Not to imply the competition was fierce or anything, but I just included this album as one of my three picks for Historical Record of the Year in a jazz critic’s poll. It’s odd to think of 2002 in historical terms but here we are, and, considering several of the key people involved with Celebrating Bix! are no longer with us, it is a chance to hear a lineup of top-tier jazz musicians that is no longer possible. It is a stellar lineup and was even uniquely good at the time it was recorded.
Co-producers Dan Levinson, Doug LaPasta, and David White helped get this group together to record in 2002 and the album was released by Arbors Records the month of Bix’s centennial in 2003. It became Dan Levinson’s best selling album in the years to follow until all original copies were gone. In cooperation with Turtle Bay Records, he has brought it back to market in an expanded double CD/LP format with three previously unreleased tracks and new album notes.
As Dan Levinson makes crystal clear in his new notes, and in the reprinted original notes for that matter, this was not intended as a recreation of Bix’s readily available classic recordings. Nor was there any attempt to employ period equipment to recreate a sound. Instead, this album is a showcase of musicians still drawing inspiration from Beiderbecke 71 years after his death. Some of those musicians are solidly in the world of traditional jazz while others play a more mainstream style. The music does manage to sound very classic despite the instruction to musicians to be themselves. If there had been a Carnegie Hall tribute concert for Bix around 1935 it might have sounded something like this.
Part of that sound can be attributed to the excellent arrangements by Peter Ecklund and Dan Levinson. Ecklund scores the original solos for three cornets, and sometimes where more than one take of an original is available, elements of each unique solo are included. Levinson does the same, notably on the previously unreleased “Trumbology,” featuring his arrangement for three C-melody saxes.
Levinson’s new notes describe the origin of the sessions in more detail than you would gather from the original album. The protagonists had been organizing annual concerts that included Bix material, and some earlier versions of these arrangements, for about eight years. Many of the other musicians featured on the eventual album had appeared at various of these events. Levinson also uses his new notes to describe the three extra tracks and why they were not included originally. The answer is mostly due to space constraints, but that doesn’t mean these were the weakest titles, the chance to include “Clementine (From New Orleans)” as a solo piano performance by Dick Hyman, at over five minutes, demanded a considered reshuffle on the original single CD release.
Chip Deffaa’s original 2002 notes focused on the life and music of Bix are included. It’s a wonderful if sometimes familiar collection of the hyperbolic praise heaped on Bix by his contemporaries and noted jazz figures of the decades following his death. A bit romantic, and possibly including some contested claims, it isn’t a complete biography, but it answers the “why Bix?” question for anyone who might have bought the record because of the wonderful contemporary musicians on it rather than its subject.
Those musicians include cornetists Jon-Erik Kellso, Randy Reinhart, and Randy Sandke; reedmen Scott Robinson, Dan Levinson, Jack Stuckey, and Peter Martinez; trombonist Dan Barrett; bassists Vince Giordano (also bass sax) and Greg Cohen; pianists Dick Hyman (solo) and Mark Shane; guitarists Howard Alden and Matt Munisteri; and drummer Joe Ascione. Female vocals are by Barbara Rosene, and male vocals by James Langton, and there are also vocals by Marc Kessler, Brian Nalepka, and Hal Shane who appear as The Manhattan Rhythm Kings.
This is the sort of project that everyone wants to dip a toe in as can be seen by busy instrumentalists like bass player Brian Nalepka joining the set as vocalists. Langton, though hardly a stranger to voice work (to put it mildly), does also play reeds, but not here. There are not many vocals overall, they are interspersed to liven up the album periodically, Barbara Rosene’s are particularly impressive. This is a dream team of NYC musicians in 2002 and it would remain so today. Levinson protege Peter Martinez turned 24 years old during the session.
The 22 titles include: “At the Jazz Band Ball,” “Proud (Of a Baby Like You),” “Deep Harlem,” “Riverboat Shuffle,” “Davenport Blues,” “The Jazz Me Blues,” “Blue River,” “I Need Some Pettin’,” “I’m Coming Virginia,” “Lonely Melody,” “Clementine (from New Orleans),” “Trumbology,” “From Monday On,” “Singin’ the Blues (Till My Daddy Comes Home),” “There’ll Come a Time (Wait and See),” “China Boy,” “Just an Hour of Love,” “Borneo,” “Clarinet Marmalade,” “’Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” “San,” and “Deep Down South.”
Randy Sandke provides the perfect amount of information about each track (aside from the unissued ones, which Levinson covers elsewhere). In a few sentences, he describes both where the title fits in the Bix legacy and something to listen for in the new arrangement. Sandke’s notes are excellent for reading along as you enjoy the album. Personnel and the order of soloists are also provided in a clear format for quick reference.
“Blue River” is a highlight for me, nearly jumping off the record and into your soul, considered a missed opportunity to center Bix, that error is corrected for in this arrangement with a scored section for three C-melody saxes and later a series of solos. While a few Bix purists two decades ago couldn’t understand the album’s mission, the care and detail that went into this music will prove a rich and as importantly an enjoyable listening experience for most.
I’ve been enjoying the Turtle Bay reissue of The Bix Centennial All-Stars: Celebrating Bix! since last summer; the CDs have had dozens of spins in that time, but I only recently received the amazing double LP edition. The liner notes at first seem thinner than the booklet joining the CD, being spread to full 12-inch record size, but the overall presentation is better as a reference in this format. Assuming you will only read the story behind the album once but may look up details on a track at some later date, the personnel of each track is on the inside of the gatefold rather than the tail end of the booklet, which tucks neatly into the record sleeve. They also manage to sneak in several extra photos. The double LP format feels as substantial as the music on it.
I remain an advocate of getting a physical copy of an album, though I understand, and am guilty of primarily listening to albums digitally once acquired. An LP set, especially one as immaculately presented as this one, is the best of both worlds. You can listen to the download or stream it in your car, but also have the option of turning the listening experience into a ritual for yourself or a presentation for others by physically playing the records. The music here is truly timeless, and this all-star set was well worth bringing back to circulation for a new generation to enjoy.
The Bix Centennial All Stars • Celebrating Bix (Double LP)
Turtle Bay Records