5 December 2015

Post 321: 'DUSTY RAG'

It was 23rd December 2015 and I started the day as usual by dealing with my large email jazz correspondence and then checking to see what was new on YouTube. I found that RaoulDuke504 - the great Louisiana-based film-maker - had just put up another video of Tuba Skinny playing a few days earlier in the French Quarter.

On the face of it, this video is nothing out of the ordinary. The tune is May Aufderheide's Dusty Rag (from 1908) in the sort of performance that the Tuba Skinny musicians probably regard as routine and unexceptional. They give a simple unpretentious interpretation, without special effects and complexities. What's more, there seems to have been a workman using an electric drill somewhere off-camera, so there are irritating occasional whirring noises in the background.

And yet, this is such an enjoyable performance that it reminds me why I consider the playing of Tuba Skinny to be streets ahead of most of the bands whose efforts I watch on YouTube.
Todd Burdick
It's not easy to put my finger on exactly what makes them so good. I think it's a mixture of the following. The drumming (by Robin Rapuzzi) is so intelligent, tasteful and unobtrusive. The string players are completely solid in supplying accurate harmonies and four-to-the-bar rhythmic support. Todd Burdick (tuba - though he plays a sousaphone on this occasion) as ever provides a bass line that is elegant, accurate and appropriate. The 'front line' (clarinet, cornet and trombone) listen to each other carefully: they interweave their musical lines and harmonies with subtlety and with a total absence of flashiness or exhibitionism. The emphasis is on teamwork: players support each other. (Note how even when the sousaphone has a little 16-bar 'solo', Barnabus gives gentle support on the trombone.) Also, the band takes care with setting a perfect tempo - and maintains it. Finally - and I think this is very important - there is no electronic amplification of any kind. Everyone plays acoustically. We can hear every instrument, and we can appreciate the various 'voices' and blending tones.

I hope you will share my pleasure if you watch the video by clicking here.

What makes other bands less good? They nearly always fail in one or more of the respects I have mentioned. The drumming is too loud or insensitive: one or more of the players is an exhibitionist; there is limited evidence of teamwork; amplification is allowed to unbalance the band and distort sounds,.... and so on.
Tuba Skinny at the end of 2015
On a related matter, I would like to quote from two emails I received. The first is from a gentleman who lives in Florida. He became a keen fan of Tuba Skinny after discovering the band early in 2015:

I have commented to others that Tuba Skinny is, in my humble opinion, the best trad jazz band in the world. Of course I haven't been exposed to every band in the world, but I haven't heard one better. Shaye forgoes what I call 'acrobatics' on the horn to play the actual music with her impeccable phrasing and reverence for the music. There is no show off in her, trying to prove how facile she is on the cornet like many players, who only do so to the detriment of the music.

And this one is from a gentleman in England:

I've just been listening to the 3 recordings on You Tube of Tuba Skinny playing Blue and Lonesome. All are good but the one that thrills me most is played on Royal Street 4/11/14 on Digitalalexa. Erika's singing and the instrumental work are in perfect sympathy. They caress the melody and play both individually and collectively in the best New Orleans tradition. How do they do it so well? I've now listened to several of the other New Orleans busking groups and there isn't one, including those involving some of the regular TS musicians, which comes within a mile of what they achieve. Wonderful, wonderful jazz . What a find.