Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Everybody's Talking About Sammy

In reading interviews with old New Orleans musicians, names of great, unrecorded trumpet players like Buddy Bolden, Buddy Petit, and Chris Kelly keep coming up. But the band that inspires awe, admiration, and even fear in those interviews is Sam Morgan's Jazz Band, which recorded eight titles for Columbia Records in 1927. Those 24 minutes of music represent some of the most exciting New Orleans jazz ever put down.

Sam Morgan's was a musical family; he and his brother Isiah played cornet in the band, another brother, Andrew, played clarinet and tenor sax, and brother Al was an accomplished bassist. (Al Morgan went north and made a name for himself before the band recorded.) Alto saxophonist Earl Fouche and Big Jim Robinson on trombone were the other horns on the Columbia records, and a strong four-piece rhythm section provided the foundation. That rhythm section drives the band like a diesel engine, playing a strong four beats to the bar, as opposed to the two-beat rhythm of many "dixieland" bands.

The whole band swings very hard, and surprisingly makes no concessions to the fashions of popular music at large, unless you consider the presence of saxophones in the ensemble a trendy 1920s element. (I don't.) Compare the Morgans' approach to other New Orleans bands who recorded around the same time: Oscar Celestin's band or the Halfway House Orchestra, for instance. Those band were adopting the scored ensemble passages and "modern" harmonies of the northern bands of the time, but not the Morgan band. They continued to play old-style New Orleans improvised polyphony.

The tunes are mostly originals; the most impressive as a composition is "Bogalousa Stomp," a multi-strain piece which is still played fairly frequently by New Orleans bands. (Kermit Ruffins has recorded a nice version.) Sam Morgan sings "Everybody's Talking About Sammy" and the racy "Short Dress Gal" in a rough, cawing voice; I can only understand some of the words. In addition to the jazz stomps, the band also recorded three spirituals; they were the first jazz band to do so. "Sing On" and "Over in the Gloryland" are still played by New Orleans jazz and brass bands; I don't know whether this is because the Morgan recordings were influential or because the tunes have always been popular in the city. There is a touching passage in "Down by the Riverside when all the instruments except the piano drop out and some of the band sing the spiritual in harmony. It's a beautiful down-home moment from this swinging group.

The Morgan recordings, particularly the spirituals, also demonstrate the cross-pollination that was going on between the jazz bands (which played mostly for dancing) and the brass bands which played on the street. On "Sing On" and "Gloryland," the band is basically playing brass band style with a rhythm section. Take away the trap set, string bass, piano, and banjo and replace them with tuba, snare drum, and bass drum, and this band could have played the same notes at a funeral parade.

Perhaps the most impressive musician in the band was alto saxophonist Earl Fouche. He never recorded again, and that's something of a tragedy, because he really shines on the Morgan sides. He's all over the place - doubling the first cornet, harmonizing with the cornets, playing countermelodies, and contributing killer solos to "Mobile Stomp" and "Bogalousa Strut." Fouche obviously had a real command of the saxophone and of harmony, something that can't be said of everyone in the band. (You'll hear some poor note choices by Andrew Morgan in "Over in the Gloryland" and a spectacularly wrong note by Jim Robinson in the introduction to "Steppin' on the Gas," where he plays a D against an A flat major chord.) Based on these eight recordings, Fouche was probably the best saxophonist in New Orleans during that period.

Ill health dogged Sam Morgan, and the band fell apart when he died in the mid 1930s. Only Robinson, Andrew Morgan, and bassist Sidney Brown recorded commercially after this, and only Jim Robinson really gained any fame. Brother Isiah continued to play, and a field recording made at a dance in Mississippi in the 1950s showed him to be an able, swinging, but unspectacular trumpeter. There have been several recorded tributes to the Morgan band, but by far the best is the Sam Morgan Revisited session made under Kid Howard's name for the Icon label. The record was reissued on the Jazzology family of labels, and features five absolutely smoking versions of Morgan's tunes. The band includes Jim Robinson and Andrew Morgan, as well as other musicians who played with Sam Morgan at various times, but who weren't on the Columbia sessions. They play with an abandon which makes this session one of the most exciting of the so-called "New Orleans Revival" of the sixties.

The eight Morgan sides have been reissued on Azure and Jazz Oracle CDs, and probably elsewhere. I'll always be grateful that they jammed into the upstairs room of Werlein's Music Store on Canal Street to play into the inadequate recording equipment of the time. The myth that all the good musicians left New Orleans by 1920 is blown out of the water by these stirring, amazing 24 minutes of music.