Why, Again, New Orleans?
An intriguing question in social history is why creative explosions happen when and where they do. What was it about Switzerland during the Great War that made it fertile ground for Dadaism? What was in the water in Austria that made the public ready for The Interpretation of Dreams? What mix of elements collided in New Orleans to give birth to Jazz? Often times the answer seems to lie in the fortunate meetings of a handful of inspired people who create a local Renaissance around a new idea, even if that is the revival of an old one.
Such a Renaissance has been brought again to New Orleans as a collection of 50 or so phenomenal musicians have begun to feed off each other, combining into amorphous groups, and creating some of the best traditional jazz ever made. To catch up with all this glorious sound this will be a two-part column, continuing in July, covering a variety of recent albums from the Crescent City. You will quickly notice how often certain names repeat. These are our new stars. Follow them.
CD or LP: LouisianaMusicFactory.com
No mention of the New Orleans traditional jazz revival would be complete without Tuba Skinny, unofficially led by Shaye Cohn, a horn player of exquisite talent, known not for her flame but for the subtle brilliance of her playing. You will also find her on piano and occasionally fiddle. She is one of several core members who have traveled with the band from the streets of the French Quarter to stages around the world.
Another is Barnabas Jones on trombone: his simple phrasing supports Shaye’s instinct for interpretation to create the unique tone of the band. Todd Burdick plays the tuba that gives the band its name, a sly tribute to New Orleans legend Tuba Fats who died in 2004.
Keeping rhythm are Max Bien-Kahn on Resonator guitar and Robin Rapuzzi on washboard, or sometimes, a drum kit. Primary vocal responsibilities go to Erika Lewis though she missed one of the albums reviewed here. Others, too numerous to list, have joined the band in the streets, and in the studio, adding reeds to the sound or subbing for key members.
Tuba Skinny has released nine albums since forming in 2009. I’ll review the three released since 2016 but digging deeper into the vault is to be encouraged. They’ve become world famous from the hundreds of YouTube videos of them posted by awed fans. Despite this abundance, there is ample reason to explore their albums as well. They represent ensemble playing at its best, flashy solos are a rarity and their cuts, even when performed live, are kept discretely short and powerful. The clarity of the studio allows you to focus in on each musician with the attention they deserve, and really brings out the vocal tracks easily lost in all that windy video.
Blue Chime Stomp, released in February 2016, features two of the bands originals, the title track written by Shaye Cohn (which is a great vehicle to highlight the ensemble playing of the band), and “Broken Hearted Blues” from Erika Lewis which has a roots R & B feel and was previously recorded for their first album in 2009. While on that album there were only six members, Blue Chime Stomp features as many as ten, with multiple reeds. That set up is more reflective of what you might see in one of their busking performances or in a live show. On an album, it gives them more freedom to explore different lineups, and utilize Shaye Cohn on piano and Todd Burdick on bass rather than tuba.
Tuba Skinny has always been comfortable with jazzy early blues numbers that highlight Erika’s vocals, but the feel of those songs on this album has shifted north and a bit later in time. There is an R&B sound to “I’m Running Down My Man” and an inflection of that style in “I’m Blue and Lonesome”, not too pronounced: a slow swinging roadhouse feel. “Almost Afraid to Love” finds Erika, and the band, in shiveringly fine form, with a filled-out treatment for the Georgia White song that really demonstrates what is almost magical about this band.
Most of the tracks are tightly arranged New Orleans-style gems. “Soudan” crams a whole series of moods into four tricky minutes. The arrangement of “Shake It and Break It” finds an enjoyable space between versions by King Oliver and Sidney Bechet and features a nice round of soloing. “Dear Almanzoer,” recorded by Oscar “Papa” Celestin in 1927, is a rarity worthy of rediscovery that should be picked up by other bands.
Tupelo Pine, released in 2017 finds the band smaller and with the notable absence of Erica Lewis. Greg Sherman steps in, giving the band a chance to experiment with male vocals in the studio as they have on occasion in live settings. One of the effects is to give this album a much less bluesy and more instrumental feel—even on those numbers where a vocal line does come in deep in the track. Todd Burdick really tears it up on Shaye’s composition, “Pearl River Stomp”—not something you normally expect from sousaphone. The addition of Craig Flory on bass clarinet makes that one deep number.
“Call of the Freaks,” under its alternate attribution “Garbage Man”, was the title track for a Tuba Skinny record released in 2011 but it is given a more ambitious interpretation here. Ambitious is the word for this album, though room is left for improvisation, the arrangements are well planned, and the vision for each track well executed. “Eagle Riding Papa” is a great Atlanta-style guitar blues played by Georgia Tom and later the Famous Hokum Boys. They don’t simply “jazz it up” they convince you it has always been a jazz standard.
Much of the album is new compositions. “Thoughts” is a lovely strolling melody from Robin Rapuzzi. “Tupelo Pine”, composed by Barnabus Jones, has a European feel, a Gypsy sadness, and steady bass line. Cohn also contributed “Nigel’s Dream” and “Deep Bayou Moan”. This abundance of new material marks another high point for the band.
In March they released Nigel’s Dream with Erika Lewis back on some vocals. Greg Sherman also provides male vocals in addition to his resonator guitar. The title track is done in a brassier style than on Tupelo Pine. That a preference for one or the other could shift with your mood is a testament to Cohn’s ability to write music worth exploring repeatedly.
“Belamina” is a calypso tune given the hot treatment. The inclusion reflects a wave of interest in Caribbean music among traditional jazz musicians in the port city of New Orleans. If there is a theme to this album it is a nautical one. Five of the first seven numbers are band originals. “Unfortunate Rag”, from sax player Tomas Majcherski, has a very early jazz feel reminiscent of “Over The Waves“. “Tangled Blues” is a winding number from Shaye, bringing her own playing to the fore before passing the lead around. “Levee Waltz” is just that, a short joy from Robin Rapuzzi that could easily have been composed in 1908 and recorded to 78rpm by a studio band. That older recording feel exists throughout the album, somewhat unintentionally. These tracks were initially recorded in 2016 but the band was unhappy with the sound. The contrast with the crispness of Tupelo Pine recorded a few months later, is noticeable.
The performances, including all those originals, as well as standards from their live shows like “Jazz Battle”, and “Bouncing Around” make the recording a worthy addition to their discography. That “from a record” tone even adds a little something. “Oh Red” sounds like it could be in the jukebox right next to a Fats Domino number.
Twerk Thomson Plays Unpopular Songs
Tyler “Twerk” Thomson is a spectacular young bass player much in demand around New Orleans. He moved to the city a few years ago to join Marla Dixon’s Shotgun Jazz Band. Like Dixon, he originally hails from Toronto and was apprenticed by The Happy Pals, a well established Dixieland band. He now keeps a busy schedule recording and playing with a number of bands yet still finds time to pursue his other interests.
Like many younger people Thomson has a dual interest in older music and the formats it came in. When he acquired a Presto K8 lathe, and began to record his musician friends to 78 rpm discs, Twerk-O-Phonic Records was born. This album is a collection of good old ones like “Shine”, “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree”, and “Old Fashioned Love”. The groupings consist of Twerk in duo with Marla Dixon, as well as with a trio, a five-piece, and a full band. The playing is solid throughout. Not surprisingly, Thomson’s bass takes a starring role.
With the equipment and recording blanks he has available the results don’t reflect commercial recording methods of any time period. The sound is what you hear from home recordings of the ’40s and ’50s. The pop, hiss, and distortion should be considered an additional instrument on the album. The tone itself is pleasant and fits the medium, as well as the artistic restraints they were putting on themselves, which included playing more forcefully than they were used to. Fair warning: people who don’t understand the experiment will not enjoy this record. It was a learning excercise for the artists involved.
The respect Thomson has among musicians is evident in the crew he was able to assemble for this project. The full band, used on several tracks, consists of John Rodli (gtr), Kris Tokarski (pno), Ben Polcer (tpt), James Evans (c-melody sax, clt), Charlie Halloran (tbn). These are among the most sought-after musicians in the city right now. Several of them also play with Thomson in the phenomenal band, Doro Wat.
On The Levee Jazz Band
Swinging New Orleans Jazz: For Dancing—Or Just Listening
Big Al Records BACD 701
Available at www.LouisianaMusicFactory.com
The On The Levee Jazz Band takes its name from a San Francisco nightclub owned by Kid Ory between 1958 and 1961. The group was organized by its drummer Hal Smith with a specific goal of playing in the sound of the Ory band of the revival period. Smith is an admirer of Ory drummer Minor Hall, and found for this band a team that includes pianist Kris Tokarski, who was interested in the music of Ory; pianist Don Ewell; Clint Baker, enamored with Ory’s trombone playing; and, most fortunately, bassist Joshua Gouzy. Gouzy considers Ory bassist Ed Garland to be his primary influence and his playing really stands out on this album, not showy, but shining through. Perhaps it’s not surprising that a band led by a drummer would be noteworthy for its pulsing rhythmic feel, but there it is. This would be a good album for those keeping time to study from.
Smith filled out the band with busy New Orleans musicians Ben Polcer, trumpet; Joe Goldberg, clarinet; and Alex Belhaj, adding to the rhythm on guitar. The band has already found success playing around New Orleans and in Pensacola where they debuted last fall. More festivals are in the works, so the band is a going affair and not just an album project. That’s a great thing for the scene. While there are some bands with 50 years in, or more, still playing in revival style, none are doing it with the intentionality of this group. That focus gives the music a freshness that will bring a smile to long-time fans. For the younger fans, it’s a chance to stop in and look at what came before, on their way back to unearthing lost gems of the twenties. The younger band members will even carry the influence of this band back with them to their other groups
The album is made up of revival standards, all instrumental, played slow and low with a bobbing swing. The titles are familiar—“At a Georgia Camp Meeting”, “Milenberg Joys”, “Wolverine Blues”—but they are standards because a good band can always find something new in them. The album has a summertime feel, good for a joyful rest on the patio, or well-paced dancing. A sure hit for the Dixieland crowd and, if you’re a musician, worth playing along with at home. My pick: “Down Home Rag”.
I’ll be back next month with an embarrassment of riches.
Or get the Print Edition with Online Access. To get the print edition of The Syncopated Times use this Paypal link. After you pay you will be issued a coupon for free online access.