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22 May 2014

Tuba Skinny: What's The Secret Of Today's Greatest Traditional Jazz Band?

How do Tuba Skinny do it? How is it that this group of surprisingly young musicians – who met five years ago while busking on the streets of New Orleans, has become the greatest traditional jazz band in the world today?
Let me offer you twenty-one reasons.

1. They work very hard behind the scenes – researching and learning old material and devising ways of playing it with fresh vigour. And they are perfectionists. Look, for example, at their performances of Deep Henderson, a tricky multi-part rhythmic piece. While showing respect for the 1926 recording of this tune by King Oliver's Band, Tuba Skinny do not slavishly imitate: they show what they can do with their own resources. They have arranged the piece meticulously. And all members of the band have the arrangement firmly inside their heads. They know exactly who does what, and when. And they also know where they have a chance to cut loose for a few bars. Now watch other bands playing this tune. Almost invariably they are dependent on printed arrangements of the music on stands in front of them, and their performances sound far less exciting and more stilted.

2. Although Tuba Skinny could play the familiar worn-out tunes of every trad band's repertoire, their programmes mostly comprise exciting unfamiliar gems they have unearthed from the 1920s and 1930s (e.g. New Orleans Bump, You Can Have My Husband, Jackson StompDeep HendersonBanjorenoTreasures Untold, Russian Rag, Oriental Strut, Minor Drag, Michigander Blues, In Harlem's Araby, Me and My Chauffeur, A Jazz Battle, Droppin' Shucks, Fourth Street Mess Around, Carpet Alley Breakdown). The almost-forgotten artists whose music they have revived include Lucille Bogan, Victoria Spivey, Memphis Minnie, Jabbo Smith, Georgia White, Skip James, Merline Johnson, Ma Rainey, Hattie Hart, The Memphis Jug Band, Blind Blake, Clara Smith, The Dixieland Jug Blowers and The Mississippi Mud Steppers; and of course they also play tunes associated with the better-known, such as Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. They will surprise you by going to some unconventional sources for tunes they turn into exciting traditional jazz - sources such as Ray Charles and the 21st-century Australian original C. W. Stoneking.

3. All the musicians in the group have thoroughly mastered their instruments; and most of them can play more than one (e.g. cornet + piano + violin; tuba + banjo; trombone + banjo; banjo + harmonica + mandolin + guitar). This provides variety of sound and also the ability to 'substitute' if a regular player is unavailable.

4. They prefer collective improvisation to prima donna solos. Their teamwork is exceptional.

5. They have an outstandingly good singer (Erika Lewis). She has a soulful plaintive voice and great intonation. Her phrasing is perfect and she uses rubato very skilfully. Rather than stick to the familiar jazz standards, she has developed a rich repertoire of tunes rescued from obscurity (e.g. Tricks Ain't Walking, Crow Jane, How Do They Do It That Way?, I'll See You in the SpringNeed a Little Sugar in my Bowl, You Let Me Down, Got a Man in the 'Bama MinesWhat's the Matter with the Mill?). Erika also doubles on bass drum.

6. Other members of Tuba Skinny are also very competent vocalists.

7. The Band does not use a conventional percussionist, with full drum kit. Instead, they have a washboard (and recently the bass drum). As a result, there is a clean sound to the rhythm. In many traditional jazz bands, the drumming has a smudging effect, filling every space and sometimes forcing other players to blow too loud. Listen to Tuba Skinny and you can hear clearly the part played by every single instrument: there is no need to over-blow; and there is none of the muddying effect you sometimes notice with other bands. The washboard player is superb is his energy and inventiveness and time-keeping (and I speak as one who used not to care much for washboards as musical instruments).
Erika and Robin
8. Tuba Skinny avoids the dreary succession of 32-bar 'solo' choruses from four or more instruments that we so often hear in traditional jazz performances. Usually, two or three players lead for a few bars each in covering a 32-bar theme. In the rare instances of complete solo choruses, Tuba Skinny musicians add colouring behind the soloist, either with musical phrases or by using stop chords or long notes.

9. Tuba Skinny always starts a tune well. They have devised an appropriate introduction for every one of their tunes.

10. The tuba player Todd Burdick provides a very solid base line for all tunes. It pays from time to time to focus on his contribution and admire its accuracy and solidity.

11. The trombonist Barnabus Jones has absorbed the skills and techniques of the great traditional jazz trombonists in the famous recordings of the 1920s. He and the cornet-player work particularly well together – listening carefully to each other and responding to each other's musical phrases. Recently-introduced reed players (one of them English, I'm pleased to say) proved just as skilful.

12. The band takes great care with the setting of tempos at the start of each tune. Once established, the tempo is maintained with metronomic accuracy. There is none of the speeding up or (worse) the wearying drag-back of tempo that you notice in other bands on YouTube.

13. The Band is not afraid of key changes within tunes, sometimes because the tune is written that way, sometimes to play the tune in a key that suits the whole band and then in a key with which the singer is more comfortable (e.g. How Do They Do It That Way?) and sometimes just for the mischief of it. Have a listen to Cannonball. Notice what tricks they can play even with a 12-bar blues. Admire the Introduction, the Bridges and the Coda, and especially the three key changes!
Watch it by clicking here.

14. Tuba Skinny devises interesting endings for all tunes. Listen to their very neat codas.
Left to Right: Shaye, Barnabus and Erika.

15. The cornet player and (it seems) unofficial director of music, the amazing Shaye Cohn (who is also terrific on piano, violin and accordion - and she even plays the double bass in the country music group The Lonesome Doves), is never flashy in her playing. She has a Mozartian instinct for what works best: she contributes to ensembles in the same way that the viola contributes to the 'conversation' in Mozart's string quartets. She can 'bend' notes and knows instinctively when to use this trick to the best effect. Full of bluesy notes and demonstrating a very effective use of mutes (notably the plunger and the stone-lined cup), the fluent phrases and harmonies she produces are hugely more interesting and exciting than the raucous high-note solos that many traditional jazz trumpeters think the music requires.

16. The Band does not stick doggedly to instrumentation that involves a trumpet (or cornet) – clarinet - trombone front line for every tune. Sometimes, their music has elements of bluegrass or klezmer and this can involve a whole tune (e.g. Russian Rag, Jackson Stomp, Papa's Got Your Bath Water On) being played without cornet or trombone.

17. They don't mind including an occasional waltz in their programme – especially if the tune is beautiful (e.g. Treasures Untold, Sunset Waltz). These are played lovingly, allowing the melodies to speak for themselves.

18. The violin is sometimes used – both for melodic and rhythmic effects.

19. Members of the Band have (in a small way so far) composed tunes for their group to play (e.g. Salamanca Blues, Owl Call Blues - a hauntingly beautiful song, Broken-Hearted BluesPyramid Strut - a potential classic of Mortonesque structure and complexity, and Six Feet Down). These pieces are fully up to the quality of the material from the 1920s that they love so much.

20. The Band is very skilful with 'breaks' – the element Jelly Roll Morton considered so important in jazz. If you don't know what I mean, I am referring to those phrases (typically two bars) where the whole band stops suddenly, except for one instrument – the clarinet, for example – leaving that player to invent a decorative musical phrase to fill the gap before the band picks up again. Tuba Skinny is particularly good at breaks: there never seems to be any doubt about which player will play the break, and all the players cut off together. (So many other bands fail in this matter. It is particularly irritating when – for example – a drummer plays right through a clarinetist's break.)

21. Just like a classical orchestra, they take trouble tuning up. See the start of this video:
CLICK HERE

Finally, as a demonstration of the above points, listen to the way the band interprets and performs Delta Bound on its CD. This is a straightforward 32-bar tune, with a structure of four sets of eight bars. Let's call these four sets A1, A2, B [the middle eight], A3. So how do they make Delta Bound specially interesting and different? Here's what they do:

  Introduction: In the key of D minor, the full band plays A2; then the trombone plays the melody for B; and then the full band plays A3 (total 24-bar introduction – unusual!)

  Song: A sudden switch to the key of G minor! Erika Lewis sings the 32-bar song once right through. In A1 and A2, she is solidly supported by the tuba, banjo and washboard. In B and A3, there is quiet decorative support first from the brass and then from the clarinet.

   Next time through: The clarinet improvises on A1 – 8 bars only - while the brass trio play long supporting notes, including crescendos! Then the clarinet improvises on A2. The cornet takes over, improvising the eight bars of B, with lovely tuba support; and then the trombone leads the final 8 bars of the song – A3.

   Approaching the End: the return of the singer; but Erika picks up the tune not at the beginning but rather at the middle eight – B, while the clarinet provides decorative background. Then the full band joins in for A3 with long-note harmonies.

   Coda: Suddenly we switch back to the opening key - D minor - just for the final eight bars! How cheeky is that? The full band plays A3 again as the coda, with a rallentando to round off.

What about that for an interpretation?

If you would like to hear this performance of Delta Bound, click on this link or paste it into your browser:
http://tubaskinny.bandcamp.com/track/delta-bound
Or you can watch them playing it on YouTube. But this performance was recorded long before the CD. There was no clarinet at the time, so the arrangement is slightly different:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5u0uqoqfMEM

"I think what's unique about our group is that everyone is really dedicated to the music," said Erika Lewis in an interview. "That's the bottom line. How we measure success is all about how well we played."