Come Back: Nichols and Napoleon on Jazz Archives

Between my childhood home getting put on the market, a parent’s troubling medical diagnosis and an uncle’s death, this week the internet was a welcome smokescreen over the realities of time, thanks in part to the delivery of Jazz Archives CD number 28.

A division of the French EPM label, Jazz Archives’ extensive catalog included undiscovered recordings by well-known artists (for example radio transcriptions from the early Glenn Miller band), whole discs devoted to lesser known soloists (including Omer Simeon, Chu Berry and Albert Nicholas) and the standard foundations that forever changed the course of jazz (such as King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, Bix Beiderbecke with Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman, and Duke Ellington’s Miley-Braud band).

The inclusiveness of Jazz Archives’ catalog compensated for the label’s spotty engineering and inaccurate personnel listings, but for a developing early jazz aficionado (fuzzy fig?), their brown paper bag covers opened up to incredible music, whole universes that big-banged into existence long before I was alive.

Unfortunately Jazz Archives suffered its own big crunch, going out of business some time in the early 2000’s.  Their discs rarely turn up in used CD bins or even J&R’s bountiful aisles, and for several years I assumed I’d never get to hear catalog number 157452, a compilation featuring Red Nichols and Phil Napoleon.  Unable to get past some brief but dated vocals, and not ready to grasp the imagination and wit behind the trumpeters’ spare lines and subtle arrangements, as a teenager I carelessly let this disc slip out of my collection.

Enter the Internet.

No, seriously, go in. It has everything, ready to be clicked, bargained, shipped and expedited, except the consequences of youthful ignorance.

Half the price of what I paid [redacted] years ago and a click of “Purchase” allowed me to reconsider Red Nichols on chestnuts like “That’s Were the South Begins” and “I’m Tickled Pink with a Blue-Eyes Baby” (misspellings by an overworked French copywriter make the collection that much more special).  Nichols and his “Big Ben (i.e. Ten)” don’t just make the most of things; they apply driving rhythm, brief but spurring solos and very personal instrumental tone to otherwise forgettable numbers. On “South,” the clarinet hanging in the air is instantly recognizable as Benny Goodman, and immediately galvanizes the texture and energy of the ensemble.  In short, Nichols and his colleagues play like professionals, regardless of the music in front of them.

Nichols performed and recorded extensively until his death in 1965.  On the other hand, Phil Napoleon is known for his work with the Original Memphis Five during the early and mid twenties but not much else.  Comparing Nichols’ full tone and leaping exclamations with Napoleon’s lithe, understated epigrams, I can’t decide whether the two men never recording together is a study in contrasts we are unfortunate to never experience, or an example of artists smart enough to understand that having two stars doesn’t always mean greater light.  At least Jazz Archives found a way for them to share a bill.

Napoleon never absorbed the swing of Louis Armstrong or the lyricism of Bix Beiderbecke, but his trumpet remains strong as well as sensitive.  His preaching double-time closes the Tennessee Ten’s 1923 recording of “’Taint Nobody’s Biz-Ness If I Do,” and his two solos on “Go, Joe, Go” (first open, then muted) are logical, transparent and strutting.  “Off to Buffalo” reveals the clarity and chamber ensemble precision of the Original Memphis Five, even if Ray Bauduc’s drums occasionally overpower the front line’s balance.

Napoleon’s compositions, co-written with OM5 pianist Frank Signorelli, also impress.  “Joe” is based off a restless whole tone figure, volleyed between sections and soloists, that never completely resolves itself.   At the other end of the spectrum, “Anything” is a tender Jazz Age ballad with siblings Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, as well as Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti (brothers in every way except name and genes), stretching out over an airy beat.

I’m not sure whether it’s nostalgia or experience enhancing these sounds; Boyd Senter’s deliberately exaggerated clarinet smears still sound hokey, as does the idea of naming a band the “Senterpedes.” Apparently the miracles of marketing are as timeless as the music.

At least something is timeless.  Thank goodness for music, and the Internet, otherwise we might never forget that some things don’t last forever.  Guess that’s why we call them “records.”

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