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5 January 2017


What a treat to start 2017!

On New Year's Day Marla and John Dixon's Shotgun Jazz Band released their latest Album, entitled Stepping On The Gas.

It was recorded, like their previous one, at the former Luthjens' Dance Hall. The acoustics were again terrific. Every instrument can be clearly heard. Basically, a six-piece band was used. This was the regular five - Marla Dixon on vocals and trumpet, John Dixon on banjo, James Evans (reeds), Charlie Halloran (trombone) and Tyler Thomson on string bass - plus David Boeddinghaus on piano. But on six tracks they became a 'Big Band' by adding Ben Polcer on trumpet and Tom Fischer on reeds.

I believe the combination of John Dixon on banjo and Tyler Thomson on string bass is just about the greatest in the world for driving along the raw style of New Orleans jazz in rock-steady four-to-the-bar form, and they are well complemented here by the totally dependable David Boeddinghaus. As for James Evans, he is now established as one of the greatest reed-players to be heard anywhere. He has that wonderful artist's knack of making everything sound relaxed, even though he always plays in a hugely creative and technically brilliant manner. And fans of the trombonist Charlie Halloran will particularly enjoy his lusty contributions on such numbers as Smiles, My Old Kentucky Home, She's Crying for Me, and Old Miss Rag. He adds so much to the gutsy, gritty qualities of which the band is proud. Marla, of course, is a gem - great as a band-leader, one of the best trumpet-players and always passionate and distinctive in her singing. She seems to me to know virtually every tune in the book and to have memorised the words of hundreds of songs.

This recording is specially exciting because, in terms of personnel, width of repertoire and quality of the arrangements, it is the most ambitious Album the band has made.

I often complain that bands spin out tunes for seven or eight minutes, even when nobody is dancing. They seem to think almost every member of the band must solo on at least one 32-bar chorus. Such performances can be so dreary. It would be better to keep tunes brief (as they were on the great recordings of the 1920s).

On this Album, The Shotgun Jazz Band seems to have adopted exactly that philosophy. Eight of the tunes are completed in under three minutes. And only three tracks run for over four minutes. This also allows for a goodly number and variety of tunes on the Album: there are 18 in all. 

As the title suggests, much of the Album is inspired by the work of the Sam Morgan band, whose recording of Stepping on the Gas (1927) is closely imitated by the Shotgun, right through to the neat Coda. The Sam Morgan band used two reeds and two trumpets. I guess that is why the Dixons added the extra two instruments for this track. Their 'Big Band' is used to good effect on this tune, as well as on She's Crying for Me, Down by the Riverside and Old Miss Rag.

Throughout the Album, notice the use of neat, intelligent head arrangements usually showing great respect for the original recordings. For example, White Ghost Shivers (for me the most interesting discovery) closely follows the original recording made in the 1920s by The New Orleans Owls. It is a romping number which, to my ear, appears to begin with a spooky theme in C minor, followed by a 16-bar theme in E flat and a further 16-bar theme in A flat – both the latter allowing for plenty of little breaks. There is a great Coda, just as on the original 1920s recording.

She's Crying for Me - also played by the 'Big Band' - is similarly close to the original 1925 New Orleans Rhythm Kings version composed by Santo Pecora. Essentially in A flat, it is complete with the two key changes taking it into and then out of F for a 12-bar blues interlude.

With some of the tunes, you feel immediately as if you were at The Spotted Cat, with Marla's regular band of five or six musicians in cracking form. This is especially true of Smiles, The Curse of An Aching Heart, Pretend, Whenever Your Lonesome, and My Old Kentucky Home. On this last number, Tyler is the singer: it has become one of his party pieces.

There are some interesting performances of obscure numbers. For example, Rose of Bombay is a tune I had not heard before. Apparently it was recorded in 1923 on an Edison Cylinder by Rudy Wiedoeft's Californians. It is a pleasant leisurely number with a Verse followed by a 32-bar Chorus somewhat reminiscent of Hindustan: it uses plenty of minims and semi-breves.

Then there is Guilty – not the song of that name recorded in the 1930s by such singers as Billie Holiday and Al Bowlly - but rather one written and recorded in 1974 by Randy Newman. Marla sings it, accompanied by John on the banjo for a whole two minutes before the full band joins in.

In Breeze and Moonlight Bay the band plays the Verses as well as the Choruses! I bet there were not many of us who knew these Verses.

Marla Dixon
Marla also sings I Hate a Man Like You; and the entire Album begins in a surprisingly simple, tasteful way with Gulf Coast Blues, the 1923 composition by Clarence Williams, recorded by Bessie Smith, which Marla sings mostly with accompaniment by David on piano - very much on the lines of the original, with David taking the Clarence Williams rôle.

Another interesting vocal is How Am I To Know?, sung by James Evans. Apparently it comes from a 1920s film called 'Dynamite' and was composed by Jack King with lyrics by Dorothy Parker, no less! 

The old pop tune Pretend You're Happy When You're Blue, composed by Lew Douglas, Cliff Parman, Frank LaVere and Dan Belloc, is very pleasantly performed, with a vocal from Marla. Why did it take so many people to compose it?! (I believe it was actually Lew Douglas who did most of the work.) After the final vocal, the Shotgun round it off (as also in My Old Kentucky Home) from the Middle Eight - a tactic we should all adopt from time to time.

Charlie takes the lead very movingly on the oldest composition on the Album - Deep River, which is the final track and very effectively winds down the concert. What a beautiful way to bring the Album to an end!

Finally, I must make a special point about Old Miss Rag. The Shotgun Jazz Band plays the tune correctly - having studiously gone right back to the original sheet music. There are three themes, two of which are in F, with the final theme in Bb. THIS is how we should all be playing it! But I'm afraid most bands these days offer a slipshod version in which we play just the first and third themes - and both in the key of F.

W.C. Handy would be disappointed with us. But he would be thrilled to hear the authentic version offered here by the Shotgun.

But now you need to know how to obtain the Album. The simplest way is on line. I found that it downloads in less than half a minute. The wonders of technology! Here's where to go: