11 November 2016

Post 444: THE SIDNEY STREET SHAKERS - CD WITH A MISSION

An exciting discovery has been The Sidney Street Shakers, a new young band based in St. Louis, Missouri. In particular, important jazz-history research has led to their first CD - Laughing My Weary Blues Away.

This band (basically an eight-piece) was formed in 2013 and is managed by multi-instrumentalist Kellie Everett. The musicians take pride in the contribution of St. Louis to early jazz history. They have set out to revive and recreate tunes composed and played by St. Louis musicians in the 1920s.

They claim the early history of jazz in St. Louis (as compared with that of New Orleans) has been relatively neglected. For example, quoting from their CD's liner notes: 'The greatness of St. Louis' music is due to St. Louis talent. Music didn't come to the city via the river; and that kind of thinking obscures the important contributions of St. Louis artists like Charlie Creath. Louis Armstrong was in the Waifs' Home in New Orleans when Creath was playing cornet in P. G. Lowrey's travelling show circulating early music ideas.'

They also want to remind us that some of the earliest recordings were made in St. Louis and that mixed-race bands performed there surprisingly early in the history of jazz. 

Kellie Everett must have done a phenomenal amount of work in researching the bands (most of whom left no recordings) and the jazz music they played. I guess you - like me - have never heard of the bands from whose work Kellie made her selection - The MissouriansHarry's Happy FourDewey Jackson's Peacock Orchestra, Powell's Jazz Monarchs and others. Kellie must have spent hundreds of hours transcribing the music from old recordings. Eventually she settled on a representative 15 tunes for inclusion on this CD.

You can find most of the 1920s performances of the originals on YouTube. Doing so helps you appreciate how meticulously the transcriptions have been made and how very closely these recreations follow the originals.
Accompanying the CD is a booklet largely written by historian Kevin Belford. Into eight small pages it crams a mass of information about the bands and the 15 tunes.
The CD has been really well recorded. The acoustics and balance are just right. You can hear every instrument clearly.

The music is played in a bright but respectful, accurate, tight, non-exhibitionist style by a group of fine musicians. They obviously work from Kellie's detailed transcriptions. The tunes invariably have arresting introductions and neat, clever codas. There is a clockwork, pulsating rhythm. Two-bar 'breaks' are well organised and constantly crop up (Jelly Roll Morton would have approved!). The trumpet - mostly stating the melody, is usually muted, and there is strong flavouring from the saxophones, including the bass sax which Kellie herself plays, Adrian Rollini-style. There are solos against stop chords; and you find 'Doo Wacka Doo' riffs here and there. Occasionally you may detect a kazoo, or even a comb-and-paper; and the voices of the musicians are built in to some of the arrangements - most noticeably in Laughing Blues, where an entire chorus of this 12-bar tune in F is filled with half the band laughing while a few keep the rhythm going - just as on the original 1926 recording by Powell's Jazz Monarchs.

The performances are peppered with short improvised 'solos' but these are always pretty, melodic and unpretentious rather than flashy - and that's just how I like them.

The great Chloe Feoranzo constantly provides flowing, lyrical decorations, whether on Clarinet or C Melody Sax, and she takes some sweet solo breaks. In Hot Stuff, Chloe shares a 32-bar theme with pianist Mary Ann Schulte (this is similar to what happens on the original 1929 recording of this tune by Oliver Cobb's Rhythm Kings). What a good player Mary is! She constantly provides the perfect underpinning of the music but she also shows herself very capable when given a chance to take a solo, as in Blue Grass Blues. This piece is extraordinary: it begins like something out of Chopin; and ends reminiscent of the final theme of 'Wolverine Blues'! To sample that track, you are welcome to CLICK ON HERE FOR A VIDEO THAT I HAVE PUT TOGETHER.

Mary also has a pivotal rôle in Market Street Stomp. Chloe and Mary produce some fluent and pretty work on East St. Louis Stomp.

Kellie Everett herself plays so well throughout (bass and tenor sax) - showing that the bass sax can be a punchy alternative to a sousaphone or string bass and also that the instrument is capable of decent melody-making in its own right. The strings (Joe Park, Joey Glynn and - on some tracks - Jacob Alspach [he also plays trombone]) are always solid and have a chance to shine in Blue Blood Blues. The washboard and drums are played sympathetically by Ryan Koenig and Matt Meyer. Student percussionists could learn a lot by listening carefully to their discreet, sensitive support of the rest of the band. Kyle Butz is also very good on trombone: he plays on six of the tracks. Timothy John Muller, who, I gather, is also the on-stage music director of the band and helped Kellie considerably in preparing the scores, is - I'm proud to say - a fellow countryman of mine! He comes from Penrith in England. Tim leads with a mainly-muted trumpet, stating the melodies and producing variations very tastefully. 

The tunes are all new to me. I was specially impressed by Soap Suds which seems to be a complex piece with a final theme that reminds me (harmonically) somewhat of Bogalusa Strut, though it's played in the unusual key of G. The little solos by Chloe and trombonist Kyle Butz are good examples of those pretty improvisations I mentioned.

Ozark Mountain Blues - an up-tempo number in Ab and anything but 'bluesy' - brings out powerful performances from all the band, and gets the CD off to a good start. And Swinging The Swing is a brisk, merry tune to add to our collection of tunes using the Bill Bailey chord sequence.

Hot Stuff is a tune we could all easily and profitably add to our repertoires - a medium-tempo straightforward AABA 32-bar in Eb, with a familiar chord progression.

The band takes its name from the Sidney Street that is a thoroughfare running west for over two miles from the Mississippi in St. Louis. The band used to rehearse in an apartment on that street when they first formed. On the evidence of Google Maps, it is a mostly leafy residential street with some attractive-looking houses.

Some videos of The Sidney Street Shakers have been put up on YouTube. But these videos fail to do justice to their music. Some present only fragments of tunes. CLICK HERE for part of a performance of 'San', which at least gives a reasonable idea of how the band looks and sounds.

In most of the videos, the background noise or the acoustics of the venue make it very difficult to appreciate what the band is doing. In some, the visuals are poor, with jerkiness, persons blocking the view, or a lack of focus on those who are actually playing. So, if you are interested in hearing this band or learning more about early St. Louis music, you need to obtain the CD. It's available at:

http://bigmuddyrecords.com/product/laugh-my-weary-blues-away/

By the way, Kellie Everett, the driving force behind the whole project, and who plays the saxes so well, has also been playing the banjo for twelve years. With two other members of the band, she belongs to the St. Louis Banjo Club. Trumpet-player T. J. Muller has also become a fine plectrum banjo player.

Further good news is that the jazz scene in St. Louis is growing, in combination with the local swing dancing revival.