There are many “Best of 2018” lists out there yet most of the music I heard this year debuted closer to 1718 than 2018. My list is going to split the difference and only go back one century. Please enjoy it.
James P. Johnson, “Carolina Shout”
Jazz anthologies are more likely to include Johnson’s actual recording of this tune from 1921 than the piano roll heard here. Maybe it’s the sound of a live piano or clever edits to the roll after Johnson cut it, but this version has a grandeur as well as a Victorian lilt that makes it sound refreshingly dated.
Earl Fuller, “I’m Sorry I Made You Cry”
Earl Fuller’s band, featuring Ted Lewis’s nascent wail, is now often dismissed as—at best—a group of clueless imitators. Yet Lewis’s breaks on this track are melodic in a chant-like way, showing the influence of klezmer often pointed to by contemporary commentators). His smears contrast well with the record’s incessant staccato tunefulness. There is also a subversively comic aspect to the band having their way with this sentimental World War I number.
Original Dixieland Jazz Band, “Ostrich Walk”
The ODJB effectively wrote the Dixieland book with their barreling song debuts yet their perfectly paced, cleverly arranged and simply riveting premier of “Ostrich Walk” remains my favorite recording of this warhorse. The introduction roars into a sense of suspense over Eddie Edwards’s glissandi before the chorus opens up into Larry Shields’s downright songlike breaks. Does anyone really still care whether they completely improvised this performance?
Wilbur Sweatman, “Ev’rybody’s Crazy ‘Bout Doggone Blues”
This is another example of music occasionally dismissed as mere imitation of the ODJB, but Sweatman’s forays into the ODJB style with his Original Jass (sic) Band for Columbia have always sounded distinct to me. The tuba and drums give it a high-stepping parade feel and Sweatman’s clarinet dominates for a unique take on New Orleans collective improvisation.
Original New Orleans Jazz Band, “Ja-Da”
Unsurprisingly, this one appears in a lot of jazz history anthologies. Besides being one of the first recorded examples of a racially mixed band, its warm, soft edges are balanced by an easy yet infectious rhythm and beautiful collective interplay.
Savoy Quartet, “The Darktown Strutter’s Ball”
One YouTuber described this group as “not jazz and yet not quite ragtime” and I thought it was a lovely compliment. Whatever this little group in England was doing, it was their own thing, and that has always counted for something in the jazz tradition even when it’s not jazz per se. I’ve also always been a sucker for Alec Wilder’s clicking, zipping and clanging percussion, laying down much more than a beat like some World War I Tony Williams. Twin drumming banjos add another layer of pop and color.
Eubie Blake, “Somebody’s Done Me Wrong”
More music from outside the strict parameters of jazz (whatever they are are at the moment). Blake’s piano has always seemed like neo-ragtime or proto-stride to my ears. Like Bach’s son Carl Philip Emanuel (who died today in 1788), Blake heard a lot of changes in the music around him and was too creative to sit on either side of tradition. Blake’s reharmonizations, three-over-two rhythms and stop/start on a dime tempos never obscure the tune but do make it more than a song.
Louisiana Five, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”
This earnestly swinging ensemble is sometimes dismissed for a homogeneity of sound due to its seemingly simple format of clarinet lead with trombone counterpoint over the rhythm section. Close listening reveals a variety of textural and rhythmic variety, from the slight backbeat on “Church Street Sobbin’ Blue, shifting rhythmic stresses on “Rainy Day Blues,” a more even 4/4 shuffle for “Dixie Blues” and a near-Latin feel on the minor key verse of “Heart Sickness Blues.” This track shows the group’s unique approach to a pop song as well as clarinetist Alcide Nunez’s subtle approach to improvisation at around 2:30, doubling notes, adding slight ornaments and making the melody his own while never losing sight of that lead. The L5 is just begging for a high-quality, lovingly engineered reissue (and I’m looking at you, Doug Benson and David Sager).
Happy all the years!