11 June 2013

Post 103: TALKING WITH TUBA SKINNY

During my visit to New Orleans in April 2015, I had the pleasure at last of hearing in person the wonderful young band Tuba Skinny, which I have been praising in my writings for many months. My main article about them (CLICK HERE TO READ IT) had been viewed by 20,000 people by the time of my visit. I attended three of their performances.
The picture above shows the band as I saw them on April 14th. Left to right are: Craig Flory, Shaye Cohn, Barnabus Jones, Erika Lewis, Todd Burdick, Jason Lawrence, Max Bien-Kahn and Robin Rapuzzi. At other performances they had Charlie Halloran on trombone and Jonathan Doyle on reeds.
Tuba Skinny playing at
The French Quarter Festival
in New Orleans, April 2015.
I was specially pleased to see Max Bien-Kahn playing regularly with the band (Greg Sherman had departed to the north) as I have always admired Max's strong, solid, concentrated performances with the band on YouTube, and I don't think he has had the recognition he deserves.

A bonus was that I was able to have a chat with some of the players.
I had the great privilege of a long chat with
Todd Burdick, 'Mr. Tuba Skinny' in person.

Todd Burdick is best known as the Bb tuba player and founder member of Tuba Skinny.

After Hurricane Katrina, many young musicians migrated to New Orleans. Todd moved there from Chicago and he told me that at the time you could find a pal and jointly rent a shotgun house near the French Quarter for just 400 dollars a month. (The price by 2015 had risen to 900 dollars a month.)

It was a hard life and I guess some of them soon gave up. But many settled. They made just enough money to survive by playing for tips on the streets. They started to find like-minded musicians who became their friends and formed themselves into bands. A good example was Loose Marbles - a band in which founder members were Ben Polcer and Michael Magro, who encouraged promising newcomers to pass through the band's ranks and hone their skills. Many of the musicians who developed their talents in Loose Marbles have gone on to form bands of their own. Tuba Skinny is one of those bands.

From Todd Burdick and Robin Rapuzzi (washboard), I learned a good deal about Tuba Skinny. By the way, Robin told me that as an infant he had occasionally visited Nottingham to stay with his grandmother. This appealed to me as Nottingham is where I live and am writing right now.

Robin tapes his fingers and prepares his thimbles
before performing at The French Quarter Festival.
I had often wondered how Tuba Skinny go about unearthing the obscure tunes from the 1920s and 1930s that now form a substantial part of their repertoire. Todd pointed out that it's no longer necessary for someone to have a vintage 78rpm recording. Today there is so much available, not only on re-issued CDs but even on the internet - especially YouTube. For example, the band introduced Dear Almanzoer into its repertoire in 2014. This is a lively composition by Oscar 'Papa' Celestin and was recorded in 1927 by his band. Thanks to the kindness of various YouTube uploaders, Todd said, you can freely listen to - and learn from - the Celestin original.

I had wondered whether the members of Tuba Skinny get together for private rehearsals occasionally. After all, some of their music is tricky, with complicated arrangements. Think of Cannonball Blues as a typical example: with so many surprising key changes and various ensemble phrasing patterns to remember, you can't just turn up and play such a tune. Everybody needs to have learned exactly what their rôle is at any given point. Robin told me much of the experimenting and 'rehearsing' takes place on the street. They like to play in Royal Street twice a week if possible. But they do also have an occasional private rehearsal in one of their houses, perhaps once a month. They had recently been rehearsing once a week - but this was in the lead-up to the recording of their seventh CD - Blue Chime Stomp. The recording took place over two days in early April 2015.

They told me they guessed The Smoking Time Jazz Club Band - similar in some ways to themselves, but continually playing even more complicated arrangements - surely gets together to rehearse more frequently.

I asked about the 'arranging' of the more complex of Tuba Skinny's tunes. It seems obvious that Shaye Cohn is the expert in this matter and has a big say (though she modestly claimed she does not need to do much other than 'direct the traffic' in performance). I was assured that the band's decisions are 'democratic' and that all contribute ideas, though it's a fact that Shaye will sometimes supply a 'chart', especially for banjo and guitar players.

I mentioned Maple Leaf Rag as an example. It had been recently introduced into Tuba Skinny's repertoire and obviously they had to decide in which key to play it (some bands go for Eb moving into Ab; but Tuba Skinny chose F going into Bb). They also had to make up their minds about which of the tune's four possible melodic themes they should play and in which order, and whether with any distinctive treatments. And they had to decide whether to include an introduction, bridges and a coda. If you watch THIS VIDEO (CLICK ON TO VIEW)  you will see what they came up with. Enjoy especially the use of those long harmonising notes in the final choruses preceding the out-chorus. When they played Maple Leaf Rag at The French Quarter Festival a few weeks later, with slightly different personnel, the arrangement was essentially the same, though with two fewer of the 16-bar final choruses, and also this time there was a two-bar coda - I guess a spur-of-the-moment Shaye-ism that took nobody by surprise! Enjoy it in THIS VIDEO (CLICK ON).

Todd told me he had recently deputised in another band which had also played Maple Leaf Rag. But their version turned out to be quite different from Tuba Skinny's. Did this cause him any difficulty? Not really. He easily picked up what was going on.

I was gratified when Erika Lewis told me she was aware of these writings of mine. She said that when they were planning a play-list they would sometimes consult my list of their tunes to remind themselves of titles they hadn't performed recently and that perhaps ought to be revived. So I have become the honorary archivist to the band! CLICK HERE to see my list.

The first time I saw Tuba Skinny in person was when they were playing in a very crowded bar. I assumed the great number of people had all gone there specially to hear the band. I was wrong. I was trapped in the middle of the crowd near the bar, unable to move and quite a few yards from the stage. But when the band started to play, I found the din  of conversation around me was so loud that I could hardly hear the music. And so it continued. I felt so disappointed for the musicians, even more than for myself: they were producing such wonderful music and yet only a few people near the stage could hear them clearly.

When I eventually met Shaye, I told her how sorry I was that the band had been treated in this way. She shrugged her shoulders philosophically and said, 'Well, it's a bar....'.

But no wonder the band still so much enjoys playing in the street, where they can be clearly heard and be given respect by people who love their music. 

I had constantly wondered how Shaye manages to create all those wonderful phrases she plays (often with a mute) as a backing to Erika's vocals and also in support when the trombone or clarinet takes the melody. I asked her whether, while playing, she was thinking her way through the chords. She paused to consider my question for a moment, as if she had never thought about the process before. Yes, she knew the chords all right; but she felt that her inventions had become 'intuitive'.

In chatting with Barnabus, I got on to the unlikely topic of diminished chords. When I hummed a particularly enjoyable phrase he had played over a diminished chord in a YouTube video some years ago, he remembered exactly the one I meant and said he had picked the phrase up from Ewan Bleach! Barnabus also told me that Shaye is particularly fond of diminished chords.

One evening I bumped into that brilliant and ubiquitous trombonist Charlie Halloran. When he told me he would be playing with Tuba Skinny the following night (deputising during a very rare absence of Barnabus Jones), I asked him how he would cope with Tuba Skinny's often complex head arrangements. What if they played Deep Henderson, for example? He said Deep Henderson would be no trouble, as he knew their arrangement well. However, he told me 'I expect they will dumb down the programme a bit to make allowances for me.'

Well, I went to the concert. And I can tell you this: Tuba Skinny did not 'dumb down' at all. They played a typical programme, complex arrangements included. And how did Charlie cope? Brilliantly. He played some wonderful stuff and, as far as I could tell, never put a foot wrong.

enjoyed observing how Shaye prepares a playlist. At The French Quarter Festival, for a quarter hour before the performance started, she sat in her place looking at her notebooks and working out a programme. She wrote the tune titles in large lettering on a sheet of paper which she then placed on the floor in the centre of the band, so that all members could know what was coming next. I noticed how skilfully she made the programme entertaining by alternating slower and quicker tunes, and mixing instrumental with vocal numbers, and even ensuring a variety of keys.
There are many people in the UK who wish Tuba Skinny would tour here. I raised this matter with some of them. I found they would like to visit the UK, but they have looked into the matter thoroughly and discovered so many obstacles (particularly financial and bureaucratic). I'm sorry to have to say this but I can't at present see how a tour in the UK will be viable in the foreseeable future. We can't expect the band to undertake it at a considerable cost to themselves.
Having admired his work through YouTube
for some years, it was a great pleasure
for me to meet Robin Rapuzzi.
Watching Tuba Skinny perform their specials - such as Freight Train Blues and the new ones by Shaye - Tangled Blues and Blue Chime Stomp - it was such a joy to observe at close quarters how brilliant they all are, and such perfectionists.