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26 January 2015

'What If We Do?': Clarence Williams, Katherine Henderson; and Tuba Skinny

In the beginning there was a Columbia recording made in New York in 1929 by The Seven Gallon Jug Band of a 32-bar tune (without vocals) called What if I do?. Who wrote it? 'Clarence Williams and Johnson' (presumably James P. Johnson, unless someone can provide me with further information). The Seven Gallon Jug Band was one of the musical groups led by Clarence Williams.

Then in 1930 came the recording What if we do?, (same melody) sung by the niece of Clarence Williams - Katherine Henderson (sometimes spelt Catherine Henderson) - accompanied by Clarence Williams and his Orchestra.
What if we do? is sung very prettily at a gentle tempo and the whole performance runs for just over 3 minutes 20 seconds. Thanks to the kindness of Nico Fournier, you can enjoy it on YouTube. You will find it addictive:
As you will hear, after a short introduction, Katherine sings the 32-bar Chorus. It's a simple a-a-b-a structure typical of those times. There's a Georgia pattern chord structure in the 'a' sections. Harmonically the whole song is very similar to Five Foot Two and Please Don't Talk About Me. And like those songs, it has this familiar Middle Eight:
III7 |   III7  |  VIm  |  VIm  |   II7  |  II7  |  V7   |  V7

After the Chorus, Katherine Henderson sings the Verse (16 bars) before singing the Chorus again and, with that, the record ends. There are no instrumental interludes.

Katherine sings the song in the key of C, with which she is obviously comfortable.

I would not have known this song existed had it not been for its appearance in January 2015 as the latest addition to Tuba Skinny's impressive repertoire. It appeared on YouTube (thanks to the fine video-maker RaoulDuke 504):

Goodness knows how Tuba Skinny constantly find these long-lost gems and then revive them for our pleasure.

As you see, Tuba Skinny have chosen to play What If We Do? entirely as an instrumental number. They take it rather more quickly than Katherine Henderson and Clarence Williams. They also choose to change the key to Bb. And they omit the Verse. In this Tuba Skinny street version, the Chorus (32-bars) is simply played through four times (128 bars in total), with no introduction or coda - no frills, in fact. Barnabus gives a lusty performance on trombone and Todd takes the lead on the second half of the third chorus. It is a typical workmanlike Tuba Skinny performance - thoroughly enjoyable and a lesson to us all.

25 January 2015

Shaye Cohn's Mozartian Qualities: Best Jazz Musician in the World?

I have said before that Shaye Cohn's playing reminds me of Mozart. In particular, it makes me think of the viola part in Mozart's string quartets.
Here's why. Mozart's quartets are like lively interesting well-informed conversations between four intelligent and sympathetic friends. If you study the viola's rôle in a Mozart string quartet, what do you discover? 
Extract from a Mozart String Quartet
 - highlighting the Viola's rôle.
The viola sometimes takes the lead (playing the melody, you could say) but more often you find it responding, commenting cleverly and perceptively on the remarks of the others, coming up with surprising original thoughts, sparkling and witty, or sad, sympathetic and pensive as the occasion demands. It can play very quickly, producing a lot of notes rapidly when there is something exciting to say. But the viola does not show off or attempt to dominate. It both compliments and complements the contributions of the other instruments.
Mozart (1756 - 1791)
Shaye's playing in any jazz ensemble is exactly like that. She is not a showy player. Not from her will you hear those screaming, raucous, high-note 32-bar solo choruses to which so many traditional jazz trumpeters resort.

But she is so energetic in her playing and her thinking. She produces a unique tone that perfectly encapsulates the blues feeling that is at the heart of so much of our music. Listen closely to her busy fluent phrases, often muted and in the background, interwoven brilliantly into the polyphony of her band's wonderful music. That's why I am reminded of the viola in Mozart's string quartets.

Shaye has an instinctive understanding of rhythmic possibilities, subtle and surprising harmonies and progressions, even when improvising at high speed. She can 'bend' notes to great effect and in exactly the right places.

She always works hard to encourage great teamwork from the band, not just to display her own skills. Her playing takes account of (and usually directs) all that is going on around her.

Bearing in mind that she is not only brilliant on the cornet but is also one of the very best on the piano and violin (and a formidable composer and arranger), I have to say I have not come across a traditional jazz musician in the world today who impresses me more than Shaye. She is simply the best.
Lou in the USA emailed this comment to me:
I couldn't agree with you more. I find myself more and more separating her horn from the rest of the piece. I've discovered that she has a very versatile tongue. One just knows that she doesn't have to think about what's coming next for her. She may think ahead for the arrangement, but her playing just flows naturally. I can hear the little notes she drops here and there that she just has to do because they belong. 

24 January 2015

Traditional Jazz Tunes: 'Delta Bound', Alex Hill and Tuba Skinny

Delta Bound is a great haunting song: it descends through semitones, with a fair sprinkling of minor and diminished chords. It is a 32-bar tune, with the familiar  a - a  -  b  -  a   structure.

Those of us who are fans of Tuba Skinny (i.e. almost the entire population of the world) have been introduced to it through the singing of Erika Lewis. It was on Tuba Skinny's CD entitled Rag Band - released in 2012.

However, it seems the song dates from as long ago as 1934. It was composed by Alex Hill, who was a jazz pianist in Chicago during the 1920s. Although he worked with many of the 'big names', it is not surprising if you have never heard of Alex Hill. The poor chap lived only to the age of 30. 

Alex Hill

On YouTube there is a video of Erika singing this song with Tuba Skinny in its early days. View it by clicking here.

Erika sings Delta Bound in the key of Bb and it goes something like this:

However (typical of Tuba Skinny) the band usually plays a first chorus in the key of F before Erika takes over. The Band also reverts to F to round off the performance.
Erika Lewis

The Earliest 'Jazz Bands'

The origin of the word 'jazz' is disputed. My preferred explanation is that it comes from the American nineteenth-century slang word 'jazm' - meaning 'spirit' or 'energy'. Makes sense, doesn't it?

The word seems to have been first applied shortly after 1910 to the kind of music that had arisen in New Orleans; and it wasn't long before we had bands calling themselves 'Jazz Bands'. By the way, it was often spelt jass in those early days.

The Original Dixieland Jass Band was making records by 1917.

The word and the music style probably became known in Europe the same year.

The first so-far documented use of the term in my country - England - was a reference in July 1918 to a concert by The Liberty Jazz Band for 835th American Aero Squadron at their base in England near the end of the First World War. Presumably this was an all-American band, possibly drawn from members of the Squadron's military band who were trying to imitate The Original Dixieland Jazz Band.

Ostrich Walk

'Ostrich Walk' was first devised and recorded in 1917 by The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, so it was credited to their players Edwin B. Edwards, Nick LaRocca, Henry Ragas, Tony Sbarbaro and Larry Shields.I wanted to learn it, so I started by making myself a lead sheet. This is what I came up with.

Keep It Short!

I have been listening again to recordings made in 1927 by the great Sam Morgan's Jazz Band. Their versions of Bogalousa Strut and Mobile Stomp are both completed in under three minutes.

I also listened to some of the historic recordings made by the Armand Piron Orchestra in the 1920s. Their recording of the tricky 3-parter Bouncing Around runs for less than three minutes. The classic Mamma's Gone Goodbye takes just over three minutes.

So brief?

And yet these recordings are classics - totally enjoyable and satisfying. They do not leave us with a feeling that they are too short or that the tune is incomplete. The arrangements and the ensemble work are exciting and tight. The performances even incorporate clever little introductions and codas, perfectly executed.

Compare this with the performances of so many bands today where tunes are spun out for seven or more minutes with almost all members of the band taking 32-bar solo choruses (sometimes two choruses). The tune drags on repetitively even though the band has nothing more to 'say'.

Yes, I know those early recordings were limited to about three minutes because that is all the recording processes of the time could cope with. But this discipline made the musicians produce their very best - distilling music of the highest quality into the imposed time limit.

Occasionally in these blogs, I have suggested ways in which traditional jazz bands could improve their performances. I think BREVITY is another.

We can learn something from those 1920s recordings. Even tunes with two or three themes can be given a very good performance in under four minutes if they are well presented, with the emphasis on ensemble work.

One bandleader friend has recently adopted this approach. Within his programme he deliberately includes a number of good tunes that he wants his band to play in about three minutes. This is achieved by omitting solo choruses and putting the emphasis on getting the tunes right, with clever interplay between the instruments. May I suggest more bands try this approach?

To hear how it was done - way back in 1927 - click on this video. It's the Sam Morgan Band.


Brevity - remember - is the soul of wit.