Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Two Musicians You May Have Never Heard Of

One consequence of having a ridiculously large record/CD collection is that I sometimes, in the course of perusing my shelves, come across CDs (and less often, records) that I had forgotten I had, or that I bought, listened to once, and filed away.* Recently I have listened to Paul Motian's 1977 ECM album Dance several times; I was taken with it enough to burn it to CD for several friends. The saxophonist on the album is Charles Brackeen, an elusive figure influenced by Ornette Coleman's music. His playing on Motian's album impressed me, but I was a little surprised when I came across his 1987 CD Worshippers Come Nigh when I was looking for something to listen to tonight - I had forgotten all about it.

I found Worshippers Come Nigh in a used CD store several years ago, but I know I haven't played it more than twice. I'm not sure why it didn't grab me before, but tonight I was ready, and I was mightily impressed. Brackeen's writing and playing is assured and inspired; he sounds a little like Ornette, a little like Sonny Rollins, a little like Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, but always like himself. And the band kills! Before he decided to reinvent himself as a guitar-strumming blues/folk guy, Olu Dara was one of my favorite jazz trumpeters (or cornetists, to be accurate). His playing is (was) always interesting and thoughtful - no less an authority than Lester Bowie called him "the best note selector in the business." And the powerful bass playing made me think, "Oh my god, who is that?" A quick look at the back cover revealed - I should have known - the late Fred Hopkins, who to me always sounded like two or three guys playing bass at the same time. Hopkins is paired with the great Andrew Cyrille to make an extremely strong rhythm section. A fabulous recital, and a nice surprise.

For a couple of mornings last week, I listened to a CD by Kid Thomas Valentine on my way to work. Kid Thomas (1896-1987) was a paradox: a New Orleans trumpeter completely untouched by Louis Armstrong, a limited musician who could play anything, and a local dance-band musician who was known and loved all over the world.

The first time I heard Kid Thomas (on an LP by the New Orleans saxophonist Captain John Handy), I was not impressed. His tone seemed crude, even ugly, and he obviously didn't have much technique. His vibrato was strange, and he was given to producing shakes which had the effect of obscuring the pitch. It was only after becoming familiar with the work of the aforementioned Lester Bowie that I started to enjoy Thomas's work. He and Bowie seemed to be mining some of the same territory, even though Thomas was a traditional New Orleans player and Bowie an avant-gardist. The distorted shakes started to make sense.

One thing I love about Kid Thomas is the fact that, in spite of efforts by record producers and jazz historians, he seemed to have no sense of himself as a "jazz" musician. He was, for most of his life, a working dance-band trumpeter, playing (with his six-piece band) for dancers in the New Orleans suburbs of Algiers and Marrero. New Orleans jazz classics, waltzes, pop songs, and even rock and roll were all grist to his mill - he played them all in the same rough style. My favorite Kid Thomas album is The Dance Hall Years (American Music), which documents selections from two dance hall gigs, one from the middle of the fifties and one from 1964. His band plays, among other things, "Jambalaya," "Blueberry Hill," and "Shake, Rattle and Roll." There is not a "jazz tune" to be found.

*Pardon the Johnsonian construction of this sentence. Sometime I'll write about my unaccountable love for Samuel Johnson.


Anonymous said...

Not too familiar with Charles, but I absolutely love his ex-, Joanne. Saw her at Bradley's in a duet with Cecil McBee once. She was stunning, really excellent. Cecil was facing the tv behind the bar during a Yankee's playoff game...he never took his eyes off the game, and reacted visibly to sporting developments. He was still terrific, but it pissed me off.

Jeff Crompton said...

Yeah, Joanne Brackeen is a great pianist and composer, as well the answer to one of the more interesting jazz trivia questions: "Who was the only female member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers?" From what I have read, the Brackeen marriage was not a particularly happy one for Joanne.