THE DOZENS: TWELVE TRAIN TRACKS by Thomas Cunniffe

train tracks

For big bands in the thirties, trains were the logical upgrade from the drudgery of the band bus. Airplanes were cost-prohibitive in those days and most planes were not equipped to handle the extra baggage of music, uniforms and instruments. Several bands, including those of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, had their own Pullman cars that could be attached to any outgoing train. In addition to the luxury of sleeping berths and dining cars, the trains provided an easy way to avoid Jim Crow laws when the band was touring the South. Plus there’s all that’s innately musical about a train: the lonesome whistle, the roar of the engine at full throttle, and the rhythmic sound of the track as it rises through the floor of the car.

If you live with those sounds for a few months at a time, they become part of your being. So it’s no surprise that jazz musicians have written a considerable amount of music about various types of railroad travel. And what pieces they have written! From the steady rattle of the “Number 29” freight train to the sleek elegance of the “Skyliner”, the rollicking motion of the trolley to the swift A train subway, the thrilling “Daybreak Express” and the lazy “Happy-Go-Lucky Local”, here’s a dozen tracks all about trains.


Meade Lux Lewis: Honky Tonk Train Blues

Track

Honky Tonk Train Blues

Artist

Meade Lux Lewis (piano)

CD

Boogie Woogie & Blues Piano (Mosaic Select 30)

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Musicians:

Meade Lux Lewis (piano).

Composed by Meade Lux Lewis

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Recorded: Chicago, May 7, 1936

Mosaic_boogie_woogie

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

With its insistent 8-to-the-bar rhythm, boogie-woogie piano is a natural match for a freight train. While there have been many train-inspired boogie compositions, none can match Meade “Lux” Lewis’s “Honky Tonk Train” for exuberance and energy. Lewis’s Paramount version from 1927 was one of the earliest boogie recordings, but the 1936 Victor version is probably the best of the many versions Lewis recorded in his lifetime. His left-hand work is astounding: using a simple dotted-eighth/sixteenth pattern, he holds the train rhythm rock-steady and never loses intensity, despite the immense physical challenge that such a limited pattern invokes. Meanwhile, his right hand sends forth a dazzling array of musical images: clanging bells as the train passes, the whistle blowing across the trestle and the rush of the cars as they pass on adjoining tracks. Like Jelly Roll Morton, Lewis’s approach to the piano was as a band in miniature, and it’s easy to imagine a big band’s brass section punching out the strong off-the-beat syncopations that Lewis plays with his right hand.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Wesley Wallace: Number 29

Track

Number 29

Artist

Wesley Wallace (piano, speech)

CD

Broadcasting The Blues (Hindsight 32-20-10)

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Musicians:

Wesley Wallace (piano, speech).

Composed by Wesley Wallace

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Recorded: Grafton, Wisconsin, February 1930

Broadcasting_the_blues_docd-32-20-10

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Beat Me Daddy, Six To The Bar! In addition to being one of the most descriptive of train pieces, this recording is one of the only (and certainly the earliest) versions of boogie woogie in 3/4 time! We may never know if Wesley Wallace knew that he was breaking all conventions with this piece, and since his discography amounts to a total of 4 sides (and 2 of those may not be Wallace at all), it’s hard to make any judgments on him as an artist. However, on his recording of “Number 29,” he maintains the 3/4 ostinato pattern in his left hand, only flubbing the pattern once. In an ongoing spoken commentary, Wallace describes how, as a hobo, he catches the freight train outside of Cairo, Illinois, and travels toward East St Louis. He tells about the whistle, the train’s speed, and how he eventually jumps off the train, all with descriptive music happening underneath. When Wallace breaks away from the 3/4 bass pattern to portray the sound of his fall from the train and his rolling on the grass next to the tracks, the music (while rubato) still falls into a waltz-time pattern!

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Boswell Sisters: Shuffle Off To Buffalo

Track

Shuffle Off To Buffalo

Artist

Connee Boswell (vocals), Vet Boswell (vocals), and Martha Boswell (piano, vocals)

CD

That's How Rhythm Was Born (Columbia 66977)

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Musicians:

Connee Boswell (vocals), Vet Boswell (vocals), Martha Boswell (piano, vocals), Mannie Klein (trumpet), Tommy Dorsey (trombone), Jimmy Dorsey (clarinet), Dick McDonough (guitar), Artie Bernstein (bass), Stan King (drums).

Composed by Al Dubin & Harry Warren

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Recorded: New York City, April 11,1933

Boswells_columbia

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

“Shuffle Off To Buffalo” was one of three Busby Berkeley song-and-dance productions in the film 42nd Street, released exactly one month before this Boswell Sisters version was recorded. Even for a song so new, arranger/vocalist Connie Boswell saw no reason to stick to the original song’s style or melody. The song’s herky-jerky train rhythm is jettisoned in favor of a fast streamlined express train sound, and throughout the introduction and first chorus, we hear only small pieces of the melody, and lots of variation all around it. Connie knew that she and her sisters Vet and Martha were a unique section in their own right and they could do riffs and shout choruses to equal the brass and reed teams of the big bands. On the opening and closing choruses, they perform remarkably intricate variations on the theme with stunning precision. Unexpected tempo changes were also a Boswell trademark, and on this recording the tempo slows down right in the middle of the verse, setting the stage for Connie’s solo chorus (which includes much more of the melody and probably provided some temporary relief to producer Jack “Where’s The Melody” Kapp.) Getting all of the elements perfect was an important part of the Boswells’ artistic success and it’s worth noting that there are two issued takes of this track available and the only audible difference between them was not in the vocal parts or execution of the arrangement, but in Dick McDonough’s improvised guitar responses within the verse.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Duke Ellington: Daybreak Express

Track

Daybreak Express

Artist

Duke Ellington (piano, composer)

CD

Duke Ellington, “Creole Rhapsody” (ASV 2015)

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Musicians:

Duke Ellington (piano, composer), Arthur Whetsol (trumpet), Freddie Jenkins ( trumpet), Cootie Williams (trumpet), Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton (trombone), Lawrence Brown (trombone), Johnny Hodges (alto sax, soprano sax), Otto Hardwick (reeds), Barney Bigard (clarinet, tenor sax), Harry Carney (baritone sax), Fred Guy (guitar), Wellman Braud (bass), Sonny Greer (drums).

Composed by Duke Ellington

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Recorded: Chicago, December 4, 1933

Duke_creole_rhap_asv_2015

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Unquestionably one of Duke Ellington’s masterpieces, “Daybreak Express” is one of the most thrilling train rides ever recorded. Almost entirely written-out (there is minimal improvisation by Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams), this was a showcase for the burgeoning talent of Ellington and his ensemble. In condensing an express train ride into three minutes, Ellington packs lots of musical details into his score. The opening, with the train starting from a standstill and gradually getting up to speed, is now a cliché, but is played here as if it were the freshest idea in modern music. Not content to simply use a train whistle, Ellington augments the whistle with horns from the band. As the train races along the countryside, the saxophones perform one of the most difficult ensemble choruses ever devised. Finally, Cootie Williams takes the role of engineer, encouraging the train on with his trumpet and then putting on the brakes as the train reaches its final destination. Although Ellington rarely played the work in concerts, it turns up in a 1937 Paramount short film, Record Making With The Duke and the Victor recording was used as background music for D.A. Pennebaker’s film Daybreak Express. Pennebaker’s film was first shown in New York before the feature The Horse’s Mouth (1958). The Criterion DVD recreates the billing and also includes a short introduction by Pennebaker.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Django Reinhardt: Mystery Pacific

Track

Mystery Pacific

Artist

Django Reinhardt (guitar)

CD

The Complete Django Reinhardt & Quintet Of The Hot Club Of France Swing/HMV Sessions (Mosaic 190)

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Musicians:

Django Reinhardt (guitar), Stéphane Grappelli (violin),

Marcel Bianchi and Pierre Ferret (rhythm guitars), Lois Vola (bass)

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Composed by Django Reinhardt & Stéphane Grappelli

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Recorded: Paris, April 26, 1937

Django_mosaic_190

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Was “Mystery Pacific” Django Reinhardt’s personal tribute to Duke Ellington’s “Daybreak Express”? There’s not enough similarities to call one an arrangement of the other, but there’s also no doubt of the influence. “Mystery Pacific”’s opening is an obvious nod to “Daybreak” as is the simple harmonic structure and for that matter, the form of the entire piece. However, Django must have realized that he would never be able to re-create the many colors of the Ellington band with his small group. Instead, he and Stephane Grappelli created a new piece tailor-made for the QHCF, which is as evocative of an express train as Ellington’s. Reinhardt goes a step further than Ellington by including spots for improvised solos by himself and Grappelli. The violinist is his usual elegant self here during his solo, but don’t miss his Doppler effect background during Django’s solo. And I am constantly amazed at how Django got so much music out of a guitar when his fretting hand was so badly deformed.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Charlie Barnet: Skyliner

Track

Skyliner

Artist

Charlie Barnet (alto sax, tenor sax, soprano sax)

CD

Swingmatism (GRP 9952)

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Musicians:

Charlie Barnet (alto sax, tenor sax, soprano sax),

Peanuts Holland, Lyman Vunk, John Martel, Jack Mootz (trumpets), Gerald Foster, Dave Hallet, Burt Johnson, Charles Coolidge (trombones), Charlie Barnet, Hal Herzon, Joe Meissner, Kurt Bloom, Ed Pripps, Bob Poland (reeds), Dodo Marmarosa (piano), Barney Kessel (g), Howard Rumsey (bass), Harold Hahn (drums).

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Composed by Charlie Barnet. Arranged by Billy Moore

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Recorded: Los Angeles, August 3, 1944

Charlie_barnet_grp_9952_1

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Charlie Barnet’s dual-themed “Skyliner” emulates the sound of a fast-moving modern express train, with the jabbing brass line characterizing the train’s rhythm in its undercarriage and the elegant long lines of the saxes representing the sleek aerodynamic outer design. Musically, it may also be the inspiration for Ray Wetzel’s triple-themed composition “Intermission Riff” as performed by the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Billy Moore’s arrangement focuses on the ensemble, and he makes small but significant changes in the piece to maintain the listener’s attention. Note that the pyramid chord tag of the first two A sections is replaced the third time around with a variation (beautifully played by the Barnet trumpet section). When the A section returns, the brass play a simplified but effective variation of their original line. Then the trombones play a fine set of exchanges with Barnet’s solo thoughts. The second bridge with the brass playing yet another variation against Dodo Marmarosa’s piano solo is, for me, the highlight of the entire record. The rhythm section is a model of Swing Era cohesion, yet within a couple of years three members of that section would be working within a new model with a new set of rules: bebop.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Duke Ellington: Happy-Go-Lucky Local

Track

Happy-Go-Lucky Local

Artist

Duke Ellington (piano, composer)

CD

Complete Musicraft Recordings (Fresh Sounds 11215)

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Musicians:

Duke Ellington (piano, composer), Cat Anderson (trumpet), Taft Jordan (trumpet), Harold 'Shorty' Baker (trumpet), Shelton Hemphill (trumpet), Ray Nance (trumpet), Lawrence Brown (trombone), Claude Jones (trombone), Wilbur DeParis (trombone), Johnny Hodges (alto sax), Russell Procope (clarinet, alto sax), Jimmy Hamilton (clarinet, tenor sax), Harry Carney (baritone sax), Oscar Pettiford (bass), Sonny Greer (drums).

Composed by Duke Ellington

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Recorded: New York City, November 25, 1946

Duke_musicraft_11215

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Duke Ellington’s “Happy-Go-Lucky Local” was originally the final movement of his Deep South Suite premiered at his 1946 Carnegie Hall concert. A completely different concept than “Daybreak Express,” “Happy-Go-Lucky Local” runs twice as long and has about a third of the writing as its predecessor. Yet this composition stayed in the Ellington book for years and there are several live recordings available. The present version was recorded shortly after the premiere and issued on a 2-part 78. Unlike “Daybreak Express,” which seemed in a hurry to get to its destination, “Happy-Go-Lucky Local” soulfully lopes along. The principal soloists are Russell Procope on alto sax, Ray Nance (I think) on trumpet and Oscar Pettiford on bass, with shorter spots for Harry Carney on baritone sax and Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet. Pettiford is the real solo star with several spots sounding similar to the Ellington/Jimmie Blanton duets from a few years earlier. The written parts fit together exceptionally well, and Ellington artfully combines the themes, mixing new material with music we heard 2½ minutes before. When the “Night Train” theme shows up in part 2, it seems the most natural development of what we’ve already heard. For the finale, Ellington brings out the newest addition to his band, high-note trumpet specialist Cat Anderson. While Anderson’s playing is part of the Ellington sound as we now know it, imagine how it must have been to hear it for the first time in 1946!

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Clifford Brown & Max Roach: Take The 'A' Train

Track

Take The 'A' Train

Artist

Clifford Brown (trumpet) and Max Roach (drums)

CD

Study in Brown (EmArcy 814 646)

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Musicians:

Clifford Brown (trumpet), Max Roach (drums), Harold Land (tenor sax), Richie Powell (piano), George Morrow (bass).

Composed by Billy Strayhorn

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Recorded: New York City, February 23, 1955

Albumcovercliffordbrownandmaxroach-studyinbrown

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Of the four studio albums by the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet (including “Sonny Rollins Plus 4”), “Study In Brown” is doubtlessly the weakest. Most of the songs are short and the performances seem less committed than on the other albums. On “Cherokee,” Brown seems unable to match his earlier Blue Note performance, and this version of “Take The' A' Train” tries to pack in as much arrangement as possible to the detriment of the soloists. While Brown, Roach and Harold Land all acquit themselves well in their 2-chorus solos, one wishes for more, especially at the fire-breathing tempo set by Roach. When the solo time is so truncated, it’s easy to lose patience with the long intro and coda that portrays the starting, speeding, slowing and stopping of the train. I suspect this may be an arrangement by pianist Richie Powell, who wrote many fine charts for the quintet, but whose musical immaturity in soloing and writing sometimes put a drag on the entire group.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


John Coltrane: Blue Train

Track

Blue Train

Artist

John Coltrane (tenor sax)

CD

Blue Train (Blue Note 95326)

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Musicians:

John Coltrane (tenor sax), Lee Morgan (trumpet), Curtis Fuller (trombone), Kenny Drew (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums).

Composed by John Coltrane

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Recorded: Hackensack, N.J., September 15, 1957

Albumcoverbluetrain

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

John Coltrane (and I think it was he, rather than his various producers) seemed to know which performances would mark the turning points of his career. Just think of three cornerstones: “Blue Train," “Giant Steps,” “My Favorite Things,” all title tracks of albums, and all the opening track on side 1 of those albums. Even in lesser cases like “Impressions” and “Olé," the same rule applied. And there is little question that the first of these examples, “Blue Train” represents the peak of Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” approach. Coltrane seems anxious to show off this new approach and when he launches into his solo, the intensity immediately goes up several degrees. It was Ira Gitler that coined the “sheets” phrase and while it is an effective description, it misses the element of rhythmic freedom that Coltrane found during this period. He creates rhythmic ideas that seem completely divorced from the ground beat, yet somehow they fit into their surroundings. Of course, Coltrane’s not the only star of “Blue Train”: the album has some of the finest Lee Morgan and Curtis Fuller solos to that time and the rhythm section is stunning throughout. I doubt that Coltrane had much interest in recreating the sound of an actual train on this recording, but there is a wonderful moment at the beginning of Fuller’s second chorus when Paul Chambers starts a boogie bass line and Kenny Drew picks it up for a couple of bars. It’s disarming when you hear it, and an interesting glance back into jazz history by musicians who seemed to always look forward.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Jimmy Smith: Midnight Special

Track

Midnight Special

Artist

Jimmy Smith (organ)

CD

Midnight Special (Blue Note 84078)

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Musicians:

Jimmy Smith (organ), Stanley Turrentine (tenor sax), Kenny Burrell (guitar), Donald Bailey (drums).

Composed by Jimmy Smith

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Recorded: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, April 25, 1960

Jimmy_smith--midnight_special

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

“Midnight Special” may be the tastiest recording Jimmy Smith ever made. Recorded at a session that produced both the albums Back At The Chicken Shack and Midnight Special, this medium blues (an original, not the rock/blues classic) moves along at an absolutely perfect tempo and completely captures the mood of a slow-moving midnight freight train. It’s a groove you could ride all night, and while this cut comes in at just under 10 minutes, you get the feeling that the quartet played on it for another half-hour or so after the recording faded out. In fact, maintaining that groove seemed to be the primary goal and each soloist (most notably Smith) knew how to express himself without losing the mood. And in that regard, it’s important to note that there’s never the feeling of the soloists holding back. It’s just that wonderful skill of playing together to create something bigger and better than its individual parts.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Oscar Peterson: Night Train

Track

Happy-Go-Lucky Local (a.k.a. Night Train)

Artist

Oscar Peterson (piano)

CD

Night Train (Verve 314 521 440)

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Musicians:

Oscar Peterson (piano), Ray Brown (bass), Ed Thigpen (drums).

Composed by Duke Ellington (as “Happy-Go-Lucky Local”)

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Recorded: Los Angeles, December 16, 1962

Albumcoveroscarpeterson-nighttrain

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

In a recent interview, Diana Krall said that Oscar Peterson’s Night Train was the album that made her want to be a jazz pianist and specifically made her want to play with Ray Brown. That Ms. Krall achieved those goals and much more only adds to this album’s merits. Peterson seemed to hit commercial and artistic peaks at the same time, and the early sixties was one of those periods. The trio got tighter and more musical as the pressure for larger album sales increased from Verve, and sometimes the results were of the best trio in jazz playing dumbed-down songs to attract more listeners. While the worst offender was We Get Requests, Night Train has received its share of critical brickbats. However, the performance of the tune “Night Train” may be evidence that Peterson could balance the two factions without compromising either side.

Since “Night Train” is a blues, it would have been simple enough to just blow through a few choruses and call it done. But Peterson devised a marvelous arrangement instead, one so subtle that it’s easily missed by casual listeners. After the opening theme choruses, Peterson slips into a 2-chorus solo. Then the theme returns, and we realize that all the while, the band has gotten softer and softer. This leads into Brown’s solo, which is unaccompanied to start, and then adds, in turn, Peterson and Thigpen. When Peterson comes in for another chorus of solo, everything starts to build again. Peterson plays a boogie figure in the bass to build the intensity, and then the trio plays a simple but effective shout chorus and then goes back to the theme with a strong crescendo to nearly the end, with a traditional Count Basie tag to close the track. By using the basic elements of crescendo and diminuendo, and arranged sections to set off the parts, Peterson turns what could have been a throwaway into a minor masterpiece.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Susannah McCorkle: Chattanooga Choo-Choo

Track

Chattanooga Choo-Choo

Artist

CD

The Music Of Harry Warren (Inner City 1141)

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Musicians:

Susannah McCorkle (vocals), Keith Ingham (piano).

Composed by Mack Gordon & Harry Warren

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Recorded: New York City, 1981

Susannah--harry_warren

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Recorded to fill out the U.S. release of a Harry Warren collection, Susannah McCorkle’s version of the chestnut “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” strips away the familiar Glenn Miller arrangement and places it in the realm of boogie woogie. Keith Ingham, who was Susannah’s husband and musical director, is the sole accompanist here, and he uses his fine sense of jazz history to integrate the two styles. After an intro that seems inspired by the Clifford Brown/Max Roach version of “Take The 'A' Train,” Ingham goes into a boogie background as Susannah glides in with a slightly adapted version of the lyric. Susannah’s interpretive gifts grew as she matured, but even at this early stage of her career, she was able to float lines above the beat. At the end of the first chorus, Ingham effortlessly segues into Meade “Lux” Lewis’s “Honky Tonk Train” and because of the boogie pattern he played earlier, there is no jolt as he changes from a pop song to the blues and back again. Susannah’s final chorus includes some of the same interpretive figures she had used earlier, but the coda is very effective with Susannah singing the “whoo-whoo” as a train whistle and Ingham continuing the boogie figure as the track fades out.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


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