Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Hipper-Than-Thou Geek and Willie Lewis

Sometimes I worry a little about the tone of this blog, or the way people might take it: “Oh, great – another post about an obscure musician. What an annoying, hipper-than-thou geek!” Well, that’s not my intention – I write about what I’m interested in, but I am a geek. From the time I discovered jazz at the age of 15, I’ve wanted to know it all: all the history, all the musicians, and to understand how it all fits together. I remember (I was about 20) reading about pianist Elmo Hope, and thinking, “Great – I just got a grasp on Bud Powell, Al Haig, and Dodo Marmarosa, and now I’ve got to check out Elmo Hope. Does it ever end?”

No, it doesn’t, and that’s the cool thing about exploring jazz – new discoveries are always waiting just around the corner, even for an old dude like me who has been listening to and reading about jazz for 35 years. I recently picked up an LP of mid-thirties recordings by Willie Lewis and His Entertainers. I listened to it for the first time last night, and my reaction was, “Jesus, this is incredible!” How could I have never heard this music before now?

Well, at least I was aware of this stuff before, mostly from articles about Benny Carter, who plays and arranges on one of the sessions. But Lewis, although African-American, was based in Paris and recorded for French labels, so he has remained obscure. I remember seeing a reissue album of his stuff back in the 70’s, but didn’t pay attention at the time. The album I have is on the French Pathe label. I poked around Amazon and the Red Hot Jazz Archive a little, and Lewis’s mid-thirties material doesn’t seem to be available at all at the moment.

But this music knocked me out – not so much for originality or quality of the arrangements (they’re pretty pedestrian, except for those Carter did), but because of the spirit of the band and the incredible soloists. Carter’s alto playing is superb, as usual, but he also contributes several trumpet solos which are just stunning, considering that trumpet was probably his third instrument, after alto and clarinet. And his excellent arranging features those delicious saxophone soli passages that he was famous for.

Carter was only around for one session (six tunes), but the rest of the tracks feature Bill Coleman on trumpet and two excellent, although almost forgotten musicians: New Orleans reedman Frank “Big Boy” Goudie and pianist Herman Chittison. Just as these tracks convinced me that Carter was really a trumpet player (as opposed to a dabbler), they put me on notice that Bill Coleman was one of the greats. Why didn’t I realize that before? Goudie and Chittison deserve to be better remembered, but from what I could tell, they also spent most of their careers in Europe, so they were pretty much forgotten here.

I would say to check out Willie Lewis and His Entertainers, but I’m not sure how you’re going to be able to. Damn! There’s so much incredible music out there.

No comments: