Tuba Skinny • Hot Town

Hot Town Tuba Skinny CD CoverI’m enough of a hipster to wish I could dislike Tuba Skinny. To wish I could say they were overrated and their fame undeserved. To complain they drew attention away from more deserving acts. But while I can picture that act, steeped in cliches and substandard playing, Tuba Skinny is not it. Over thirteen years of touring out from New Orleans they have left a wake of serious bands taking up traditional jazz, in part to enjoy the demand their popularity has inspired. Even better, few of those bands attempt to mimic Tuba Skinny’s uniquely rootsy style, instead taking direct inspiration from other trad jazz sources, including the older folks in their local areas.

It’s hard to say where traditional jazz would be if not for the band of street musicians who through grit and good timing gained world renown. As it is my review list has stretched to 150 albums, from all over the world, almost entirely made up of bands with a mean age of members south of 50. It is an album bonanza made possible by the low cost in producing and distributing new recordings—and unfortunately met with an absolute cratering in demand to own albums. If I do have one wish it would be that more of the groups we cover could get the album sales that Tuba Skinny enjoys on release day. Many of them release the same way as Tuba Skinny does, through Bandcamp as albums or singles to buy, not available on streaming. Still I was delighted to see the pages of buys on Bandcamp, just in the first few hours after this album was released a year ago (when most of this review was written), meaning they are about due for another.

Hot Jazz Jubile

Hot Town is Tuba Skinny’s 13th studio album (plus a four-track EP of Mardi Gras tunes, a “B-Sides” quarantine release, and an album with Maria Muldaur.) If you are only familiar with their YouTube vids please do yourself a favor and explore these albums. They are serious about putting out excellent performances, it’s what all the practice on the street is about. They space the albums to one a year and make sure the sound is perfect. All are available on Bandcamp; many are also available on LP or CD through Louisiana Music Factory or at shows. Listening through track after track in the order the band intended, without needing to watch, without ads knocking you off your groove, will remind you why albums are still important.

I’ve reviewed eight Tuba Skinny albums, and while I have favorites for personal reasons, they do seem to grow better as a band with each one. Their albums always include a few originals, and many members have contributed them. On Hot Town the originals are “Mickey Strut” by guitarist Max Bien-Kahn, and “Sweet Olive” from Robin Rapuzzi. On the whole their albums tend to lean more into trad jazz than their bluesier live shows, even when obscure country blues are the source material. Hot Town exemplifies that.

Notable on the album are two titles that I recognize as popular from their shows, and therefore YouTube. (I am one of the rare people who has spent far more time with their albums than their YouTube feed.) “Security” is a rockabilly song by Tarheel Slim and Little Ann from 1959. In their hands you would think it was from 1932. It is a perfect vehicle for Erica Lewis, recalling some of her bluesy titles from the first years of the band that sent them viral in the first place. They began including it in live sets no later than spring 2019. Which is one of the rewarding things about their albums for fans: recognition. Unlike most bands where the album follows the tour, the Tuba Skinny tour usually precedes the album.


Another album first is “Jones Law Blues,” a Moten/Basie title from 1929, and it is a highlight. I couldn’t find any performances before 2019 but feel like it has been in their set longer, evolving over the years to the truly memorable arrangement on Hot Town. It is a complex tune even in the original arrangement, and for the way they pass around a jam it suits Tuba Skinny perfectly. They keep solos short and with feeling rather than flourish, but love complexity in an arrangement to keep things interesting for a band that can stretch to eight or nine people in performances.

“Sunbrimmer’s Blues” is the last title I will mention. From the Memphis Jug Band version of 1927, it is what you might call their typical source material. As rugged as Tuba Skinny is perceived they will take very rugged solo blues or jug band material and arrange it in a much cleaner and more approachable jazz style that has cross-generational appeal. The transformations bring out nuances of the source, and send their fans listening deeper to great music they might dismiss at first blush. I like this highly evolved version of “Sunbrimmer” for a more personal reason. It reminds me a bit of the Tuba Skinny album Nigel’s Blues, one of my favorites, and one that had a not-so-slight Caribbean influence popular briefly among the New Orleans tradsters.

OK, one more: Robin kills it on the title track, in both his backing and washboard solo. It’s no wonder he’s popping up with a full drum set everywhere now. Hot Town proves Tuba Skinny is still in its prime and continuing to grow artistically 15 years in.

Hot Town
Tuba Skinny

Joe Bebco is the Associate Editor of The Syncopated Times and Webmaster of SyncopatedTimes.com

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