27 December 2015


I offer my thanks to the many correspondents who sent me emails this morning to tell me Tuba Skinny's latest CD - Blue Chime Stomp, recorded last April - has at last become available to download. Some asked me to write about it.
Well, it's a bit early for much analysis. I am looking forward to listening to the CD carefully many times in the weeks ahead. But, for what they are worth, here are my immediate observations.

We are told the CD was recorded at The Tigermen Den in Royal Street, New Orleans. Mr. Google shows me the building is situated in a peaceful spot about three-quarters of a mile east of the French Quarter. It is a restored 1830s corner store. It seems there is plenty of music and dancing there these days, and that great food is served.
Maybe the aim was to get an appropriate 'old-time dance hall' type of acoustic. (You may remember The Shotgun Jazz Band did just that with their last CD: they recorded in the former Luthjens Dance Hall.)

There is certainly a good sound quality to this CD. As soon as it begins, with a lusty performance of Maple Leaf Rag, you realise you can hear the tones of all the individual instruments very clearly. Turn up the volume and it's like having them in the room with you.

You later find that, in the recording process, Erika's voice has fared just a little less well in a couple of numbers than the instruments. She is a wonderful singer in great form and beloved by us all but listen to her performance of her own composition Broken-Hearted Blues on the band's 2009 CD and then listen to her performance of the same song on this 2016 CD. A big difference, isn't there? In the 2009 version, the voice is completely clear and you can make out all the words easily; but you can't quite say the same about this 2016 version.

The band has evolved, of course. In 2009, they had just five musicians, plus Erika singing. But in the 2016 CD, they sometimes use nine musicians (three of them reed men) in addition to Erika. This has made Tuba Skinny sound more like a 'big band' on a few numbers. Especially when they use a driving saxophone and 'walking' riffs (as in Running Down My Man and Broken-Hearted Blues) we seem to be in the realms of R&B music. Indeed a correspondent has just told me the Tuba Skinny website - introducing this CD - says '...this album features us in a couple different line-ups - our traditional one, as well as one with multiple reed players, and also our R&B line-up including piano, upright bass and drum set'.

There is also inevitably a greater sense of choreography these days. In the more complicated multi-theme tunes, such as Soudan, Oh Papa, Shaye's composition Blue Chime Stomp, the vigorous Variety Stomp and - to a lesser extent - Dear Almanzoer, all the musicians had to master their parts meticulously in order to participate in the strict, tight arrangements. Of course there is still some room for free expression and improvising, but the backbone of each of these pieces is very rigid.

Robin Rapuzzi (who - before playing washboard regularly with Tuba Skinny - was originally a complete percussionist) plays the full drum-kit on some of these numbers. Todd Burdick apparently plays the string bass rather than the tuba on some - but I have yet to work out which, though I think they include Running Down My Man. He told me last April that he had been 'learning to play a string bass' but he did not mention that he had already recorded with it!

The barrel-house piano (presumably the one in the picture above, belonging to The Tigermen Den) is played by Shaye on some of the pieces. One of these - I'm Blue and Lonesome - is heard in the key of Gb. Amazing. When did you last hear a tune performed by a jazz band in Gb? I can't recall when. All other bands would simply have opted for a key of G or F to keep the playing simpler.

And on the same subject, Erika sings Running Down My Man (the Merline Johnson 12-bar from 1936) in E - a key most traditional jazz musicians steer clear of.

These two tunes (and Broken-Hearted Blues - here performed in the unlikely key of B) make me suspect the piano was half a tone flat. After all, in YouTube videos (with Shaye on cornet rather than piano) they have always played Running Down My Man in F and I'm Blue and Lonesome in G. But for the CD Shaye switched to the piano. If, as I believe, it was half a tone flat, then its F actually produced an E and its G sounded like Gb. Perhaps that's the complete explanation. The rest of the band did very well to adapt to such awkward keys.

With very neat banjo support, Erika sings Me and My Chauffeur (the song written by E. Lawler and recorded in 1941 by Memphis Minnie). This is trickier to sing than it may sound: note the long pause that has to be left in the ninth and tenth bars. There are some gems from Erika - not only those I have mentioned but also the 12-bar blues (composed in the 1930s by Ann Turner for Georgia White) Almost Afraid To Love, and Oh Papa (the Ma Rainey number from 1927) and Midnight Blues, both with substantial vocals.

Anyone who has watched the YouTube videos of Tuba Skinny to emerge since March 2015 will have heard all of the tunes on this CD, so they may already be familiar to you.

But here are a few more thoughts about some of the pieces. 

Soudan started out in about 1906 a a sort of tone poem for piano by the Czech composer Gabriel Sebek. He called it Oriental Scene for Piano, Opus 45. The sub-title was In The Soudan: A Dervish Chorus. The ODJB recorded an adaptation of it in 1917 as Oriental Jazz (or Jass) and recorded it again in 1920 - this time as Soudan. As I have indicated, Tuba Skinny play a neat, strict arrangement. Their version intersperses the 'oriental' theme in F minor with the more bouncy traditional theme in the related key of Ab, and there is a trombone-led F minor coda from Barnabus to round it off. It's a very unusual number!

Corrine (sung by Erika) is not the same as the famous Corrine Corrina.

Corrine, recorded in 1937 by Blind Boy Fuller, is a 16-bar blues, not a 12-bar. Erika gives a fine performance in the key of A, appropriately supported by the resonator guitar.

Memphis Shake (long-since established in Tuba Skinny's repertoire) is a straightforward number of two short themes and distinctive diminished chords. The 'big band' line-up gives it a delightfully free treatment, with much ensemble work.

Similar is Shake It And Break It (which has two short themes - in minor and major keys). The performance is very enjoyable and the final minutes are taken up with some pretty soloing and ensemble on the major-key theme.

Blue Chime Stomp is of course yet another fine composition by Shaye. I have written about it before (CLICK HERE to read) and I also had the pleasure of hearing the band play it in New Orleans last April at this performance - CLICK HERE to view.

The CD ends with a very pleasant and straightforward version of Chloe - bringing things full circle in a sense, as this number also featured sweetly on their very first CD of seven years earlier, when they had only five musicians: a cornet, violin and trombone were supported merely by a tuba and guitar. This latest CD version of Chloe (using at least eight musicians) is taken a shade more slowly.

I must also mention the order in which the tunes have been thoughtfully arranged on the CD: fast and slow numbers alternate, as do instrumentals and vocals. So, played straight through, it makes a good concert.

Our heroine - that multi-talented young lady Shaye - has again done the artwork for the CD: see it at the top of this article.