Saturday, January 31, 2009

Bird

A couple of times a year I rediscover the music of Charlie Parker. I mean, I know that he was a genius, and probably the greatest improviser jazz has known - that's pretty much a given for anyone into jazz. But when I go back to his music every six months or so, I'm always surprised, even shocked, all over again. Parker's music is unbelievable in the literal sense - it's hard to imagine that someone could improvise with such depth at such speed.

When I first heard Bird as a teenager, I was highly impressed, but didn't know enough about music to understand what he was doing. As my musical knowledge and skills increased, Parker's music started to make more sense. ("Oh, that's why he played an F natural and E flat over a D7 chord!") In my maturity, however, and as I have developed a certain amount of ability as a jazz improviser myself, I'm back to not understanding Bird again. I mean, now I understand what he played and why he played it, but I don't understand how he was able to conceive and execute it as fast and cleanly as he did.

Bird's improvisational ability stemmed from natural talent (at the genius level) and total preparation stemming from incessant practicing in his youth. This talent and preparation led to a remarkable level of consistency. It's not just Bird's acknowledged masterpieces that are incredible, it's almost all of his music. There are a few recordings that show the effects of Parker's over-indulgence of stimulants of various types, but the rest of his output is almost all consistently stunning. The other evening I listened to the 1946 "Moose the Mooche"/"Yardbird Suite" session, including all of the alternate takes. The level of invention by Bird is remarkable - any of the takes could have been the issued masters as far as his solos go. And the plethora of live recordings that have come to light since Parker's death reinforce this - he could casually toss off masterpiece after masterpiece at a jam session or on a nightclub stage, night after night.

Two live recordings give us a glimpse of Bird's mind at work. On a 1953 nightclub recording (with Mingus and Bud Powell) of his blues, "Cheryl," he is in a quoting mood. When most jazz musicians throw in a quote during an improvised solo, it is for humorous effect - they play a clever quote and the audience laughs. But Bird quotes both Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (the opening bassoon solo) and Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" cadenza. How many musicians of any genre or era would know both of these? The other recording is from an evening in 1951 when Parker sat in with the Woody Herman big band. Bird didn't have any charts, he just improvised over Herman's arrangements, taking over all of the usual solo spots. The recording of "Four Brothers" from this gig is not one of Parker's best recordings, but it is very revealing. When it's time for him to solo, he wails until the bridge, then realizes that the tune goes into some distant (from the tonic), unusual harmony at that point. He only manages to play a few notes during that first bridge, but listens intently. The second bridge is not much better, but he catches more of the changes each chorus. By the fifth time the bridge comes around, he's got it, and soars through it. It's extremely interesting to hear him learning the changes on the stand.

Listening to Parker's music takes attention. If you are not really attending to it, it just sounds like competent mainstream/modern jazz, especially since Parker more or less invented the style. But careful, attentive listening reveals an amazing musical world, as fresh as when it was created.

From his studio recordings, here are half a dozen of my favorites:

"KoKo" (Savoy, 1945) - Nothing like this exsisted in jazz before this. Bird's playing is breathtakingly fast, but controlled and inventive throughout. This one must have taken the tops of listeners' heads off at the time.

"Embraceable You" (Dial, 1947) - Parker barely touches George Gershwin's melody. He starts with a little six-note motive and builds the entire solo (with great subtlety) from that.

"Klact-oveeseds-tene" (Dial, 1947) - This improvisation begins with some oddly spaced, random-sounding notes and builds from there; it doesn't really make sense until it's over, then you think back on it and think, "Wow - that's where he was going."

"Parker's Mood" (Savoy, 1948) - One of the greatest blues improvisations of all time. Eloquent and heartbreaking.

"Just Friends" (Verve, 1949) - The "Bird With Strings" recordings are downplayed by jazz purists, but the improvising on this is as good as anything he did.

"Confirmation" (Verve, 1953) - Parker's only studio recording of his greatest composition, an ingenious mixture of the expected and unexpected. As his personal life became more and more chaotic during his last years, his playing acheived a calm, masterly assurance.

Bird died in 1955 at the age of 34. The doctor who signed the death certificate estimated his age at 55.

Monday, January 26, 2009

New Orleans Brass Bands

Writing about Frog Joseph's funeral and burning some of my brass band singles onto CD got me thinking about New Orleans brass band music.

In the second half of the 19th century, concert and marching bands were all the rage in the U.S. – every little town had its band, and cities often had several. New Orleans was no exception, but, as usual, the black and Creole citizens of the city put their own spin on the standard brass band. In addition to the standard marches and funeral dirges, they started playing ragtime and improvising, until the street band music of the Crescent City didn’t resemble that of anywhere else. New Orleans brass band music developed hand in hand with the jazz, and the two streams of music greatly influenced each other. The brass bands of New Orleans have continued to grow and change; each new generation of musicians adds its own spice to the gumbo.

New Orleans brass band music has killed me since the first time I heard it. It’s the kind of amazing blend of cultures that you find so often in New Orleans: European marches and dirges, black and white Protestant hymns, jazz, and R & B all thrown into the blender. Often a band will contain younger and older musicians, which makes for some interesting stylistic clashes. These differing styles, along with a pretty loose sense of pitch and rhythm and a lack of well-defined instrumental roles (often several guys on different instruments are vying for the same musical space) results in music which should not work. But it usually does. It’s like the popular conception of the bumblebee – aerodynamically unable to fly, but it flies. The Young Tuxedo Brass Band playing “Bourbon Street Parade” or the Rebirth playing “Talk That Shit Now” should sound like a jumble, but it’s such a glorious noise that you don’t care if it’s kind of messy.

Not only do I love the sound of these bands, I love their history, their sense of pride, and even their names. I have recordings by:

Bunk Johnson’s Brass Band (The first NO brass band to record, in 1945)
The Original Zenith Brass Band (recorded in 1946)
The Eureka Brass Band (Perhaps the greatest of all New Orleans brass bands. They were proud of their reading ability and musical skills and could play a dirge like no other band, then turn around and swing their butts off on a jazz tune. Eureka Brass Band: 1920-1971. R.I.P.)
The Young Tuxedo Brass Band (Only a step below the Eureka. The band contained young beboppers alongside musicians who started their careers before 1920.)
The Algiers Brass Band
Coolbone Brass Band
The Onward Brass Band
The Olympia Brass Band
The Original Pin Stripe Brass Band
The Rebirth Brass Band
(Maybe the most exciting band playing in NOLA today.)
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band
The Li’l Rascals Brass Band (Stupid name; great band. These young guys can play the traditional stuff very well, but they are also about the funkiest band in NO.)
The High Steppers Brass Band
The Magnificent Sevenths Brass Band
The Young Olympians Brass Band
The Chosen Few Brass Band
(led by the great Tuba Fats)
The Forgotten Souls Brass Band (An all-star band led by the mighty Kirk Joseph on tuba.)
George Williams’ Brass Band
The 6th Ward All Stars
The Gibson Brass Band
(A rough, tough, non-union band recorded in the 1960’s.)
The New Birth Brass Band (Another one of the best current bands on the scene - at times they seem as good as the Rebirth.)
The Treme Brass Band
Doc Paulin’s Brass Band
(This rough and ready band provided apprenticeship for generations of young NOLA musicians, including Dr. Michael White, about whom see below.)
The Paulin Brothers Brass Band (Doc’s sons in their own band. Their one album features three saxophones, which makes for some lush harmony not found in any other brass band.)
The Society Brass Band
The Soul Rebels Brass Band
(A little hard to take at times because of their “keepin’ it real in the ghetto” attitude. They might follow a tune called “Let Your Mind Be Free” with “Shut Up, Ho.”)
The Hot 8 Brass Band
The New Orleans Nightcrawlers (The only one of these bands founded by a pianist. Tom McDermott wrote a brass band arrangement for the Dirty Dozen; they didn't want it, so he formed a band to play it.)
The Hurricane Brass Band (A groundbreaking band that grew out of Danny Barker's Fairview Baptist Brass Band in the seventies. Led by trumpeter Leroy Jones, it was the precursor to the Dirty Dozen, the Rebirth, the Chosen Few, and all of the younger bands that revived the scene in New Orleans.)
The Imperial Brass Band (led by trumpeter Alvin Alcorn)
The Mahogany Brass Band
The Excelsior Brass Band


From a record collector's standpoint, my most prized brass band records are the Hurricane's one album (which is scarcer than hens' teeth), and the two singles the Dirty Dozen put out on their own label. These predate their first album and are almost totally unknown outside of New Orleans. I've never seen them listed in any jazz discography.

Some of these bands play(ed) “traditional” NO brass band music, others tend(ed) toward Dirty Dozen-style funk. Most of the currently active ones can play both. But I like what the late Allan Jaffe (longtime owner of Preservation Hall) said: “You can pass a tradition down to the next generation, but you can’t control what they do with it.” I saw the excellent NO clarinetist Dr. Michael White (who is my age) on TV a few years ago. He was decrying the music of the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth and explaining that the Young Tuxedo, with whom he played, was keeping the traditional music alive. I thought that was pretty funny. In the 1960s, trumpeter Peter Bocage was saying the same thing about the bands then: they weren’t playing the traditional 6/8 marches – all they wanted to play was jazz. That is, they were playing in the style that Michael White identified as traditional 35 years later. It’s doubly ironic because the Young Tuxedo’s first album, from 1958, has a tune called “It Feels So Good.” The producers of the album weren’t familiar with it and assumed it was an old, jazzy brass band standard – the composer credit on the label just read “traditional.” Well, the piece was a 1955 R & B hit by local favorites Shirley & Lee. The Young Tuxedos weren’t worried about preserving a tradition; they just wanted to play some good music.

As good as the records are, this is music that makes its maximum impact when heard live. I've been lucky enough to hear:

The Dirty Dozen
The Rebirth
The Olympia
The Treme
The Mahogany
The Pin Stripe
The Algiers
The Nightcrawlers
The Chosen Few
The Hot 8
The Society
The Soul Rebels
The New Birth
and several pick-up bands, like the huge one that played for Frog Joseph's funeral.

All these have been wonderful experiences, but the most memorable have involved the Rebirth. Hearing this band in full cry is an incredibly intense experience; they are the loudest unamplified band I've ever heard. The impact of their music is positively physical. On their regular Tuesday night gig at the Maple Leaf, the sound hits you in the face, and you either retreat or stand up to it and dance. Hearing one of these brass bands on parade is also amazing - I once jumped up from a sidewalk cafe and left my plate of red beans and rice for almost an hour as I followed a parade. (The band was a combination of the Algiers and the Pin Stripes.) My food, as well as a stack of records I had gotten at the Louisiana Music Factory, was still there when I returned. I left the waitress a really big tip.

I wanted to end by listing my favorite half-dozen NOLA brass band recordings. I couldn't quite manage it - I had to cheat a little.

Bunk Johnson - Bunk's Brass Band and Dance Band (1945 - American Music) It finally gets on record. A great little pick-up band, and one of the few recordings we have of a brass band with alto and baritone horn instead of saxophones.

Eureka Brass Band - New Orleans Funeral & Parade (1951) This is the first recording of s working brass band; it's been on several labels over the years, but is now available on American Music. Strange and majestic.

The Young Tuxedo Brass Band - Jazz Begins (1958 - Atlantic) The dirges are deep and the uptempo playing is abandoned to the extent that the music sounds as if it's going to fly apart. And John Casimir's archaic E-flat clarinet wails above it all.

Eureka Brass Band - Jazz at Preservation Hall, Volume One (1962 - Atlantic) Some of the finest polyphonic playing I've ever heard. The Humphrey brothers (Percy on trumpet and Willie on clarinet) reign supreme.

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band - Voodoo (1989 - Columbia) and/or Funeral For a Friend (2003 - Ropeadope) The band that made the style popular again has never stuck to the "correct" brass band instrumentation or style. Of the many albums by the DDBB, these are my two favorites - pianos, guitars, and all.

The Rebirth Brass Band - The Main Event: Live at the Maple Leaf (1999- Louisiana Red Hot Records) Close to what you'll experience live. Turn it way up.

And two for lagniappe:

Onward Brass Band - Last Journey of a Jazzman (1965 - Nobility) Recorded on the street at Lester Santiago's funeral by Cosimo Matassa, who carried a 50-pound tape recorder for miles in the rain. It's an amazing document, but it is flawed by the overdubbed narration. I wish we had the unadorned music.

A New Orleans Visit Before Katrina (2005 - Arhoolie) Three tunes on this anthology capture the Treme Brass Band on parade. In my opinion, these 20 minutes or so represent the finest New Orleans brass band recordings for years.

I love this music.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

This and That

Had a very nice evening last night - Robo drove up from Tallahassee for a flying visit. I didn't realize that the main purpose of his visit, much to my horror, was to hear the Fourth Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra's gig (only our fourth) at the Highland Inn Ballroom. What if he hated it? But it all went well. Before the gig we had a nice Thai dinner with some of Rob's friends, and afterwards we had a little mellow music and one more beer before hitting the hay. And the gig was successful, musically and in terms of audience reaction. I am a little disconcerted, though, when I compare how tight we have gotten the arrangements in rehearsal to how loose (even sloppy) they are in performance. I feel that I personally butchered a couple of the tunes. But as Robo pointed out, this is probably something that will be self-correcting with more gigs under our belt. In any case, this is a really exciting band to be a part of.

On another note, I realize I haven't written the obligatory post-inauguration Obama blog post. This is partially because others, including Robo, have written about the changing of the guard much more eloquently than I could. But I will say that my low point in terms of being proud of my country came when George W. Bush was reelected in 2004.* Once was bad enough, but the thought that enough Americans voted for this man to keep him in office after seeing what he was about for four years was beyond discouraging - I really didn't feel like part of my country for awhile after that. But now... I know Obama will mess up at times, but it sure is nice to have a president who can put three coherent sentences together. Obama could be a great leader - we'll see. And at least he seems to have the country's best interests at heart, not any particular pseudo-neo ideology.

And finally, I just found out that David "Fathead" Newman died five days ago at the age of 75. Born in Texas (like so many outstanding tenor players), Newman wasn't one of the greats of jazz, by any means - just a tasty, bluesy, all-around journeyman saxophonist (and flutist). He could make an Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles single sound better with an idiomatic, just-right solo, but he could also handle the more complex chord changes of standard ballads. His 1958 recording of Atlanta pianist Paul Mitchell's "Hard Times" is classic - undemanding enough to be a jukebox hit, yet totally individual and unforgettable. So long, Fathead.

*Of course, it could be argued that he wasn't reelected and wouldn't have stayed in office if not for election shenanigans in Ohio.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

New Orleans Bones

This morning, as I was driving around running errands and doing a little geocaching, I had the second (of three) albums by the great New Orleans band Bonerama in the CD player. Bonerama, as far as I can tell, grew out of the trombone section of Harry Connick, Jr.'s big band and is led by trombonist Mark Mullins. The band has a guitarist and a drummer, but that's as far as it goes in terms of convention. Instead of an electric or upright bass, the bottom is held down by Matt Perrine's incredible tuba, and the front line consists of four trombones.* They play funk originals and classic rock tunes - "Whippin' Post," "Crosstown Traffic," "War Pigs." In April, 2008, I was lucky enough to spend an evening with my pal Robo at the Maple Leaf in uptown New Orleans experiencing them from the first note of the night to the last.

Bonerama is just a blast - they're one of the most fun bands I've ever heard or seen. I'm not going to sit down with headphones and listen to a Bonerama album all the way through very often, but that's not the point. It's good-time New Orleans music. It's (usually) not profound, but it does have an edge, and the boys occasionally get into some pretty out-there collective improvisations.

Maybe Crescent City trombonists are on my mind these days - lots of the traditional jazz I've been listening to lately has featured Waldren "Frog" Joseph (1918-2004). Although now best known for his traditional "dixieland" work, Frog was an all-around musician; he played in big bands and was on lots of the classic NOLA R & B records of the 1950's. I was familiar with Frog's playing from records, and I got to hear him with the "indoor" segment of the Olympia Brass Band in 1996 at Preservation Hall. By that time his playing was pretty spare and somewhat limited, but in his prime his style was strong, individual, and tinged with humor; he often shifted from a typical "tailgate" style into staccato phrases that seemed to be making lighthearted fun of the music. Joseph is not well represented on CD, but one of the two albums he made as leader, Frog and Friends at Dixieland Hall, has been reissued on CD. Two of his sons are trombonists: Charles, who was a founding member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Gerald, who played for years with the Olympia BB. Another son, Kirk, is also a charter Dirty Dozen member and is one of the finest tuba players in New Orleans.

One Thursday in 2004, I was checking my email at work and opened up the weekly Offbeat Magazine newsletter to read that Frog and died and would be buried with a brass band funeral on Saturday. A few minutes later, I had made up my mind that I would be there. I left work early the next day and caught a plane to New Orleans. The rest of this entry is what I wrote about this experience at the time:

Frog’s funeral started at 10:00 the next morning at Corpus Christi Catholic Church on St. Bernard. The service was nice, with some great music. A band with electric bass played a version of “Amazing Grace” which featured a trombone trio (one of whom was Freddie Lonzo). The same trombone trio played another hymn which I didn’t recognize, but which sounded great – they took turns using plungers. When the band played “Over in the Gloryland” Kirk Joseph was overcome and rushed up to the coffin. Communion was accompanied by a vocal and organ version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

When we came out of the church the band was playing a very slow “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.” The band was the largest New Orleans brass band I have ever seen – there were around half a dozen of every instrument except clarinet (there were two or three). There were five tubas, for example. Based on the caps, there were musicians from the Treme, Mahogany, Funky 7, Tuxedo, Gentilly, Society, and Storyville Stompers Brass Bands. I recognized Lionel Batiste, Benny Jones, and Shannon Powell on drums, Chris Burke on clarinet, Fred Kemp on tenor sax, Greg Stafford, and Frog’s sons Charles on trombone and Kirk on tuba. Kirk seemed to call most of the tunes and be generally in charge. The procession to St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 lasted about an hour and 45 minutes. The old tradition of playing only slow hymns and dirges on the way to the cemetery seems to be gone; the band only played three slow hymns out of thirteen pieces. Even more surprising to me was the fact that they played “secular” music on the way and did not play in any organized way back to the church; the gig was over at the cemetery. The selections went down this way:

at the church:
In the Sweet Bye and Bye (slow)
on the march:
Bye and Bye
Lord, Lord, Lord
What a Friend We Have in Jesus (slow, then fast)
Whoopin’ Blues
Give Me My Money Back (short)
I’ll Fly Away
It Ain’t My Fault
I’m Walkin’
Paul Barbarin’s Second Line
at the cemetery gates:
We Shall Walk Through the Streets of the City
at the tomb:
Just a Closer Walk With Thee (slow)
leaving the tomb:
Over In the Gloryland

I think “Give Me My Money Back” was so short because some the musicians didn’t think it was appropriate; it couldn’t have lasted more than a couple of minutes, while most of the numbers went over five minutes. Just before the band played “Streets of the City” at the cemetery gates, I heard Kirk say something like, “Well, it’s time to send the old man home.” Toward the end of “Streets of the City” the trombonists started playing “Lassus Trombone,” presumably in tribute to Frog, who recorded it on his first album as leader. “Gloryland” ended with the band at the cemetery gate, spilling onto Esplanade. When it was over, most of the guys said their goodbyes, but some wanted to keep on playing. I thought about hanging around to see what would happen, but I decided to walk on back. I cut through a side street and found myself at Liuzza’s by the Track, a restaurant which my friend Josh had told me about. I sat down and ordered a catfish sandwich and an Abita. Before they came, one of the waiters said, “Here comes a second line!” and about seven or eight musicians, led by Charles Joseph, came in. Between them and the remaining second-liners, every inch of the small place was filled. They played “Go to the Mardi Gras,” then settled in for some beer and rest. After awhile they left, still playing. It was one of those moments that only happen in New Orleans.

The funeral was an amazing experience; very moving – even the faster hymns seemed very poignant. The sound of the huge band was magnificent. Because the band was so big, the musicians sometimes broke into little subgroups. Greg Stafford, Charles Joseph, and a great clarinetist (whom I have seen before, but can’t name) did some wonderful trio work at one point.

After the experience, I was exhausted. In addition, I didn’t want to put any more music into my head, so I passed up some great music choices Saturday night: Dr. John and Cyril Neville at Tip’s, the Rebirth at the Rock ‘n’ Bowl, and Kermit at the Blue Nile.


*Usually four trombones - but I saw them once with three trombones, and there are five on their first album. 'Bonists Rick Trolsen, Steve Suter, and Craig Klein are usually on board along with Mullins.



Saturday, January 10, 2009

My People

A somewhat surprising (to me) moment on my recent west coast visit....

Karen and I flew to Washington the day after Christmas - her sister (and family) and brother live near Bellingham, halfway between Seattle and Vancouver. We got to Seattle fairly late in the evening and went straight to a hotel near the airport before driving north the next morning. For us, one thing that makes staying in a hotel kind of a treat is cable TV. We don't have "The Cable" at home. Yeah, I know... pretty pathetic, eh? There is very little on television that is compelling enough to tear me away from listening to music in the evenings, and Karen is cheap, so we don't have cable.

But it's fun to flip through all those channels when traveling, at least for the first 10 or 15 minutes. After that, I realize that we're not missing much, although Karen can usually find something that entertains her. That night in Seattle I lost interest pretty quickly and got out my iPod. Karen manned the TV remote and eventually settled on the (or a) Food Network. At one point, the screen caught my eye and I turned off the iPod - there was a feature on Gus's Chicken in Memphis. The show's host was interviewing a large, confident African-American woman connected with the restaurant; in the background was a tattooed, bandannaed customer whose best one-word description would be "redneck." The place was full of customers and employees of all shapes, sizes, and colors, but most of whom seemed tangibly Southern. Before I could think about it, I blurted out, "Those are my people!"

I was born in Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta and have lived in Georgia all of my life - in the suburbs, in a small town, and now in the city. For much of that time, I have felt somewhat like a fish out of water - like I don't really belong. At times I have despised the South, and I am almost always exasperated by it and its people. But from 2200 miles away I felt its pull - and like I said, it was somewhat surprising to me. It's home, for better or worse. I love to travel, but I start to feel unsettled when I have spent too long away from good barbecue, the blues, and red clay. When Karen took me to Nebraska to meet her family for the first time, I remember thinking, "I sure am a long way from New Orleans."

I mean, I'm not kidding myself. The South is still racist, intolerant, and superstitious. But Southerners are also touchingly loyal to people they like and capable of surprising kindness to people they don't like. In any case, the South is in my blood, and my reaction to seeing it from so far away was strong, immediate, and visceral. I guess I'm stuck with the South - but it's also stuck with me.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Short Fable...

...based on the one thing right-wing commentators are still finding to praise about the worst president in modern history.

"Okay, I know that a lot of folks here at this picnic don't agree with the way I've been running things. But I'm the leader of the picnic - the decider, if you will. So before you all go nukeular on me, let me point out one thing. Do you see any ants on our picnic blanket? Nope! In the eight minutes that I've been in charge of this picnic, I've kept it totally safe from ants. You can't argue with that.

Of course, I accomplished this mission by pouring two pounds of sugar on and around our neighbors' picnic blanket. Look at that! Every ant in the park is at their picnic. Their picnic is totally ruined. And, of course, we're out all that sugar. And we've attracted so many ants to that part of the park that nobody's going to be able to picnic there for a long time. And all the other folks in the park hate us.

But do you see any ants on our picnic blanket? Nope!"