King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band: Canal Street Blues

Having left New Orleans in 1918, King Oliver played mostly around Chicago—with a year in California—for four years. Then in 1923, after he had brought Louis Armstrong up from New Orleans, he took his Creole Band into an April 5 wax-cylinder recording session at Gennett Studios in Richmond, Indiana. They played into a big horn, and the engineer mixed the sound by moving the players closer to or farther from the horn. After nine months of these sessions, the band had produced some 37 sides—the first significant recorded body of black New Orleans jazz. It would change the shape of American music.

"Canal Street Blues," from the April 5 session, is the parade song of your dreams. In New Orleans, the parade beat drives the music: real parades, where uniformed men carrying horns would march in the heat for six to eight hours, standing up, swinging, big second lines trailing.

In this, the classic New Orleans jazz ensemble, the Creole Band drives through the heat and plays with fire streaming off their backsides. The piano-banjo-drum rhythm section, with the future Mrs. Louis Armstrong on keys, beats as if they're driving a herd—and there was one, on the dance floor. The simple, 3-note motif conjures a waving flag. Dutrey blows into the music from behind, pushing its resonance. In true New Orleans style, the clarinet takes the big solo. Enter the final ensemble, where Louis tops Oliver's lead with a "perfect" fifth and joins him in a one-bar duet break at the end, with trombone sneaking in on beats 3 and 4. Laissez les bon temps roulez!

March 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Wesley Wallace: Number 29

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!

March 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: The Blues With a Feelin'

"The Blues With a Feelin'" is an apt title for this track. With the Ellington band's usual fine backing, there are superb solos from "Tricky Sam" Nanton, Johnny Hodges, and presumably Arthur Whetsol. The tune opens and ends with lovely clarinet duet lines. After the opening, Nanton plays a higher-range, very melodious trombone solo with gorgeous tone and some punch. That effectively sets the stage for a soaring, soulful soprano sax solo by Johnny Hodges that is nicely constructed, with well-placed use of bluesy slurs. The impact of Johnny's inspiration and mentor of a few years earlier, Sidney Bechet, is especially evident here, right down to the intense, Bechet-style vibrato. Whetsol (or is it Miley?) contributes some fine muted trumpet lines that carry on perfectly, in tone and style, from the Hodges solo. This track is an excellent example of how the sophisticated gentleman Ellington, with key-note help from his superb soloists, could offer up soulful blues. Especially with Johnny Hodges, this is, indeed, "the blues with a feelin'."

March 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: Beggar's Blues

The elegant Duke Ellington band is a rather surprising source for a track titled "Beggar's Blues." Yet with this tune, composed by those two masters Johnny Hodges and Barney Bigard, Duke's band offers us a beautiful slow blues with great feeling. The piece has a gorgeous, soulful, moving main theme, which is played marvelously by the full ensemble and by parts of it. One of this track's best aspects is an excellent use of different instrumental combinations to not only play the theme and variations, but to create tone textures and atmospheres that enhance the musical experience. Perhaps the finest of these are provided by Hodges and Bigard, with the latter adding a typically beautiful flowing and fluttering, soaring and sliding, creative solo.

But there are two problems. First, while the Duke usually makes the most perfectly appropriate piano contribution to a tune, in the middle of this track he plays a kind of low-grade rhapsodic break at odds with the nature of the song; it is almost as if a recording engineer imported this section from some other, entirely different type of tune and spliced it in. The second problem is either in the original engineering or in this remastering: Wellman Braud's solid, repetitive bassline is so loud and penetrating that after a while the listener feels about two seconds from a massive heart attack. Without the Ellington oddity and the audio problem, my rating would be higher. Indeed, this is one of the most marvelous blues tunes the Ellington band ever produced.

March 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jelly Roll Morton: Dead Man Blues (Take 1)

According to Rex Stewart's fine book, Jazz Masters of the '30s, Omer Simeon was elsewhere for this track, and the young and already excellent Barney Bigard filled in, with added clarinet backing from Darnell Howard. That explanation rings true, since it makes little sense to have three clarinets on a small group session with only one cornet and one trombone.

In any case, "Dead Man Blues" opens with a vaudeville-style, stagy humorous spoken exchange between Jelly Roll Morton and Johnny St. Cyr—"Somebody must be daid; … must be a fuunral, I b'lieve ah hear that trambone-phone"—which is followed by a rendition of the classic New Orleans music played for the marching procession going to the cemetery. A pure tailgate trombone slide transitions into the main body of the song. Thereafter, like its partner track "Sidewalk Blues," "Dead Man Blues" is a gem of classic New Orleans-style ensemble jazz, with superb solo breaks. This track especially features beautiful clarinet work (probably by Bigard), along with George Mitchell's cornet playing. This Jelly Roll composition is at least as good as "Sidewalk Blues," and the group again shows the substantial rehearsal efforts of Morton. This is hugely enjoyable music, fine classic jazz and significant jazz history.

March 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jelly Roll Morton: Sidewalk Blues (Take 3)

According to Rex Stewart's fine book, Jazz Masters of the '30s, Omer Simeon was elsewhere for this track, and the young and already excellent Barney Bigard filled in, with added clarinet backing from Darnell Howard. That explanation rings true, since it makes little sense to have three clarinets on a small group session with only one cornet and one trombone.

In any case, there is no doubt about one thing: Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers sides of 1926 are among the greatest early jazz recordings. This track, in my judgment, is one of the three best. It opens with vaudeville-style sound effects and a silly-fun spoken dialogue (between Morton and Johnny St. Cyr), then a piano phrase, some fine trombone and clarinet work lead into a beaut of a clarinet solo (probably by Bigard). Thereafter the band romps through this marvelous number. In summary, it is the best of New Orleans ensemble jazz, with excellent solo contributions on piano, trombone, clarinet and cornet, all within the framework of a fine Morton composition and performed to perfection for recording after Jelly had thoroughly rehearsed the band. Simply put, it's hugely enjoyable music.

March 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Mills Brothers with Duke Ellington: Diga Diga Doo

This song, written for the significant early black musical Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1928, is best characterized as the height of cool, early '30s style. With the notable Mills Brothers adding their fine harmonized vocals to the Ellington band's usual superb ensemble playing, it is a very interesting track. The Mills Brothers sing the lyrics, with the repeated "Diga diga doo" line, in wonderfully stylish and rhythmic manner, with dashes of scat. An underlying rhythmic bass percussive effect is provided vocally by basso John Mills, Jr., for much of the song. The music has a catchy, memorable theme, which the band plays in a rollicking, romping way with great rhythmic momentum; they also play some unison, punchy descending lines adding drama. These guys are obviously having big-time fun with this number! Cootie Williams plays most of the lead on trumpet with spirit and style, using a mute for the first choruses before opening his trumpet. Later, Johnny Hodges plays beautifully bouncing, wailing lead lines on soprano sax (reminiscent of his mentor Sidney Bechet) in answer to Cootie's trumpet work, with heavy ensemble backing. Fun stuff and fine music, indeed!

March 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: Rockin' in Rhythm

This standard for the Ellington band came, as Duke said, "as close as an arrangement gets to sounding spontaneous," with the freely swinging style. It's also among the Ellington tracks that served as a clear precursor to the big band swing music of the later 1930s and early '40s. An interesting intro with piano and a deep, low-register, punched-out trombone phrase lead into lively, swinging playing of the distinctive main theme and variations, with sharp horn accents. This is mainly an ensemble piece. Crescendos effectively augment texture, feel and dynamics; and unison playing of the saxophones and clarinet add a further interesting dimension to the soundscape. A feature attraction, following a rumbling, repeated ensemble riff that nicely sets the scene for a sound contrast, is a siren song of a clarinet solo by Barney Bigard with his unique style and rich tone. But Duke Ellington the composer/arranger is the biggest star here, showing off his band's rich ensemble playing at its finest.

March 09, 2009 · 1 comment

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Lonnie Johnson with Duke Ellington: Move Over

This track was the second recording on which Lonnie Johnson joined Duke's band, adding a virtuoso guitar part. The band starts things off with that classic Ellington ensemble sound, setting the scene for Bubber Miley's solo on muted trumpet, playing the theme and variations with spirit and style. He adds some growl accents to excellent effect. A saxophone trio—Johnny Hodges on soprano, Harry Carney on alto and Barney Bigard on tenor—follows with a very interesting, unusual, lilting tonal effect. "Tricky Sam" Nanton adds a fine trombone line, after which Lonnie Johnson takes a characteristically creative, skipping, rhythmic guitar solo. Bigard then jumps in and produces a fascinating tonal and textural effect in a quite unique and hauntingly beautiful clarinet/guitar duet with Johnson. The tune finishes with Miley resuming the lead, playing a marvelous line on open trumpet, and the sax trio ends it with a lilting, mellow fade. While two of the other tracks Lonnie Johnson recorded with Ellington in 1928, "The Mooche" and "Hot and Bothered," have gotten more attention, this tune with its unique elements is also outstanding.

March 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Wild Cat Blues

This was Sidney Bechet's first recording. Beyond the start of a tremendously important recording career, this track was historic because Bechet was the featured player, rather than simply serving as part of the ensemble in classic New Orleans style, and this recording was made more than two years before the first of the Louis Armstrong Hot Five tracks that are usually credited with the landmark step of featuring a solo artist.

This track starts out in classic New Orleans polyphonic ensemble style. It is grounded on the standard early 1920s chug/chug/chug rhythm, especially from Christian's banjo—as trumpeter Max Kaminsky said, "those '20s bands with that dreadful '20s beat." But it also has energy and bounce. Then Bechet soars above it all, and quickly we hear that the intense, unique vibrato that became so notable was already well developed. He also adds some of those great, crying, keening high notes that became another trademark, along with very inventive lines. To hear the recorded beginnings of this jazz giant is a treat, even if Clarence Williams was a better music entrepreneur than pianist, and despite the chugging rhythm and merely OK sidemen.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Alberta Hunter: Early Every Morn

A major singer in the first phase of blues recording, Alberta Hunter (recording under the pseudonym, "Josephine Beatty"), sings this very 1920s tune in the manner of the early '20s women blues singers (except for Bessie Smith): half vaudeville, half stylized blues. It has very catchy, slightly campy, and quite memorable melody and lyrics, which Hunter performs with verve and more than a dash of sauciness.

This track is most notable for the two lead instrumentalists backing her, young virtuosos who would each have tremendous impact on jazz: Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. After a fine ensemble intro, Alberta sings several choruses; then Armstrong and Bechet take the break, with Satch deepening the rhythm with a classic New Orleans riff and Sidney blowing some soaring lines with saucy, bluesy slurs that complement the vocal, weaving around one another in a marvelous tango of New Orleans horns. Though you have to wade through the 1924 acoustic recording, this is very engaging stuff, with an excellent taste of early Armstrong and Bechet.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Eddie Lang & Lonnie Johnson: Hot Fingers

"Hot Fingers" is an appropriate title for this track, as these two ultimate masters of jazz and blues guitar in the 1920s take this member of their remarkable series of duets at a fast pace, with a lively, energetic feel and dancing fingers. This is one of those wonderful recordings where the listener with a good ear appreciates the instrumental mastery and superb musical creation, and comes away with spirits lifted and feet dancing along.

With bright, spangly-sounding strums on his uniquely tuned 12-string guitar (as in another gem from the duet series, "Midnight Call Blues"), Lonnie Johnson starts this track, leading into the catchy, rollicking main theme, played with Johnson's extraordinarily nimble fingers. Eddie Lang provides his usual fine harmonic and rhythmic foundation for Johnson's instrumental acrobatics, in this case a rolling, deep-toned foundation. At several points, the two guitarists jibe so perfectly at the rapid tempo in their respective roles—while improvising through the basic prearranged structure—that they seem to have a mystical connection. This is sparkling stuff.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Eddie Lang: Eddie's Twister

This is the best known of the relatively few recordings Eddie Lang made featuring him on guitar with a piano accompanist. Lang opens with a catchy, memorable theme, then moves into well-constructed variations, with charming descending lines that give the piece character. His usual excellent harmonic sense is well displayed, and he makes fine use of the lower strings to add richness to the song's tone and texture. While it doesn't have quite the dazzling virtuosity of Lonnie Johnson's solo guitar recordings of the following February, such as "Away Down in the Alley Blues," it is a fine demonstration of the superb musicianship of Lang, who had a significant impact in jazz—and beyond. Arthur Schutt provides fairly simple but effective and complementary piano backing, and takes a one-chorus lead with some nice flourishes in the middle.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Eddie Lang & Joe Venuti: Wild Cat

"Wild Cat" is an apt title for this recording, as the piece is taken at a fast, if not frenzied, tempo and played with intensity and exuberance in a very 1920s style. The track starts with a dramatic, intense, 2-stage ascending violin flourish that amounts to a call to action, with a perfect, sharply strummed 2-stage response by Lang's guitar. After that, Lang provides more than his usual solid, chugging rhythmic and harmonic foundation; he gives us a high-octane, rollicking, ascending and descending guitar counterpoint to Venuti's expressive violin lines that sail and skitter over the top with verve and style. With all the energy and strong, driving rhythm, this is serious toe-tapping music. And after they are fully in motion with the fiddle and guitar exchanges, it sounds like a brilliant precursor to the best bluegrass breakdown records of later years (direct or indirect inspiration?).

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Eddie Lang & Joe Venuti: Stringing the Blues

"Stringing the Blues," drawing on the early jazz classic "Tiger Rag," is the first violin-guitar duet of Joe Venuti & Eddie Lang. As such, it is a pioneering work. As in his duets with Lonnie Johnson, Lang lays down a solid rhythmic base and harmonic structure for Venuti's sliding, skittering, often staccato lead work on violin. On this track, Lang mostly uses a standard 1920s, on-the-beat, thrum/thrum/thrum rhythm; it provides a strong momentum, but after a while feels choppy and, well, standardized. But at a couple of points Lang and Venuti have fine, excellently coordinated intricate exchanges. This music has a quintessential 1920s feel. Venuti's bowing draws effectively on the expressive capacities of the violin, and the flow of his lead lines makes for good jazz with a different texture and style than in the best-known earlier jazz recordings.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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