Kid Ory: Muskrat Ramble

Kid Ory is best known as the original proponent of the New Orleans tailgate trombone style, but he is often overlooked as one of the important composers of early jazz. "Muskrat Ramble" was his biggest hit, made famous during his tenure with Louis Armstrong.

This version, recorded almost 20 years later, has the hallmarks of the Dixieland revival style that Ory helped launch in the late 1930s: clean ensemble interaction, exposed sections for various soloists, and a more polished feel than the original recordings. Ory's trombone style had changed little; however, what he lacks in virtuosity and innovation, he compensates with a bright, exuberant tone, impeccable rhythmic sensibility and emotive growls and effects.

Although Ory never takes a solo per se, he gets many moments to shine, often shouting and growling through the trombone during breaks and belting out counterpoint underneath each melodic strain. His triumphant arpeggio after the final chorus gives him the last word, followed only by the final hit that ends the tune.

October 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: Tin Roof Blues

In his spoken introduction to "Tin Roof Blues", Louis Armstrong tells the crowd at Los Angeles' Crescendo Club that the song was made famous by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings (correct), a group that was organized in Chicago (technically correct, but all of the main horn players were from New Orleans), and that they were before Louis' time "believe it or not". The last point is definitely correct as the NORK recorded "Tin Roof Blues" a month before Louis made his first records with King Oliver. In revisiting this jazz classic, Armstrong gave his fellow All-Stars a chance for some relaxed blowing on an old favorite. The All-Stars version follows the NORK's in its arrangement, with solos by trombone and clarinet between theme statements, and if there are a few attempts at "entertainment", it must be remembered that the All-Stars aimed for a wider audience than just jazz fans. There's nothing terribly gimmicky about anything that's played here, but one suspects (especially from hearing the verbal encouragements by the other band members) that these solos were probably worked out in advance and played the same at every show. The slow-drag feeling established by Barrett Deems and the growling trombone of Tyree Glenn did not create as elegant of a performance as the original NORK recording, but taken on its own, it is a fine version of a Dixie standard.

September 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet/Muggsy Spanier Big Four: That's A Plenty

The pairing of Sidney Bechet and Muggsy Spanier was the brainchild of Steve Smith, the president of the Hot Record Society. HRS was a conglomeration of record store, record label and publisher, and the original 124 sides they recorded are now treasured collector's items. By the time their co-led band recorded in 1940, Bechet had, like Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, returned to the States after an extended stay in Europe. Spanier, meanwhile, had recorded a series of 16 sides with his "Ragtime Band", which despite the name, was quite progressive in its mix of Dixie and swing styles. In a way, the Bechet/Spanier group was a refinement of the Ragtime Band. By leaving out the piano and drums, which seemed to be the clunkiest parts of the Ragtime Band's rhythm section, the group had a streamlined rhythm team of guitar and bass, superbly manned by Carmen Mastren and Wellman Braud. While bassist Braud was from New Orleans, he was well-trained in swing during his tenure with Duke Ellington. Mastren was a superb guitarist who had worked with Spanier before as well as with Tommy Dorsey. The Big Four (as the Bechet/Spanier group was billed) recorded 8 sides in two sessions, and only "China Boy" and "That's A Plenty" could really be considered Dixie standards. On "That's A-Plenty", we hear a fascinating mix of current and old styles with Bechet and Spanier playing traditional Dixie horn roles over the smooth swing style of the rhythm section. Bechet starts off the side on clarinet and takes the first solo with Spanier offering simple counterpoint. Bechet is clearly inspired by the burning tempo and I suspect he would have played longer if not cut off by Spanier and restricted by the length of the recording (and this is on a 4-minute 12-inch 78!). After the interlude, Spanier quickly pops a mute on his horn and blows a fierce chorus. While we're wondering how Spanier managed to set that mute so quickly, Bechet does a quick change of his own and suddenly he's playing soprano sax in the background! Braud walks one before Bechet takes over. While his trademark vibrato is the same on both horns, his rhythmic feel is quite different with a choppy arpeggiated style on clarinet, and a broader, long-lined approach on soprano. As the side comes to a close, Spanier becomes more aggressive and the solo turns into a duet with both hornmen playing contrasting but driving lines.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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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

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Kermit Ruffins: Just a Closer Walk With Thee

Here's a version of a "Closer Walk" that is taken at a true walking pace, slow enough so that even grandpa can keep up with the strolling band. The connection to the New Orleans funeral parade tradition can be felt in each bar. But this isn't just a history in old time music—there are bits of modern soul and funk added into the mix. Ruffins possesses a spacious range and firm command of his horn, but he uses so much vibrato that I don't think there is any left for the rest of the band by the time he is done. The result is a track that sounds just a bit too stylized and over-the-top for my tastes, jazz for the tourists passing through town. Mary Griffin's vocal is the most authentic ingredient on this track, with a real gospel-ish delivery that is perfectly suited for the lyric.

August 31, 2009 · 0 comments

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Pete Fountain: Muskrat Ramble

What sort of people were spending their evenings out, back in the middle of the turbulent '60s, listening to Pete Fountain's dixieland band? Judging by this recording, they were a happy-go-lucky sort you wouldn't mind having for a next door neighbor. The Stones might be looking for "Satisfaction" back in '65, but these fans were just looking for a good time. And that war off in Southeast Asia? Who in French Quarter Inn crowd would have predicted that, just a few months later, Country Joe McDonald would borrow this same Kid Ory tune for his famous antiwar chant, which became so associated with the protest movement that some people simply called it the "Vietnam Song." No protests can be heard on this track, as Fountain tosses off his slick, likable clarinet phrases and engages in some quaint old school counterpoint. Call it an anachronism. Call it out-of-date. But you could draft a busload of Berklee students, and not find one who could pull this tune off with quite as much panache as Fountain and company. And, for the record, Fountain has one of the great clarinet sounds of the modern era.

August 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dr. John: Right Place Wrong Time

For once, it was a case of the right place at the right time. Most of the New Orleans piano legends never had a top ten hit, and Dr. John could have gone through his entire career without an AM airplay sensation and still be assured of his iconic status. But the stars were in alignment for Mac Rebennack when he recorded this quirky, likeable tune, which became his biggest selling song. There were other stars on hand—in the studio that day, and they deserve some credit too. When will the Meters get their due? This fantastic band, New Orleans's answer to the Wrecking Crew and Funk Brothers, always delivered the goods, and could produce a hit for other parties (they did it again with "Lady Marmalade" the following year). Their own recordings are textbook studies in the proper care and nurturing of a dance groove, and ought to be enshrined in some suitable hall of funky fame. Mixing them with the great Dr. John and a clever tune was a perfect formula, producing a hit that was richly deserved by all parties.

August 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: Hello Dolly

A bystander at the recording session notes that Louis Armstrong shook his head in dismay when looking over the music to "Hello Dolly," an unknown song (at the time) that the trumpeter was simply performing to please long-time manager Joe Glaser. Glaser must have been repaying a favor to someone—certainly this repetitive tune with the simple-minded lyric from a Broadway show that still hadn't opened was no gift to Armstrong. Yet Louis was a consummate showman and seasoned veteran of many sessions, and delivered the tune with so much enthusiasm that one might have concluded that he was the one who had concocted the whole idea. Even the old-timey banjo, overdubbed by a producer looking to add a little more "period charm" to the song, can't detract from the charisma of New Orleans' most famous musical ambassador. A few weeks later the song was a hit, and by May a 62-year-old trumpeter had pushed the Beatles out of the top spot on the Billboard chart. This artist had never enjoyed such a big hit, and never would again. No, this is not Louis Armstrong's finest moment, and will merely distract newbies trying to understand why this artist had such a substantial impact on American music. Yet when a musician of this stature has a surprise commercial success, the only proper response for the rest of us is to cheer loudly. Louis at the top of the charts? Hey, it's so nice to have you back where you belong!

August 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Crowbar: Existence is Punishment

New Orleans has a long tradition of iconoclastic funeral music, with its parading brass bands and strutting second lines that sometimes strike outsiders as oddly bright and jaunty. But the sludge metal movement that came out of New Orleans in the early 1990s offered a corrective to all that. The dark, gloomy sound of bands such as Crowbar, Acid Bath and Eyehategod will quickly send the second line packing never to return. In a city known for party music, sludge metal fans created the closest thing to self-flagellation to be contained on a compact disk. "Existence is Punishment" captures this raw style in all its sludginess: lugubriously slow tempos, guitars played like welding equipment, and vocals so rough that, by comparison, Dr. John sounds ready to sing Puccini at La Scala. As an extra kicker, the lyric announces that the singer has found transcendent truth—hey, that alone should justify your $.99 download fee! No wonder this song was such a favorite with Beavis and Butthead, those astute champions of unsung talent, who stepped in to tout it when Downbeat pretended Crowbar didn't even exist. If, as this band promises, "existence is suffering," it might as well start with this song.

August 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Dirty Dozen Brass Band: Use Your Brain

For those raised on today's urban music, it may be hard to believe that you could get such a soulful groove without bass or guitar or keyboards . . . or sampling or programming and those other "little helpers" that are so common these days. But welcome to New Orleans, where horns have been doin' the heavy lifting for more than a century. Here we don't even get a full dirty dozen in the band, but a majority of the ensemble shows up in the studio for "Use Your Brain," and that's all they need for a funk quorum. This project found the band members focusing on original compositions, with saxophonist Roger Lewis penning this winning chart. It's fascinating to listen to this music and trace the history back to those early New Orleans brass bands, yet also hear all the contemporary ingredients. We are only a step away from the World Saxophone Quartet here, yet hints of the 1910 Tuxedo Brass Band are also in the air.

August 23, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Bartholomew: My Ding-a-Ling

Dave Bartholomew ranks among the most important individuals in the history of New Orleans music, but his name never became widely known among the general public, and most of his influence was exerted behind the scenes. He was a songwriter, talent scout, arranger and general man-about-town, whose greatest successes came via his partnership with Fats Domino, which resulted in some 40 hit songs. Yet Bartholomew also recorded his own material, as he demonstrates on this 1952 track. "My Ding-a-Ling" became a huge hit, but for another rock legend—Chuck Berry, in this instance, who brought it to the top of the charts in 1972. In fact, this was the only number one hit in Berry's career. Bartholomew might have grumbled that he deserved the big success, but he would only be foolin' himself. In 1972, many deejays refused to play Berry's version because of its thinly-disguised double meaning, and there are still lots of oldies stations that won't touch it even today. And Berry (unlike Bartholomew) added the explanation that he was simply singing about "silver bells upon a string"—a clarification that did little to stop the calls for censorship. So Bartholomew could hardly have had high expectations back in '52, when it was little short of a miracle that this tune was even recorded.

August 23, 2009 · 0 comments

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Fats Domino: Ain't That a Shame

Fats Domino had already started to attract national attention back in the late 1940s with his recording of "The Fat Man." But "The Fat Man" was a 98-pound-weakling compared to the buffed-up success of "Ain't That a Shame," which broke out of the segregated world of R&B and became a huge pop hit in 1955. The record was a million seller and remains a perennial favorite of those who demand that old time rock and roll. Pat Boone—the Vanilla Ice of the 1950s—had a successful cover version, borrowing his creativity from New Orleans in this instance, just as he would do again with "Tutti Frutti" and "Long Tall Sally." But those who like plenty of rhythm in their rhythm-and-blues will go straight to the original source. You'll have a hard time finding a better groove on a 1950s rock-and-roll medium-tempo tune, and I'm convinced that the switch in and out of stop-time played a major role in making this tune a hit—Mr. Boone smartly appropriated this part of the arrangement along with the rest of the chart. But Fats' vocal soulful vocal is the main course here, and no imitator was capable of stealing that. No wonder this crossover hit had such long-lasting reverberations: for the next seven years, every one of this artist's releases would reach the charts.

August 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Kermit Ruffins: Bogalusa Strut

How Dixieland music has changed! When played by Kermit Ruffins it comes in a swinging 4/4 time with no more of that two-beat rhythm grandpa and grandma liked so well. The back beat can even be as wide as Canal Street nowadays, imparting a certain funkiness to the proceedings that is appealing but a bit different from what Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver played for those first fans of hot music. Solos are now more important than counterpoint. And even if no one ever actually said "Modern Dixieland = White Imitators" (okay, maybe someone did mutter that from the back row), jazz fans should be happy to find a little more diversity in the front line. Ruffins, for his part, plays with enthusiasm, and knows how to put on a show. Almost anything can happen at a Ruffins' gig—he exchanged vows with his beloved during a performance, and will even cook up a killin' barbecue to serve up along with the music. "Bogalusa Strut" captures his band in fine form, and is worth downloading even if no sauce and ribs come with the MP3 file. There is a tendency for jazz insiders to dismiss music that is so appealing on the surface level, but Ruffins knows the horn and is an engaging, cogent soloist. Dixieland could hardly find a better advocate in the new millennium.

August 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Edmond Dédé: El Pronunciatiamento: Marche espagnole (1886)

Edmond Dédé

Edmond Dédé, born in New Orleans in 1827, was one of small group of "free black" composers from the Crescent City who managed to earn a livelihood from concert hall music during the 19th century - although mostly overseas. Dédé's 1852 song Mon pauvre coeur is the oldest surviving published piece of music by a Creole of color from New Orleans. Yet at that time, the composer needed to supplement his income with work as a cigar maker. In 1857 he left for Paris, where he studied music, composed, conducted and, in 1864, married a French woman, Sylvie Leflat. Most of his career was spent in Bordeaux, where he wrote around 150 dances, 6 string quartets, and almost 100 songs - virtually all of this music forgotten after Dédé's death in 1901. He only made on trip back to New Orleans, in 1893, where he performed as a violinist and was accompanied by William J. Nickerson - who was later a teacher to Jelly Roll Morton. (Another historical connection: the 1856 Chickering piano used on this recording was once played by Louis Moreau Gottschalk.)

But even more than personal ties, Dédé's compositions also anticipate Morton - who spoke of the importance of the Spanish tinge in his pianism - and other later currents in New Orleans music. One of the key achievements of the New Orleans musicians was their ability to transform the march beat into something less rigid and military, tapping into a more liberating current hidden inside the rhythm. Hints of that same spirit can be heard in this March espagnole, which starts out with great formality, but soon spins a hypnotic web that is more dance than procession. Dédé may have left his home town behind, but the vitality and dynamism of its aural personality still reside in his work.

August 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Shirley & Lee: Let the Good Times Roll

So many famous artists have performed this song—the Rolling Stones, Barbara Streisand, the Righteous Brothers, Roy Orbison—but it has New Orleans stamped on every measure, and can be traced back to the local R&B duo Shirley and Lee. They had enjoyed earlier hits; "I'm Gone" climbed to number two on the R&B chart in 1952, but this 1956 single made it all the way to the top spot and even crossed over on to the airwaves of mainstream America.

 Earl Palmer

Despite a marketing campaign which proclaimed them as "Sweethearts of the Blues," Shirley Goodman and Leonard Lee were just friends. By the early 1960s they had split up, each pursuing a solo career that never matched the success of the early work as pretend lovers. (Although Shirley had one more taste of fame with her lead vocal on the disco hit "Shame, Shame, Shame.") On "Let the Good Times Roll," boy meets girl and invites her to a "roll" of vague description. Just another Spring day in New Orleans.

The vocals are convincing, but Earl Palmer's drumming is a major contributor to this song's success. He rocks and rolls as the need arises and briefly switches into stop time, but—best of all—engages in a circus-type march beat over the main theme that is both strange and effective. The history of New Orleans music is partly the tale of how the march beat was liberated, taken from the soldiers and given to the lovers and assorted party-goers. "You could always tell a New Orleans drummer the minute you heard him play his bass drum," Palmer himself once noted, "because he'd have that parade beat connotation." Here is a classic example from the height of Big Easy R&B.

Note: This song should not be confused with the Louis Jordan hit of the same name.

August 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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