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21 September 2014


I have been watching (on YouTube) quite a few English bands playing in pubs and clubs. First, I am pleased to report there are a few young musicians in these videos - playing traditional jazz or music that is on the fringes of traditional jazz. Also, in the north of England, there are places where young people may be seen dancing to jazz in the old style - some of them aspiring to be as good as Amy Johnson and Chance Bushman.

But so many of these pub and club trad jazz performances are disappointing. I see elderly gentlemen with beer bellies looking smug or not particularly interested while wearily and mechanically playing the same old dreary, uninspired procession of 32-bar (or 64-bar) 'solo' choruses. Sometimes there is a pretty awful vocal too. The tunes drag on for six or seven minutes, long after the band has anything more to 'say' about them.

No wonder that - on the whole - very few young people are attracted to the music.

I may sound like a miserable old crabstick, but I felt I had to write something about this today.

Then this morning I listened again to the CD Pyramid Strut, made by Tuba Skinny, that great and energetic young band of New Orleans.

Straight away, my faith in the music, and its ability to thrill and excite, was restored.

Take the very first tune on the CD - Thomas Allen's Big Chief Battleaxe. For a start, the band obviously gave a lot of thought to how it would tackle the tune. (How many English pub bands do that?) They decided to use only two sections from the familiar four (omitting the less interesting). They kept the 16-bar Bridge (which they decided to treat as a kind of Verse) and the 16-bar Main Theme.

As you probably know, the Bridge is played in G minor and the Main Theme in the related key of Bb.

Having made that decision, they then worked out how to make the interpretation interesting. For example, they would play the Bridge as an Introduction and then the Main Theme eight times - but twice punctuated by the Bridge again. Each time, the Bridge and Main Theme would be given different treatments, with a variety of instruments taking the lead. But the focus - as usual with this band - would be on good ensemble playing. So you end up with a performance comprising 11 segments of 16 bars each, 176 bars in all.

There's so much of interest to enjoy. And yet it's all over in less than three and a half minutes.

If you want the detail, it goes like this. Try following this while you listen to it.

16 Bars (1) BRIDGE. Clearly stated, with full ensemble.
16 Bars (2) THEME. Clearly stated, with full ensemble.
16 Bars (3) THEME. A more decorative statement of it. Note Jonathan Doyle's lovely fluid playing here and elsewhere.
16 Bars (4) BRIDGE. Full ensemble, differently stated this time, with more fluidity.
16 Bars (5) THEME. Trombone states it, with cornet and clarinet dropping out.
16 Bars (6) THEME. Trombone still leads but cornet and clarinet add sympathetic decorations in response. 
16 Bars (7) THEME. Something very different: the Cornet improvises on the theme, accompanied only by the washboard and banjo. The re-entry at the end by the tuba dramatically leads us into:
16 Bars (8) THEME. The full ensemble frolicking around the simple chord progression, with lovely work from the clarinet.
16 Bars (9) BRIDGE. The best surprise in the performance. The TUBA plays a special improvisation on the Bridge, while the others support him with long crescendo-diminuendo notes.
16 Bars (10) THEME. Ensemble, with more bounciness and fluidity than ever, building to a climax. Robin uses his cymbals to exciting effect.
16 Bars (11) THEME. Ensemble. This is the climax. There's busy, free expression all round and yet they are all still listening to each other.

That's the way to do it!

Incidentally, on YouTube you can find several videos of Tuba Skinny playing this tune - in various settings. The pattern usually differs just a little from what's on the CD, but it is always interesting.