The Best Front Line You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

In jazz, “front line” usually means trumpet, trombone and clarinet weaving collectively improvised lines through multiple strains or, in its modern parlance, at least two horns blazing through “the head” in tight unison. Of course there are exceptions that prove the rule, such as a half-dozen of Clarence Williams’s washboard sessions, waxed during the first six months of 1926, using just cornet, clarinet, found percussion and the leader’s piano to defy conventional roles for non-rhythm section players.

Ed Allen often sticks to the strong, spare lead expected from the cornet yet clarinetist Bennie Morten’s thirds under and inside that lead on “You For Me, Me For You” are a surprising touch:

There is no trombone to form the standard New Orleans triumvirate but the pair doesn’t just interact like a reduced New Orleans front line. Listen to Morten on “Wait ‘Till You See My Baby Do The Charleston”:

back-to-back with Buster Bailey on clarinet for “Yama Yama Blues” on a different Williams date:

and the difference becomes more a matter of style rather than predetermined function. Bailey played with King Oliver and knew what was expected of NOLA ensemble clarinetists: decorous, penetrating lines mostly in the upper register, dovetailing with the lead but staying out of its way. Bailey’s playing on “Yama Yama” would fit perfectly with a trombone as well as a cornet in the mix. Morten on the other hand is not just sparer but closer to Allen in terms of dynamics as well as register.  He accompanies the lead more than he ornaments it.

Harmonizing on top of Allen’s lead for “My Own Blues” (a technique that historian David Sager traces back to the Wolverines), Morten splits the difference between duetting with Allen and the type of upper register obbligato that Oliver and his Crescent City colleagues might have expected:

After the vocal, when Morten does launch into highflying descant lines, they act as rhythmic impetus as well as another texture. There’s none of the occasional monotony brought on by multiple choruses of strictly defined polyphony, even as Allen maintains that lead.  This loose, airy blend may or may not have been worked out in advance and might sound effortless, even unremarkable, but it creates a unique sound and feel for the group. It is difficult to imagine Bailey or Jimmie Noone’s prodigious technique, Johnny Dodds’s earthy sound or Sidney Bechet’s sheer personality (at this stage in their careers, anyway) forging the tender, restrained “Senorita Mine,” especially its second chorus with Allen’s muted horn behind Morten’s alto sax lead:

Boodle-Am” (here the better recorded fourth take) has a big sound and infectious rhythm that completely jettisons ideas about what “standard instrumentation” may have offered in place of two well-paired horns and rhythm:

Morten complements Allen’s powerful lead with sustained ascending high notes followed by busier fills; tension and release, accompaniment but not background, simple but very effective. On the verse right before the vocal, Morten sticks to a simpler part and leaves Allen room to stretch out.

These sessions using just(?) four players with washboard instead of the pricier full drum kit may have been an attempt by Williams to cut overhead. Yet even if he wanted to do the record cheap, he wanted to make it right. Williams consistently hired Allen for his record dates, obviously appreciating the cornetist’s ability to play as powerfully, sensitively, bluesy, or clean as needed and remain recognizable. Bennie Morten a.k.a. Morton only seems to have participated on these few sessions with Williams. This blogger can’t find any other sessions that include Morten or biographical information about him (his name being very close to that of trombonist Benny Morton doesn’t make research any easier). Whoever Morten was, he obviously had a great ear and gift for ensemble playing. Williams not only found him but also sat him next to Ed Allen in a studio. It’s not the Creole Jazz Band or Bird and Dizzy, it’s all theirs.

Prince Robinson, Williams, Allen and Floyd Casey

Prince Robinson, Williams, Allen and Floyd Casey

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4 thoughts on “The Best Front Line You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

  1. jazzlives says:

    Only “traditionalists” and those obsessed with “period authenticity” would find something lacking in those recordings. Here’s a modern evocation of that sound, even though the people on the stand are more numerous: http://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2014/07/06/the-black-diamond-blue-five-clint-baker-leon-oakley-robert-young-bill-reinhart-marty-eggers-isabelle-fontaine-june-1-2014-part-one/

  2. One of this blog’s knowledgeable readers (goodness it is incredible to see that in print!) has pointed out that the reed player mentioned above is in fact named Bennie Moten, leading me to believe that “Morten” and “Morton” are probably typos or aliases listed in discographies. This not only makes that reed player’s name similar to that of trombonist Benny Morton (who apparently proffered to spell his first name “Bennie”) but also to postwar bassist Benny Moten, and exactly the same as Kansas City bandleader Bennie Moten.

    In other words:
    >>Bennie Moten was a Kansas City bandleader and pianist
    >>Bennie Moten a.k.a. Morten or Morton was a clarinetist and saxophonist
    >>Benny Moten was a bassist
    >>Bennie a.k.a. Benny Morton was a trombonist

    The point being that while musicians with names like “Dillon Ober, Chauncey Morehouse, William Thornton Blue” and “Benjamin Whitted” may be obscure, research to make them less obscure is a lot easier.

  3. pwlsax says:

    There is something about the improvised frontline that intimidates even highly trained jazz players today. I work regularly with college professor hornmen who are excellent all-round players, but who avoid playing frontline with me, because even tho I have a lot of experience with it, they do not – and apparently an undergrad reed man like me is not the guy to listen and learn from.

  4. pwlsax says:

    For “undergrad,” please substitute “undegreed.” Even spellcheck shies away from the undegreed!

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