Thursday, January 12, 2017

Louis Armstrong * The Hot Fives and Sevens * remastered by John R.T. Davies 1991/2007 * JSP Records * JSP100

[ Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens sessions are deservedly considered among the most important jazz cornet and trumpet recordings of all time. Over the course of these recordings, Armstrong revolutionized brass soloing, and study of these four CDs worth of material is not only a pleasure, but everyone interested in jazz history. What follows in this post is not, however, a discussion of Armstrong's contribution so much as a summary of the clarinetists and their contribution to these recordings. ES ]



Before picking up this box set of reissues, meticulously remastered by John R.T. Davies, my CD collection was limited to the Columbia remasters from the late 1980s. Those recordings weren't without their charm, and there is a warmth to the Columbia Masterworks approach that I enjoyed for many years. One of the first things I noticed about Davies's work, though, after its directness of sound, were the key changes of some of the performances. The Columbia Masterworks version of "Lonesome Blues" was in B. This is course highly unlikely, but as it was one of the first solos I'd transposed, I never questioned it until hearing the Davies remasters in the more sensible key of Bb. I haven't gone through these recordings with a fine toothed comb to discover all of the key differences, but would bet Davies's choices turn out to be the more accurate ones.


The Hot Fives 1925-1926 (Disc A)

Despite his work as a bandleader, and many other examples as a distinguished sideman, the original Hot Fives and Hot Sevens sessions are probably the recordings most people associate with Johnny Dodds. This can be a blessing and a curse. On the blessing side, these cuts really do demonstrate his unique tenacity, soul, drive, and creativity. Those are big pluses. On the curse side, for one reason or another, they didn't capture Dodds's often rich, deep sound particularly well, and on some sides (particularly from the first session in 1925) he struggled to keep up to pitch. These recordings have been considered so representative that some writers have even suggested Dodds's vibrato tended to function below the pitch as a rule. I'm not sure this is true, and if we listen to all of his other recordings (especially the sound he produced on the King Oliver sessions in 1923),we hear a fuller, more in tune Dodds. It has been said that Dodds disliked the recording studio and distrusted microphones. Considering how much of an acoustical challenge it is to record a clarinet, and that the focal point of these sessions was Armstrong rather than Dodds, we shouldn't rush to judgement on the subject of his sound. As far as the pitch is concerned,  perhaps at times Dodds was overblowing to compensate for balance against an open cornet rather than the muted recordings of the Oliver band. All caveats aside, however,  Dodds was far greater, in terms of intonation, control, and content, than his immediate successor in the Hot Fives and Sevens, Jimmy Strong ( heard on Disc C).

Throughout all of the Hot Five sessions on Disc A, Dodds's ensemble figurations are solid, as usual. On "Don't Forget to Mess Around" he takes solos on both alto sax and clarinet, moving well between the instruments. Immediately after that,  on "I'm Gonna Gitcha", Dodds flashes his hot tempo soloing style. For those not impressed with Dodds's technique, or who consider him an especially rough player (including many respected modern jazz players), I'd just point out that the types of figurations here (common in his playing) aren't really that easy. His clarinet chorus on "Dropping Shucks" is relaxed, vintage Dodds. "Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa" show off his bluesy howling, and maybe the top highlight of the first disc is Johnny's heartfelt statement of the melody for "Lonesome Blues," setting the table perfectly for Satch's vocal.

The Hot Sevens and Fives 1927 (Disc B)

The sound quality on this disc is even better than Disc A, and seems more accurate, with less need to imagine what the players might have really sounded like. Having said that,  Dodds's tone is still pretty harsh compared to some recordings before and after these sessions.  May of 1927 was a big month for the band, though, as some of the most enduring numbers they recorded came between the 7th and the 14th. The band is in full, swinging, comfortable sound on "Willie the Weeper" and "Wild Man Blues" with Dodds taking a gritty solo on the latter with plenty of talking quality and double time flashes.

After this is a brief interlude for "Chicago Breakdown" of May 9th, with a large group that included Earl Hines on piano, and Boyd Atkins on clarinet, soprano sax, and alto sax (his solo chorus is on soprano).

The next sessions took place between May 10 and 14, 1927, Johnny Dodds announcing his return to the band with a "rip-your-head-off" blues statement on "Alligator Crawl." He's enthusiastic on all of these numbers, including "Potato Head Blues", "Melancholy Blues", "Weary Blues" (where he gets breaks similar in style to those he played so often with King Oliver), "12th Street Rag" and others. Finally, with the September and December sessions of 1927,  Dodds's sound is more reminiscent of his playing with King Oliver or afterwards as a bandleader--more mellowness and richness added to the raw power--and despite the harshness of the earlier tracks, these recordings from 1927 seem to me the zenith of Dodds's work in Armstrong's band.  


1928-29 (Disc C)

Armstrong's brilliance continues on Disc C, which begins with a reformation of the Hot Five in Chicago in June and July of 1928. Pops's vocabulary continues to grow, but the Johnny Dodds era was over, and he was replaced by Jimmy Strong, whose playing didn't live up to Dodds's. Strong's sound was flabby in comparison, and his playing was flat. His sloppiness on "Fireworks" highlighted the difficulties he had as a clarinetist. Even when outlining arpeggios competently (as on "A Monday Date"), he was uniformly bad sounding and flat in pitch. Oftentimes young players will hear recordings like these, because they happen to be classics of the genre thanks to the brilliance of Armstrong and Earl Hines, and wrongly think that this sort of clarinet playing was considered great in its day as well--that this was the way a jazz clarinetist was supposed to sound. One of the reasons I'm writing this post, though, is to point out, gently,  that it just isn't true. This is just bad clarinet playing, no matter how you cut it. Johnny Dodds (especially on other recordings where he was recorded better), Sidney Bechet,  Jimmie Noone, Leon Roppolo, and others from the era were the standard bearers, and players like Strong ought to be understood as really poor quality in comparison.

Don Redman took over the clarinet duties (as well as alto sax) for a session under the name of Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five, in Chicago on December 5, 1928. His clarinet work is confined to a few long tones underlining the melody in "Save It, Pretty Mama" and some clarion figurations on the final statement of the theme, opting to solo on the alto otherwise.

Redman and Strong combine forces for another weak overall clarinet performance on the December 12th date. Armstrong seemed unwilling to give either of them extended clarinet solos by this point, so only their ensemble playing is left. Even on "St James Infirmary", a good tune for clarinetists, the clarinet is left mostly to pre-arranged parts, with only the occasional strained and out of tune altissimo yelp. The post-Dodds era was, overall, really disappointing for clarinetist
The Fourth disc of this set is a bit beyond the bounds of what was advertised. None of the groups go by the name of Hot Fives or Sevens, and most of the tracks are from the era of Louis Armstrong leading an orchestra of larger size, with a saxophone section patterned after Guy Lombardo's, so there is little specifically for the jazz clarinetist. An era had ended, and the Hot Fives and Sevens were now a part of music history. Johnny Dodds's contribution has remained a lasting legacy and influence because of them, but players who have come to him through these recordings should look for his other recordings with King Oliver, and leading his own band, where they will find even more dimensions to his art.

The Halfway House Orchestra * 1925-1928 * Jazz Oracle * BDW 8001

Band leader Albert Brunies's mellow and coolly swinging cornet sets the tone for these recordings, which feature the working band of the Halfway House, a stop on the road between New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain in the 1920s. Like so many others of the era, the Halfway House Orchestra was a dance band filled with jazz players. From the opening of "Pussy Cat Rag" (co-written by Brunies, Cordella, and Marcour) the band is balanced and sonorous. The banjo playing of Bill Eastwood (also a co-composer of "Barataria") and Angelo Palmisano is well recorded for the era--they come across as the light, driving center of the rhythm section on most of the tracks, with the bass, piano and drums also comfortably clear and audible. Balance seems a hallmark of the whole band, both musically and soundwise on these twenty two tunes recorded by Okeh and  Columbia in New Orleans, remastered by John R.T. Davies in the 1990s.

For clarinetists, this disc is important as a document of the last recordings of Leon Roppolo, legendary clarinetist of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, just before he was committed to the Louisiana State Asylum at the age of 23, and Sidney Arodin, whose playing rounds out the album. Roppolo's contributions to the recording catalog of the Halfway House were not to be as extensive or important as those he made with the NORK, as he was only present for the first two on this disc, both dating from the Okeh session on January 22, 1925, but because it's Rapp playing, they're important nonetheless. He and Charlie Cordella shared the reed duties in the band at this point, though after Rapp's departure, Cordella is the only reed player (covering clarinet, alto, and tenor sax) for the next couple of years.

During Cordella's tenure, the band had several significant sessions for Columbia. On September 25, 1925, they produced crisp, impressive versions of "Squeeze Me", "Maple Leaf Rag", "Let Me Call You Sweetheart", and an interesting number by the Bill Whitmore, the band's pianist, called "New Orleans Shuffle." Likewise, April 13, 1926 showed the band in good form, recording "Snookum", "Since You're Gone", "It Belongs to You", and "I'm in Love", all of which were released commercially.    

A year later, on April 15, 1927, the band had a less successful day, recording "Won't you be my loving baby" and "I don't want to remember" both featuring clarinet solos by Charlie Cordella. Neither was released by Columbia at the time, and the clarinet might have been the reason. Thanks to their being released on this disc, we can hear Cordella struggle with his tonguing and intonation--the contrast in quality between his playing and Brunies cornet was likely too pronounced.

The October 24, 1927 session shows Cordella in better form, swinging through solid solos on "When I'm Blue" and "I Want Somebody to Love" (both written by the band's pianist, "Red" Long). Unlike the rejected tunes, there isn't the same drop in quality of playing when the solo is handed over to Brunies.

By 1928, Sidney Arodin (most famous to jazz history as the composer of "Lazy River") takes over the clarinet chair, and his solos over the last eight cuts show how good a move that was for the band. Arodin's playing is strong, confident, and possessed of a sound rare in those days for its solid, mature quality. In fact, his playing sounds shockingly like Artie Shaw's of a decade later on tunes such as "Just Pretending" (recorded on December 17, 1928).

While the whole disc is a pleasure to listen to, clarinetists will particularly want to hear Arodin. While some of the tunes he played were never released by Columbia, such as "I Hate Myself for Lovin' You" and "Let Your Lips Touch My Lips", it wasn't the clarinet soloing that held them back, and tunes like "Tell Me Who" and "Wylie Avenue Blues" give us a glimpse into the playing of a clarinetist who should be more widely known and appreciated.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band * The Complete 1923 Recordings * Off the Record * OTR-MM6-C2 (2006)

On April 5, 1923, jazz history was made in Richmond, Indiana, when Joe "King" Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band laid down the first five of thirty seven recordings they were to ultimately cut that year in various studios. These first were for Gennett, but the band would also record in Okeh's, Columbia's, and Marsh Laboratories's Chicago studios. All of the recordings are important for their historical value, and a good number of the tunes became permanent in the jazz repertoire, among them "Canal Street Blues", "Weather Bird Rag", "Snake Rag", "Sobbin' Blues", and "Dippermouth Blues (Sugarfoot Stomp)".

King Oliver's band is best known for introducing Louis Armstrong to the world outside of New Orleans. Satchmo was known to have said he wouldn't have left his successful playing career in the Crescent City for any other outfit than Joe's. The way the two cornet players worked together is the stuff of legend now, with their special means of communicating which harmonized riffs to dazzle the audience with during solo breaks, their rapport, and the overall brilliance of performance that helped form Armstrong into one of the most potent and important figures in the history of music. The rest of the band was notable as well, though, comprised of some of the most significant early jazz musicians on record, including Lil Hardin on piano, Baby Dodds on drums, Honore Dutrey on trombone, Johnny St. Cyr on banjo, and most importantly for readers of The Jazz Clarinet, Johnny Dodds, Jimmie Noone, and Buster Bailey on clarinet.

Approaching these recordings without preconceptions, especially the historical weight of who Louis Armstrong was to become, the cornetist's perspective seems a bit exaggerated, actually. The soloing star of the show, to my ear (admittedly biased) is Johnny Dodds. Because the twin cornets of Oliver and Armstrong are muted, and because the clarinet seems to have been balanced or focused on properly in relation to the microphone (which was not always the case in Dodds's career), these remain some of the finest examples of Dodds's playing, and New Orleans style clarinet, on record.

His tone is full and rich, and when he reaches for that special piercing quality he had, it never loses strength and body. His solo breaks are confident and directed; his accompanying arpeggios so strong that one could be forgiven for thinking these tunes were movements of a concerto written for him. Taken as a whole they show the strength and depth of Dodds's playing at this point in his career. The contrast between his richness of tone and the lighter playing style of Leon Roppolo of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings or Jimmie Noone (on "Chattanooga Stomp", the one tune credited to him with King Oliver's band) is striking, and serves to really show us why Benny Goodman would have singled him out as having one of the best tones of the clarinetists in Chicago of the 1920s. The October 16, 1923 session at Columbia Studios in Chicago are the only multiple recordings by another clarinetist with the Creole Jazz Band,  this time Buster Bailey.  Bailey is impressively similar to Dodds in approach, with a substantial, rich sound, but the overall mastery of style and comfort with the ensembles isn't quite at Dodds's level.

In the years that followed, Dodds was to gain perhaps even greater fame as a member of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Sevens. On those records he impresses as being a soloist who could follow or precede Armstrong without musical quality being lost. But on these earlier recordings with King Oliver, it is Dodds who strikes me as the great soloist in the band.  We can hear why Lil Hardin, once she became Lil Armstrong, would hire Johnny Dodds for her husband's most important recording dates as a bandleader.  

This particular reissue from Off the Record in 2006 was an attempt to transfer, without noise reduction from original discs. They took great pride in their work, and the booklet has extensive technical information about the exact speed of transfer, styluses used, and grade of original source record. All of that will be of interest to audiophiles and recording engineers who have an interest in future transfer work. In the notes, it's clear that they hoped to get as clean and original a sound as they could, without adding reverb or cutting out too much sound. The results are quite good.

Five good reeds, of course.    

The Hot Club returns to BLU Jazz +

We're thrilled to be returning to a tradition we helped start last year: the 2nd Annual Bash at BLU Jazz+ hosted by Eric Seddon's Hot Club! This year, we're paying special tribute to the great Pete Fountain, "Mr. Mardi Gras" himself. Other than my originals, all the tunes will be those recorded by the late New Orleans jazz clarinet master--making BLU once again the hottest spot north of NOLA on Mardi Gras!
The band will include:
Eric Seddon on clarinet
George Foley on piano
Jim Davis on Cornet
Kevin Richards on guitar
Gene Epstein on upright bass
Bill Fuller on drums

Buy your tickets while there are still some available! 


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Stan Hasselgard on JazzWax

There is an interesting and informative article over on Marc Myers' "JazzWax" blog about the short life, tragic death, and odd times of Swedish jazz clarinetist and shooting star Stan Hasselgard. Myers asks how great Stan was, and how great he might have been. My opinion has always been that Hasselgard would have been the premier bop clarinetist going forward, because he sound was so much better than his contemporaries--he retained the full, relaxed sound of the great swing era players without falling into the pinched, overly refined and locked in classical thing...and the public has shown over and over again that they prefer that big relaxed sound (a la Pete Fountain, Artie Shaw, et al).
Myers brings up the point that Hasselgard couldn't read music and was self taught...but I don't think these hurdles are as large as critics sometimes think. It didn't hold Django back, and there are many stories of jazz musicians learning theory/how to read later in the game (Gene Krupa, Art Pepper, and others). I think Stan would have caught up...he was a fine player with an obviously incredible ear. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Nick Fatool (January 2, 1915-September 26, 2000)

The history of jazz clarinet is in many ways linked to the history of jazz drumming. When we think of Benny Goodman, we almost automatically think of Gene Krupa, Artie Shaw is linked with Buddy Rich, and Jack Sperling comes to mind on so many of Pete Fountain's classic albums. Beyond that, the interaction between Buddy DeFranco and Art Blakey on 'Mr. Clarinet', and Bill Smith with the likes of Shelly Manne and Joe Morello are enjoyable and instructive to anyone who is a fan of great ensemble playing. Really, because of the dynamic range of a drumset, the choice of drummer is essential for a clarinetist, and I was even warned as a young player to choose wisely once I became a band leader.

The drummer in my current band, Bill Fuller, is of a drumming lineage that stretches back through his father to the days of early jazz in Cleveland. His dad even gigged in University Circle with a teenage Artie Shaw when that clarinet master was learning his trade here. The first gig I played with Bill, a few years back, he mentioned to me on a set break that, while he'd idolized Joe Morello as a teenager, he'd soon grown to consider Nick Fatool an ideal jazz drummer. "The other players in the band play for the audience, but the drummer should play for the band: he should be the ultimate facilitator," was how Bill summed it up that night, and he felt Nick Fatool was the best example of that approach.

While Fatool is less well known to the general population than Krupa or Rich, it's significant that some of the very best and most important jazz clarinet recordings were made with him backing the band. Artie Shaw's first classic Gramercy 5 recordings were made with Fatool on the skins, and to see him in action, you can check out the classic film Second Chorus. Later in his career, he backed up Pete Fountain on several classic albums, so his contribution to the history of jazz clarinet recordings actually spanned a couple of different generations.

I also encourage folks to check out "Special Delivery Stomp" to hear this understated drum master's brush work.

Happy 102nd birthday, Nick Fatool!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Johnny Dodds * Indigo Stomp *1929

Johnny Dodds is a foundational figure by any estimation, not only in the history of the clarinet, but for jazz in general. His recordings with King Oliver's Creole Orchestra and the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Sevens cemented his place as one of the rare soloists strong enough to play alongside Armstrong without giving up musical ground during his choruses. Most often remembered as part of the early New Orleans clarinet triumvirate along with Sidney Bechet and Jimmie Noone, his unique contribution can sometimes seem obscured by those two giants. Bechet had a explosive soloing creativity and overpowering musical personality: in many ways forming a sort of "primary epic" for the jazz clarinet. By contrast, Jimmie Noone was the first great virtuoso, with a perfectly balanced sound, articulation, and facility: universally admired by clarinetists and so intimidating he was rarely copied, except by the likes of Goodman, whose technique could bear comparison. Dodds is generally considered the gritty, bluesy member of the triumvirate, and while he has his devoted followers, he also had his detractors (among them Barney Bigard, who was sometimes acerbic in his criticism).

Yet Dodds is certainly worthy of his equal place in the triumvirate, for the unique contribution he brought: his range of timbre, power, and blues figurations arranged with precise rhythmic structure and meaning. Benny Goodman called him the clarinetist with the greatest sound in the Chicago of his youth, which is saying a lot, considering Jimmie Noone, Leon Roppolo, Omer Simeon, and many others were active on that scene. We can only imagine what he sounded like in person, especially as he was known to distrust microphones and try to stay away from them in recording studios. Still, the documents he left us over the course of his relatively brief career (like Noone and Irving Fazola, he died in his 40s), shows an unprecedented range of timbre. One moment is he full, rich, smooth in tone, the next he sounds as though the intensity of his core sound will rip the clarinet in half. He commanded the extremes and all points in between. And that's not the sum total of his contribution: his technique was far more polished and fluid than most noticed (and by 'most', I include Artie Shaw, Buddy DeFranco and, somewhat embarrassingly, myself as a young man). His soloing style was baroque, but not mere noodling, and his rhythmic understanding was as influential and subtle as any in jazz history. To listen carefully to Johnny Dodds, and to truly understand what he's doing, is in some ways such a thorough education in the facets of jazz that one will be prepared for almost any future development (up through Monk and Miles). To my more mature ears, it seems that with Dodds, it's all there in embryonic form.

Like Bechet he was a prolific composer of his own tunes, which are idiomatic for our instrument and worthy of study. One great example is Indigo Stomp from 1929...at a time when he was also pioneering the clarinet lead trio. Enjoy.