New Orleans Rhythm Kings: Complete Recordings (1922-1925)
It is a great time to be alive for early jazz enthusiasts. For decades fans waited for expensive LPs containing rare tracks from the acoustic era to arrive from overseas. However lovingly curated the source material was often subpar, and the technology to clean a recording without deadening the sound just wasn’t there. Recently a few small labels have changed the game, and the new Rivermont Records release of New Orleans Rhythm Kings: Complete Recordings 1922-1925 is exhibit number one.
For this important project, Rivermont teamed up with Off The Record, the production company behind acclaimed reissues of material from the 1923 King Oliver Jazz Band and the Wolverine Orchestra.
With the original masters long destroyed, it took ten years to track down the best existing copy of every take the NORK recorded. Once found the discs were transferred and restored by master engineer Doug Benson. He went through the full restoration process several times and a group of experts decided which results were worthy of making the final cut.
The band has never sounded so good. If you are familiar with the sound quality normally achieved from acoustic transfers you will be amazed at the clarity that is now possible. A portion of the original sides suffered from speed inconsistencies during the recording process. Those issues have now been meticulously corrected.
It is a joy to hear tracks from the repertoire of nearly every traditional jazz band; “Tiger Rag”, “Panama”, “Tin Roof Blues”, “That Da Da Strain”, as they sounded when they were fresh creations, without the interfering crackle of record defects. The crispness brings out details that will surprise even those very familiar with the recordings. The sound is unmuffled, as bright as it was meant to be. Someone finally pulled the sock out of the horn.
Don’t get me wrong, they still sound like recordings from the 20s, not today. There are limits to what can be drawn from an acoustically recorded record, but those limits have been pushed back significantly.
To comprehend the importance of these recordings you need to consider when they were made. The first were recorded in August 1922, the same month Louis Armstrong arrived in Chicago. The last were recorded on location in New Orleans in the spring of 1925. The NORK appeared as the first wave of jazz withdrew. Many bands had become caricatures of themselves, playing for laughs. They hit the scene with a “Hot Jazz” sound David Sager describes as “fully formed”.
The New Orleans Rhythm Kings helped set a new standard and tone for jazz. The success of their fresh sound was an inspiration for other musicians, especially Bix Beiderbecke and the Austin High Gang. NORK recorded during the years that established jazz as music that was here to stay, with something to say, and defined a still recognizable style of the form.
Key to the group were three musicians from New Orleans; clarinetist Leon Roppolo who was perhaps the first great jazz soloist to be recorded, trombonist George Brunies, and trumpet player Paul Mares. In Chicago, they were able to find a like-minded set of Midwestern musicians and become first a popular live act and then a nationally known group in the studio.
During their third trip to record with Gennett in Indiana Jelly Roll Morton joined them at the piano, adding “the best part” to “Milenberg Joys”. It wasn’t the first recording to cross the color line but it is probably the first memorable one.
The original group broke up in 1923, with Ben Pollock going on to form his own Orchestra, bassist Steve Brown joining Jean Goldkette, and George Brunies joining Ted Lewis. In 1925 Roppolo and Mares regrouped in New Orleans and recorded with local musicians in Okeh and Victor’s mobile studios.
A 40-page booklet of liner notes tells the story. First Sue Fischer illustrates the history and importance of the band and then David Sager gives a track by track analysis of the recordings themselves. Complete with many rare photographs it is a remarkable achievement on its own. It has everything the casual reader needs to really listen, and everything the casual listener should read.
Knowing that a comparable restoration of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings will likely never be attempted again the people involved in this project paid meticulous attention to every detail from the sound to the accompanying biography. Even if you have most of this material from earlier releases you owe it to yourself to hear this definitive set.