28 April 2016

Traditional Jazz: Update on 'Yes Ma'am' - the New Orleans String Band

During my April 2016 visit to New Orleans, I was thrilled at last to hear the string band Yes Ma'am. I had admired their work on YouTube for several years but unfortunately did not come across them when I previously visited New Orleans in 2015.

However, in Royal Street on 7 April 2016, I bumped into my friend Randy (the great video-maker codenamed RaoulDuke504) and he gave me a tip-off that Yes Ma'am were playing at that moment at The French Market. I hurried over and sure enough there they were.

What a dazzling performance! I can assure you they are even more exciting in person than when seen on YouTube. Each musician individually is a virtuoso. The finger-work on some of the solo choruses was mind-boggling. The songs were witty; and the control of 'breaks' and rhythm (sometimes doubling-up) was so clever and effective. You can't help having a big smile on your face and you can't stop your feet tapping when Yes Ma'am are playing.
Elena Dorn has been with Yes Ma'am since
the early days. She plays the violin beautifully
and her subtle improvisations perfectly complement
the textures of the other instruments.
At the break, I was fortunate enough to have a chat with the leader - Matt Bracken. On YouTube, Matt (like Yes Ma'am in general) has always given me the impression of being very laid-back, devil-may-care, unconventional and bohemian in life-style. Well, maybe some of that is true. But I have to report that the man I met that day was also deadly serious about his music, modest, very articulate, extremely hard-working and also kind and generous in talking with me. He allowed me to take this photo.
I thanked Matt for the pleasure his band had given to YouTube viewers all over the world. I told him I was amazed at his own brilliance and versatility: he sits at the centre of the band, playing the guitar with great vigour and lustily singing, while simultaneously providing percussion: with his feet he plays a 'drum' and a tambourine and a bell! In the course of a performance he uses a huge amount of energy.

He very modestly said he did not consider himself a great player. In his opinion, the rest of the band were the technically-gifted players and he was privileged to have them working with him.

Well, there you have the recipé for a perfect team: a leader who is a dedicated, tireless, directing presence surrounded by other musicians whom he respects and encourages to display their skills.

Those Yes Ma'am songs tend to be tricky in structure. Think of the sudden tempo changes. How does the band get to perform them so slickly? And where do the songs come from?

Matt's answers were surprising. He told me he himself now composes about 90% of the material. The band hones and masters it during their many performances on the streets. 

I had guessed they must get together from time to time to rehearse. No, Matt told me. He could recall that they had had two rehearsals. No more.

But is all this really traditional jazz? That's a question I hear some people ask. Well, yes, it certainly is. The links and overlaps between jug bands and string bands and what has become 'conventional' traditional jazz (with a front line of trumpet, trombone and clarinet) go right back to the earliest days; and they have been gloriously revived by the young musicians in the New Orleans of today. Instrumentation in the string bands may be slightly different (though I should mention that Yes Ma'am sometimes - as in the picture below - includes a cornet and trombone), but the principles for playing and interpreting the music are exactly the same.
In the years during which Matt's band has been evolving, there have been several changes of personnel (and I believe he still draws from a pool of players). When I first discovered them on YouTube, they looked like this.
Although two of the ladies from that photo are still in the band, the line-up was rather different when I saw them in April 2016. I made a video and you can watch it by clicking on here.

If you would care to hear how they sounded at the end of 2015, click on this performance of Squishin' Bees, an up-tempo 12-bar blues in Bb.

For a very fine video of them with their late-2013 line-up playing a medley, CLICK HERE.

One of my favourites from their earlier days (2011) is this: CLICK HERE  to watch it.

Whatever you think, please watch right to the end: there are surprises along the way. And admire all the little details.

26 April 2016

Traditional Jazz: Time to Learn 'Who Wouldn't Love You?'

My friend Chris the pianist suggested that we should learn a tune called Who Wouldn't Love You?

I had never heard of it, but I was able to find several examples of the tune on YouTube and I then discovered that it was a pop song of 1942, written by Carl Fischer (music) and Bill Carey (words).

It's a very pleasant tune, apparently in 16 bars (8 + 8), but with the possibility of extending to 18 bars, for example with a tag in a final Chorus. Who Wouldn't Love You? has some appealing harmonies. The melody note seems occasionally to be on the 6th or 9th of the chord.

I wrote it out in G (for trumpet use): this means I will be playing it in Concert F, which seems right for it, though it also goes well in Bb, as in some performances on YouTube, such as this one (click on to listen).

I store all my tunes in mini-filofaxes and here's the result. It's a bit messy: I struggled with some of the chords and changed my mind in a couple of places.

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 has 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'.

25 April 2016

Traditional Jazz: Update on Haruka Kikuchi (Trombone)

Haruka Kikuchi -
about to play with The Audacity Brass Band
at The French Quarter Festival, 2016

When I visited New Orleans in April 2016, a great pleasure was meeting and hearing Haruka Kikuchi again. This young lady, though slight of build, is one of the best and most powerful trombone players in the world. She is also one of the most versatile. Haruka was very kind and helpful during my visit, giving me a warm welcome and also supplying me with tips about bands and gigs that I might enjoy.

In April of the previous year, I met her for the first time - when I came across her playing with The Shotgun Jazz Band. In 2015, she was also playing regularly with Kermit Ruffins and the BBQ Swingers and with The Swamp Donkeys.

Haruka toured with The Swamp Donkeys in England, Scotland, France, Holland and Spain during July and August 2015.

Since the  start of 2016, she has become much more independent and freelance. She now plays from time to time with even more bands but she has also started running a band of her own. Her diary is so full: it seemed to me that she was averaging seven gigs a week - sometimes with seven different bands.

Haruka grew up in Chiba - a few miles east of Tokyo - and settled happily in New Orleans at the end of 2013.

During my 2015 visit, I heard her playing a couple of times with the dynamic and energetic Shotgun Jazz Band. Haruka seemed to have become rapidly integrated into Marla Dixon's very happy Shotgun family.

The Shotgun Jazz Band
What a team they were - driving each other to ever greater heights. Haruka's powerful, creative playing - remarkable from a young woman of her stature - was a mainstay of the band's success.
Haruka started learning to play the piano, violin and cornet from an early age. But when she was 15 she was bowled over by discovering the early recordings of New Orleans jazz. She decided the 'tailgate trombone' was for her, her hero being Kid Ory. She studied at Tokyo University of the Arts, graduating in 2010 with a degree in Music Science.

Earlier, Haruka had formed a dixieland jazz band with school friends. And she set about serious study of New Orleans jazz from the earliest times up to the Revival. On YouTube there is some good evidence of the music she was playing with her teenage friends in those days: CLICK HERE.

During a visit to a New Orleans Mardi Gras, she was stunned by the atmosphere and enthusiasm for the music in the City. This led to her organising a Mardi Gras event in Matsue City, Japan, complete with Big Parade, Second Line, and all the usual beads and brollies. Quite an achievement for a young woman.

Today Haruka is one of the best and most exciting trombonists in the world of traditional jazz. If you want to understand how traditional jazz works or if you are learning to play in a traditional jazz band, you could hardly do better than study Haruka's playing. Just notice the line she takes - how well it supports the melody. Notice how she phrases the music and where she takes a breath. Notice how she drives the band along, both in her ensemble work and in her exciting solos. Start with this video, which shows her in close-up: CLICK HERE TO VIEW.

At the 2016 French Quarter Festival, she even appeared with the veterans in an old-style New Orleans Brass Band. I did my best (despite difficult filming conditions) to make a video of them playing Bugle Boy March and hope you may care to watch it. You can do so BY CLICKING HERE.

How lucky I have been to meet Haruka! On top of all her other achievements, she has also mastered English, so I was able to have most enjoyable conversations with her.

My privilege: April 2015
Meeting Haruka at The Spotted Cat, New Orleans,
just before she played a storming concert with
The Shotgun Jazz Band.
Finally, have a look at this well-made video to appreciate Haruka's versatile and venturesome approach to music making: CLICK HERE.