John Hasbrouck: Don’t Walk Away from the Stove

In an era when many review copies come as downloads, or even streaming links, I was overjoyed to receive an exceptionally packaged LP with equally exceptional music inside. I was prompted to contact the author of this work of art, Chicago musician John Hasbrouck. I’ll refrain from turning over the balance of this column to his enthusiastic response but I do want to share his words with you:

Don’t Walk Away From The Stove is a snapshot of the traditional jazz
scene that developed a few years ago at Honky Tonk BBQ, a popular
venue in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. I’d had a residency playing
string ragtime there with my duo, The Northside Southpaws, for several
years when The Fat Babies Jazz Band began their Sunday night
residency. I was there one night with some string players and we
decided to swipe The Fat Babies’ book and start a string jazz quartet
of our own. It turned into a weekly rehearsal band. We told the
Babies, “We’re stealing your book”. They loved it.

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“Local music scenes come and go. People move into the neighborhood.
Others move away. There’s a constant flux. You know what happened:
after a few years, everybody was working with everybody. Spontaneous
duos, trios, quartets formed. Set lists overlapped.”

To capture the scene in Pilsen, Hasbrouck called on 22 musicians to record a unique album of instrumental string band jazz. I asked him how he decided on instrumentation:

“I wanted to have variety in the instrumentation, so there’s a duo, a
couple trios, on up to a quintet. Also, I wanted lots of resonator
instruments. This is because I have dreamed for years of having The
Chicago Reso-Phonic Orchestra, an 8- or 9-piece ensemble in which
everyone is playing a resonator instrument.

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“A few of the tracks on the LP are credited to The Chicago Reso-Phonic
Orchestra. I make no secret that there are a few overdubs on these
orchestral tracks. That happens when I want resonator mandolin, resonator
octave mandolin, and resonator tenor guitar all on the same track. On the
other hand, there’s a duo track featuring me on a traditional mandolin
and an upright bass player.”

The song selections are largely traditional jazz stalwarts like “Limehouse Blues” and “Angry” so I asked how they were chosen, and a secret was revealed:

“The book we stole from The Fat Babies is called the Firehouse Fake
Book. My rehearsal group read from this book in my basement every
Monday night for about 18 months before our first gig. During that
time, for my own edification, I created mandolin chord melodies of the
Firehouse tunes I liked, and I would then bring these to rehearsal.

“But not all of the tunes are from the Firehouse Fake Book. 4 or 5
of the 15 tunes were transcribed from old 78 rpm records. One tune,
“Chicago Tangle”, is original, composed by Eric Noden.”

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Hasbrouck’s background is playing in ragtime string groups and pre-bluegrass old-timey bands.  When the Fat Babies took over Sunday nights at Honkey Tonk BBQ with their straight early jazz sound the crowd response was so ravenous that he decided to see if they would also respond to jazz from a string band. On a local radio show he straightforwardly says that he was going for “a string band version of the Fat Babies.” The comparison is apt.

This isn’t the formal pre jazz sound of a ragtime string orchestra, it isn’t gypsy jazz or cafe jazz, nor is it the hokum heat of a jug band on a New Orleans street corner.  The talented musicians create a direct transposition of hot mid-20s Chicago jazz for strings. It’s refreshing, palate cleansing, and joyful. Much of the album has a soft feel resulting from the instrumentation but the rhythmic drive can match any band with horns. All comers will want to claim this foot-tapping cross style sound for their genre but it is certainly jazz and nothing but American.

Other tracks include “Sweet Lorraine”, “Baltimore”, “Mean to Me”, “Chinese Breakdown”, “Sugar”, and “Harrisburg Itch”, a country string band tune that in its 1927 original form shows how small the leap to jazz is.

Most of the musicians credited are unfamiliar to me, and there are too many to list. Those in the Chicago area will surely know more of them. Their other bands include The Fat Babies, The Hat Stretchers, and The Pre-Modern Sounds, and one guesses many others. They don’t all come from a jazz background but they are all skilled and I’m happy they were drawn to this project.

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I assumed from all this largess that the album was a big professional production. In reality, half of it was recorded in John’s living room and the other in his friend Alex Hall’s studio. It’s a testament to how accessible modern technology has made the recording process.

John Hasbrouck Don't Walk Away From The StoveLest the reader simply seeks out a download I need to describe the artwork containing the art. The LP comes between sturdy boards, with an attractive cover design, and on the reverse, a chart for determining the players on each track, the instruments used, and the bands those players are associated with. Inside you’ll find a foldout transcription sheet for “Cold Morning Shout”. Hasbrouck spent five years working it out for mandolin and banjo, something he calls an “intense learning experience.” On the album, it is one of the highlights. A harmonica, guitar, mandolin-banjo trio number that goes beyond creating a feeling to tell a story without words and, being the second track, tunes you up to receive the rest of the album.

The inner sleeve is sturdy with a photograph of a fire alarm on one side and something on the other that illustrates how this album was both a community effort and a personal success for John Hasbrouck; a 1981 letter dismissing him from his college music major. The packaging also contains a pretty little card with instructions so you can get your download.


As an online bonus, I’m including the remainder of John’s words not quoted above with more information about individual tracks on the album.

The session for “Angry” featured two Fat Babies: Andy Schumm on tenor
banjo, and Jake Sanders on resonator guitar. When the session began, I
remember hearing Andy say to Jake, “We should figure out an intro.”
Jake said, “OK,” and they got down to business. This is where I was
smart enough to keep my mouth shut and simply observe as the creative
sparks flew between these guys. This is why I invited them. They
immediately cooked up a perfect intro for the song – for the whole LP,
in fact, since “Angry” is the opening track. I recorded the quartet
live with a stereo microphone in my living room. (Mixing with a stereo
mic is very much trial and error. Lots of “…move a little bit to
your left, please.”) A few days later, I decided Jake’s solo was a
little bit low in the mix. But I had an idea. I asked Jake if he would
mind if I learned his improvised solo note-for-note, and then double
his solo on the record. He was delighted with the idea. I ended up
using an octave resonator mandolin for the job. It’s the first solo on
the LP. Andy takes the second solo on tenor banjo, and he nails it.

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I’ve known Joel Paterson since he was 15 when we were both busking in
Madison, Wisconsin. There was never any question that he’d be on the
record. One day I was reading through a TuneDex card of “I Surrender
Dear” and I decided that that’s the one for Joel and I to record. I
immediately recorded a brief chord melody of the tune with my mandolin
– verse/chorus – using my iPhone and sent it in a text message to
Joel. He wrote back, saying, “I like it. I like the chords.” And that
was that. Now, Joel is Joel, which means he has no interest in
rehearsing or multiple takes. I think we did one run-through to get
the form. Joel said, “Don’t play that A minor chord. It’s corny.” So
we did our one take, and there’s a MISTAKE in it. I said, “Shall we do
it again?” And Joel said, “No no no.. Let’s just punch it in,” because
fixing a mistake is far preferable to doing a second take. And so
that’s what we did. One does not argue with Joel Paterson about such
things. Fifteen minutes later we were done. Joel is also credited with
Flash Photography on the LP.

A prominent recording engineer once told me, “John, you don’t get a
gold star for having no edits.”

“Chicago Tangle” was written by my friend Eric Noden. One day Eric and
I were hanging out and I asked him if he’d like to be on my new album.
He said he would. Eric is a prolific composer, so I asked him if he
had any new material handy. He said, no, it’s easier to just write
something new. He asked me what I had in mind. Without thinking too
much, I told him I wanted a piece that sounded like an old Jelly Roll
Morton solo piano number in a minor key with multiple sections. We
talked about the “Spanish tinge” that Jelly Roll said was so essential
to jazz. Eric later called me and asked what key I would prefer. (D
minor.) A week or so later he was done. He came over and taught me the
tune by ear. (At no point was the tune written down.) We also recorded
a demo and decided we’d ask Beau Sample to play upright bass. Eric and
I had one more rehearsal where I finished memorizing the tune and we
made another demo which we sent to Beau. Eric and Beau came over the
following Sunday afternoon (with plenty of time before The Fat Babies
show up the street) and we set up the stereo mic. Two hours later we
were done.

Most of the sessions lasted 2 or 2.5 hours, including rehearsal and tracking.

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