Ma Rainey (1886-1939) has been accurately called the “Mother Of The Blues.” Born before almost all of the other classic blues singers of the 1920s (Mamie Smith preceded in 1881) and with a birthdate that might actually have been 1882, Rainey reportedly was singing the blues as early as 1902. Born as Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett, she was married to Will Rainey in 1904. They were known for a time as Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. Pa Rainey was long gone by the time Ma Rainey made her first recording in 1923. She was documented singing 94 songs during 1923-28, plus 28 alternate takes.
All of her recordings other than 11 alternates are available on the five-CD set Mother Of The Blues put out by the British JSP label. Rainey recorded exclusively for Paramount, a label infamous for its lousy recording quality and distracting surface noise. Until the release of the JSP box, it was difficult to appreciate Rainey’s recordings which sounded quite distant and noisy. But thanks to modern technology, these remastered versions are not only listenable but quite good for the era. The recording quality is finally not an issue at all. One is led to exclaim, “So that is what she sounded like!”
Ma Rainey was a powerful singer who stuck to blues and near-blues throughout her career with just a few exceptions. While not as versatile as Bessie Smith, there is a good amount of variety on these performances, both in Rainey’s interpretations of the material and her accompanying bands. Heard along the way are such notables as Lovie Austin’s Blues Serenaders (with excellent playing from cornetist Tommy Ladnier and clarinetist Jimmy O’Bryant), three groups drawn from the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra (with Louis Armstrong appearing on the session that result in Rainey’s greatest hit “See See Rider” and Coleman Hawkins featured on baritone), trombonist Albert Wynn, Doc Cheatham (on soprano sax rather than trumpet), pianists Jimmy Blythe and Georgia Tom Dorsey, guitarists Blind Blake and Tampa Red, trombonist Kid Ory, and banjoist Papa Charlie Jackson who also sings during the final two songs that Ma Rainey recorded.
Family problems resulted in Rainey largely retiring after 1928 and missing being part of the hokum fad with Georgia Tom Dorsey and Tampa Red. More than 70 years after her death, thanks to JSP, her recordings can finally be fully enjoyed and appreciated by today’s listeners. This single box, clocking in at over 5 1/2 hours, has just about everything Ma Rainey left us and is highly recommended.
Mother Of The Blues (JSP 7793, 111 selections, TT = 5:31:29) www.jsprecords.com
Will Perkins, 23 at the time of recording Snowy Morning Blues, is a talented ragtime and stride pianist from California. He has a relaxed style and, while not that much of an improviser, his melodic interpretations of standards mix in well with his repertoire of classic and contemporary rags.
Perkins’ wide-ranging set includes such highlights as Scott Joplin’s “Gladiolus Rag” (one of Joplin’s most beautiful if often overlooked compositions), “Golden Wedding” which is reminiscent of Donald Lambert, Joseph Lamb’s delightful if obscure “Excelsior Rag,” a joyful rendition of Fats Waller’s “Keeping Out Of Mischief Now,” and “After You’ve Gone.” Perkins plays flawlessly throughout the rags and is tasteful on the jazz pieces.
With the bonus of extensive liner notes in the 16-page booklet by fellow pianist and friend Vincent Johnson, Snowy Morning Blues is an excellent acquisition for ragtime collectors.
Snowy Morning Blues (Rivermont BSW-2239, 16 selections, TT = 65:35) www.rivermontrecords.com
HAL SMITH’S SWING CENTRAL
Drummer Hal Smith has been one of the most valuable players in a countless number of settings through the years, from 1920s music and New Orleans jazz to San Francisco revival groups and swing. An unselfish accompanist who adds subtle colors to the ensembles, he is the perfect 1936 drummer, inspired by George Wettling and Dave Tough among others of the era.
Hal Smith’s latest group, Swing Central, is a quintet comprised of clarinetist Jonathan Doyle, guitarist Jamey Cummins, pianist Dan Walton and bassist Steve Pikal. Doyle, who sometimes sounds like Pee Wee Russell (particularly on the opening “The Lady’s In Love With You”), also in various spots hints at Jimmie Noone and Joe Marsala. He contributed six originals (most of which are based on common chord changes such as “Bats On A Bridge” which is essentially “I’ve Found A New Baby”), Cummins brought in one song, and the group also plays some standards and a few obscurities (including Bix and Tram’s “For No Reason At All In ‘C’”). Cummins is an excellent swing guitarist, Walton contributes some concise solos, and Pikal joins Smith in unselfishly keeping the momentum flowing in the ensembles and behind the lead voices.
This is a fun swing session that is the latest in a long string of winning releases from Hal Smith.
Windy City Swing (Tuxedo Cat 1401, 17 selections, TT = 62:54) www.halsmithmusic.com
NAT KING COLE
Although it is not obvious while listening to Nat King Cole’s live set from Zurich, Switzerland (performed on Oct. 19, 1950 and only previously available on a bootleg album), he was at the turning point of his career. A brilliant swing pianist who had had success with his piano-guitar-bass trio since the late 1930s, earlier in the year Cole had recorded “Mona Lisa” which was #1 on the pop charts for several weeks; it did not include a note of Cole’s piano. He was about to have a new and very lucrative career as a very popular crooner whose piano playing would become just an occasional treat.
However on this CD from the Swiss Radio Days series, Cole is featured as a pianist who also sings a few numbers rather than the other way around. Joined by guitarist Irving Ashby, bassist Joe Comfort and occasionally Jack Costanzo on bongos, Cole starts the set with three straight instrumentals including “Body And Soul” and features for Ashby and Comfort. While Cole sings such numbers as “Too Marvelous For Words,” a brief but cooking rendition of “Little Girl,” “Sweet Lorraine” and “Route 66,” this is very much a jazz date. Ashby has many concise solos, Costanzo is in the spotlight during “Bop Kick” and “Go Bongo,” and other highlights include “St. Louis Blues,” a relaxed “How High The Moon,” and a medium-tempo “Poor Butterfly.”
While Cole’s group would remain intact for another year, virtually all of their upcoming recordings would find them augmented by an orchestra as Cole began to have hit-after-hit including 1951’s “Unforgettable.” The well-recorded Zurich 1950 is basically the closing chapter in Nat Cole’s decade-long run as a fulltime jazz pianist and it features him in fine form.
Zurich 1950 (TCB 02432, 15 selections, TT = 53:33) www.challengerecords.com
JAZZ CLASSIC OF THE MONTH
In 1929 Jabbo Smith, who turned 21 on Christmas Eve, was arguably the second best trumpeter in jazz behind Louis Armstrong. While one could hold out for the fading Bix Beiderbecke, the up-and-coming Henry “Red” Allen or Bubber Miley, Smith was difficult to top. His solos with his Rhythm Aces (a quintet often featuring clarinetist Omer Simeon and banjoist Ikey Robinson) were filled with excitement and high notes with lots of chances taken. One could imagine the young Roy Eldridge being inspired by Jabbo’s playing. Smith was also an expressive singer and (judging by his playing on two numbers) an excellent trombonist too.
During 1927-28 Jabbo Smith had made a strong impression on his recordings with Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Ten, the Georgia Strutters, Duke Ellington (subbing on a session that resulted in “Black And Tan Fantasy”), and the Louisiana Sugar Babes which found him in a quartet with James P. Johnson and Fats Waller (heard on organ). He was signed to Brunswick in 1929 as their answer to Okeh’s Louis Armstrong but his records failed to sell much.
After 1929, although just 21, Smith was essentially a has-been. Due to his drinking, he became unreliable and missed important opportunities. For reasons that make little sense, he settled in Milwaukee and worked at a used car lot for decades. Other than three songs for Charles Lavere in 1935, six cut with Claude Hopkins in 1937, a forgettable session of his own in 1938, and two erratic rehearsal sessions from 1961-62 that were released many years later, Jabbo Smith did not record again until 1974 when he was 66 and a shadow of his former self. While he was in the show One Mo’ Time and played in France with the Hot Antic Jazz Band as late as 1983, he never approached his former heights.
Despite its title, the Retrieval CD 1929-38 is comprised solely of Jabbo Smith’s 1929 recordings. Included are all 20 (one previously unreleased) of his classic performances with the Rhythm Aces and two numbers with a similar group headed by Ikey Robinson. The highlights include such exciting performances as “Jazz Battle,” “Little Willie Blues,” “Ace Of Rhythms,” “Let’s Get Together,” “Decatur Street Tutti,” “Till Times Get Better” (which has one of Smith’s best vocals), “I Got The Stinger,” and “Band Box Stomp.”
Do yourself a favor and explore Jabbo Smith’s 1929 sides. This is some of the very best jazz recorded in the late 1920s. His crackling trumpet solos are unforgettable.
1929-1938 (Retrieval RTR 79613, 22 selections, TT = 69:06) www.challengerecords.com
In every issue of the Syncopated Times, this monthly column features reviews of CDs by classic jazz, 1920s and ’30s, New Orleans Jazz, Swing and Dixieland artists, covering both vintage greats and some of today’s top musicians. Be sure to send a copy of your CDs to Scott Yanow, P.O. Box 1220, Lake Hughes, CA 93532 if you wish to have your recordings reviewed. If you are a musician and need liner notes, bios or press releases, feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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