A recent Chauncey Morehouse kick had me turning several virtual stones to hear more of his drumming. Morehouse is best known for his early recordings with Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer and Red Nichols. His resourcefulness and creativity more than compensate for the limited percussion allowed into recording studios during the twenties. Yet Lord’s discography indicates that Morehouse was making music way past the introduction of complete drum sets on record. I was eager to hear Morehouse with a full kit, maybe even establish some inkling of how he might have sounded live.
I scoured Amazon, eBay, J&R, The Jazz Record Mart, Worlds Records and other outlets. I scooped up sessions led by Dick McDonough, Miff Mole, the Boswell Sisters and others dating from the thirties through the fifties. Morehouse’s gear had changed but not his style: simple but confident, spurring, with perfect time and an utterly musical rapport with the band. Still, there was even more of Chauncey Morehouse on record out there.
The difference between a drug addiction and a music collection is that drug addicts can usually find a steady source for their compulsion. Depending on the genre or artist, musical fixes are much harder to locate. Sides under Morehouse’s own leadership during the late thirties, playing his tunable N’Goma drums and directing the likes of George Brunies, Jimmy Lytell and Claude Thornhill, still have yet to be released on CD. The same goes for recordings with Frank Signorelli in 1950 (which also offer a chance to hear the famed Original Memphis Five pianist later on his career), ditto for ten transcriptions by Sal Franzetta’s quartet from 1945. Finding these and other recordings ranges from difficult to expensive to simply impossible. Like drug addiction, music collecting sometimes involves taking whatever one can get.
A used LP of Morehouse’s last recording (aside from footage of him performing at a New York Jazz Repertory tribute to Bix Beiderbecke) seemed like much more than musical methadone. Flames, Flappers and Flasks, under the direction of orchestrator Joe Glover, brought together a dream band of twenties talent some time during the sixties:
Charlie Margulis, Chester Hazlett, Pete Pumiglio and other living links to the great music of the twenties, now older and even more experienced, but able to record with much better equipment? This album looked promising.
Without getting into sophisticated terms like “good” or “bad,” let’s just say the album was a disappointment for this particular listener. The predominance of arranged material, with solos (improvised or otherwise) few and far between, might have been excusable. Even anachronistic touches such as a Glenn Miller-like tag on “Last Night On The Back Porch” could have reflected artistic choice, if not historical accuracy. Yet Glover’s arrangements, ranging from fussy and stiff (“Melon Street Stomp”) to humorlessly cornball (“I Love The College Girls”), come across as a waste of a talented band. These charts might have worked for Glover’s regular gigs on Broadway or in the movie studios but failed the test of speakers in a dark room. Many of the “outdated” arrangements the sidemen had played decades earlier put Glover’s writing to shame in terms of energy and invention. John Cali’s overactive, over-microphoned banjo didn’t help things. A pathologically upbeat, municipal glee club-style chorus gets more room than any one else on the album. Their vocals had me aching to hear Jazz Age pariahs such as Scrappy Lambert, Billy Murray or May Alix; at least those singers were doing what came naturally.
In a form of reverse sabotage, the musicians do manage to insert some interesting, at times arresting touches, such as Chester Hazlett’s subtone clarinet on “Just Like A Butterfly”:
the all-too-brief split trumpet section and trombone solo by Andy Fusso on “Melon Street Stomp”:
former California Rambler Ward Lay’s slap bass on “San”:
and of course the reason I picked up this album in the first place, Chauncey Morehouse at the drums. His way around a cymbal, literally all the way around it, treating each part of the metal disc as its own entity, actually makes tracks like “Collegiate” worth another listen. Morehouse’s solo spots on “Sweet Lady” are deceptively simple, just like his understated beat throughout the album:
Did I expect more from Flames, Flappers and Flasks? Yes. Should I have expected more given the hokey cover and a title like Flames, Flappers and Flasks? No comment. Would I buy this album again, now knowing what I know now? Absolutely. Nine dollars for roughly nine minutes of great musical touches is still a steal.
Have I learned anything? That depends on the lesson. Ask me after I listen to Morehouse backing singer Betty Thornton on Twelve Sexucational Songs. It also has Signorelli, as well as trumpeter Phil Napoleon! How bad could it be?