangapoid label (number 103). It has a wonderfully diverse repertoire — Don Redman and Chris Smith, Louis and Red McKenzie, old favorites, oddities, and deep blues. (JAMES ALLEY BLUES, sung guttily by Bob Jackson, is priceless — immediately identifiable as authentic.)
The songs are YELLOW DOG BLUES / YEARNING AND BLUE / CAVERNISM / SOLID ROCK / TRY GETTING A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP / DON’T BLAME ME / LOVER COME BACK TO ME / FAR AWAY BLUES / NEVER HAD A REASON TO BELIEVE IN YOU / SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY / LET ME CALL YOU SWEETHEART / HUSTLIN’ AND BUSTLIN’ FOR BABY / JAMES ALLEY BLUES / CHERRY / PENNIES FROM HEAVEN / SHAKE THAT JELLY ROLL.
I wish I could send you to your local record shop and be assured that it would be there — several copies! — but I think those days are gone, gone, gone. However. Obviously if you meet Ray at a gig (or the other FT chaps) you can buy a copy for the pittance of $15. But for most of us, the idea of meeting Ray or the FTJB in person has a certain dreamlike quality. So for $18, Ray himself will mail you a copy. He promises! The details go like this. Ray Skjelbred can be found at 19526 40th PL. NE., Lake Forest Park, Washington 98155. If you need more information or want to make a quantity order of a hundred copies, feel free to let me know and I will tell Ray immediately. Here’s what the cover looks like.
Now. I promised some new YouTube clips (I regret that they aren’t mine, but they are still lovely) recorded at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant on June 2, 2011.
Let’s begin with a ruminative PENNIES FROM HEAVEN that has all sorts of bonuses — Ray plays the verse in fine Crosby fashion, and Steve solos on clarinet and cornet:
Something in memory of Frank Melrose and George Wettling (with Tesch and Bud in the dim background), the WAILING BLUES:
Want to be some place where they huggy and kissy nice? How about NAGASAKI?
And two highly reason-able songs, with connections to Red McKenzie, Wingy Mannone, Jack Teagarden, Fats Waller — the first being NEVER HAD A REASON TO BELIEVE IN YOU (vocalizing by Mike Daugherty):
And that eternal plaint, WHAT’S THE REASON (I’M NOT PLEASIN’ YOU)?
ROLL ALONG, PRAIRIE MOON might have been just another Thirties cowboy song if Red Allen and J.C. Higginbotham hadn’t been handed it in the Vocalion studios. “Take another one, Higgy!” I think also of the version with vocal by Al Bowlly to which Bob Hoskins emoted in PENNIES FROM HEAVEN. Vocal by Mike, doubling by Steve:
And THE SONG IS ENDED:
But that last song title (with apologies to Mr. Berlin) isn’t accurate. There are more videos from this evening on YouTube, and — that new CD!
Be the first one in your neighborhood to be walking around with a wide grin — and when someone says, “Why the hell are YOU so happy?” you can say, “Have you heard the new CD by The First Thursday Jazz Band?” And — if you’re a really charitable spreader-of-the-good-word, you can share your headphones / iPod, or even invite them into your car for a few minutes of The Real Thing.