Tag Archives: tempo

“MANHANDLING,” or IMPROVISATIONS ON THE FAMILIAR (January 31, 1944)

Time matters. Pulse matters.  And in music, a tempo even slightly slower or slightly faster makes a substantial difference in how a familiar piece of music comes across to us. Through decades of performance, we are used to hearing Carmichael’s STAR DUST — or STARDUST, if you prefer — as a dreamy, haunting ballad, although it didn’t begin its recorded life that way in 1927. But improvisers take chances. . . .it is as if your favorite sixtyish uncle dyed his white hair bright blue just to see what it would look like, and it looked fine.

Two bold takers-of-chances were the Chicago pianist Oro “Tut” Soper and drummer Baby Dodds, who recorded several duets for the Steiner-Davis label (the creation of John Steiner, revered jazz scholar and collector, and Hugh Davis) in early 1944, at the home of pianist Jack Gardner.

A wonderfully detailed survey, by Robert Pruter, Robert L. Campbell, Konrad Nowakowski, and Tom Kelly, of that label and the stories behind the recordings can be found here, and the two photographs in this posting come from that site.  But most important is the musical evidence: Tut Soper showing his radical exuberance and playfulness, by taking this ballad — and ballad it was, by 1944 — and treating it much as Earl Hines did LOVE ME TONIGHT, a melody to be explored, a song to be swung:

Here’s some fascinating commentary on this side and its fellows, from the site noted above.  (Was violinist Elmer Fearn “Mr. Fearn” of OKeh Records?  It isn’t a common name.)

Pianist Tut Soper was born Oro M. Soper on April 9, 1910. In the early 1920s, Soper made a record on OKeh with a group of kids, all 13 and under, called The Five Baby Shieks. Besides Soper on piano, they included Art Elefson on drums, Howard Snyder on sax, and Elmer Fearn on violin. By the late 1920s he was a regular in Chicago clubs, despite being underaged, and performing with Bunny Berigan, Wingy Mannone, Boyd Brown, and Floyd Town. After years of playing in bands, in the late 1930s Soper went solo, introduced vocals to his repertoire, and played in such clubs as the legendary Three Deuces (222 North State).

By the war years, Soper could be found in the Randolph Street nightclub district. He was playing around the corner from Randolph Street at the Capitol Lounge on State when his S D recordings were made. Steiner and Davis teamed Soper up with Dodds in pianist Jack Gardner’s apartment for the session. Gardner owned a particularly fine piano, which is why the session was held in his place, at 102 East Bellevue, a basement apartment located in the same complex as John Steiner’s. Jazz fans tend to revel in improvisation, and Down Beat columnist George Hoefer loved the idea at how “impromptu” the recording was, as Soper and Dodds had never met before, and had to feel each other out in the recording process.

Down Beat reviewer John Lucas—who tended to give favorable reviews to his collector colleagues’ product—cited these releases as “some of the finest jazz piano waxed in many years.” He raved about each one of the songs, and concluded, “The rip-rattling drum accompaniment provided by the one and only Baby Dodds simply could not be touched by anyone else. If Soper is super, Dodds is at once devastating, dynamic, and droll!”

In a lengthy review published in the October 1944 issue of The Jazz Record, George Avakian gave effusive praise to S D 5000 and 5001. “Picture Earl Hines in the full flower of his wildest period, playing as though it were his last chance to explode through with vital ideas of earth-shaking consequence. This is Tut Soper; an exciting, intensely live pianist whose work doesn’t merely “send” you the way many agitated instrumentalists can—it reaches out, grabs you by the throat, and shakes and chokes hell out of you” (p. 3). Avakian contrasted Soper’s genuineness and avoidance of clichés with the mannerisms of “the present-day frantic clique,” into which he went so far as to lump “such hopeless musicians as Lionel Hampton, Art Tatum, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, and a whole string of trumpet players, electric guitar virtuosos, and Hazel Scotts” (p. 3). Out of the four, Avakian declared that “[t]he originals—Oronics and It’s a Ramble—are my pet sides, displaying Tut’s talents in two tempos and two moods, both nonetheless full of his overall excitement. The first is sheer panic, but good; the Ramble is reflective and rather interestingly developed from the melodic view. The others are Soper franticizations of Thou Swell and Star Dust, and the tunes improve under his manhandling.” (p. 3.) Of Dodds’ contributions, Avakian complained (p. 11) that the drummer “loses much of his subtlety” on Oronics, but praised him for his rapport with Soper elswhere on the session.

John Chilton described Soper as one of the leading pianists in Chicago, and credited him with working with Bud Freeman, Wild Bill Davison, Boyce Brown, Bud Jacobson, and Eddie Wiggins, among others. In the early 1950s, Soper worked in California with Muggsy Spanier and Marty Marsala. He toured with Eddie Condon in 1960.

Soper in his later years worked mostly as an insurance salesman for the Chicago Motor Club. He died in March 1987. His obit described him as a former jazz pianist, who had played for 50 years in “some of Chicago’s most famous jazz clubs and with the bands of Gene Krupa and Bud Freeman.”

Soper sources: M/Sgt. George Avakian, “Records—Old and New,” The Jazz Record, October 1944, pp. 3, 11; George Hoefer Jr., “The Hot Box,” Down Beat, 15 June 1944; [John Lucas] “Diggin’ The Discs,” Down Beat, 15 July 1944, p. 8; Catherine Jacobson, “Oro ‘Tut’ Soper,” Jazz Vol. 1, No. 10 (December 1943): 8-9; “Oro Soper” [Obit], Chicago Tribune, March 24, 1987; Tom Lord, The Jazz Discography, Volume 21 (West Vancouver, B.C.: Lord’s Music, 1999): S1057.

STAR DUST — shaken and stirred, manhandled and franticized — remains undamaged, and we are grateful to Tut and Baby for their emotional fervor and technique.

May your happiness increase!

A MAGIC TEMPO: EHUD ASHERIE, HAL SMITH, JOEL FORBES, SCOTT ROBINSON, RANDY REINHART (Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, September 17, 2017)

One of the most durable songs in the jazz and pop repertoire, from its introduction in 1924, OH, LADY BE GOOD has always been performed at a rather brisk tempo.  Here’s an early dance band version:

and many jazz musicians took their cue from the 1936 Jones-Smith, Inc. version. But Basie and others knew that too fast is never good, that the sprinters can wear themselves out.  So I take special pleasure in this groovy performance from the 2017 Cleveland Classic Jazz Party (alas, now a memory) by Ehud Asherie, piano; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone; Hal Smith, drums; Randy Reinhart, cornet; Joel Forbes, string bass.

Whether the Lady behaved herself in response to this entreaty, I cannot say.  But making the request at this tempo was a real pleasure.

May your happiness increase!

FROM THE ARCHIVES: JON-ERIK LEADS THE BAND (Sept. 2009)

Over the past five years, Jon-Erik Kellso is the musician I’ve had the most frequent opportunities to observe and appreciate.  And I keep coming back for more: he doesn’t run out of things to say; he doesn’t fall back on prepared solos; he takes risks; he balances technique and emotion, individuality and tradition superbly.  When he gets into what he calls “his happy place,” he has no equals!

So I offer this version of a rarely-played Twenties pop tune, DO YOU EVER THINK OF ME? (a memorable question for sure) that he played at Jazz at Chautauqua this last September.  His colleagues for this session were James Dapogny, Vince Giordano, and Arnie Kinsella in the rhythm section, with Dan Block, Bob Havens, and Bob Reitmeier in the front line.

In anyone else’s hands, a set-closer at this tempo (and with seventy or so years of performance convention behind it) would be simple and not always subtle: a rocketing tempo, a long drum solo, and horn solos without much support from the band.  You’ve all seen such performances: Fast becomes Faster and the soloists are left on their own while the front line waits its turn off to the side.  Not so here.  Jon-Erik learned a great deal about leading an ensemble from the Master, Ruby Braff, who knew how to keep monotony at bay.  Without pushing anyone around, Jon knows how to lead an ensemble.  So, in this performance, he wisely extends the opening ensemble chorus into a second one (honoring New Orleans traditions all the way up to the present — why let the emotional temperature drop?).  And while the wonderful rhythm section is cooking away, Jon motions to the horns who aren’t soloing to play “footballs,” whole-note harmonies, musical and emotional choirs giving strength to the band.  His own solo (which plays with a phrase from Bob Reitmeier’s outing) gets a well-deserved thumbs-up.

And everyone floats on the momentum: Dapogny takes risks that come off; Vince Giordano and Arnie Kinsella exchange comments, witty and thunderous, becoming the twentieth-century version of Milt Hinton and Jo Jones — which leads to the closing ensemble.  Thinking orchestrally, Jon-Erik guides the horns into a soft passage (you have to play softly to shout it out at the end) and we romp home.  Even the still photographer in the plaid shirt, who sweetly yet obliviously blocked my view, couldn’t stifle my joy.  Or ours, I trust.

Swing, you cats!  

MORE WORDS TO LIVE BY

“His main theme was that you didn’t have to play loud but that you needed intensity to get the listener’s attention.  This turned out to be the greatest of all lessons in how and what to play.”

wo-smithThese words come from a fascinating book, now apparently out of print but worth searching out: SIDEMAN: THE LONG GIG OF W.O. SMITH.  William Oscar Smith is the bassist on Hawkins’s 1939 Bluebird session, the one that produced “Body and Soul.”  That should be enough renown for anyone, but Smith went on to be a generous and respected educator.

Those of you who follow this blog will not be surprised that the quotation is something Smith remembered Sidney Catlett telling young musicians in the early Forties.  I’ve included it here not as another tribute to Sid, although who would deny me that?  But it’s applicable — in its own way — to current jazz performance practice.

At the gigs I attend, musicians rarely feel the need to outshout one another.  Most of the clubs are intimate (read: “cramped”) so that raising the volume of your solo for the sake of loudness isn’t something people do.

But I am always amazed and dismayed by how many musicians unconsciously accelerate tempos, carried away by the intensity of the solos they hear.  Musician A plays more intensely, digging into his notes, so B (feeling the spirit alongside him) gets faster and faster.  These aren’t amateurs, by the way.  Now, I know how hard it is to improvise, and I am sitting at a table, silently censorious as the piece that began as a medium-tempo rock is now a sprint.  I also know that some of the greatest live performances rush or drag, and that very famous musicians tended to do this.  I will not call the roll in this blog, for, after all, jazz isn’t a metronomic art.  It isn’t mechanical, nor should it be.

But the only rushing I approve of wholeheartedly is Jiimmy Rushing.