Tuesday, November 8, 2011

George Hornsby

This post is a rebuttal of sorts. As I write, I've got my copy of Bill Russell's American Music by Mark Hazeldine open to page 100. This page represents the major source of information in print anywhere about Pittsburgh pianist George Hornsby. And I don't like what it says.

William Russell's American Music label has long fascinated me. Russell started the label in 1944 to issue the recordings of New Orleans musicians he was making at the time. Some of the best recorded work by Bunk Johnson, George Lewis, Kid Shots Madison, and Wooden Joe Nicholas was issued on American Music. Russell issued 40 78 RPM records and 13 10" LPs before letting the label go dormant in the early 1950s. Some 20 years or so later, Russell began licensing American Music material to the Storyville label in Denmark and the Japanese Dan label, but in the intervening years, American Music recordings became legendary - not only for their musical quality, but because they were so scarce. Many collectors in those years first heard acetate dubs of the American Music 78s and albums before they ever saw the the actual records. The label is now owned by George Buck's Jazzology group, and most of the issuable music Russell recorded is available on CD.

As I said, most of the music Russell recorded and issued was by traditional New Orleans musicians, but he did venture into related areas. He recorded the St. Louis ragtime pianist Charlie Thompson and the Mobile Strugglers, a black string band from Alabama that played blues and country ragtime. And in February or March, 1947, he took a gospel pianist he found in Pittsburgh, George Hornsby, into Phifer Recording Productions in that city and recorded ten selections, eventually releasing four of them on 78s.

The two George Hornsby 78s represent some of the very few American Music recordings that have not been reissued - not on American Music, not on Storyville or Dan, not even by any enterprising bootleggers anywhere in the world. So of course, I kept my eyes open for them. I found a copy of American Music 521, "Bye and Bye" backed with "Jesus Gave Me a Little Light," about a year and a half ago. And a month ago I finally tracked down American Music 522, "I Know It Was the Blood" and "My Soul Loves Jesus."

George Hornsby is an elusive figure. According to Russell's biographical notes, he was born in Alabama in 1912, and in the 1930's had his own jazz band in Pittsburgh, the Fess Hornsby Orchestra. His name sometimes comes up in biographical discussions of Kenny Clarke - Clarke, a Pittsburgh native, played drums in Horsby's band. Russell indicates that Hornsby turned exclusively to religious music in 1939, and had a weekly radio show, "Modern Hymnology," in Pittsburgh.

Why haven't Hornsby's recordings been reissued? Well, according to Hazeldine's book on the American Music label, Russell wasn't happy with the results of the recording session, although I guess he was initially satisfied enough to issue four of the sides. On page 100, we find this passage:

This was the least successful of all the American Music sessions and Bill Russell was always reluctant to discuss it. Having listened to all of the [Hornsby] masters I can confirm that the playing is of a poor standard and there are no plans to issue any of the above tracks in the AMCD series.

Well, pardon my language, but this is bullshit. I haven't heard all ten recordings (plus alternate takes), as Hazeldine has, but the issued 78s are the work of an accomplished and excellent musician. There is nothing "of a poor standard" about these records.

I feel that Hazeldine has adopted Russell's values in decrying these recordings. William Russell was conservative in his musical tastes - he didn't care for later jazz developments, or even for the saxophone, which he felt had no place in jazz. I suppose that at some point he realized that George Hornsby wasn't a "primitive" gospel pianist, but a knowledgeable, modern (for the time) musician. Hornsby had formidable technical abilites, and his approach to the piano had more in common with Earl Hines than with Cow Cow Davenport or Jimmy Yancey. This was not to Russell's liking, apparently.

It's a shame that these excellent records have never been reissued, and probably won't be. So that interested listeners can hear them and make up their own minds, I've posted mp3's of the two issued George Hornsby 78s here. I invoked the name of Earl Hines in the last paragraph, and these recordings may remind some listeners of what Hines might have sounded like if he had turned to gospel music.

I don't know what happened to George Hornsby after his American Music session, or when he died, as he presumably has. But I'm unwilling to let the negative opinion expressed in the one readily available reference book mentioning him go unchallenged. I dig your music, Fess Hornsby!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Steve and Watazumi

Time for another post at least partially about Steve Lacy, one of my musical heroes.

Steve Lacy had a special relationship with Japan. He made twelve concert tours of the country between 1975 to 2000, and a thirteenth tour was planned for June, 2004. That tour never happened; Lacy died on June 4th. Lacy's playing, spare and deliberate, seemed tailored for Japanese culture and attitudes, and he had a strong affinity with Japanese musicians, especially the great percussionist Masahiko Togashi, with whom he recorded many times.

Lacy's Japanese tours gave him the opportunity to directly experience the culture that had fascinated him for so long. He was deeply interested in Zen and Taoism (his Tao Suite was a cornerstone of his concerts from 1970). And on a couple of his trips, he took advantage of the opportunity to study with Watazumi Doso.

Watazumi Doso (海童 道祖 老師) (1910-1992) was a flutist and teacher of his own sect of Buddhism, Watazumido, or "The Way of Watazumi." Watazumi was a somewhat mysterious figure, down to the elusive matter of his name. He seemed to be known as Itcho Human and/or Tanaka Masaru in his younger days; later, Roshi, or "Master" was appended to his name. He was also sometimes known as Watazumido Shuso, which means something like "Head Student of the Way of Watazumi."

Watazumi did not consider himself a musician as much as a Buddhist teacher and practitioner. He exercised daily with the Jo stick, a long hardwood pole, and stressed the importance of breathing to his students. Here is an excerpt from a lecture he gave at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York, in 1981 (translation by Chris Jay):

It's fine that you are all deep into music. But there's something deeper and if you would go deeper, if you go to the source of where the music is being made, you'll find something even more interesting. At the source, everyone's individual music is made. If you ask what the deep place is, it's your own life and it's knowing your own life, that own way that you live.

Watazumi played a variety of bamboo flutes known as hocchiku or hotchiku. They differ from the more familiar shakuhachi flute in that the bore is unlacquered and left in as natural state as possible. Hocchiku flutes are usually longer and heavier than shakuhachi, and the sound they produce is rawer and less tempered.

Steve Lacy called Watazumi "one of the greatest improvisers I've ever heard in my life, maybe the greatest." Watazumi's music is certainly more startling, even avant-garde, than a passing familiarity with Japanese shakuhacki music would lead one to expect. It's full of sudden changes of timbre and volume, as well as notes which don't fit into any scale, Western or Eastern.

Lacy visited Watazumi during that first tour of Japan in 1975 for a lesson. He returned for another lesson ten years later, and, as he said, "I had made a lot of progress!"

What did he learn from Watazumi? In a 1997 Fresh Air interview with Terri Gross, Lacy explained the lesson that he describes as a revelation: "That my own voice was my own ear was my own breath was my own sound; that it was all one - the conception that it's just one thing." Lacy's later music, from the last two decades of his life, provides plenty of evidence of lessons learned. His purity of tone is perfectly matched to the composed material and to the melodic conception of his improvisations.

Recordings of Watazumi Doso are difficult to find. The most accessible, at least in the United States, seems to be an LP with the somewhat unfortunate title The Mysterious Sounds of the Japanese Bamboo Flute, which was issued by Everest in the late 1960's. Here is as example of his playing from that album. (I didn't post the video.)

I'll leave the last word on Watazumi to Steve Lacy. "He was the most modern improviser I've ever heard in my life. He surpassed anybody I could think of, including Braxton, or Derek Bailey. Doso, to me, was just... whew, outside all of that, really."

Steve Lacy quotes are from Fresh Air, November 20, 1997 and The Wire, November, 2002.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Last Watusi of The Radiators

Big ones eat the little ones;
The little ones got to be fast.
That's the law of the fish now, mother -
You got to move your ass.

-"Law of the Fish" by The Radiators

Well, I'm late to the party, as usual. Last week I finally attended a show by The Radiators, the band that has forgotten more songs than most bands ever knew - exactly two months before their final performance at Tipitina's.

I listen to jazz, blues, classical music, klezmer, African music - but not much rock. The last few years, the only rock CDs I pull off the shelves with any regularity are by The Allman Brothers, Darryl Rhoades, and especially The Radiators. I became aware of the great New Orleans rock band about 15 years ago when I bought an intriguing cassette compilation at the Louisiana Music Factory in New Orleans. The tape contained, among other great Louisiana music, a reissue of the Rad's first single, their 1978 anthem to crawfish, fellatio, or both, "Suck the Head (and Squeeze the Tip)." I loved the New Orleans groove and the sound of the band, but for some reason I didn't follow up and explore The Radiators' other recordings.

But about five years ago, I came across a cheap copy of Law of the Fish, the Rads' first major-label release. I loved about half of it right away, and the other half grew on me. I started checking out their albums, and was drawn further into the Radiators' world, until I became a full-fledged Fishhead, as Radiators fans are called.

I visit New Orleans once a year, so I assumed that I would be able to hear them at Tip's or The Maple Leaf one of these days. But it never happened, and late last year Ed Volker, aka Zeke Fishhead, announced that he would be leaving the band this summer. Volker is the main songwriter for the band, one of its two lead singers, and the group's guiding light. It's a truism among Fishheads that you have to hear the band live to really appreciate them, so I looked at their schedule and found that their closest remaining show was in Orlando. I didn't mind the 400 mile drive at all.

It was an exciting show. The Rads played for two hours and 15 minutes, performing a mixture of originals and a bewildering variety of cover tunes, including "I Walk on Gilded Splinters," "Paint It Black," "The Pusher," "St. James Infirmary," the old ballad "Little Sadie," several old blues and spirituals, and more. Their recordings feature songs by Bob Dylan, Clarence Carter, Muddy Waters, The Meters, etc. All these cover tunes support the Radiators reputation as the world's best bar band - a reputation that's kind of accurate, as far as it goes.

But their originals, particularly Volker's, are the songs that get to me. Volker's songs are pretty conventional in terms of harmony and structure - they use the same three or four chords that have been used since the beginnings of rock and roll. But Volker writes catchy melodies and interesting lyrics. The latter are sometimes predictable, but more often enigmatic, and at times probably half-baked. In any case, I love "Doctor, Doctor" (yes, I know that Volker was not the first to use that title), "Hard Time Train," "Let's Radiate," "Crazy Mona," "Hard Rock Kid," "I Want to Go Where the Green Arrow Goes," etc.

And then there's the band itself. If you imagine a triangle whose points are The Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead, and The Meters, The Radiators are situated approximately in the middle. Most of what they play is infused with a dark, swampy flavor that sets them apart from any other rock band. They boast two virtuoso guitarists, Dave Malone and Camille Baudoin, and they can turn any song into a long, improvisatory journey. Volker's keyboard style is more restrained - he's kind of a stripped-down Professor Longhair at times - but what he plays is just perfect for every song. The rhythm section of Reggie Scanlan and Frank Bua on drums can play solid straight rock, but more often adds at least a touch of New Orleans second line rhythm to the music.

For a few years in the 80's, the Radiators were signed to Epic Records, who didn't quite know what to make of them. Their three Epic albums are pretty good, if somewhat slicker than the Rads' usual sound. Except for those few years, the band has recorded for small labels or put out their own albums, and sustained itself by constant touring. During this period the band included percussionist Glenn Sears; except for his tenure, the band's personnel has remained unchanged for its entire life. More recently, The Radiators older audience has expanded - the younger "jam band" crowd has discovered them.

A lot of people think of The Radiators strictly as a party band. I think there's more going on than that; much of their music has darker overtones. If I was going to try to sum up what The Radiators are about, it would go something like this: We're living in a dying world. The Law of the Fish applies, so you'd better keep your eyes open. But while we're here, we might as well have a good time.

If you've never heard The Radiators, where should you start? The first Epic album, Law of the Fish, is pretty good; it has some of the band's best songs, like "Doctor, Doctor" and "This Wagon's Gonna Roll." There are several good live albums; Bucket of Fish is excellent. The Rads' 25th anniversary album, Earth Vs. The Radiators, is a double CD (and DVD) recorded at Tipitina's - guests include the Bonerama trombone section. But maybe the best representation of the band is their 30th anniversary double CD, Wild and Free. As long as you don't require audiophile quality on every track, you'll find it to be an amazing collection of live and studio recordings from the very beginning in 1978 through 2008.

I love the story of the band's origin. In 1978, Volker invited the members of a couple of different bands to jam in his garage one afternoon. They ended up playing for five hours, and the next day they all quit their old bands. They've been at it for the 33 years since then, but the end of the line is near. So if you have a chance during the next two months, set 'em up for the Hard Rock Kid, let the red wine flow, and catch The Radiators.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Brown and Yellow (Tom Brown and Alcide Nuñez)

Warning: more ramblings about Ancient Musick ahead. Lately I've been fascinated by Alcide "Yellow" Nuñez, the early New Orleans clarinetist best known for his recordings with the Louisiana Five. As I explored Nuñez's music, I realized how much his career was entwined with that of trombonist Tom Brown, a fellow New Orleanian.

History is usually more complicated than it first appears, and the history of jazz seems more and more like an onion the more you examine it; peel off one layer, and there is another just underneath, waiting to be explored. Years ago I "learned" that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was the first New Orleans jazz band to travel north and expose the world outside of Louisiana to the complex, intriguing sounds of New Orleans jazz. (It was only later that I learned of Bill Johnson's Creole Band, which included Freddie Keppard and George Baquet, and their success on the national vaudeville circuit as early as 1914.) But Tom Brown actually beat the ODJB to Chicago, and he and Alcide Nuñez, with a little more luck, could have enjoyed the success and fame that came to the ODJB.

Brown and Nuñez were part of the circle of white musicians centered around Jack "Papa" Laine, whose Reliance Brass Band was very popular in the early years of the 20th century in New Orleans. "Brown's Band From Dixieland," which included cornetist Ray Lopez and clarinetist Gus Mueller, came to Chicago in May, 1915 to open at Lamb's Cafe. Their reception was lukewarm at first; the music seemed loud, shocking, and impossible to dance to. But people were curious, and soon Brown's band was an attraction; the line to get in Lamb's was often two blocks long. Around this time, the word "jazz" (or "jass") began to be applied to this unusual music from New Orleans.

Clubowners and promoters suddenly wanted jazz bands, preferably from New Orleans. Drummer Johnny Stein brought his band up from the Crescent City and opened at the New Schiller Cafe. In addition to Stein, the group consisted of "Yellow" Nuñez and three future members of the ODJB: Eddie "Daddy Edwards on trombone, pianist Henry Ragas, and Nick LaRocca on cornet. By this time, Harry Shields had replaced Gus Mueller as the clarinetist in Tom Brown's band. Nuñez soon had a falling-out with LaRocca (not an unusual occurrence, apparently), and the two bands swapped clarinetists.

When Lamb's Cafe closed, Brown's band hit the vaudeville trail, and were offered a job at Reisenweber's Restaurant in New York City. But Brown didn't think the money was good enough, and he declined. The job eventually went to LaRocca, who took over Stein's band, replacing him with Tony Sbarbaro. The ODJB became the talk of New York, and made records for Columbia and Victor; those 1917 records are now considered to be the first real jazz recordings.

And what of Brown and Nuñez? After a few trips back and forth to New Orleans, they both ended up in New York for a few years before returning home for good. Brown apparently found that the life of a well-paid sideman made for a more secure existence than that of a bandleader, and made himself an indispensable part of the Yerkes dance band empire. Harry Yerkes was one of the most active bandleaders in New York from 1917 to 1924; he led (and recorded with) a bewildering variety of aggregations: Yerkes' Jazzarimba Orchestra (featuring xylophone and marimba as part of the instrumentation), Yerkes' Novelty Five, Yerkes' Saxophone Sextet, Yerkes' S.S. Flotilla Orchestra, The Happy Six, etc. Tom Brown was part of most of these groups from 1919 to at least 1923; he made scores of records with various Yerkes groups, as well as with the dance bands of Ray Miller, Russ Gorman, and the xylophone-playing Green Brothers.

After Brown's band broke up, Yellow Nuñez formed a five-piece band, the Louisiana Five, with drummer Anton Lada. Nuñez's clarinet was the lead instrument; the only other horn was the trombone of Charlie Panelli, who later played with the Original Memphis Five. The Lousiana Five was at least a distant rival to the ODJB; they recorded over 40 sides, one of which, "Yelping Hound Blues," was pretty popular. (It's actually much better than the grim title would suggest.) The Louisiana Five recordings have been both praised and panned by jazz critics, but the best of them sound pretty good 90-something years later. Nuñez was a strong clarinetist; he played (on records, anyway) exclusively in the high register, allowing his lead to cut through the sound of the other instruments. He seldom strayed far from the melody, but often indulged in some mild improvisation as the tune progressed.

When the Louisiana Five broke up, Nuñez also found a home with Yerkes; it is reasonable to assume that Tom Brown helped him secure a position with the bandleader. For whatever reason, the clarinetist didn't stay with Yerkes long; he only made a handful of records with Yerkes' groups, all from the years 1919 and 1920. Nuñez led a quartet for awhile, and returned to New Orleans in 1927. Until his death in 1934 he played with various groups, including a police band, but never recorded again. He passed down musical genes, apparently; his grandson, Robert Nunez, is now principal tubist with the New Orleans Philharmonic.

Tom Brown also moved back home, and in 1924 and 1925 he appeared on a couple of fine Okeh records by trumpeter Johnny Bayersdorffer and pianist Norman Brownlee. The Bayersdorffer record ("Waffle Man's Call"/"I Wonder Where My Easy Rider's Riding Now") in particular is a great example of a New Orleans jazz band recorded in the city, and probably represents Brown's best recorded work. He recorded several times with trumpeter Johnny Wiggs in the 1950's (including an album under his own name), showing his brass-band derived style to be basically unchanged. Brown died in 1958.

Unfortunately, one of the things musicians and observers remember about Brown is his virulent racism. Many of the early white New Orleans jazz musicians seemed to have had blinders on when it came to giving credit to African-Americans for creating jazz, but Brown's attitudes went beyond that. I decline to quote some of the statements attributed to him.

Recordings by Nuñez are somewhat hard to find now, but most of the Louisiana Five sides have been reissued at various times, although often on small labels, and most of those collections are now out of print. There are several tracks by the Five in the Ragtime to Jazz CD series on the Timeless label, and one track on Retrieval's Pioneer Recording Bands. The Happy Six have their own collection, Dance-O-Mania, on the Rivermont label; Nuñez plays on a couple of the tracks, and there's plenty of Tom Brown there, of course.

Because these recordings are so hard to come by, I've posted several items from my 78 collection here in mp3 form. As far as I can tell, the Louisiana Five's Columbia record of "Yelping Hound Blues" and "Just Another Good Man Gone Wrong" has never been reissued, although I may have overlooked some obscure release. I also included a side by the Happy Six which doesn't appear on the Rivermont CD, "Who'll Be the Next One (To Cry Over You)." It's early-20's dance music, not jazz, but it's pretty good for what it is; you'll hear a "straight" trombone solo on the melody by Tom Brown. The virtuoso soprano sax work toward the end is probably by the great (non-jazz) saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft, although it could be F. Wheeler Wadsworth. And finally, there's a track by Yerkes Southern Five which features both Nuñez and Brown, Lucky Roberts' "Railroad Blues." It has been reissued, on one of the Timeless Ragtime to Jazz CDs, but it's so good that I couldn't resist posting it here; it may be the best recorded performance by Nuñez. In addition, you can download the Louisiana Five's Edison recording of "Clarinet Squawk" here; it's not their best work, though, in my opinion.

I'll let the last word on Alcide Nuñez belong to Charles Ellsworth Russell, Jr. In 1918, long before Pee Wee Russell was the great jazz clarinetist he became, his father took him to an Elks Club event in St. Louis. The band was the Louisiana Five, and the twelve-year-old Pee Wee was surprised and amazed at what he heard from Nuñez's clarinet: "Nuñez played the melody and then he got hot and played jazz. That was something. How did he know where he was and where he was going?" If for no other reason, we should honor Alcide Nuñez for introducing Pee Wee Russell to the world of jazz.

Acknowledgments: I referred to the following books in preparing this post:

Robert Hilbert - Pee Wee Russell: the Life of a Jazzman
Al Rose and Edmond Souchon - New Orleans Jazz: A Family Album
Brian Rust - The American Dance Band Discography 1917-1942
Gunther Schuller - Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development
Richard Sudhalter - Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945
Brian Wood - The Song for Me: A Glossary of New Orleans Musicians.

The Sudhalter book in particular was very helpful in sorting out the comings and goings of the early white New Orleans musicians in Chicago and New York.

The first photograph is of Alcide Nuñez, from the Nuñez family archives. The second photograph is a rare shot of The Happy Six, with Tom Brown, from a 1922 Columbia Records Catalog in my collection.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Big Jack, The Oil Man

Well, damn. I certainly didn't want to add another memorial post to this blog. But I've learned that Big Jack Johnson died of kidney failure a few days ago, on Monday, March 14. Big Jack, the Oil Man, the Last of the Jelly Roll Kings, the Fishin' Musician, is gone. He was 70.

For years, I've been telling people that Big Jack was alive only due to my quick reflexes. I heard him play at the Sunflower River Blues Festival in Clarksdale in the mid 1990's - an afternoon show. Late that night I passed Red's Lounge, the famous Clarksdale juke joint, as I was driving back to my hotel. Johnson was hanging out in front, talking with a friend. As I approached, Big Jack was apparently overcome with mirth at his buddy's story, and staggered out into the middle of Sunflower Avenue, bent over with laughter. I hit my brakes and swerved, and Johnson was with us for 15 more years.

Big Jack, who was simultaneously, and paradoxically, the most traditional and the most original of bluesmen, was born in Lambert, Mississippi, about ten miles from Clarksdale. His father played guitar, banjo, and fiddle, and passed on the basics to Jack. In the early 1960's, Johnson became a member of one of the greatest juke joint blues trios of all time. Frank Frost, Johnson, and Sam Carr played throughout Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee as Frank Frost and The Nighthawks. The band hung together for 25 years or so, although they changed their name to The Jelly Roll Kings when they released their Earwig album Rockin' the Juke Joint Down in 1979, since there was already a long-established blues/rock band called The Nighthawks. The Kings rocked hard, and consistently sounded like a larger group. In the early days Frank Frost took all the vocals, as well as playing guitar and harmonica. There was no bass, but Big Jack's guitar provided the bottom. In later years, Frost played keyboards (usually a cheap organ) rather than guitar, and the vocal duties were split between Johnson and Frost.

Making a living at music was has always been difficult, and it's almost impossible in the Mississippi Delta. For years, Big Jack put food on the table by driving a heating oil truck, making deliveries all over the Delta. His day job led to his nickname, The Oil Man, and he called his band The Oilers. As he became a popular figure on the blues festival circuit, he left the Delta for periods in Chicago and Pennsylvania, but he finally moved back to Clarksdale, playing at Red's Lounge when he wasn't on the road. In recent years, Johnson was plagued by health problems; in fact, erroneous reports of his death circulated before the end came this week.

One of the things I loved about Big Jack was that he had no taste. That may seem like a strange thing to say, but it speaks to the absolute honesty of Johnson's music; he played whatever he felt like playing, whether it was musically or politically correct or not. When I heard him in Clarksdale, he followed a tough blues shuffle with a bizarre rendition of "Tequila," during which he moved from the "A" section to the bridge more or less at random. The huge grin on his face throughout showed how much he enjoyed playing the tune, as strange as it seemed to the hard-core blues fans in the audience. He had a song called "Chinese Blues," in which he sang in "Chinese." And check out his melodramatic, overwrought original called "Daddy, When Is Momma Coming Home?," which he recorded several times. All of this is in bad taste, and also a lot of fun.

But that same directness and honesty resulted in some incredible blues performances. On the last Jelly Roll Kings album, Look On Yonder Wall, Big Jack sings a warning to Frank Frost, who was right there in the studio, behind the organ: "Frank Frost, you better lay that bottle down!" Johnson, in true Delta blues fashion, wasn't particularly concerned with counting measures to the next chord change - he moved to the next chord when it felt right, and the band had better be listening. The title song of his We Got to Stop This Killin' album has choruses that are 13, 15, and 19 bars long, in addition to those that fit the standard 12-bar blues form.

Big Jack's style was intense, with a sometimes extreme vibrato applied to both his guitar and voice. Perhaps his greatest recorded performances are those made for the film Deep Blues in 1990. Johnson plays what is maybe the hottest version of the traditional "Catfish Blues" ever, weeps his way through "Daddy, When Is Momma Coming Home?," and winds up with the wonderful and bizarre "Big Boy Now," inspired by hearing country music on the radio as a child. Jack tells the tale of wanting to yodel "like those white folks on that radio," and follows the vocal with a twisted, shredded slide guitar solo that works its way higher and higher, until he is practically playing on the pickups. It's one of those performances that must be heard to be believed.

Big Jack's gone now, but he left some excellent recordings behind. I would go so far as to say that anyone with the slightest interest in electric Delta blues needs to have The Jelly Roll Kings' Rockin' the Juke Juke Down in their collection. I'm partial to Johnson's albums Roots Stew and The Memphis Barbecue Sessions, the latter a collaboration with harpist Kim Wilson of The Fabulous Thunderbirds. And of course, there's the amazing Deep Blues soundtrack. Right now, sales of his albums at CD Baby will directly benefit his family. Do yourself a favor and treat yourself to some Big Jack Johnson. So long to the Last of The Jelly Roll Kings.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Two New CDs

There are two new CDs out that relate to previous posts of this blog, and which many folks may not hear about; these releases are unlikely to be featured in a "new releases" email from Amazon or iTunes. Neither will be found at your local Wal-mart, but they can both be had from CDBaby.com. Each of these CDs is a personal, contemporary look at a very old American musical tradition.

When I was in Mississippi last month, I spent about an hour looking through the CDs and records at Cat Head Blues and Folk Art, a wonderful little store in Clarksdale. One of the finds I was most excited about was What Do I Do?, a 2010 release by Sharde Thomas, whom I mentioned in my 2009 post on Mississippi fife and drum music. Miss Thomas, who is billed simply as "Sharde" on the CD cover, is the granddaughter of Othar Turner, the late master of the Mississippi Hill Country fife and drum tradition. That tradition reaches back to antebellum times, although the music has undoubtedly changed greatly over the years.

This CD was quite a surprise to me. I didn't know that Sharde had released a CD, and seeing the cover, with Miss Thomas and her fife, was a thrill. The second surprise was when I stuck the CD into my car's stereo: most of the album is R & B, not fife and drum music. The third surprise was that I liked all of it, even though much of it was not what I expected. Much of the success of the album is due to the production of Ricky Davis, who also plays guitar and drums on many of the tracks. He gives the proceedings a polished, professional sheen.

It shouldn't have been a surprise that Sharde, who must be about 21 years old now, is not content to confine herself to the fife and drum tradition; hers is a very different world from the rural Mississippi, isolated and racist, in which her grandfather grew up. Sharde's R & B is sweet and engaging - there is nothing aggressive about it. She sings about her family, about having a good time, about being young and in love. Her voice is nothing like the American Idol divas that seem to dominate pop and R & B these days, and I'm glad about that. It's pleasant, sure, and (sorry to use this word again so soon) sweet. One of the most touching of the R & B songs is "O. T.," which, of course, is dedicated to her grandfather. The introduction uses a recording of Mr. Turner's voice; he says, "If anything happen to me, I get so I can't play, Sharde gonna be the one." And she pretty much is, now.

There are also two blues on the album, one written by Sharde and one by her cousin, Aurbrey Turner, a musician who played drums behind Othar Turner. The blues songs manage to be as sunny and enjoyable as the R & B. Sharde plays piano on them, as she does on many of the R & B tracks.

But for many listeners, the meat of the album will be the four fife and drum tracks. They are as tough and exciting as anyone who has heard Othar Turner's recordings would expect, but they don't "feel" like Turner's music - they have an urgent, contemporary feeling, even when Sharde is playing music as traditional as the Hill Country standard "Bounce Ball" or the old African-American game song "Sally Walker." Part of this feel is due to the addition of Aurbrey Turner's drum set to the stand-alone snare and bass drums. On the live version of "Shimmie She Wobble," Turner's set is also credited, but it doesn't seem to be actually present there. These four tracks are the most assured and mature recordings of Miss Thomas's fife playing yet.

In many ways, the most innovative track is the last one, "We Made It." It ties together all the threads of Sharde's music: she plays fife and piano, and the song has elements of blues, R & B, and the fife and drum tradition running through it. That night in Clarksdale, this is the track I cranked up, and I couldn't keep still.

The other new CD was only released a week or two ago; it's 17 Days by the Panorama Brass Band, and it's one of the most original New Orleans brass band albums I've heard. Ben Schenck's Panorama Brass Band is the marching offshoot of his Panorama Jazz Band, one of my favorite New Orleans bands. Like the Panorama Jazz Band, the PBB plays traditional New Orleans tunes, klezmer, Caribbean tunes, Eastern European music, and more. The last two Panorama Jazz Band albums have each featured a few tracks by the brass band, but this is their first full album.

The new CD, which was recorded last Mardi Gras season, opens with two pieces which are strictly in the NOLA brass band tradition, "Nearer My God to Thee" and "Lily of the Valley." These should convince any skeptic that the Panorama is the real deal. "Lily" swings hard, and this might be my new favorite version of "Nearer My God to Thee," although there are recordings by the Olympia and the Onward that I love. Alto saxophonist Aurora Nealand's high harmony in the last four bars of the Panorama's "Nearer" is perfect and heartbreaking.

From the third track on, though, it's obvious that this is a different kind of New Orleans brass band. That third track is Nealand's arrangement of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" (!), which in the hands of the Panorama BB becomes both ominous and funky. From there the band goes on to touch on reggae, Balkan brass band tunes, Jewish freylkhs and horas, calypso, and even Haydn, in Schenk's arrangement of "St. Anthony Chorale," a piece which Brahms also used as source material.

Besides their atypical repertoire, the Panorama is unusual in terms of instrumentation. They use the old-style middle-register brass horns, alto and tenor horns, that all but died out in New Orleans around 75 years ago, when alto and tenor saxophones took over their function in the ensemble. The slightly nasal sonorities of the alto and tenor horns (two of the latter) give the band an unusual sound: full and slightly exotic. There are saxophones in the PBB, of course; besides the wonderful Aurora Nealand, Dan Oestricher's baritone sax helps hold down the bottom. There is only one trumpet; Jack Pritchett's performance is all the more heroic for that, since he usually carries the lead. Schenck hardly features himself at all; there are not more than one or two clarinet solos on the album, but his high countermelodies are excellent.

The CD ends with a "Lagniappe track," a lo-fi version of "Grazin' in the Grass" (which has become a New Orleans brass band standard), recorded live on the street during Mardi Gras 2010. It captures the chaotic excitement of a New Orleans street parade perfectly, down to the passing of a police car. The title of the Panorama Brass Band's new album refers to the fact that the band only exists for 17 days each carnival season. I'm glad they gave us an hour of music that we can enjoy the other 348 days.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Delta Report

For the first time in many years, I visited the blues country of the Mississippi Delta last week. I mean, I've driven through a couple of times in the past few years, but this was the first time I had spent more than a day there since about 1997. Even for a Southerner, the Delta is strange place, full of contradictions and mysteries.

The area that Mississippians call the Delta is the northwestern slice of the state, between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, extending northwards to Memphis. It's flat - almost totally devoid of hills, with some of the deepest and richest topsoil in the country. There are places where it seems like you can see forever. The area was practically wilderness until the late 19th century, when planters bought large tracts and cleared them for cotton plantations. Cotton was a labor-intensive crop until mechanization changed the cotton industry in the 1940's, so large numbers of workers, mostly African-American, were recruited for cheap labor. The Delta's population was soon majority black, as it still is. The white minority resorted to increasingly oppressive tactics in order to maintain social and political control. It's no wonder that the Delta is often considered the birthplace of the blues.

On my trip, I stayed for two nights in Cleveland, in the very center of the Delta. I had wondered how this extremely poor region was faring during these economic hard times, and I must admit that Cleveland gave me a false impression. It appears to be a prosperous, bustling town; the downtown area is attractive and healthy. It only took a little driving around to other towns to discover that most of the area is not faring as well. Tutwiler, Glendora, Friars Point, Merigold - these towns are as shockingly poor as any places I have ever seen in the United States. Hirsberg's Drug Store in Friars Point has been around long enough for Robert Johnson to have played on the bench in front of the store, but it couldn't survive the current economic climate; they were having a going-out-of-business sale when I was there.

My wife made a little bit of fun of me because I visited so many dead blues guys' graves. But often those graves are the only remaining physical locations that represent those pioneers' careers - their homes are long gone, for the most part, as are the places they played. If you want to pay homage in the form of a blues pilgrimage, you're left with visiting graves. In some cases, you are left with visiting someone's guess about where a grave is. There are three Robert Johnson graves around Greenwood. And while I visited Charley Patton's grave in Holly Ridge, there are some who believe that he's buried in the nearby Longswitch cemetery. And one of Patton's relatives says that he's buried underneath the burner of the cotton gin next to the cemetery.

But the Holly Ridge cemetery is a place I always visit when I'm in the Delta. Although there are houses across the road and a working cotton gin next door, this spot somehow always gives me an intensely desolate, isolated feeling. I don't think I've ever seen another human being while visiting the cemetery, and it feels like the middle of nowhere as much as anyplace I've visited.

Digging a grave in the Holly Ridge cemetery must be a nightmare. I've never visited when the ground wasn't wet and spongy, with standing water scattered around. In addition to Patton, harmonica player Willie Foster (whom I heard in 1995) and Asie Payton, who had two stunning posthumous albums released, are buried there.

I also visited the grave of Sonny Boy Williamson (the second one) outside of Tutwiler, and Dockery Farms. Dockery, as much as any place on Earth, can reasonably lay claim to being the birthplace of the blues. Charley Patton lived there for some 30 years, and learned to play guitar there, inspired by an older musician, Henry Sloan.

But I wanted to hear some music, so after a couple of days I moved my base of operations to Clarksdale, where I rented a wonderful, large apartment downtown for a couple of days. I was staying two doors down from where W. C. Handy lived for awhile, and just steps from the depot where Muddy Waters caught the Illinois Central train to Chicago. Weekends are about the only time to hear music in the Delta, so on Friday night I went to hear Terry "Big T" Williams at Ground Zero, Morgan Freeman's blues club in Clarksdale. I had been impressed with Big T on recordings, but his live show was kind of disappointing - a pretty slick presentation of predictable blues covers by Albert King, B. B. King, etc.

But the next night was something else. Clarksdale once had numerous juke joints - informal bars with a jukebox and live music on the weekends. They're pretty much all gone now except for Red's. Red's frankly looks like an abandoned, boarded-up building. But on Friday and Saturday nights, it's anything but. The crowd was fairly small on the Saturday night I was there, but the music was just what I was looking for. Big A (I only learned his real name, Anthony Sherrod, later) and his three-piece blues band played with soul, humor, and intensity. They played some of the same cover tunes I had heard the night before, but Big A and his cheap-ass guitar (I never did figure out what brand it was) turned every song into a raw, strong, immediate experience. His rhythm section played with that perfect blend of drive and relaxation that's found in the best blues. I couldn't keep still.

There was more to my trip which would probably only interest someone as geeky as me. I loved the little moments when I encountered a trace or remnant of blues history, like the tile floor that's only thing left of Sonny Boy Williamson's house in Helena, Arkansas, or the trestle of the Yazoo Delta (Yellow Dog) rail line I unexpectedly came across in Boyle. A lot has changed in the Delta, but many things remain the same. I can't decide if that's good or bad.