For me, the most exciting musical experience of the last few years was discovering the band called Tuba Skinny.
After evolving since 2009, I think they reached their most effective line-up, as seen in this video:
|This super photo from the early days of|
Tuba Skinny was taken in New Orleans by Greg Headley.
There, they appear content to live mainly on the income from busking. As far as I can tell, they seem to live cheaply, using bicycles for all transport needs. Yes, Erika even gets around with her bass drum on her bicycle. And here's Barnabus taking his trombone and Tupelo, the band's internationally-renowned dog (the group's Chief Executive!), to the next gig:
|Dog and 'bone - as Bill Stock wittily says.|
He kindly sent me the picture.
The songs are played against a rock-steady ‘walking’ rhythm, with tuba, washboard, guitar or banjo laying down the foundation while the cornet, trombone and clarinet play the melody and frolic around it. For its first three years, the band had no reed player (except when a welcome guest sat in), so there was a distinctive brassy sound.
In the streets, there is no use of the electronic amplification that spoils so much music these days.
The performances are meticulously prepared. Although allowing plenty of room for improvisation, sophisticated head arrangements are used, with precision and admirable attention to detail. Great care is taken to get the tempo just right for the interpretation. There are mid-way key changes, and clear pre-planning of introductions and an understanding of when verses, bridges and codas will be played, around the repeating choruses. They support each other’s solo choruses with harmonising long notes and stop chords.
At the end of 2015, to the disappointment of her many fans, Erika moved away from New Orleans and therefore ceased appearing with the band in the New Orleans streets. But she announced that she would continue to appear with the band at festivals and on tours.
As one who attempts to play the jazz cornet myself, I appreciate her technical virtuosity and amazing inventiveness. Using mutes with great skill, she produces a unique tone that perfectly encapsulates the blues feeling that is at the heart of so much of our music. She knows just when to 'bend' notes and she has a great instinct for bluesy notes in the right places. Her phrasing is impeccable. Shaye is not a showy player who produces lots of high and raucous notes, like so many trad band trumpeters. Her playing is busy, but in an unobtrusive way. Just listen to her extraordinarily inventive and subtle improvisations and don’t miss the way she provides brilliant delicate arabesques behind the solos of others (such as the trombone - which often takes the melody), and particularly behind the singer.
I have been told that, when she was just nine years old, Shaye was a member of The New England Conservatory Children's Chorus and sang solo on stage. This amazing lady from Boston is classically trained and, as YouTube demonstrates, also plays other instruments (especially the accordion, violin and piano - and even the spoons!) brilliantly. To judge from videos and recordings, Shaye is currently also one of the best traditional jazz piano-players on the New Orleans scene. She even does the delightful artwork for the band's CDs. Here's an example:
Some people are so talented!
I guess that other musicians in the group also have academic musical qualifications, but I have no information on this.
The guitarist when the band was formed was Kiowa Wells and he and the slim Todd Burdick (tuba - Mr. Tuba Skinny in person - originally from Chicago) were the founders of the band, building it up by inviting other fine musicians they met busking on the streets of New Orleans. They originally worked (circa 2007) in the band Loose Marbles, a kind of musical collective that still exists but that spawned several of the great bands based in New Orleans today. Todd and Kiowa are very skilful, sensitive and accurate players. You quickly notice from their first recordings how thoroughly they have learned their music, how meticulously they prepare and play. Todd originally played guitar and banjo (as he still does when required) and he is very good on those instruments. It must be a big help to be strong in your knowledge of chord sequences when laying a secure foundation on the tuba.
|Todd and His Tuba|
It seems that Ryan Baer on banjo and guitar replaced Kiowa after a year or so. Ryan is extremely good, whether providing rhythmic support or delicate melodic solo choruses. He too is a fine singer.
And in recent months, other guitar and banjo players have been frequently used. Guitarist Max Bien-Kahn from Oregon, who has also frequently worked as the band's recording engineer, has provided a rock-solid rhythmic backing in many performances, and toured with the band. In 2014 such fine and well-known New Orleans street performers as Gregory Sherman and Jason Lawrence (and occasionally Scottie Swarers - 'Stalebread Scottie') played on banjo and guitar. Another fine player who appears frequently on tenor banjo is the Texan Westen Borghesi. To appreciate Westen's very skilful and sympathetic playing, listen carefully to his contribution throughout the band's CD called Pyramid Strut. No matter who plays, they all conform to the Tuba Skinny house style - laying down a very solid four-to-the-bar foundation. The combination of Todd Burdick on tuba and a guitar player (such as Max Bien-Kahn) provides a powerful 'engine' that drives the band along; and all the banjo players over the years have been brilliant at providing that rock-steady rhythm that our bands require. The banjoists are good at playing tremolos to add emphasis on stressed notes (as in Jazz Battle) or to add pretty decorations (to such tunes as Memphis Shake and Michigander Blues).
The ever-present trombonist (except when he headed off on a sailing cruise in early 2016!) is the versatile Barnabus Jones, who possesses a big sound and has mastered the tricks of Kid Ory, John Thomas, Honoré Dutrey and Fred Robinson - the trombonists who played with Louis Armstrong in the 1920s. Barnabus produces musical phrases that perfectly complement the melodic inventions of Shaye Cohn. The trombone and cornet blend magically.
|Shaye and Barnabus|
|Barnabus and Shaye again - |
what a great musical partnership!
Although it's easier to play a washboard on the street than to lug around a full drum kit, Robin is in fact a drummer, and enjoys the full range of tones and colours that he can get from the drum kit, including the snare and Chinese tom-drum and Chinese-crash cymbal. He used a full drum kit when making the band's 7th CD; and at the end of 2015 he managed to start taking his full kit along to street busking - using a bicycle with a trailer - which he described as 'some kind of work out'!
On a few occasions (including the tour to Mexico), the wonderful washboard player Defne Incirlioglu has deputised for Robin.
Ewan Bleach from the U.K. on clarinet and saxophone fitted in brilliantly for a year or so (Ewan is incidentally also a superb jazz pianist); and John Doyle on sax and clarinet is another fine player (reminiscent of Jimmy Noone) who settled well into the band during 2013 when they were playing some of their greatest music. These two are outstandingly good musicians. Just listen closely to their work in any of the videos and you will class them among the very best traditional jazz reedmen you have ever encountered.
Jonathan Doyle studied briefly at Depaul's School of Music in Chicago and has worked with several bands, including his own quintet. He now divides his time between Chicago, Austin and spells with Tuba Skinny - in New Orleans and touring abroad. He is also a composer of music for his bands.
(By the way, Jonathan Doyle and Westen Borghesi both play in the wonderful Thrift Set Orchestra in Austin, Texas. There are some videos of this group - well worth watching - on YouTube.)
In the Autumn of 2013, the clarinet and sax seat was briefly occupied by (among others) James Evans who is from Beaumaris, North Wales. James had spent the previous few years proving he is one of the very best clarinet players in the U.K. You can see him with Tuba Skinny in an absolutely cracking performance of Weary Blues:
Since 2014, the main reed player has been Craig Flory, from Seattle, but it seems that John Doyle is stills plays when available, especially for tours and festivals. At the end of 2015, Tomas Majcheski, the very fine player from The Smoking Time Jazz Club band, was regularly helping out on reeds.
Tuba Skinny dresses and presents itself in a laid-back, casual manner. The gents wear baseball caps and – on hot days – play in singlets and shorts, without shirts. The ladies have a penchant for short socks and flat shoes or trainers. So they have perfect looks for a New Orleans street band; and they tend to dress in just the same way for indoor gigs – bringing a breath of fresh air into what might otherwise be stuffy or formal venues. They seem to be modest, unassuming young people, having fun playing the music they love and scarcely aware of their own enormous talent.
Barnabus Jones - Trombone
Erika Lewis - Bass Drum & Vocals
Todd Burdick - Tuba
John Doyle (or Craig Flory) - Clarinet and Sax
Jason Lawrence - Banjo & Vocals
Max Bien-Kahn - Guitar
Robin Rapuzzi - Washboard
A really exciting recent video - with a full band - is this: CLICK HERE.
Or you might care to go way back in time and start with this: CLICK HERE.
The Book 'Tuba Skinny and Shaye Cohn', by Pops Coffee, is available from Amazon.