Saturday, December 22, 2012

God Preserve us

Serious jazz fans will scoff at these thoughts, but for the rest of us... imagine Jazz as dance music, featuring alternately X rated or forthrightly religious lyrics, being an underground phenomenon largely sustained as a grass-roots street culture tradition...

For those of us who grew up hearing our parents' Big Band favorites, and then the increasingly abstract stylings of the post-Bop scene the above statements seem utterly absurd and yet...

That's exactly how Jazz originated in the opening decades of the 20th Century before being superseded by alternately slicker Big Band and more cerebral Bee Bop and post-Bop styles rendering the earlier form, "Hot Jazz," a quaint relic.

But then aficionados from around the country converged on New Orleans in order to enjoy and then nurture the remnants of original Jazz culture that had survived as a strictly local phenomenon. And one result of this was in the inauguration of Preservation Hall, an art gallery who's owner invited "Hot Jazz" old timers to come and perform as much to indulge his passion for this music on as conveniently as possible as to give them additional opportunities to perform together and perhaps make a few extra bucks. And 50 years later, the Preservation Hall community is still going strong, in fact having become a successful mini empire employing dozens of musicians playing regularly at the flagship venue in New Orleans, mounting multiple touring units,recording and releasing myriad albums -- guaranteeing that early Jazz styles remain a vital and LIVING tradition.

Columbia Legacy's "50th Anniversary Collection" box set is a thoroughly reverent and comprehensive yet thoroughly lively, boisterous collection documenting the music that's come from this operation over the past five decades. The running order of this material is purposely NOT chronological, instead mixing recordings from all eras of Preservation Hall's existence and from a wide variety of line-ups. What's immediately striking is how comfortably it all sits side by side even when some seemingly anomalous elements are added - a lead vocal by Tom Waits on one track, the entire Del McCroury Band sitting in on another track, etc. It's powerful testimony as to the impact Hot Jazz has and continues to have on American music - Waits' take on "Tootie Ma Is A Big Fine Thing" would be perfectly at home at any of his own albums from "Swordfishtrombone" onwards. Clearly the many musicians that have contributed to Preservation Hall over so many years have maintained a very consistent high level of artistry, preserved all the essential formal elements of the Hot Jazz style and immerse themselves in the passion that this music was intended to incite.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

We just got back from a brief stay in New Orleans. 10 pounds heavier; liver struggling to process all the red wine; and with a stack of recordings (of course!)

First off...we ran across a delightful little surprise. We'd grabbed a December issue of the local music magazine (full color, printed on slick paper -- how come New Orleans can support something like that while the rest of the country can't seem to support a national print 'zine devoted to music?) -- or maybe we peeped Offbeat's weekly online newsletter -- and noted a free screening of "Piano Players Rarely Play Together" a recently restored documentary that looked at three generations of New Orleans pianists, local legend Professor Longhair, one of his devoted disciples, Allen Toussaint, and one of Longhair's inspirations, Isidore "Tuts" Washington. This took place in the back dining room of Buffa's on Esplanade, a friendly, knockabout local bar and eatery. A very congenial and comfy place to watch a movie.

This was a hoot. First of all, there was a lot of performance, not only by each individual pianist, but they'd agreed to stage a performance and their rehearsals were filmed...luckily, as, tragically, Longhair died in his sleep a day or two before the scheduled performance (the two survivors went ahead and performed to honor his memory). All the performance footage is a treasure; first of all, just great music. Secondly, a fine document of vintage styles of playing who's original exponents are largely long laid to rest. Tuts was a barrelhouse player who incorporated elements of classical, popular music and mid century jazz into his stylebook over the years. Famously, Longhair added Carribean rhythms and melodies to basic barrelhouse blues and created the blueprint for much of New Orleans unique style of rollicking, piano-driven R&B (Fats Domino, Huey "Piano" Smith & The Clowns, etc.) Toussaint injected N.O. R&B's unique features to a wide range of more mainstream R&B, soul and funk styles minting some of the biggest records to associated with that city: Ernie K-Doe's "Mother In Law," Lee Dorsey's "Working In a Coal Mine," Glen Campbell's "Southern Nights" (a Toussaint composition), Pointer Sisters' "Yes We Can" (a cover of one of Allen's songs for Dorsey), LaBelle's "Lady Marmalade" (another Toussaint song and production).

Third: the interview footage is priceless -- not only hearing these worthies' thoughts about their own music but hearing them discuss one another -- Toussaint being especially reverential when talking about Longhair, while Washington was quick to point out the debut Longhair owed him and Longhair being just as quick to downplay the debt while noting Toussaint's debt to him! Feisty, proud men, hungry to grab a bit of justly deserved recognition. The most priceless segments are where the three are rehearsing together. Washington keeps showboating (and indeed his technique is dazzling) and Longhair keeps scolding him while Toussaint just chuckles and keeps his mouth shut.

Then, as I'd mentioned, Longhair died and the documentary includes footage at his wake (intense stuff) and a fragment of the massive public turn out for his funeral proper. Afterwards, Pauline Waring the former wife of the film's late director Stevenson Palfi showed up, spoke with the crowd a bit and then popped open a box of newly released DVD re-release, selling 'em for $20 (Amazon lists a used VHS for $70 and otherwise you have to purchase from Louisiana Music Factory for $30 + shipping -- SCORE!)

I'll just give a quick run down of other purchases:

The Original Pinettes Brass Band "Finally" self released (purchased at Louisiana Music Factory) - this is pretty standard contemporary brass band fare - you can find just about all these songs on the first couple Rebirth Brass Band albums. But this is one of the few (perhaps the only ) all female brass band in New Orleans and I suspect that this recording is mainly intended as a calling card meant to attract live bookings. And for that's it's utterly effective. These are all lively, enthusiastic performances - sharp enough to have punch but loose enough to make you think that the recording sessions were a party in themselves.

Smokey Johnson "It Ain't My Fault." (purchased at LMF) This is released on the Night Train division of Tuff City Records. While I admire the catalogue these guys have amassed I've had nothing but bad experiences trying to buy CDs from them and now only buy their stuff from other sources rather than direct.

Smokey Johnson is best known for his decades-long stint playing drums with Fats Domino but preceded that with a decade of being part of Dave Bartholemew's session band throughout the 60's, this following 10 years of late night jams and backing up various local luminaries including the late James "Sugarboy" Crawford ("Jock E Mo" later known as "Iko Iko"). This collection documents a series of singles wherein he fused jazz, blues, R&B and early rock 'n' beats with New Orleans street parade ("second line") beats, creating a muscular, spare and incredibly potent brand of funk comparable to the best of the Meters instrumental releases on Minit.

Kid Ory "King of the Tailgate Trombone" on American Music (purhcased at LMF). Back in the 40's, there was a resurgence of interest in 20's "Hot Jazz" and a concerted effort to document that music and the original musicians who'd helped create and sustain it by labels created entirely for that purpose. American Music/GBH/Jazzology are a New Orleans based company devoted to keeping those recordings in print.

Kid Ory is largely known as trombone player with King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, contributing to their seminal 20's recordings. Recent historical studies, however have reminded music fans that Oliver and Armstrong, in fact, had gotten their starts as members of Ory's band - Armstrong being tapped by Ory while a teenager to fill Oliver's shoes when the latter departed for Chicago. He's creditted for breaching color lines in New Orleans as his band gained such prominence that fashionable white socialites felt compelled to have his outfit performing at parties, picnics etc., propriety be damned. Later in life he led the "dixieland" band at Disneyland (very trippy to think that Walt and company were among the main patrons of archaic New Orleans party music for a LONG time).

This album stems from recording sessions done in 1948 and 1949 and finds Ory and company playing lively, authoritative versions of standard NOLA trad jazz repertoire: "Panama Rag" "Chinatown, My Chinatown" "Do you KNow What it Means, To Miss New Orleans" etc. To my ears its a great exemplar of this style of music but I do know that this stuff is an acquired taste for most baby boomers and following generations.

On one level, it emits the whiff of corniness and that's 'cause by the 60's it'd become mainly a nostalgic rush indulged in by aged grandparents sighing over their glory days. That's likely what its function was at Disneyland -- to evoke a bygone era when things were slower, simpler and more wholesome (I'm supposing). But when you start looking at it in the context of the music's original emergence -- out of the collision of formally trained, middle class mulattoes who had a repertoire of light classical music and popular orchestral pieces with often self-taught darker skinned players primarily versed in the blues, mashed together as efforts to segregate New Orleans stepped up; or how it was then nurtured in the bars and brothels of the quasi-legal red light district of Storyville; and lastly -- that it was the inception of "Jazz" process - taking well known tunes and reconstructing them through group improvisation...well, it can be possible to disable one's childhood biases and really dig this stuff!

Isidore "Tuts" Washington "New Orleans Piano" The Larry Borenstein Collection Volume 3 on 504 Records. Purchased at a stall in the French Market out of a batch of stuff marked to $10. OK, you can figure out why I'd pick this up after seeing the documentary he's featured in. Larry Borrenstein ran an art gallery at 726 St. Peter Street in the French Quarter and started inviting local traditional jazz musicians to jam there after business hours in the 50's -- one of the few places that would have them once their music had been supplanted by R&B and rock n roll as popular music and by beebop and post-bop as contemporary jazz.

These sessions were recorded at the Associated Artists Studio before it was renamed Preservation Hall. The recordings were made "circa 1960" - about 20 years before the documentary was filmed. If Tuts playing in 1980 was spectacular you can imagine what it was like coming from a man some 20 years younger. From the sound of it, Borrenstein brought a home reel-to-reel into the room, set up one mic. So there's PLENTY of "room ambience" - which - if yr into utterly pro-Toolsed, auto-tuned, arrid sonic perfection -- this is your worst nightmare come true. If you'd wanna conjur up the atmosphere of being in Preservation Hall, not to mention at a time when there were probably just a few locals slouching in cheers, drinking a cold beer and enjoying some stubbornly venerable music...this is the shizzle.

George Lewis Ragtime Band "Live In Concert - 1963" 2 CD set on 504 Records purchased at a healthy discount in the French Market. Haven't listened yet but realize from pouring over the notes to the Preservation Hall box set that George and most of the ensemble were an important part of that scene and the diehard trad jazz movement in general. Looks good.