10 September 2016

Post 432: TUBA SKINNY - WORLD LEADERS

Let me tell you straight away that the young band Tuba Skinny, based in New Orleans, is currently considered by many people to be the best traditional jazz band playing anywhere in the world today. Judge for yourself by clicking on this video which was made in late 2016 and is to be commended for its fine sound and visual qualities. We have to thank the video-maker codenamed CANDCJ for making this treat available to us.

For me, the most exciting musical experience of the last seven 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:
CLICK HERE.

In 2010, a friend advised me to have a look at them on YouTube. The result: a revelation!

I learned from the Internet that Tuba Skinny was more or less half a dozen young musicians who had based themselves (though not born there) in New Orleans. They have been playing together for seven years and have recorded 7 CDs.
This super photo from the early days of
Tuba Skinny was taken in New Orleans by Greg Headley.
Although they have already appeared elsewhere in the USA, notably in New York, and also toured in several countries, including Mexico, Sweden, Australia, Switzerland, France, Italy and Spain, they spend half their year busking in the streets and playing in the clubs of New Orleans, their natural setting.

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.
Tuba Skinny plays jazz in the style established in New Orleans and Chicago between 1900 and 1930. The musicians have built up a wide repertoire, mixing classics (especially blues) with more modern tunes, including original compositions. They have rescued from near-obscurity such 90-year-old gems as Muddy Water, Russian Rag, New Orleans BumpDeep Henderson, Chocolate Avenue, Frog HopVariety Stomp, Dear AlmanzoerHarlem's Araby and Minor Drag; and the Jabbo Smith forgotten classics from the 1920s - Michigander Blues and Sleepy Time Blues and A Jazz Battle. They have shown, with their fresh and original interpretations, how exciting these tunes can be.

How do they decide on their repertoire? In an interview, washboard-player Robin Rapuzzi explained: It's a group decision. It always is. Tuba Skinny is a miniature political system of majority rule. We discuss ideas with each other either on the street or over dinner. We have listening-parties throughout the year to discuss what we're interested in and where we want to go with our music. It's very organic. We're very fortunate to all be so interested in the same kind of music and to have met each other when and where we did and with a travelling itch and desire to busk.

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.

Tunes do not outstay their welcome: most are completed in about four minutes. Tuba Skinny avoids the dreary succession of uninspired solo choruses that we associate with many other traditional jazz bands. Usually, in a 32-bar chorus, two or more instruments take the lead for a few bars each.

The Band has a remarkable singer – Erika Lewis, originally from New York State's Hudson Valley. She has an amazingly strong and soulful voice, ideal for the blues. Her control of pitch and command of rubato are perfect. She has been compared with Bessie Smith (who must have been her inspiration) and in my opinion she equals the great Bessie in vocal ability. In street performances she needs no microphone. Since 2012, Erika has also taken to playing the bass drum, on which she sits as she sings and plays - further solidifying the band's rhythm section. Erika has said (Offbeat Magazine, September 2014), 'It just dawned on me one day that a bass drum was something that I could add and it would fit in. For the first year, I strapped it to my front, but I felt like a pregnant spider flailing around, standing up while everyone else was sitting down. So I said, I’m just going to sit down on it.'

There is a vocal in about 75% of the tunes played by the band, and these are mostly performed by Erika, though other members also contribute.

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.

Tuba Skinny is a model collective enterprise, without a star or prima donna. But I must admit a special admiration of Shaye Cohn, the young lady who plays the cornet and generally directs the musical traffic.
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
Kiowa occasionally sings; and he also contributes some fine guitar solo choruses. How clever these young people are! Listen carefully to the tuba in Tuba Skinny performances and notice how solid and accurate is the foundation Todd lays and how important this is to the special sound of the band.

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 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 StrutNo 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
What is more, he too (from evidence I have seen) is also brilliant on other instruments - the banjo and the violin, which were his original instruments; and on occasion he shows himself to be no mean singer!
Barnabus and Shaye again -
what a great musical partnership!
All the Tuba Skinny instruments are easily portable. This is particularly helpful if you are a street band. They normally have no drum kit, for example. But they have a washboard player – Robin Rapuzzi from Seattle (though I'm proud to report his mother was born in England!). Normally, I am not keen on the washboard as a musical instrument: I have known a badly-played washboard to wreck a jazzband, especially when the player fails to keep a steady tempo. But Mr. Rapuzzi is a great driving force for the rhythm of this band, and fully underpins the music’s structures. He has fixed a few additional small percussive items to his washboard, so he can produce tricky crowd-pleasing solo choruses, with sound varied very imaginatively.

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.
There are other part-time members of this band – too numerous for me to track or mention. In their videos you may spot an occasional double bass, or violin, or a second trumpet. This is bound to happen with a street busking band. But I must tell you that a young lady called Alynda Lee Segarra (who now mostly works with her own band) used to play banjo and sing (very well). Here she is with Shaye and Barnabus.
But most of the fine young musicians of New Orleans have played in the band at some time or other. Here, for example, we see Albanie Falletta on guitar.
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:
CLICK HERE.

In 2014 and 2015, the reed player has usually been Craig Flory, from Seattle, but it seems that John Doyle is the principal reed player 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.

But please let me beg you to try this band for yourself! There are over 300 examples of their work on YouTube.

Their line-up as at October 2015 was:
Shaye Cohn   Cornet
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.

Here you can meet the band in a relaxed, undemanding, gentle-tempo 12-bar blues in the Key of C. The tune (made famous by Ma Rainey) is Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya. Unfortunately the camera does not catch much of Robin (washboard) but you have good examples of everything else, including brief solos from tuba and guitar.

Try the band here in its original formation in a quicker number. This song – Six Feet Down - was written by Erika Lewis, who is seen singing it: CLICK HERE.

The video illustrates much of what I have been saying (including – note – the skilful washboard playing) and you can identify all six of the original core members of Tuba Skinny.

And Garbage Man is a terrific, infectious, fun number. You can watch it (with Ewan and John on reeds) here: CLICK HERE.

To hear an example of Shaye Cohn's brilliance, listen to her solo that comes one minute and fifteen seconds into this next video. Quite apart from its technical virtuosity and fireworks, note its almost surreal inventiveness, especially in the first few bars: CLICK HERE.

To me it is so thrilling that YOUNG people are keeping alive the traditional jazz of New Orleans. I was there in 1998, and many of the great musicians of those pre-Katrina days have since passed on. But – thanks to groups like Tuba Skinny – their music has not disappeared with them.

Finally, listen to their wonderful and energetic performance of Minor DragCLICK HERE.

By the way, you can help support these wonderful young musicians by obtaining one or more of their CDs. You can buy or download the CDs online. You can pay with PayPal. It works even from other countries, as I have found. Start by going to their website and that tells you how to go about it:
http://tubaskinny.tk/

FOOTNOTES

(1) My sitemeter told me that by the end of August 2016 this article - in its original form - had received over 37,000 'visits'. I am so pleased that people all over the world are sharing my enthusiasm for Tuba Skinny.

(2) I have received this message from British clarinet-player Derek:
Thanks Ivan
I think the main reason they are so good is that all the musicians have absolute faith in the musicianship of Shaye.  So they are all happy to obey her instructions and her direction.  She must face difficult decisions when she has to turn away musicians who want to join them when busking;  and decisions on how to tackle new pieces and new arrangements.  She is a born leader and yet she is not interested in hogging the limelight.  Wonderful.
Best wishes
Derek