Tag Archives: William Russell

THE OPPOSITE OF DESTRUCTIVENESS IS KINDNESS, OR, TAKE A LOOK AT T WERK’S WORKS

I’m reposting this February 2017 post for a reason.  I’ve never met the string bassist and energetic recordist T Werk Thomson in person, but I’ve admired his work (or werk) from when I first heard it.  Simply, about a year ago, he created in his New Orleans home a recording studio.  Not with ProTools and his MacBook, but with a Presto disc cutter, a supply of “new” 78 recording blanks, and he set out to capture good music in the best old-time ways.  And that music — detailed below — was just splendid.  As well, I applauded the splendid eccentricity of his capturing it as hot jazz, cage-free, organic, and locally sourced.  (Another product of T Werk’s studio is Charlie Halloran’s superb CE BIGUINE.)

At the end of 2017, I and others learned that someone had maliciously vandalized T Werk’s studio and destroyed his disc cutter and all that it needed to make more records.  I won’t go into the dark details — this is a jazz blog, not an episode of a television cop show — but that act seemed spectacularly mean-spirited.  Jo Anna Mae Amlin set up a GoFundMe page here and some people have been contributing.  I encourage you to do so.  As Louis sings in SHOE SHINE BOY, “every nickel helps a lot,” and one can match altruism with desire. If T Werk gets his studio running again, there will be more records for us to enjoy. So even if kindness in the abstract seems more than you can do, kindness with a reward is worth the effort.  If everyone who’s heard T Werk swing out paid in the price of a large Starbucks drink, or a beer, or (for the antiquarians among us) a CD, he would be able to reconstruct his studio quickly.  (And I should point out that Presto disc cutters and acetate blanks are not items one can pick up at the corner store.)

So: help out someone who’s already done a great deal for the music and for us.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled effusions.

The CD below is delightfully weird but the results are entirely gratifying. Perhaps that sentence should properly read “and the results”: you decide.

Exhibit A.  The process:

Twerk Thomson with Kris Tokarski and Ben Polcer, and two turntables. Photograph by John A. Dixon.

Twerk Thomson with Kris Tokarski and Ben Polcer, and two turntables. Photograph by John A. Dixon.

Exhibit A.1.a: A Presto disc cutter from eBay:

presto-cutter

Exhibit A.1.b: Blank discs, also from eBay:

presto-discs

Exhibit B. The result:

twerk-cd-cover

Exhibit B.1.a.:

bunk-popular

Exhibit C. The results, continued here.

Exhibiit D.  The explanation.  The story has different parts, which combine. Twerk Thomson is a young yet respected New Orleans string bassist, with a real understanding of the art form, often heard with the Shotgun Jazz Band.  And he, like other musicians and scholars, is fascinated by the intersection of “archaic” sound and the technology of its time. It’s one thing to get musicians into a modern studio — which, at its most “modern,” is a very restrictive environment, where musicians can barely see each other and hear each other through headphones . . . and then try to improvise music that will seem natural to the disc’s purchaser.  But what happens when you record twenty-first century improvisers with the technology of the previous century, the century that gave birth to the innovators they (and we) so admire?  The music I am celebrating in this post, created last year, is a tribute to Bill Russell’s American Music creations. And the new CD sounds wonderful.

But something needs to be said about the Presto home record cutter and discs. Before the computer and the iPhone . . . music used to be packaged tangibly on a variety of discs, and enterprising people could record their own music at home — whether it was Aunt Ella singing and playing hymns or the Paso Robles Wanderers working out the trio of MABEL’S DREAM.  I have found these discs at yard sales, and they’ve never offered something life-changing, such as a broadcast from the Reno Club, but they are tantalizing.  The whole idea is roughly parallel to another piece of archaic technology, the Polaroid camera, but I assure you the discs hold up better.

Twerk told me, “I got my first cutter about a year and a half ago, which ended up being completely useless.  So I ended up buying two more.  They come up on eBay every so often. Finding ones that were affordable was the big challenge.
Blanks come up on eBay as well but they are very hit and miss when It comes to quality. I actually ended up finding a bunch of original presto blanks on there once that were actually still usable. They came in the original packaging which was really cool.  But for higher quality blanks we use a company called Apollo, from California.”

The official version is “The performances herein were recorded live with one microphone into a Presto K8 lathe, cut directly to acetate discs at 78 rpm, and edited only for volume. All Sessions Produced by Twerk Thomson and Recorded by John Dixon, Live at Twerk-O-Phonic Studios, New Orleans, LA.”

The songs: OH, YOU BEAUTIFUL DOLL / OLD FASHIONED LOVE / MY GAL SAL / PRETTY BABY / SOMEDAY, SWEETHEART / SWEET BYE AND BYE (Twerk Thomson, string bass; Ben Polcer, trumpet; Kris Tokarski, piano) / JADA / SHINE  / ONE SWEET LETTER FROM YOU / NOON BLUES / MARIE / YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE / MELANCHOLY BLUES  (Twerk, John Rodli, guitar, vocal on JADA; Kris; Ben; James Evans, C-melody saxophone, clarinet; Charlie Halloran, trombone) / IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE TREE / MAMA’S GONE, GOODBYE / POOR BUTTERFLY (Twerk, Russell Welch, guitar; Alex Owen, trumpet; Bruce Brackmon, clarinet; Marty Peters, tenor saxophone) / HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO? / HOME (Twerk, tenor guitar; Marla Dixon, trumpet and vocal).

Exhibit E: Twerk Thomson on Facebook.

If you’re familiar with any of the heroes recorded on this disc (and you can hear / download / purchase the music on the Soundcloud link above) you will know what to expect: music that is both romping and elegantly controlled, harking back to the Bunk Johnson – Don Ewell – Alphonso Steele trios and slightly larger ensembles.  The “vintage sound” — powerfully focused if somewhat narrower (at first) than we are used to — is so atmospheric.  The discs have occasional surface noise, whooshes and clicks, but the noise is part of the overall effect rather than something added on synthetically.  Everyone plays beautifully and with heart, so the result is not merely the documentation of a gimmick, but a melding of technology and reverent impulse.

I first heard a few of the individual sessions on Twerk’s Facebook page, and thought, “Wow, I hope he puts these into a form that people who want to get away from their computers can purchase and have.”  And he did.  So I can now time-travel to some indeterminate place whenever I want, even while driving to work.  And Twerk has also established Twerk-O-Phonic Studios as a place (a sanctuary for music!) where you can visit and record your own music onto an actual disc — a single artifact, not a mass-produced product — to have, to hear, to admire.  I don’t want this to become such a phenomenon that he no longer has time to play the propulsive string bass he does so well, but a little prosperity would be nice.

I commend this disc to you.  The music on it both embraces and transcends the technology.  And, to me, the complete idea — the musicians, the home environment, the discs — is heartwarming.

May your happiness increase!

A COMFORTABLE PASTORAL: JOHNNY WIGGS and RAYMOND BURKE on CD

The recordings that cornetist Johnny Wiggs, clarinetist Raymond Burke, guitarist / singer Dr. Edmond Souchon, and string bassist / singer Sherwood Mangiapane made in two sessions in New Orleans (in 1952 and 1955) have been both glorious and elusive.  Issued on two ten-inch microgroove recordings on the even more elusive Paramount and Steiner-Davis labels, they were wonderful yet invisible.  I first heard some of this music on a cassette copy made for me by the late Bob Hilbert, and I knew much more existed but had never heard it.  A year ago, I saw one of the records on eBay at a low price and (atypically) was able to buy it without eroding my savings. I thought the front was very impressive.

WIGGS-BURKE 10

But the reverse was a real surprise (the eBay seller either didn’t turn the record over or wasn’t interested): it was autographed by Doctor Souchon to Pinky Vidacovitch:

WIGGS-BURKE 10 back

But this is a post about music, not about record collecting, so I hope my digression is pertinent here. I should say that the sessions were originally envisioned by collector / archivist / scholar John Steiner as trios — clarinet, guitar, bass — echoing the recordings of George Lewis that William Russell had made earlier.  Russell agreed to record the Burke-Souchon-Mangiapane trio, but — happily for us — Johnny Wiggs came by with his horn and the group became a quartet.  The two vinyl issues collected sixteen performances.

I — and no doubt others — have been waiting, hoping for this music to be effectively issued on compact disc. And it happened!  The American Music label has issued a two-disc set of the WIGGS-BURKE BIG FOUR. Not only does it offer the original sixteen tracks but a good many alternate takes, performances that didn’t make the original issues, and three tracks from 1957 that bring together Burke, Wiggs, Souchon, Art Hodes, and Freddie Moore. On one or two tracks, Raymond plays the harmonica (not a high point in recorded music, but we needed to know about it, and a tin flute.  Wise notes by the deeply-involved Butch Thompson and some rare photographs make the set complete.  The recorded sound is fine and the discs are well-programmed, so each disc sounds like a small rewarding session on its own.

BURKE-WIGGS CD

The songs are (asterisks denoting a title with more than one version) PUT ON YOUR OLD GREY BONNET / ALL NIGHT LONG* / AT SUNDOWN / BUDDY BOLDEN’S BLUES* / MEMORIES / RAY’S TUNE* / CONGO SQUARE / BUCKTOWN BOUNCE / I CAN’T USE IT / IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE TREE / HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO?* / MAMA’S BABY BOY* (a/k/a DO WHAT ORY SAY) / ALL THE WRONGS YOU’VE DONE TO ME / MILENBERG JOYS / POSTMAN’S LAMENT* / BLACK SNAKE BLUES / SMILES / SINGIN’ THE BLUES / SPANISH TINGE* / HARMONICA BLUES / WALKIN’ THE DOG / TULIP STOMP (a/k/a WHEN YOU WORE A TULIP) / DARKTOWN STRUTTERS’ BALL / GOING HOME / CHINATOWN / JUST A LITTLE WHILE TO STAY HERE / BABY WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME? / JOHNNY’S BOUNCE / BUCK TOWN / HEEBIE JEEBIES / MAKE ME A PALLET ON THE FLOOR / SISTER KATE / TIN CAN ALLEY / UNKNOWN TUNE / CITY OF A MILLION DREAMS.

Here  is Jazzology Music (the GHB Jazz Foundation): the primary site where the discs can be bought — and if you notice the Index, bottom right of the page, with a careful scrolling motion you can hear the WIGGS-BURKE BIG FOUR play PUT ON YOUR OLD GREY BONNET.  If that doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will.

I don’t usually become hyperbolic and tell my readers that this is “the one disc they must buy,” “the one festival they must go to,” etc., because there is so much enticing and enduring music both being reissued and being made live even as I write this.  Yet I think that the WIGGS-BURKE BIG FOUR has given me an extraordinary amount of the pleasure in the months that I have had and played it . . . and played it.  And I certainly think that the musicians who think of themselves as “traditionalists” and beyond should be listening intently to this music for its lightness, its depth of feeling, and its expertise. Let me explain.

Although I don’t identify myself as purely a New Orleans jazz aficionad0 (in my mind, the Armstrong Town Hall Concert, Jones-Smith Inc., the 1938 Basie band, the Goodman Trio, the 1940-1 Ellington band, the Keynotes, the Vanguards . . . all have their assured places in my affections) but I do love collective improvisation as a musical way of life.  In fact, some of my favorite moments in hearing / video-recording live jazz in 2013 are provided by those groups that understand their existence as BANDS — improvising, creating backgrounds, playing riffs, working as ensembles — whether they model themselves on Bunk’s Last Testament band or much more “modern” in their approach.

Wiggs, Burke, Souchon, and Mangiapane very occasionally present themselves as a single-soloist-with-rhythm; more often, we hear four sweetly idiosyncratic voices going their own ways while fulfilling their roles as members of a band.  So “there’s always something going on” to interest a close listener.

Souchon and Mangiapane create a firm, fluid, old-time but swinging acoustic rhythm: the way guitar and bass used to be played before the late Thirties (guitar) and Forties (string bass).  They don’t push or drag; they provide the most delightful swing counterpoint.  As well, Souchon (especially) is an instantly compelling, saucy singer — with a wink or a twinkle for the listener. I doubt that a few of his naughty vocals (hardly so by 2013 standards) are his own invention, but the metaphors of the songs are hilarious in the fashion of mid-Twenties blues.  Since I carry a backpack for work and play, I empathize with his earnest reading of POSTMAN’S LAMENT, whose refrain is “Lord, take this pack off my back.”

The great voices on this disc are paradoxically the sounds that come through Burke’s clarinet and Wiggs’ cornet — sounds I found endearing as soon as I heard them, years back.  Wiggs heard Joe Oliver in the flesh in the very early Twenties and was impressed by the King for the rest of his life — thus he has some of Oliver’s terse power.  But he also heard Bix, and I think the latter’s lyricism won out: Wiggs (although not as harmonically ambitious as Bobby Hackett) captured something of Bix’s brief epigrammatic ways: a Wiggs phrase is like a great, sometimes sad, utterance: it hangs in the air the way a Joe Thomas phrase did, and we are musing over its meaning while he is eight bars away.  In his own fashion, Wiggs is a great sad poet: his melancholy is always lightened by his joy in the rolling rhythms beneath him, but his sound is autumnal, dark red and gold.

Burke, for his part, can at first sound like an elliptical version of the great New Orleans clarinetists — I am thinking specifically of Ed Hall, of Bujie Centobie — but he has his own phrasing and his own, always surprising sound.  And, just in passing, I must say that the most famous group with this instrumentation was the Bechet-Spanier Big Four of 1940, but the Wiggs-Burke quartet is far more easy, less pugilistic. Friends playing for their own enjoyment, weaving melodies for the sake of song, not musicians out to show who’s boss of the session.

My friend Joe Shepherd made available two videos of Johnny, Raymond, Danny Barker, Graham Stewart, Bob Green, and Freddie Moore and he shot at the 1972 Manassas Jazz Festival.  Time hasn’t treated the visual image well, but the music is eternal:

OLD STACK O’LEE BLUES:

TONY, LET THE MEATBALLS ROLL:

Why my title?  The music on the WIGGS-BURKE BIG FOUR discs suggests a kind of informal play among friends that very rarely takes place in a recording studio — more often in a living room or on a porch when only the musicians and their friends are there.  Certainly this would be a perfect set of CDs for a backyard party . . . sweet melodies in swing.

May your happiness increase!

SO WHO KNEW?

I’ve been reading with pleasure Samuel Charters’ new expanded version of his book on New Orleans jazz, A TRUMPET AROUND THE CORNER (University Press of Mississippi).  Many wonderful anecdotes and stories – – – but this one stopped me in my tracks.

In a nice way, you understand.

In 1969, the jazz scholar William Russell spoke with Frances Oliver, the younger sister of Jelly Roll Morton.  Frances explained the family genealogy to Russell:

My brother and both I got our large Jewish noses from our great grandmother Mimi, who was a German Jew–Felice Schmidt, so, of course we’re Jewish

Learning that Louis was actually born on August 4, 1901 has nothing on this!