Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra (featuring Bix Beiderbecke): Riverboat Shuffle

When Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines recorded 'Riverboat Shuffle" in 1924, it was Hoagy Carmichael's first recorded song. The present version is a superior remake from three years later. While the Wolverine version boasted a fine solo by Beiderbecke, the Trumbauer recording features improved sound (capturing the cornetist especially well) and a sprightly arrangement by Bill Challis. The tempo is faster and more urgent than the Wolverines, and in the opening and closing ensembles, Challis offers short breaks to all of the musicians. Bix takes the last break of the first chorus to launch his solo, a beautifully-sculpted chorus where the phrases are perfectly balanced even though they are of different lengths. His melodic line exudes confidence and a little brashness, and his rhythmic sense and swing are fine-tuned and far advanced from any of his bandmates. Don Murray's clarinet solo is melodically facile, but locked in the herky-jerky dotted eighth/sixteenth note patterns of the time. None of the other musicians can make the best of their breaks, and uncharacteristically, Eddie Lang rushes the time when his solo break comes around. Bix was often criticized for playing music with his friends instead of his musical peers, but considering that Hoagy Carmichael was one of Bix's best friends, Bix's musical favoritism had some merit, as it yielded the launch of a great songwriter.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Fletcher Henderson: Fidgety Feet

Fletcher Henderson's pioneering jazz band relied heavily on the talents of his sidemen, and his arrangement of “Fidgety Feet” calls for many of the vast solo resources of the band. While several other band members solo, the star of this track is trombonist Jimmy Harrison, whose aggressive breaks and virtuosic solo set the stage for the band's trademark swing feeling.

The arrangement uses Harrison as the spark plug to jump-start the first strain's driving two-feel. He has a solo break early in the chart which showcases his enormous, round sound and overpowering swing feeling. Later, other instruments get a chance at the breaks, but none convey the power of Harrison's trombone. Harrison gets his full solo about halfway through the tune. Here, he shows why he was considered -- alongside Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong -- to be the most sophisticated improvisers of his day. Rhythmically, his ideas fit right into the pocket, and melodically he incorporates wide leaps, expressive rips and even some chromaticism -- a difficult feat on his awkward instrument. The range he employs is also impressive; he pops out high notes as cleanly as he executes in the lower register.

Even during the cacophonous ending, Harrison's resonant sound rumbles underneath the rest of the band and supports the final hit, ending the song with the same booming exuberance with which he started it off.

October 04, 2009 · 0 comments


New Orleans Rhythm Kings: Tin Roof Blues

"Tin Roof Blues" was one of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings' greatest successes, and it's easy to hear why: this may be one of the most elegant records in early jazz. Here, in the weeks before Louis Armstrong made his first recordings, a group of white jazz musicians recording in the middle of Indiana proved that they had already learned the maxim that "less is more". They also showed that playing from the soul could make up for any technical limitations, which must have been a fairly revolutionary concept in those days. Only the early classic blues singers were recording by this time, and I suspect that the NORK listened to and learned well from many of those early sides. "Tin Roof" also shows us that the horn men had a simple, but effective solo concept (something else that wasn't common in early 1923). After the delicate and mournful opening theme, Brunies and Ropollo play solos that aren't virtuosic displays, but effective and complete statements. Brunies' rhythm is quite loose and Ropollo gets a lot of mileage out of simple bent notes. Mares' fine lead playing brings up the intensity just enough to create a definite but subdued ending.

September 17, 2009 · 0 comments


King Oliver: High Society

"High Society" is one of many traditional jazz standards with confusing parentage. It was originally a march, written in 1901 by Porter Steele. The piccolo obbligato first turns up in a Robert Recker score later in 1901, and sometime after that, A.J. Piron transposed it for clarinet. Clarence Williams got involved somewhere along the line, possibly writing lyrics for the song. Apparently, there is another set of lyrics by Walter Melrose (and just who sings these lyrics anyway?) And if things weren't confused enough, when King Oliver recorded it, he claimed it was composed by his current band! So, the Oliver version always carries "King Oliver's Jazz Band" as the credit, but the same piece as recorded by other players can have any combination of the above composers listed. It's a good thing that the song is in public domain!

Oliver's acoustic recording features the full ensemble in the opening and closing choruses. Johnny Dodds is very prominent, with the clueless and out-of-tune trombonist Honore Dutrey standing a few feet back from the recording horn.Oliver's in the back of the room with Louis (and as Louis said years later, the problem with the Oliver recordings is that the lead didn't predominate). Lil Hardin's piano and Bud Scott's banjo are lost in the mix and Baby Dodds can only be heard sporadically with the occasional cymbal crash. When the trio comes along, Armstrong and Johnny Dodds take over and the other horns lay out, offering a fine respite from the dense band sound. Armstrong gets in a little improvisation over the trio theme and in the final chorus, Dodds plays a creditable rendition of the Picou obbligato.

While these old recordings can be hard to listen to, the Archeophone double-CD above offers the best transfers to date. By necessity, the MP3 linked above is not from the Archeophone, but the French Classics reissue. Go to to hear samples of these superior transfers.

September 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Benny Goodman: That's A Plenty

Benny Goodman was 19 years old when he recorded his dazzling solo version of "That's A Plenty". He was far from a newcomer to the recording studio, with a dozen-and-a-half documented trips since the winter of 1926. This recording was one of two clarinet solos recorded in June 1928, and while Goodman made several recordings in the interim, it would be over a year before he recorded under his own name again. Goodman's purposely-shrill high register and the busy rhythm of Mel Stitzel and Bob Conselman bring to mind the "hoochie-coochie" craze of the time. The rhythm seems to impede Goodman's swing and one gets the feeling that Goodman is just dying to burst out of this arrangement and just swing. Even at his young age, Goodman's astounding clarinet technique is evident as he solos effortlessly in every section of his instrument. The edges were still a little rough, but in 1928, Benny Goodman was already a force to be reckoned with.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments


New Orleans Rhythm Kings: That's A Plenty

There is some confusion on the authorship of the song "That's A-Plenty". ASCAP lists the composers as above, but they also list a 1914 song written by Lew Pollack (who, we can assume, was not the same person as the drummer Ben Pollack, as Ben was only 11 years old in 1914). Tom Lord lists a 1914 recording of the song by something called "Prince's Band/Orchestra". Since I don't have a copy of that recording handy, I can only guess that it is not the same song as the traditional jazz classic heard in the present recording by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Certainly, the NORK version was the first well-known version of the song. Recorded acoustically for the technologically-challenged Gennett label, the balance favors Leon Ropollo's clarinet, with Paul Mares doing his best to assert the lead with his cornet. George Brunies' trombone isn't too far back, but Mel Stitzel's piano and Ben Pollack's drums are mushed together in the background. Most of the recording is taken up with renditions of the theme, but Mares gets a solo spot about two-thirds of the way through. His rhythmic feel and tone are rather pugnacious, but the solo has exquisite form and contour (especially in light of its recording date--a month before Louis Armstrong's recording debut). The band emphasizes the backbeat throughout and even if their manner is obvious and forced, they knew the general direction that the music would take in later years.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Louis Armstrong: Some Of These Days

With his classic big band recording of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," the basic formula for Louis Armstrong's arrangements was set: melodic interpretation on trumpet, solo break by a member of the band, vocal solo, another solo break, then big final trumpet chorus. Now, there's nothing wrong with a working formula, especially—as in Louis' case—when you're the first person to do it. His version of the evergreen "Some Of These Days" was made fairly early in the series and in this case, the formula was turned inside out. It sounds like the band is reading a stock arrangement which means that there's more for them to do than just accompany Louis. Still, Louis gets all of the solo space he normally had, just in a different order. After the saxophone intro, he sings first, and since the song was fairly well-known, he takes a lot of liberties with it. In fact, it almost sounds like he's singing in the wrong key for the first half of his chorus, but he's just singing an adventuresome variation of the melody. After a clumsy break by Jimmy Strong, Louis plays his first trumpet solo. In contrast to the vocal, he's fairly conservative, using a set of symmetrical phrases and closing with a hoochie-coochie riff that was part of the arrangement. The saxes have a variation and the playing is about as clean as any of Louis' backing groups of this period. Louis' final solo is a dazzling display which covers the entire range of the horn and peaks with a sustained high D-flat. Louis didn't favor his low register much, and on the non-vocal take also included on the above CD, we can hear why: in the same spot, Louis moves to the lower register and he gets covered up by the saxes. Within a few years, recording techniques would improve and there would be less of these balance issues. What is surprising is that the non-vocal version was issued (mostly outside of the US) even with the balance problem. While not the equal of the vocal version, the instrumental take is worth a listen.

September 02, 2009 · 0 comments


New Orleans Rhythm Kings (with Jelly Roll Morton): Mr. Jelly Lord

Jelly Roll Morton was quick to boast of his achievements. He was a crack shot with a gun; had a winning stroke with a pull cue; he was the first to use brushes (fly-swatters in this instance) on the drums; he was the first master of ceremonies with witty sayings; and, of course, he claimed to have invented jazz. If you give half of Morton's claims some credence, he was a whole Tonight Show—host, band, and guest put together—on his own. I'd even let him do the commercials, given his skills at peddling his own stuff.

But Morton never bragged about participating in this first racially integrated jazz recording session—which left us this track, and a handful of others from a 1923 date in Richmond, Indiana. Yet this is a milestone event, much more important than anything you can do with a fly-swatter. And the music? Two different schools of thought exist about this historic collaboration. The conventional view is that Morton taught these white boys a thing or two, and loosened up their stiff conception of jazz. The opposing camp holds that the New Orleans Rhythm Kings already knew what they were doing, and that Morton was a sideman not a professor at the date.

Since Morton takes no solo here, he may seem to be playing a minor role. But his comping behind Roppolo (whose name is often misspelled as 'Rappolo") is excellent, and clearly inspires this under-appreciated clarinetist to some heartfelt playing. This interlude is followed by an inspired burst of ensemble double-time playing, where one can clearly hear Morton driving the band. These ten seconds are the most energized and cohesive part of the performance.

My verdict: This band didn't need Jelly Roll to teach them about jazz melody lines, which they understood and played lucidly, but he definitely enhanced the rhythmic flow of their work. Too bad this was just a one-time collaboration in the studio. They might have shaken up the jazz scene—and, of course, the general public in that segregated era—if they had taken their show on the road.

August 18, 2009 · 0 comments


Sam Morgan's Jazz Band: Sing On

If you judge by the locations of the recording sessions, you would be forgiven for thinking that New Orleans jazz took place mostly in Chicago. For all the splendor of its homegrown music scene, the Big Easy sent its star players packing—and they needed to leave home if they hoped to make their name in the jazz world.

How sad to see Sam Morgan's amazing jazz ensemble left behind in obscurity because it stayed in New Orleans. The ingredients here are not promising: Sam hired two of his young brothers and the trombonist brought in his cousin to play string bass. None of these artists ever became a star or even moderately well-known beyond the inside circles of New Orleans music. But take my word (or better yet, listen yourself and discover): this was one of the finest jazz bands in the world, circa 1927. The ensemble sound is perfectly balanced, and the rhythm section is more advanced than any you will hear in New York or Chicago groups from this period. Why Sidney Brown isn't revered by bass players is a mystery to me—he was laying down supple and driving 4/4 time when almost everyone else was two-stepping. This is Kansas City rhythm before Kansas City discovered it. The call-and-response among the horns is also noteworthy, and only a step away from big band jazz. Yet the jubilant spirit of the New Orleans tradition permeates every chorus.

Thanks goodness Columbia Records captured this band on wax during a field trip down south. The fact that musical riches of this caliber were hidden away back home while the world got to know Armstrong, Bechet, Morton and others tells us much about the depth of jazz talent In New Orleans in the 1920s. It begs the question: how much music of this caliber is totally lost to us because no one thought to record it?

August 11, 2009 · 0 comments


Johnny Dodds (with the New Orleans Wanderers): Perdido Street Blues

In the hierarchy of New Orleans jazz, the trumpet / cornet players are at the very top of the heap. They were often given nicknames like King (Joe Oliver, Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard) or Pops (Armstrong) or Papa (Mutt Carey) to emphasize their role as pater familias. In contrast, the most famous New Orleans drummer was known as "Baby" and the leading trombonist was called "Kid." And the clarinetist in the band? He certainly wasn't called King - or even Earl or Squire. Every traditional jazz band worth its sassafras needed one, but they usually got no nickname at all. Little wonder so many switched to sax when they got the chance.

Which brings us to the subject of Johnny Dodds. Here the great New Orleans clarinetist, best remembered as a sideman with Armstrong and Oliver, gets to step to the forefront at a recording session and makes the most of the opportunity. He contributes two majestic choruses that rank among the finest examples of traditional jazz clarinet playing you will ever hear - and shows that he doesn't need a famous brass player in tow to validate his artistry. George Mitchell plays better on his Jelly Roll Morton sides, and Ory's solo is sleep-inducing. But Dodds alone is enough to enshrine this track in the pantheon of New Orleans classics. The ensemble playing in the final seconds is picture perfect, and Dodds shines in the coda. Okay, you can hold off on the crown, but playing like this certainly deserves at least an earldom or principality.

August 11, 2009 · 0 comments


Louis Armstrong: Potato Head Blues

"Hello Dolly" and "What a Wonderful World" may get the airplay. "West End Blues" might receive more praise in the jazz history books. But, frankly, "Potato Head Blues" encapsulates Louis Armstrong's artistry as well as any recording he made during his half-century long career. The authority of his phrasing and the grandeur of his tone dominate the soundspace, and his stop-time chorus stands out as the most impressive solo of its time. I dare say no other horn player in the Spring of 1927 could have matched this achievement, and one merely need compare Armstrong's performance here with Oliver, Keppard and his other predecessors to see how far he pushed the art form ahead at this critical juncture. This set a new bar for the trumpet but also—and more profoundly—changed the essence of jazz ensemble playing. The collective sound of early New Orleans jazz was now replaced by an emphasis on the individual soloist. Tone and textures no longer signified as much as virtuosity and daring. Only a towering talent could have spurred this transition, one which still shapes jazz music so many decades later. Potato head? What an inadequate name for such a world-changing work, more deserving of commemoration in granite or marble.

August 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Louis Armstrong: Hotter Than That

The fiery “Hotter Than That” is one of Louis Armstrong’s masterpieces. Played at a flying tempo, Armstrong soars while most of his band-mates can barely get off the ground. The opening trumpet solo is a brilliant example of developing a melodic idea, all with a dynamic sound and sophisticated swing. Lonnie Johnson, guesting with the Hot Five, was clearly a student of Armstrong’s innovations, and he accompanies Armstrong’s magnificent scat solo. Armstrong’s advanced rhythmic sense is in full display as he sings behind the beat and then intensifies the rhythm with a brilliant series of dotted quarter notes which get further and further off the beat. (Later, Armstrong ties his solo work together by alluding to those dotted quarters in his final trumpet solo!) Also of note are Armstrong’s scat syllables: he uses “rip” several times, each time with an ascending glissando (the term is now commonly used for that melodic device), and he even improvises the term “bebop” which became the name of the jazz movement in the 1940s. Louis Armstrong may not have invented scat singing, but he remains one of its greatest exponents.

August 06, 2009 · 0 comments


Freddie Keppard: Stock Yards Strut

The most famous Freddie Keppard recording session is the one he didn't make. In early 1916, the Victor Talking Machine Company tried to convince the New Orleans cornetist to record for their label—this would have been the first jazz session anywhere if Keppard had agreed. Instead he responded nothin' doin' because (according to the most famous account) he feared other players would "steal his stuff" if it were available on disk; or (if you believe another, not incompatible explanation) because of his dissatisfaction over financial terms; or, if we believe Sidney Bechet, Keppard (like Bartleby the Scrivener) refused to record simply because he preferred not to.

Less attention is paid to the music that Keppard actually recorded—albeit more than a decade later. But in "Stock Yards Strut" he plays with vigor and swing, and one can understand the claims of those who saw him as the great interregnum ruler of New Orleans cornet between the reigns of King Buddy (Bolden) and King Joe (Oliver). I wish we had more Keppard tracks at this level, and devotees of traditional sounds will forever dream of what this artist sounded like when he was in his mid-20s. Dream on, but don't dismiss this hot side, which contains some stuff eminently worth stealing.

August 05, 2009 · 0 comments


Bix Beiderbecke: In a Mist

Bix Beiderbecke was not a professional pianist, and this track is our only record of his keyboard work. Yet this is much more than dabbling by a gifted amateur. Beiderbecke completely dispenses with the oom-pah stride bass that dominated the solo jazz piano work of the era, and substitutes a holistic approach integrating left and right hands in a manner of his own invention. One might think this was a piece of classical music, if it weren't for a few telltale jazz devices. This early example of cool jazz gets positively chilly at certain points, with an emotional content as rarefied as the atmosphere 8,000 meters up Mt. Everest. There is no sentimentality here, rather a glittery crystalline quality, shiny and alluring even in its remoteness. This music is maddeningly difficult to "place" since there is hardly any "place" to place it in the annals of jazz history. In short, "In a Mist" is a one-of-a-kind work by a one-of-a-kind artist. Even so, I can't help thinking that, under slightly different circumstances, Bix Beiderbecke and his disciples might have built a whole different style of jazz playing on this foundation.

May 09, 2009 · 0 comments


Ferde Grofé: Mississippi Suite

What Billy Strayhorn was to Duke Ellington, Ferde Grofé (1892-1972) was to George Gershwin and Paul Whiteman—a brilliantly talented musical facilitator who contributed to the more famous achievements of others. Such careers are often accompanied by frustration, and one can get a bitter taste of that from a 1928 letter from Gershwin to ASCAP complaining that Grofé had claimed composer credit for Rhapsody in Blue.

Yet the Whiteman connection is even more problematic. Whiteman? An unfortunate surname for this gentlemen, who even with a more nondescript patronymic would have served as a lightning rod for criticisms that white artists tried to usurp the fame and fortune that should have gone to the African-American pioneers of jazz. The thorny issue here is less Whiteman himself, who did a lot of good for the music and served as catalyst for many excellent works (even securing commissions for Duke Ellington and other black artists), but rather the attempts to label him "the King of Jazz," which created an invevitable backlash. The first major jazz critics treated him the way current arbiters of jazz opinions deal with Kenny G. Mr. White-man, please step to the back of the jazz bus.

In such instances, I prefer to check out the music. This isn't easy for fans to do these days, since no one has thought it worthwhile to put out a comprehensive box set of Whiteman's music. In jazz circles, Whiteman is someone you talk about, but don't actually listen to or study. Fortunately the Beau Hunks, a Dutch ensemble, have meticulously recreated Ferde Grofé's concert jazz works written for Whiteman's band during the period from 1924 through 1931, and presented a complete version of Mississippi Suite (1925), which Whiteman himself never recorded in its entirety.

It is hard not to be charmed by this period work, which juxtaposes moments of gravitas with lighthearted syncopation. The melodic material may not rise to the level of Gershwin's works from this period, but it comes close. The missing element for me is simply the absence of jazz solos. If Grofé had revised this work a few years later and recorded it with improvisations by Beiderbecke, Trumbauer and other jazz-oriented talents in the Whiteman band, Mississippi Suite would be an acknowledged classic. Instead, lacking these elements, it is jazz light—an especially polished example, to be sure, but a notch below the masterpieces of the era.

May 09, 2009 · 0 comments


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