After all this time, Syncopated Times readers ought to be familiar with Tuba Skinny; the band has been the subject of many articles and reviews in this publication. Founded as a street band in 2008 in New Orleans, Tuba Skinny has released thirteen albums under its name plus one accompanying singer Maria Muldaur in the ensuing years. Most are currently available on CD and all on downloads. On each album one can hear the band getting better and better. Hot Town is no exception.
Tuba Skinny is very popular on YouTube, having received hundreds of thousands of hits on many New Orleans and concert performances. When not playing in New Orleans the band goes on the road, playing concerts to large, enthusiastic crowds of various ages. This writer witnessed one recently in Dayton, Ohio. As a band specializing in classic jazz and blues of the 1920s, Tuba Skinny is the most popular band of this type in the US today. Listen to Hot Town and you’ll understand why.
The sound of the band is unique, unlike any typical Dixieland, Watters/Murphy stomp, or any other trad concept group. The repertory leans towards the very obscure, avoiding overplayed standards. In fact, on this CD the only familiar selection is Jelly Roll Morton’s “Kansas City Stomps,” and that one might only be known to dyed-in-the-wool tradsters.
The heart of Tuba Skinny’s strong rhythm section is Erika Lewis, literally sitting on the beat playing bass drum with a prominent two-beat. Robin Rapuzzi’s washboard scratching and thumping is truly musical, lending substance to the proceedings with good, percussive solos without silly clattering.
Max Bien-Kahn and Greg Sherman lend excellent banjo/resonator guitar and acoustic rhythm guitar respectively, playing within the ensembles and not on top of them. Bien-Kahn is also an excellent soloist. The two more than make up for the lack of a piano which in reflecting the band’s heritage as a street band would be unfeasible.
Finally, for the rhythm section there’s Todd Burdick’s powerful, unsophisticated tuba. With uncomplicated bass lines, sometimes blasting and a few simple solos, he makes it work well in the context of this band.
Aside from a few virtuosic flurries from clarinetist Chris Flory, cornetist Shaye Cohn, and trombonist Barnabus Jones keep it pretty basic. While Jones limits himself to shouting, declarative figures while soloing, Cohn never allows melodic leads or solos to become too notey or screechy high. Although extemporaneous ensembles do occur on nearly every tune, there’s also a lot of subtle arranging, probably by Cohn, especially on the classic jazz tunes. The performances here are joyous but don’t overwhelm the listening audience with too much complication, plus solos are kept short and varied in order to keep interest.
A pleasing ingredient to hold jazz-indifferent audiences are vocals, and Tuba Skinny here has plenty of them by Erika Lewis and Greg Sherman, singularly and together, often together in harmony. Eight in total, all are done in an engaging country blues style. If writer this might insert a bit of personal thought concerning vocals, it’s been his opinion that had Louis Armstrong NOT been a gifted singer and showman, he would have joined the other great jazz trumpeters of the 1920s and 30s whose careers basically ended then. People who are not interested in jazz want to be entertained, and vocals do that. In addition to good instrumentals, Tuba Skinny gives the people what they want.
Of the four classic jazz pieces included here, it’s unsurprising that the CD’s title tune, “Hot Town,” originally done in 1929 by Fess Williams’ Royal Flush Orchestra, is the hottest, most exciting thing on the disc. The other classic jazz pieces heard here are “Jones Law Blues” from Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra and “Springfield Stomp” from Cecil Scott’s Bright Boys, in addition to the earlier mentioned “Kanas City Stomps.” The rest of the selections come from fairly obscure blues sources of various tempos (including a surprising blues waltz). Perhaps the best known of these is Will Shade’s “Sunbrimmer’s Blues” sung nicely by Greg Sherman, who has been barely heard as a vocalist on previous Tuba Skinny presentations.
Another thing that has helped to keep Tuba Skinny popular to a broad demographic audience is that although it’s been in existence for fifteen years, the band members look young and dress with the unkempt appearance of youth. Also, their music is danceable.