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1 September 2014

Tuba Skinny's CD 'Owl Call Blues'

Some readers have asked me to write about Tuba Skinny's latest CD - Owl Call Blues, which was released at the end of August 2014.
I would much prefer that you all listen to it and buy it! Go to their website   CLICK HERE   and follow the instructions.

Here's what the CD contains:

1. Crazy 'Bout You: a standard Tuba Skinny performance of the pleasant, simple 16-bar tune in Bb, with singing by Erika and good ensemble work.

2. Rosa Lee Blues: vocal by Greg (abetted by Erika) in this 12-bar blues, which is slightly unusual in having an eight-to-the-bar rhythm and being played in the key of G.

3. Cannonball Blues: An amazing key-changing 12-bar blues with a terrific head arrangement. I love the moment when Shaye shakes her cornet though about 12 notes in half a second while changing the key from Eb to Ab! And it's clever how they slide down to the Key of C for Todd' s tuba chorus before sliding up again to Ab.

4. Got a Mind To Ramble: One of those Erika vocals that we all love. Essentially a simple 8-bar theme in Bb - just the sort of material out of which nobody can make more than Erika and Tuba Skinny do.

5. Short-Dress Gal: Many of us know and love the 1927 original by the Sam Morgan Band. Tuba Skinny recreate it with their usual skill and Barnabus does a great job on the trombone, in the style of Big Jim Robinson on the Sam Morgan recording.

6. Owl Call Blues: I think for many of us this haunting song alone is worth the price of the CD. Shaye and Erika composed it; and here the band performs it lyrically for us. I have written before about Owl Call Blues   HERE .

7. Too Tight: The bouncy 16-bar blues highlights the strings and also Todd on the tuba.

8. Oriental Strut: Johnny St. Cyr's complex multi-part 1926 composition is very well executed, with a typical Tuba Skinny arrangement including some tricky breaks and rhythmic effects.

9. Ambulance Man: This 1930 Hattie Hart song is a duet with a story to tell. There is very good ensemble support. Basically a 12-bar Chorus in Bb but with a preceding Verse. (Don't like to say this: I think it starts too slowly; but it picks up speed later.)

10. How Do They Do It That Way?: This Victoria Spivey song from 1929 is a favourite with the band and their followers. There are plenty of videos of them performing it. And I believe it's the only number they have recorded twice for CDs: it was also on their Garbage Man CD. So we are in familiar territory, though with a new arrangement. On this occasion they have chosen to play one Chorus in Eb and then one in Bb (Erika's preferred key) before Erika's vocal solo. But they return to Eb for a remarkable final Chorus, displaying Shaye's talents as she plays almost the entire Chorus solo, against stop chords.

11. Dallas Rag: This tune (devised and recorded by The Dallas String Band in 1927) has settled into Tuba Skinny's repertoire and I have written about it before ( CLICK HERE TO READ ). Although it's based on a simple chord sequence, given its liveliness and the use of breaks, it is a great fun number. Good work all round. Fans of Robin will enjoy hearing him strut his stuff.

12. Untrue Blues: Another 8-bar theme bouncily played and well sung by Erika. You'll enjoy hearing Shaye playing the fiddle here. Like Rosa Lee Blues (above) it's played in G.

13. Somebody's Been Lovin' My Baby: One of those sad tales that suits Erika's voice very well. A 32-bar song. Sounds like another example of a key that is hardly ever ventured into by other traditional jazz bands - A minor.

14. Willie the Weeper: Jazz bands have been playing this one since 1920. Tuba Skinny give a lusty creative performance, almost entirely with full ensemble and preferring the keys of G minor and Bb to those used by many bands - D minor and F.

15. Travellin' Blues:  A standard 12-bar, with Shaye on fiddle and Greg providing the vocal - again abetted by Erika.

31 August 2014

Playing Traditional Jazz: Setting Standards

Zeev Aram - now in his 80s
On 29th August 2014, I heard an interview with Zeev Aram on BBC's Radio 4's Today programme. Zeev was a man in his 80s who in 1964 set up a London furniture business specialising exclusively in the highest-quality modern designs. Although some people at first thought his business would fail, it has in fact been a huge success.
Asked what advice he would give to anyone else who wanted to set up a business, he said:

Decide what you want to do.

Be consistent.

Be absolutely committed.

Don't compromise.

It immediately struck me that this would also be terrific advice for anyone setting up a traditional jazz band. If you follow these four principles, you could end up playing music of the highest quality. I think we should at least try to keep those four principles in mind.

Here are two young bands based in New Orleans who - in my view - are working exactly in accordance with the Aram Principles. These two bands are an example to us all:

The Shotgun Jazz Band:
Decide what you want to do.
They want to play mostly the standard jazz repertoire but in a no-frills manner that is authentic, raw, dynamic, exciting, energetic and full of heart.
Be consistent.
They struggled at first. It's not easy being consistent in the early days when you're looking for other musicians also busking like yourselves on the streets of New Orleans. But by 2014 Marla and John had assembled a great group of highly-talented players all with the same approach to the music.
Be absolutely committed.
Watch videos of their recent performances (for example  click here  ). Can you be more committed than that?
Don't compromise.
See above. They had to compromise a bit at first. But they're not doing so any more.

Tuba Skinny
Decide what you want to do.
They had a clear business plan. They wanted to play in the style of the bands from the 1920s. They wanted to rescue from obscurity and play very well - with terrific arrangements - many of the old rags, blues and other songs played by the jazz bands, string bands and jug bands of the 1920s and 1930s. They wanted to emphasise ensemble work, without individual exhibitionism.
Be consistent.
Like The Shotgun Jazz Band, Tuba Skinny have been consistent in their aims but have had several changes of personnel. By 2013, they had achieved a great line-up.
Be absolutely committed.
There's no doubt about their commitment to the aims I outlined above. (For an example,  click here  ). 
Don't compromise.
They don't compromise.

Though different in their approaches, both these bands have developed a great and exciting house style.

30 August 2014

McKinley to Tuba Skinny: 'Crazy 'Bout You'

'Jazz Gillum'
'Crazy 'Bout You' is a great little 16-bar number that seems simple enough to play, with a straightforward chord progression.

It appears to have been written in about 1935 by blues harmonica player William 'Jazz Gillum' McKinley, who recorded it in Chicago that year with The State Street Boys.

You can hear his recording on YouTube:
I first heard the tune in its more recent performances by Tuba Skinny, with a great vocal from Erika Lewis. You can see Tuba Skinny perform it on YouTube:
But Tuba Skinny have since recorded it and you can hear their spirited performance on their CD, Owl Call Blues (released in August 2014).

The lyrics? On these lines:
Baby I'm crazy 'bout you
Don't like the way you do
Always mistreatin' me
Say that you love me too
Some day you'll want me
And I'll be far from you
Then you will be sorry babe
You do me like you do

A sad detail with which to end:

Poor William McKinley, the composer, was murdered at the age of 62, three years after he had retired from his career in music.

28 August 2014

Tuba Skinny; and 'Dear Almanzoer'

Sometimes you come across a great tune on YouTube but can't for the life of you think of its title. That happened to me with a recent one from Tuba Skinny.

The person who put up the video didn't know it either.

Well, a blog-reader (James Buck) has very kindly put us out of our misery and told us it is 'Dear Almanzoer', written and recorded in 1927 by Oscar Celestin. He's right!

Listen to Celestin's version and then Tuba Skinny's. You will find the musicians of Tuba Skinny have kept faithfully to the original, even though their instrumentation is slightly different from Celestin's. The structure of Tuba Skinny's performance is as follows.The entire piece (which comprises three themes) is played in the key of Eb:

Theme A (played once): 16-bar theme like a Verse of a Song. Typical of verses in Eb, it ends on the chord of Bb7, leading perfectly into the tonic at the start of Theme B.

Theme B (played once): 32-bar theme (like a Chorus of a song).

Theme C: a 12-bar blues theme (played 5 times: i. clarinet against offbeats - exactly as on the Celestin version, ii. clarinet against stop chords - again exactly as on the Celestin version, iii. cornet, iv. trombone leading, v. trombone leading - with decoration from cornet).

Theme B: the 32-bar theme is played ensemble again to finish (again as in the original Celestin performance).

Thanks as so often to the great video-maker digitalalexa for recording this performance for us.

27 August 2014

'Grandpa's Spells' and Tuba Skinny

I discovered only recently that the band Tuba Skinny has Jelly Roll Morton's Grandpa's Spells (1923) in its repertoire.

They played it in Italy. Their interpretation (in the key of C, going in to F for the Trio) is vigorous and enterprising, working as much round the chords as on the melody and making a great use of breaks: Morton himself would have been very impressed! I guess Shaye must have played a big part in the arrangement.  One of the delights of this video is the absorbed expressions on the faces of the children watching the band (see above).

You can enjoy the performance superbly filmed by Salar Golestanian by clicking on here.