Clarinetist Jimmy Lytell is best known for his recordings with the Original Memphis Five, followed by a lengthy career as a studio staff musician. Canadian company Jazz Oracle now collects all twenty-five recordings that Lytell made with just piano and guitar/banjo for the Pathe label between 1926 and 1928. This format was popular throughout the twenties, with clarinetists such as Buster Bailey, Benny Goodman, Johnny Dodds and Boyd Senter (!) getting the opportunity to put their sound and style front and center. Since Lytell’s legacy is predominantly ensemble-based, this disc sheds some welcome light on his abilities as a soloist.
Speaking about these recordings in his landmark Lost Chords, Richard Sudhalter described Lytell’s playing as “curiously inert rhythmically.” He added that Lytell’s “phrasing is quite foursquare, [with] tidy patterns that always conform to the two and four-bar phrases of the songs and invariably land on the downbeat of a bar…There are moments when the ear longs for a subordinate clause, alternation of phrase lengths, anything asymmetrical.” Lytell may have had a limited rhythmic comfort zone, but his playing within those boundaries is assured and consistently joyful. He displays a bright, distinct tone that occasionally resembles a reedy alto saxophone, as for example on “Old Folks.” There are also plenty of the trademarks smears recognizable from the OM5 sides. He also frequently punches out repeated notes, resulting in a declaratory sound unusual for the instrument at this time, while numbers such as “Davenport Blues” and “Pardon The Glove” include several well-executed saw tooth patterns and finger-busting runs.
This release is also a veritable twenties dance band songbook, including numbers such as “Messin’ Around,” “Stockholm Stomp” and “Missouri Squabble.” It’s illuminating to hear these tunes outside of more intricate big band charts of the time, and they pick up plenty of heat without the extra instrumentation (especially both takes of “Zulu Wail”). Jazz guitar pioneer Eddie Lang appears on several tracks, along with the energetic Dick McDonough, OM5 pianist Frank Signorelli and composer Rube Bloom.
Jazz Oracle’s engineering is typically beautiful, and this disc is worth purchasing for Phil Melick’s liner notes alone: they’re a model of how to blend history, discography and biography into a narrative rather than a list. Lytell may or may not make it into the pantheon of “great” jazz clarinetists yet this release reveals a musician who had taste as well as technique.
Unfortunately I can’t find any YouTube clips from this disc, but here’s Lytell backing the sweet-toned Annette Hanshaw: