Sidney Bechet: Kansas City Man Blues

Taken from Bechet's first session with pianist Clarence Williams' Blue Five, "Kansas City Man Blues" is (with "Wild Cat Blues") one of his first two extant recordings. As if to prove that the irascible Bechet followed no man, his vibrato-laden soprano is front and center. Although the group is a New Orleans-style collective, in truth this is a soprano feature; the rest of the band takes the only sensible course and stays in the background. Everything that made Bechet special is on display: the sinuous phrasing, resolute rhythms, and that sound—like a blowtorch. It's little wonder that few of his contemporary jazz saxophonists took up the cudgel and adopted the soprano (Johnny Hodges was one of the few; he played soprano in his youth, even studying with Bechet, and played it occasionally even after switching to alto). Bechet's personality on the instrument is so strong, it must've seemed almost impossible to find an alternative way to play it. The man was a force of nature.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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King Oliver and his Orchestra: Sweet Like This

Recorded at the threshold of the Great Depression and the 1930s, this melancholy tune seems to presage King Oliver's demise (he would die destitute in Savannah in 1938) and mourn the passing of the New Orleans "big noise." The comfortable, laid-back pulse foreshadows the piano-bass-drum ballad swing of the 1950s and onward. Its layout features four successive horn solos—alto, trombone, open trumpet (Nelson), and muted trumpet (an expressive Oliver). Yet the piece overall is a "sweet" arrangement, and that's where American music was going.

The next year, Oliver would take his band on the road, where it would essentially stay until the end of his life, stranded, broke, run out of town, continually falling apart. The King was losing his teeth, so when audiences requested that he play his recorded solos, he had to turn them down. Yet the band always appeared dressed to the nines. Joe's sidemen reported that he never missed a gig and could still play with great range and power. In the end, he wrote to his beloved sister Victoria, "I'm still out of work…. But I've got a lot to thank God for. Because I eat and sleep…. Look like every time one door close, the Good Lord open another…."

March 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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King Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators: Slow and Steady

This sweet, bluesy melody, coming a year after "Farewell Blues," reveals the King Oliver band becoming yet more arranged and less polyphonic, with unison horn choruses beginning and ending the tune. In between emerge three solos, including a sparkly, muted-trumpet turn by Louis Metcalf. He had been recording with Ellington for two years, on such originals as "East St. Louis Toodle-O" and "Black and Tan Fantasy." Oliver admired him and, now that Joe's teeth and gums were failing, began using Metcalf (and others) to assume his lead and/or solo work.

Metcalf does so here and, interestingly, goes for the leader's wah-wah approach—even though with Ellington he had been a bit straighter. On the other hand, how could Metcalf have avoided the approach, when Bubber Miley had been in his face (with Ellington), and Miley had picked up his growling style from Oliver!

The ensembles have an elastic feel here. The trombone/reed section echoes the lead trumpet—just a millisecond behind—as though they're playing the same song, yet a different song. Everybody's got something to say! Yet overall, when compared with Ellington's concurrent recordings, Oliver's sound appears weakening. Away from New Orleans, he was a fish out of water.

March 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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King Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators: Farewell Blues

Despite all the acclaim for King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and its historic issue of 37 sides, this cover of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings' "Farewell Blues" may rank as my all-time Oliver favorite. The NORK had recorded it five years earlier, also at Gennett Studios. Their white band was known to emulate the African-Americans—particularly Oliver—and they often succeeded. Listen to their composition "Angry" and their romping "Sobbin' Blues," both recorded the same day in August 1923.

But here the Dixie Syncopators take the NORK's hopping tempo and cut it 18% (by my metronomic measurement) down to size, giving the feel of a huge riverboat rolling. I like to call the effect "long-wave swing," where the piece as a whole swings—rather than any one section, segment or instrument. Note the final two coming-together choruses, with the clarinet rising on the second. Although they play from a printed score, this band ain't goin' nowhere, since they're already there and screaming for glory.

March 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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King Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators: Wa Wa Wa

Most observers agree that Joe Oliver was among the first brass men (if not the first) to change his sound by sticking bottles, cans, kazoos, or what have you into the bell of his cornet. Colleagues testified that by doing so, he could actually carry on a conversation through "talking horn" effects. Fifty years later, electric guitarists would emulate Oliver's genius using wah-wah pedals.

This dramatic composition, "Wa Wa Wa," showcases King Oliver's "talking" cornet. It also exemplifies how, with the onset of larger bands, New Orleans polyphonic ensemble play began stratifying into sections. It began slowly; at first, sections overlapped, maintaining some of the terrific Crescent City polyphony. The effect shows up here, especially in the last refrains.

Two horn choruses kick off the piece, the second with a repeated fourth-beat cymbal response from Barbarin. Cornet takes stage front for chorus #3; we're not sure whether it is Oliver or his second cornet Bob Shoffner. Note the horn's swing phrasing. But there's more.

Following two more choruses, one with an Ory "hat" trombone break, the final stratified ensembles blow into town. In the end, the band becomes a three-headed hydra—saxes and cornets swapping bars (boys running through woods tossing a ball), the clarinet weaving through them. It comes to a final head with Oliver's famed wah-wah break of repeated quarter-note yowls. Aside from his three choruses in "Dippermouth Blues" and certain other Creole Band breaks, this may rank as the most emphatic of his recorded solos.

March 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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King Oliver's Jazz Band: Snag It

Once New Orleans musicians started moving to Chicago in the 19-teens, South Side club owners began losing interest in their local players. "Snag It" shows us why. Driven by King Oliver's first "big" band—the 10-piece Dixie Syncopators—the 12-bar track moves like a train. To fill his crew, Oliver had brought in the best of his Crescent City cohort, including Ory, Bigard, Nicholas, Russell, Scott, and Barbarin. We also find Richard M. Jones doing the short vocal.

Under Oliver's opening cornet lead, soprano, alto, tenor and trombone hold a side conversation. Rather than distract, it fuels. The band moves into a bluesy, muted trombone solo, then a Latinesque stop-time soprano soliloquy. (Jelly Roll Morton taught us of the "Spanish Tinge" in jazz, and we hear it here.) Now comes Jones's vocal, a shining Oliver cornet break, two call-and-response ensemble choruses—and the train steams into the station.

March 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sippie Wallace (featuring King Oliver): Every Dog Has His Day

After Louis Armstrong had come and gone from King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, and after the band had collapsed, Oliver branched out. He brought an expanded group—the Dixie Syncopators—into Chicago's Plantation Café. He also recorded with the first of many blues vocalists he would accompany over the next five years.

Blues shouter Sippie Wallace (born Beulah Thomas) came up singing in the Baptist Church and in Texas tent shows. On the arms of her two musical brothers, George W. and Hersal Thomas, she moved into 19-teens New Orleans. Brother George gigged in the Storyville red-light district, where he apparently met Joe Oliver. Ten years later in Chicago, George Thomas likely brought Oliver into this session with his sister, now married and renamed Sippie Wallace—the "Texas Nightingale." Along with Oliver, brother Hersal accompanied Sippie on piano.

The recording is worn and scratched. But perhaps due to the ease between sister-brother Sippie and Hersal, or perhaps because Oliver still has most of his teeth (he would later lose them), his blues accompaniment here is dramatic, thoughtful and lyrical—among the finest of his recordings in this genre. His approach often sounds like that of Armstrong, who would cut similar sides with Bessie Smith.

In the 1970s and '80s, Sippie Wallace toured and recorded with Bonnie Raitt, whom she had inspired to start singing the blues.

March 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band: Riverside Blues

A work of joy and salvation, this stirring piece sets the stage with four funereal minor-key measures, then emerges into a triumphant relative major, where it stays for the duration. As with "Jazzin' Babies Blues," it comes from the mind of Richard M. Jones, who also wrote "Trouble in Mind." It was on a New Orleans gig with Jones that King Oliver out-blew Freddie Keppard and made his first mark. Writing credit here also goes to Thomas A. Dorsey, who would compose "Peace in the Valley" (covered by Elvis Presley) and become known as the "father of gospel."

In fact, with the dirge-like beginning, the whole piece recalls a gospel service. Two staunch blues choruses, with everybody participating, give way to successive stop-time segments where individual players get to testify as "church members" say Amen behind them. With Charlie Jackson added on bass saxophone, the pounding voicings make you want to bow your head.

Armstrong takes the last testament, his cornet seeming to herald the arrival of a king. His anticipated entrances seem to say that, at the ripe old age of 22, he understood the entire plight of mankind. Perhaps this is why he became known to all of mankind.

March 25, 2009 · 1 comment

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King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band: Jazzin' Babies Blues

Joe Oliver had so much power that he must have been born to play with a mute. According to Jelly Roll Morton, Oliver started putting bottles into his horn to tone himself down. But even with that impediment, he could come out screaming. He does so here, on an enduring composition by Richard M. Jones, a New Orleans accomplice who took part in arranging the Creole Band's Gennett sessions.

This tune resembles the New Orleans Rhythm Kings' "Tin Roof Blues," which the NORK had recorded three months earlier. Some proof exists that both tunes came out of a folk strain floating around New Orleans before everyone started moving to and recording around Chicago. There, Jones himself recorded the tune on solo piano just three weeks before this June 23, 1923 Okeh Creole Band date.

Oliver had brought in Bud Scott on banjo, and Scott drives the band like John Henry driving railroad spikes. The sound is informed by Johnny Dodds's exploratory clarinet work and by Oliver's slurred phrasing, which keeps the fire lit. His explosive muted cornet solo on the fourth chorus lets us know he has something to say beyond what's written on the sheet.

March 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band: Snake Rag

American jazz had forebears in minstrelsy and vaudeville, and the Creole Band's bassist/banjoist Bill Johnson had recently spent five years with the Original Creole Orchestra, touring the country in stage shows. You can hear the vaudeville flavor throughout "Snake Rag," most notably in the repeated two-cornet descending wobble/trombone slide. It follows the amusing vein found in the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's "Livery Stable Blues," recorded six years prior. As Oliver's friend and 1930s sideman Paul Barnes recalled, "All great musicians are comedians and entertainers. King Oliver was that way too."

More than one source has observed that on all these sides, Oliver's creative playing lagged behind the mark he set in New Orleans a decade earlier. But the legendary Johnny St. Cyr, who came up with Oliver and often played with him, said the best record of Oliver's style—"the real Oliver of New Orleans"—is this Okeh version of "Snake Rag," where "Oliver makes trick breaks, animal noises," as St. Cyr. These breaks loom after 2:00, when the horns' steam pressure rises, then pop up at 2:13 and 2:49, where the Oliver/ Armstrong 2-bar duet breaks recall crows cawing and swans trumpeting, respectively. Note the continuous ensemble play. As the drummer, Baby Dodds, wrote, "We worked hard to make music, and we played music to make people like it."

March 25, 2009 · 1 comment

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King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band: Dippermouth Blues (alternate review)

Joe 'King' Oliver is often remembered in jazz histories as a mere footnote to the more illustrious story of Louis Armstrong - he was the man who gave Satchmo the break that brought him out of New Orleans and into the limelight of Chicago nightlife. But this account fails to do justice to Oliver's own artistry. "Dippermouth Blues" is one of the first great recorded masterpieces of jazz - and not just for Armstrong's contribution. Oliver's solo serves as a much-needed reminder of what jazz could do before Armstrong changed all the rules. It is to the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens what great medieval art is to the Renaissance masters - not an inferior predecessor, but rather the final flowering of a purer, more rarefied style.

Early New Orleans jazz was about the quality of sound rather than the quantity of notes, and Oliver was the great master of getting the cornet to speak with a vocal tone. His range is limited here, and his phrases are built on only two or three notes of the scale. But his down-and-dirty sound captures the ethos of jazz as it emerged at the dawn of the American century. The vitality of his playing comes through despite the passing decades and inferior recording technology of the era (although the sonic fidelity is much improved on this reissue compared to earlier releases). Even today, jazz virtuosos could learn lessons about phrasing from this too-seldom-heard classic from 1923.

March 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band: Dippermouth Blues

"Dippermouth Blues," from the second day of the original Gennett sessions, opens with a 4-bar diminished lead, then takes us on a gallivanting two-chorus ride over the hills, driven by a one-bar ostinato motor. As with any good motor, the parts diligently repeat their functions - as do the trombone and clarinet here, providing support for the lead cornet. The ensemble takes us to a stop-time clarinet solo. While seeming to "toot" along, Johnny Dodds - without slurring - hangs in tempo and in groove. He was known to take his music seriously.

Following another ensemble, we're into the centerpiece: King Oliver's famed three-chorus muted cornet solo. He comes in bawling and goes out rocking. Oliver's blues was the essence of his playing, and it shapes this tune. It was said he could carry a conversation using only his "talking" horn. Here, amidst the swing, he is a lone voice crying to be heard. Over a decade later, in "Sugarfoot Stomp," the Benny Goodman Orchestra still copied Oliver's "Dippermouth" solo.

March 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band: Chimes Blues (alternate review)

Everything about this track screams 1923. Cornets instead of trumpets, clarinet not saxophone, banjo not guitar, woodblock in lieu of drums. Even instruments that might sound modern—trombone and piano—are dated by Dutrey's corny glissading and Lil's 2-beat backing. And the audio is, to put it politely, primitive. So what makes this track a landmark? How about because it contains Louis Armstrong's first recorded solo! At this point, Chicago Jazz was still very much a New Orleans import. But thanks to Louis, the music was transiting from ensemble to individual, something "Chimes Blues" captures in mid-commute. A fascinating, irreplaceable piece of history.

March 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band: Chimes Blues

This medium-tempo piece sounds like a jazz band playing around a china vase. It follows a winding garden path through two straight ensemble blues choruses, then four more (two of them stop-time) around Lil Hardin's chamberesque piano, until it finds the main attraction: Louis Armstrong's first ever recorded solo.

Hardin, the only non-New Orleanian in the group, had received classical training. She could sound more "legit" than the other band members, who had come up "ragging" the music. But it is Armstrong who saves the day—opening the door to the china shop like a bull that just happened by. The beauty of the Oliver band—and many of the Crescent City bands—was that it could play arranged passages as though they were improvising. Armstrong walks away with the cake, swinging like nobody ever had. When you heard Louis on "Chimes Blues," Gary Giddins has commented, "You heard the future."

Although the piece fails to stand as one of Oliver's great compositions, it brings out his bluesy concept. Five years later, he reconceived it as "Mournful Serenade," which Jelly Roll Morton recorded to great effect.

March 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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King Oliver: Canal Street Blues (alternate review)

The first strain of this original blues by Joe Oliver has often been misinterpreted due to poor reissues of the original recording: What sounds like one cornet playing fully throughout each measure is actually a call and response by two cornets. The second strain (3rd chorus) is based on the famous 19th-century sacred song “The Holy City.” But what is really important here is the unity with which this ensemble performs and their collective lilt, swing and conviction. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fifth chorus where the ensemble sails into a most deliberate and compelling riff – one that presages the swing bands of the 1930s. Following two solo choruses by Johnny Dodds (accompanied by the “walking bass” of Bill Johnson’s 6-string banjo) the band reiterates the previous riff for two joyous choruses. The anachronistic two-bar coda, built on the augmented 5th of the key, is perhaps the only reminder that this was recorded in 1923.

March 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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