28 May 2016

Traditional Jazz: The Rhythm Wizards (of New Orleans)

Robin Rapuzzi is very proud of the work done in New Orleans by The Rhythm Wizards, one of the jazz bands in which he plays.

I can tell you this is a really good and interesting band, unusual because of its instrumentation and broad-minded repertoire. It is admirable that so many of the young musicians in New Orleans are introducing us to long-forgotten and unfamiliar tunes, including some with a Caribbean origin. This is so refreshing after all the Bourbon Street Parades and When The Saints and Bill Baileys that we constantly hear elsewhere.

The Rhythm Wizards were formed late in 2014, with Tomas Majcherski as leader. Some of the musicians had earlier played together in an experimental band called The 4.99 Five-Piece (a name based on fried chicken on sale in the market!); and some had played in Steamboat Calypso - the group led by Madeleine Reidy. Robin says they were very inspired by that group. In fact, Maddy was the singer on the first album The Rhythm Wizards produced.

Robin has great respect for the leadership provided by Tomas: he 'has done a ton of research for the group, especially when it comes to picking out the significant poly-rhythms that make Caribbean and jazz music so much fun to play'.

Robin kindly let me know The Rhythm Wizards intended to perform in Royal Street on 7 April 2016, while I was in town. So I made a point of being there.
Who are the members of the band? It's hard to give a definitive answer because the young New Orleans bands all seem to have a pool of players to draw upon. But the 'core' players seem to be:
Tomas Majcherski : Clarinet and Reeds
Robin Rapuzzi : Drums and Washboard
Jon Ramm : Trombone
Max Bien-Kahn : Guitar
Todd Burdick : banjo and tuba
Peter Olynciw : upright bass
Coleman Akin : Violin
Zayd Sifri : auxiliary percussion
Others who have played and recorded with them include:
Max Feldschuh : Vibraphone and Piano
Madeleine Reidy : vocals
You will notice that The Rhythm Wizards usually play without a trumpet and they have up to four musicians on stringed instruments. It is the clarinet that tends to lead on the melody. All these features help to make this a refreshingly distinctive traditional jazz band.

On its website, the Band claims to play 'Traditional Jazz and Pan-American Music from the Mississippi Delta to the Caribbean and beyond'. Such a repertoire also makes it rather special.

Yes, The Rhythm Wizards may be found playing a popular standard such as Ice Cream, or St. Louis Blues, or an elegant Maple Leaf Rag, but in the same programme you are also likely to hear that rarely-played number St. Louis Tickle and the rhythmic Caribbean-style Petrol or the sweetly melodic waltz-tempo Tres Bemoles (meaning 'Three Flats' - and it is indeed in the key of Eb). Or you may catch them playing Black Rag, which sounded to me like Down Home Rag. (I found later that Down Home Rag was composed in 1911, but that Papa Celestin's Tuxedo Orchestra was the first to record it - in 1925 - under the title Black Rag. I wonder why. To avoid paying dues?)

As you may infer, the variety of rhythms to be heard in a performance justifies their name as the 'Rhythm Wizards'.

One of their most popular numbers is The History of Man. Codallo's Top Hatters Orchestra of Trinidad recorded that tune in the 1930s, and The Rhythm Wizards are one of the few bands to be playing it today.

I made two videos of their performance in Royal Street on 7 April 2016. While filming, I slowly walked round the band, to get a good view of all of them in close-up. The result is that the sound quality is sometimes unbalanced but I hope the videos give a good idea of the kind of music the band plays and, incidentally, what busking is like for a musician on the streets of New Orleans.

In one of my videos, they are playing The Cotton-Picker's Drag.  This tune was created by a string band of the 1930s - The Grinnell Giggers. View The Rhythm Wizards playing it BY CLICKING HERE.

The other video shows them playing the old favourite Ice Cream: View it BY CLICKING HERE.

27 May 2016

New Orleans Traditional Jazz : Meyer The Hatter

When I was about 50 years old and visiting New Orleans for the first time, I was told by local musicians that Meyer's Hat Shop at 120 Saint Charles Avenue was the place where all the jazz men bought their hats - especially this type, as needed for brass band parades. Apparently the store had been there since 1894 and was considered the biggest hat shop in the Southern States of the USA.
At the time, I was trying to learn to play jazz trumpet and I (foolishly?) couldn't resist going to the shop and buying this hat in the photo above. I would probably have very little use for it back in England, but it would be a great souvenir and an emblem of the music I wanted to play.

Thirty years later, in April 2016, when I found myself in New Orleans again, I stepped one day into Saint Charles Avenue - and there was the shop, still in business, and still selling hats identical to mine! You can see the hat in the foreground of this first picture.
What an amazing shop it is!

Over the years, I have enjoyed owning the hat but it has been stored away and hardly ever used. However, I took it out occasionally for playing at jazz funerals. This picture was taken at one.
Yes, though you may be surprised to hear it, we do on very rare occasions have jazz funerals in England. They are of course inspired by the band-accompanied funerals in New Orleans. Usually they are funerals of jazz fans who have left instructions with their families that this is what they want.

Meanwhile, in New Orleans itself during April 2016, I of course saw dozens of musicians wearing these hats for the more formal gigs.

Here's the lovely and wonderful trombone player Haruka Kikuchi, properly dressed for the concert given by The Audacity Brass Band, in which she was about to play at The French Quarter Festival.

Playing Traditional Jazz: Discovering The Gentilly Stompers

When I spent a few days visiting New Orleans in April 2016, one of the local musicians told me I should try to see The Gentilly Stompers - a newly-formed band that promised to be very good.
The Gentilly Stompers at Bamboula's
I managed to find them playing at Bamboula's in Frenchmen Street on 10 April. And a very enjoyable session it was. The Band played mainly the standard repertoire in good but uncomplicated arrangements. The teamwork and musicianship were outstanding.

The Band had been formed early in 2016 by yet another great lady trumpet-player - Catie Rodgers. Her own playing is first-class and she is a good leader - giving clear directions and encouraging all members of the band to show what they can do.

I managed to have a few words with Catie. She told me she studied Music at the local University of New Orleans, specialising in trumpet playing. She is a fine classical trumpet player. But classical trumpet players do not always make good traditional jazz players. Catie (like Wynton Marsalis) is an exception. She is an outstanding player in the New Orleans jazz style, whether stating a melody with minimal decoration, or improvising a solo chorus with great technical proficiency.

Catie says she is 'going for clarity and soul'. One of her main influences is the cornet player Connie Jones, who recently retired. She told me 'His lines and feeling really can't be beat'. She said her policy has been to recruit musicians who are sharp, sensitive listeners and really good, fun people. 'I believe that creates an inviting dynamic, and a positive environment to hang in. I'm always looking for more inspiration, whether it be recordings, old or new, or in my fellow peers as we grow and change together'.

Her core players at present are: Haruka Kikuchi (trombone), Alex Belhaj (guitar), Miles Lyons (tuba) and Sean Clark (drums).

But how did Catie come to be leader of a band called The Gentilly Stompers?

While still a student (in about 2012), she started gigging in the City. She did quite a bit of deputising for absent trumpet players. As they are often the band leaders, she found herself in both a directing as well as a deputising role. Soon people began to suggest that she should officially become a band-leader and run a band of her own.

Why call it The Gentilly Stompers? It is named after Gentilly, the New Orleans suburb about four miles north of the French Quarter. Gentilly is on the south side of Lake Pontchartrain and it is also where The University of New Orleans is situated.

How has Catie mastered the art of playing the trumpet so well? By putting in many years of hard work, I am sure. But she also told me the secret lies in loving the instrument. 'I have great respect for the trumpet and I think that's very important.'

So may I recommend that you keep an eye on this very promising new band and also try to hear them if you visit New Orleans?

I made a video during their performance. Unfortunately, because of the conditions in the bar, the lighting and sound qualities are far from perfect, but I hope it will give you some idea of how good this band really is: CLICK HERE for a performance of 'Honeysuckle Rose'.

Traditional Jazz: 'Fingering With Your Fingers' - From The Mississippi Sheiks to Tuba Skinny

The tune Fingering With Your Fingers was created in 1935 by The Mississippi Sheiks.
The Mississippi Sheiks
This string band was very active in the early 1930s, when they recorded about 70 tunes. The musicians were mostly members of the Chatmon family (living about 200 miles north of New Orleans and descended from slaves). The best-known member of the family was Armenter Chatmon, who used the stage name 'Bo Carter': he also had a solo career. In performance, there would be between three and five men in the group and the principal instruments were guitars and violin. Many of their recordings (though not this one) had vocals. You can hear their original recording of Fingering With Your Fingers BY CLICKING ON HERE. It is very simple and repetitive (with a 32-bar AABA structure). It also uses a basic, straightforward chord sequence. The melody is reminiscent of the 1930 song Exactly Like You (composed by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields), though it has a quite different Middle Eight.

I have picked it up for playing with my friends in the English Midlands. Here's the lead-sheet I prepared.
(Incidentally, in May 2016, the company Document Records was offering a bundle of four CDs - the complete recorded works of The Mississippi Sheiks - well over 80 tracks in all - for only £16.)

Practically nobody today would have been aware of this lively tune had it not been for the revival of it, in about 2012, by Tuba Skinny - and their frequent playing of it in public.

For example, to watch an exhilarating performance of Fingering With Your Fingers in 2013, CLICK HERE. That was filmed for us by digitalalexa; and Tuba Skinny comprised nine players on that day. It shows what really great jazz musicians can make out of even the simplest material. I hope you enjoyed the way those two outstanding reed players - Jonathan and Ewan - traded bars in the early part of the video.

And when I visited New Orleans three years later, I found Tuba Skinny still merrily beginning a set with the tune. Here's the video I made at the time: CLICK HERE. On this occasion, Tuba Skinny had a line-up of eight musicians - only four of whom had also appeared in the 2013 video.