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


Jelly Roll Morton: High Society

Although Jelly Roll Morton is the leader of this recording, it is a rare instance where the pianist/composer is not the center of attention. We barely hear a note from his piano and the arrangement sounds nothing like the Red Hot Pepper charts of the previous decade. Indeed, on this version of "High Society" it sounds as if half the band is improvising their parts (or playing from memory). The sound is like a New Orleans street parade, but in this recording, both Sidney Bechet and Albert Nicholas play the famous clarinet obbligato. Bechet goes first, playing the serpentine line on soprano sax. He has some issues with breath control and the phrasing is quite choppy. NIcholas (who probably played this obbligato more than Bechet) sails in on clarinet, and he plays flawlessly until he realizes that he's showing up Bechet. Then the nerves hit and he fumbles one of the lines. Other than the double clarinet obbligato and a minor strain used to change keys, the rendition is quite faithful to the original march.

September 15, 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


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 soundólike 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


Allen Toussaint: Long, Long Journey

If you glance at the track details, you might puzzle over this concoction. A New Orleans theme album, but named after Mississippi, featuring Don Byron and Marc Ribot and Nicholas Payton, covering a blues written by Leonard Feather in a studio in New York. Sounds contrived, huh? But the end result is as spontaneous and unforced as the flashes those gals exchange for beads on Bourbon Street at Mardi Gras time. Despite the all-star cast, Allen Toussaint is the key factor here, standing out through his persuasive pianism and conversational singing. Louis Armstrong provides the New Orleans link to this song, which he recorded back in the day, but Toussaint takes it slower and with darker overtones. The glory years of New Orleans jazz were just a dim memory by the time Toussaint showed up on the scene in the 1960s, but you would never guess it from this convincing return-to-the-roots performance.

April 22, 2009 · 0 comments


Sidney Bechet: Wild Man Blues

This track has the feeling of an updated, matured, yet slightly exotic version of a classic New Orleans band performance. It presents a beautifully developed version of the original Crescent City polyphonic ensemble playing, with each key player contributing his own lines, stirring up a fine gumbo of moving jazz. Both the tune and the nature of its playing create a deep bluesy mood.

It opens with two simple Sidney Bechet phrases giving a taste of things to come, followed by the band's strong, march-like statement of the theme taken at a stately tempo, after which trumpeter Sidney de Paris adds a couple of his own clarion phrases. Next Bechet and de Paris (a favorite of Bechet) trade lead lines in frequent breaks, with de Paris offering excellent, lyrical trumpet work, and Bechet responding with ascending, ringing high-note playing alternating with creative melodic variations and a striking variety of clarinet tones, from the richest woody notes to those wailing highs (sounding like his soprano sax) to swoops down through the scale, and so on. Nobody could get the range of clarinet sounds and make such creative and expressive use of them, with just the right impact, as Sidney Bechet. Overall, this recording has excellent structural and thematic coherence, with passion and playing at a high level. Hearing it, we experience blues as fine art without losing the deep, soulful feel.

February 20, 2009 · 0 comments


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