Tag Archives: Woody Allen

“WILD REEDS AND WICKED RHYTHM” at The Ear Inn (June 5, 2011)

Last Sunday, June 5, 2011, was an unsual evening at that Soho mecca of swing, The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, New York City) in that a band that wasn’t The EarRegulars was playing. 

It was a reunion of sorts for an inspired hot band of individualists that hadn’t played regularly for some time.  In 2005-6, this band had a regular Wednesday-night gig at The Cajun (a now-departed home for jazz in Chelsea).  The quartet was led by banjoist / singer / composer Eddy Davis, who called it WILD REEDS AND WICKED RHTYHM.  The title was more than accurate, and I miss those Wednesday nights.

Eddy’s compatriots were most often Scott Robinson on C-melody saxophone; Orange Kellin on clarinet; Conal Fowkes or Debbie Kennedy on string bass.  Sitters-in were made welcome (an extraordinary visitor was cornetist Bob Barnard) — but this little quartet didn’t need anyone else.  It swung hard and played rhapsodic melodies, as well as exploring Eddy’s own compositions (they had a down-home feel but the harmonies were never predictable).

At the Ear, this band came together once again — Eddy, Scott, Orange (up from New Orleans), and Conal (catch him singing Cole Porter in Woody Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS) — as well as second-set guests Dan Block and Pete Anderson on saxophones. 

Eddy had grown a fine bushy beard since the last time I saw him, but nothing else had changed — not the riotous joy the musicians took in egging each other on, the deep feeling, the intuitive ensemble cohesiveness, the startling solos . . .

Here’s a tune that all the musicians in the house love to jam!  No, not really — it’s a fairly obscure Washboard Rhythm Kings specialty circa 1931 that I’ve only heard done by the heroic / illustrious Reynolds Brothers.  It has a wonderful title — Eddy tried explaining it to a curious audience member when the performance had ended, with only mild success — FUTURISTIC JUNGLEISM:

Time for something pretty, suggested by Pete Anderson — MEMORIES OF YOU:

And a finale to end all finales — what began as a moody, building WILD MAN BLUES (running ten minutes) and then segued into a hilarious-then-serious romp on FINE AND DANDY . . . reed rapture plus hot strings! 

If that isn’t ecstatic to you, perhaps we should compare definitions of ecstasy?

OLD TIME MODERN, or HOT ECLECTICISM

I thought of “Old Time Modern” while watching a wonderful new concert DVD.  That title originally was from a Nat Pierce composition recorded for Vanguard in the Fifties, blending boppish harmonies with a Thirties Basie feel. 

Now it perfectly summons up the inspired pairing of Eddy Davis, banjo, vocals, and badinage, and Conal Fowkes, piano, vocals, and commentary.  This duo had a wonderful opportunity to appear in a Barcelona club for an extended run; they found a most hip Brazilian filmmaker, Arturo Querzoli, and the results are now available.

Most jazz videos (including mine) suffer from the demands of impromptu recording: poor lighting, people walking in front of the camera, extraneous noise.  Devoted types like Rae Ann Berry and myself grin and bear it and call the results “cinema verite.”  But how rewarding it is to see two completely relaxed musicians captured from every angle with beautiful sound in high-definition video.

And what musicians they are!  I know that some people get pale and anxious when they even hear the word “banjo” in a sentence, and I can hardly blame them.  Badly played, the banjo can provide hours of painful listening experiences.  Many banjo players seem to have modeled their approaches on power tools, giving their instruments a metallic twang.  Not Eddy Davis.  His approach is subtle but his rhythm propulsive, and although he doesn’t look the part of a Thirties romantic hero, he has a deep sentimental streak.  Eddy writes his own appealing tunes and digs out those you’d forgotten or never heard.  Where Eddy looks much like a small-town pharmacist with a decided FDR image, Conal could pass as a multi-lingual European statesman.  A diplomat, perhaps, or even the head of a large bank.  But beneath that sedate exterior there is a fine, stomping Jelly Roll Morton – Joe Sullivan – Fats Waller pianist, a singer both hilarious and tender, and a wonderful accompanist to Eddy.  In fact, one of the great pleasures of this duo is watching two fine soloists who are also splendid accompanists.  This duo isn’t a cutting contest; it’s a friendly conversation, with one egging the other on. 

By the way, I first saw (and met) Conal and Eddy sometime in 2005 when Eddy’s multi-named small group (eventually called WILD REEDS AND WICKED RHYTHM) had the Wednesday-night spot at the now-vanished Cajun.  Most nights, Debbie Kennedy was on string bass and occasional vocal; Scott Robinson and Orange Kellin were the hot winds, and the group rocked as few others I’ve ever heard have done.  If you weren’t sitting near me to hear this group, you definitely need this DVD.  And if you were at one of the front tables, you won’t need any convincing.

And (for me) the best part — including the musical intimacy, the beautiful recording, the fine camerawork — is the amazingly broad repertoire.  Most groups limit themselves: the Fowkes-Davis collective is happy playing Morton, Ory, Oliver, Eubie Blake, Morton, Ellington, Henderson — but these musicians have a deep streak of sentiment, so you’ll also hear I FALL IN LOVE TOO EASILY, LA VIE EN ROSE (with a tender reading of the original French lyrics by Conal), and MY FOOLISH HEART, crooned in a near-whisper by Eddy.

And here’s some brilliant musical and visual evidence from the DVD:

Here are WILD MAN BLUES and MEMORIES OF YOU:

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY MAKES and DINAH:

SNAKE RAG and I FALL IN LOVE TOO EASILY:

Henderson’s THE STAMPEDE:

ORY’S CREOLE TROMBONE and MY FOOLISH HEART, surely a surprising pair:

LA VIE EN ROSE and HANG OUT THE STARS IN INDIANA:

Finally, there’s CRY ME A RIVER:

Now. that’s a generous helping of music for free.  But there’s more!  The DVD includes a dozen selections (some of them lengthy medleys) and one bonus track with an appearance by A Famous Mystery Guest.  You can find out how to buy this at www.davisfowkes.com (a little Barelona bird told me that the price is $20.00 plus shipping, certainly cheaper than the round-trip flight).  It’s a consistent pleasure.

THE MAGIC HORN OF “PAPA RAY” RONNEI (by Hal Smith)

Video by the multi-talented Katie Cavera:

The Magic Horn of ‘Papa Ray’ Ronnei 

by Hal Smith (originally published in JUST JAZZ)

It has been nearly 40 years since I first heard the cornet magic of ‘Papa Ray’ Ronnei… 

In the mid-‘60s I was a dedicated fan of the San Francisco style as played by Lu Watters, Turk Murphy, Bob Scobey, the Firehouse Five and…Vince Saunders’ South Frisco Jazz Band.  In 1966 my parents had taken me to Huntington Beach, California where the South Frisco band played weekends at the ‘Pizza Palace’.  We became instant fans of the SFJB after that first evening and made regular trips up from La Jolla to catch the band on weekends.  The band members were especially kind to a young fan.  Washboardist Bob Raggio, then an employee of Ray Avery’s ‘Rare Records’ was particularly helpful in locating several out-of-print Murphy and Watters LPs for me.   

Late in 1967, Bob sent a note along with an LP he had found for me.  The note mentioned that on the coming weekend, a ‘very special edition of the South Frisco band would perform at the Pizza Palace, with ‘Papa Ray’ Ronnei on cornet.’  I had heard of Ray Ronnei, but had not actually heard him play. 1  Even so, my parents accompanied me to Huntington Beach to hear the band. 

At the Pizza Palace we settled in at a table, not knowing quite what to expect, when the band took off on ‘You Always Hurt The One You Love’.  Ray Ronnei’s brassy, staccato attack and almost surrealistic phrasing was like nothing I had ever heard! 2  It was a glorious and unique sound; one I still have not recovered from!  The tune selection was a radical departure from the San Francisco repertoire I was so used to: ‘Bogalusa Strut’, ‘Salutation March’, ‘Big Chief Battle Axe’, ‘One Sweet Letter From You’, ‘Ugly Chile’, ‘Blue Bells, Goodbye’, ‘Sweet Lotus Blossom’, ‘Bugle Boy March’ etc.  This night at the Pizza Palace the first time I had heard any of these numbers! 3 

When the performance ended—much too soon to suit me!—we headed home to La Jolla.  My head was spinning from the spellbinding sound of Ray Ronnei’s cornet.  Despite my continuing interest in the San Francisco style, I wanted to hear this hornman again—as soon as possible!  I did not have to wait too long, as South Frisco’s cornetist Al Crowne took a leave of absence from the band in 1968.  His replacement: Ray Ronnei!  My family made dozens of journeys north to Huntington Beach during Papa Ray’s tenure with the South Frisco in 1968-69. 

The SFJB lineup varied during this period. 4  Trombonist Frank Demond moved to New Orleans and was replaced on by Eric Rosenau, then Roy Brewer.   Mike Baird was usually on clarinet, though Jim Bogen and soprano saxophonist John Smith sometimes filled in for him.  Ron Ortmann was the regular pianist, spelled at times by Dick Shooshan, Bill Mitchell and Robbie Rhodes.  Tubist Bob Rann was usually present, with Mike Fay on string bass in Rann’s absence.  Banjoist-leader Vince Saunders was a constant, as was washboardist Bob Raggio—until the latter moved to Pittsburgh to play at baseball star Maury Wills’ nightclub.  But despite the shifting personnel, that distinctive cornet sound continued to ring joyously over the ensembles.   

When the South Frisco repertoire expanded,  three of the ‘new’ tunes—at least new to me—caught my fancy: ‘Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man’, ‘Messin’ Around’ (by Cook and St. Cyr) and ‘Flat Foot’.  These three have been my favourite ‘trad’ numbers since hearing Papa Ray play them in 1968.  Though Vince Saunders was the bandleader, he frequently let Papa Ray kick off tunes.  The latter tended towards brisk tempos and kicked them off old-style, i.e. ‘one-two-three-four ONE!  TWO!  With only a little imagination I can still hear the powerful band roaring through all-ensemble versions of ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ and ‘Cakewalking Babies’ (with Papa Ray playing the same burst of capsicum on the outchorus that Mutt Carey played on the ‘New Yorkers’ record of the same tune).  The South Frisco Jazz Band in 1968-69 was truly one of a kind.   

In 1969, Papa Ray left the South Frisco group and Al Crowne returned.  Earlier, the band recorded an LP for the Vault label entitled ‘Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man.’  Unfortunately, that LP has not yet been reissued on CD.  However, Ted Shafer’s Merry Makers Record Company has released a CD of the South Frisco Band live at the Pizza Palace, recorded in 1968 by clarinetist Ron Going.  This disc ‘tells the story’ of just how exciting a time 1968-1969 was for fans of Papa Ray’s cornet work. 

While still a resident of Los Angeles, Papa Ray played with the Salutation Tuxedo Jazz Band, Crescent Bay Jazz Band and other groups.  Before signing on with South Frisco, he worked with Ted Shafer’s Jelly Roll Jazz Band in the Bay Area.  He returned to the Jelly Roll Jazz Band temporarily in 1969.  I was able to enjoy his music via tapes made previously at the Pizza Palace, LPs by the El Dorado Jazz Band, Jelly Roll Jazz Band and the then-new South Frisco LP.  On one occasion, our family was watching a San Francisco Seals hockey game on tv.  After a Seals goal, a jazz band in the stands struck up ‘Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight’.  Clarinetist Bob Helm and trombonist Bob Mielke were instantly identifiable, as was the peppery cornet—Papa Ray, of course! 

I continued to see and hear Ray Ronnei on his visits to the L.A. area.  Sometimes he would play at a Sunday-afternoon jam session at one of the local jazz societies.  On one memorable occasion, I was asked to play a set with Papa Ray, Dan Barrett, Ron Going, Dick Shooshan, Doug Parker and veteran New Orleans bassist Ed Garland.  I don’t have a recording of this session, but at least I got a photo! 

Living away from California, I would hear occasional news concerning Ray’s appearances on various jobs.  Later, there was a disheartening rumor that he had quit playing.  I had the recordings to listen to, but still hoped to hear the ‘real thing’ again some day.  In the early ‘90s I returned to California and wound up playing once a week at the ‘Hofbrau’ in Fullerton (Orange County), California.  The bands in rotation at the time included Gremoli, Evan Christopher’s Quintet and my own Frisco Syncopators.  One night, Mike Fay came to hear the band—with Papa Ray in tow!  Ray looked the same as he had the last time I saw him, in the ‘70s.  What a blast it was to see him, and in good health at that. 

Later, when key personnel became unavailable to play the Hofbrau, the Frisco Syncopators gradually became the New Orleans Wanderers.  Papa Ray was still making an occasional appearance at the club, though I had not been able to induce him to play.  But Mike Fay stepped in, describing the band’s sound and repertoire and we managed to get Ray on cornet!  With Alan Adams (trombone), Mike Baird (reeds), Vic Loring (banjo), Mike Fay (bass) and myself on drums, we hit ‘You Always Hurt The One You Love’.  It unleashed a flood of happy memories, of good times at the Pizza Palace.  And best of all, Ray had his lip and his drive.   No one had to shoulder an extra load that night!  I still don’t know why I didn’t take a tape recorder.  Unfortunately, no one recorded us that night!  The lack of recording is all the more unfortunate because Ray was unable to make the job on a regular basis.  The Golden Eagles’ Ken Smith stepped in and became our regular hornman. 

My last encounter with Papa Ray was in 1995, when the Wanderers recorded a session for release on cassette.  We assembled in Mike Fay’s living room in Claremont, California and saw that a guest was settling in to listen to the session.   Papa Ray was happy to see his musical friends and obviously enjoyed our performances.  He would not join in on cornet, but we managed to coax him into singing ‘How Long Blues’, which was released on the cassette. 

Since then, I continue to hear that Papa Ray has taken part in occasional sessions and the report invariably includes the line ‘He sounded as great as ever’.  I am sure the reports are true.  Hearing Papa Ray Ronnei on cornet has always been a magical experience; one of the biggest thrills I have experienced in jazz.   To me, he will always be one of the greats!

  

Notes

  1. I never heard the El Dorado Jazz Band in person.  They played mostly in bars where a teenager could not enter, according to California state law.  I bought the El Dorado Epitaph and Item-1 LPs after hearing Ray with the South Frisco band.  The band finally broke up in mid-1966, but this ‘special edition’ of the South Frisco Jazz Band would be composed almost entirely of El Dorado veterans. 
  2. At the time I was unfamiliar with the recordings of Freddie Keppard, Abbie Brunies and especially Mutt Carey, who were the premier inspirations for Ray Ronnei.   (Ray studied with Mutt Carey in the late ‘40s).
  3. I discovered Bunk Johnson, George Lewis, Kid Ory and ‘British Trad’ after hearing this ‘New Orleans’ version of the South Frisco band.  Bassist Mike Fay played that night, as did pianist Dick Shooshan.  Besides hearing Ray Ronnei for the first time and hearing a wealth of ‘new’ tunes, this was my first exposure to New Orleans style string bass and Jelly Roll Morton type piano.
  4. There were surely more substitutes and guests with the South Frisco Jazz Band during this period.  My listing is based on those I actually heard, or who were recorded at the Pizza Palace.

P.S.  Ray Ronnei, born in 1916, is happily still with us!  Although he no longer plays the cornet, his composition SALTY BUBBLE can be heard in the 2009 Woody Allen film WHATEVER WORKS, and Ray plans to continue composing!  The original recording can be purchased here: http://www.worldsrecords.com/pages/artists/r/ronnei_ray/ray_ronnei_64328.html

MOURNING JOEL HELLENY (1956-2009)

The news of anyone’s death reminds us of how insufficient language really is.  I learned of trombonist Joel Helleny’s death last night at The Ear Inn. 

Helleny was one of those musicians I didn’t have the good fortune to hear in perfomance, which means I missed a thousand opportunities, because he performed with Dick Hyman, Buck Clayton, Randy Sandke, Frank Wess, Benny Goodman, Scott Hamilton, Warren Vache, Roy Eldridge, Vince Giordano, Eddy Davis, Jon-Erik Kellso, Marty Grosz, and many other luminaries.  But I heard him subliminally on the soundtrack of two Woody Allen films, and I have a good number of CDs (Arbors, Concord, Ney York Jazz, Nagel-Heyer, and others) on which he shines.  This morning I was listening to his work on Kenny Davern’s EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE (Arbors) and marveled once again: he could do it all: purr, shout, cajole, sweet-talk or say the nastiest things . . . all through his horn. 

He played beutifully; he had his own sound.  And he’s gone.  

Marty Elkins knew him well, and wrote to say this:

I got the news from Murray Wall. We were both old friends of Joel’s, and we are very sad about his death. Joel was a super smart, very talented guy, at the top of his field back in the 80’s and 90’s – doing gigs with Dick Hyman, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra (where he was a featured soloist), he was a member of George Wein’s New York All Stars and played on sound tracks for Woody Allen films, among other credits. He even toured with the OJays. He was a very loyal and devoted friend, also one of the only people who talked faster than I do!

He and I were really close around the deaths of our parents in the 90’s – providing a lot of support for one another. Joel was an only child and really attached to his folks.  He leaves a lot of saddened friends and an empty space in the jazz community. He will be remembered.

 But if you never heard Joel play, all this might seem only verbal gestures.  Here’s Joel in what I believe is a 1992 television appeance with clarinetist Walt Levinsky’s “Great American Swing Band,” including trumpeters Spanky Davis, Randy Sandke, Glenn Drewes, and Bob Millikan; trombonists Eddie Bert and Paul Faulise; reedmen Mike Migliore, Chuck Wilson, Frank Wess, Ted Nash, and Sol Schlinger;  pianist Marty Napoleon, bassist Murray Wall; drummer Butch Miles. 

Joel Helleny will be remembered.