Tag Archives: Bennie Moten

Bennie Moten’s Sax Soloists

Here’s the second and final part of my discussion of Bennie Moten’s pre-1930 sax section…

naturalsaxdotcom

The range of ensemble colors is directly proportional to the sum of instrumental voices, so that more players equal more instruments and therefore more orchestral possibilities.

At first glance it seems like simple musical mathematics, borne out by jazz history: big bands developed from Jazz Age tentets to the fifteen-piece plus ensembles that are now industry standard. The saxophone section alone started as a three-man operation. Now five players (two altos, two tenors and a baritone) is the norm. The math says that three horns can’t produce the same variety as five, and history paints these changes as a natural and inevitable evolution. Usually the underlying assumption here is that twenties bandleaders were either bad at orchestral arithmetic or good with a bottom line. The idea that musicians just chose the right sidemen and did a lot with what was only later deemed “a little” rarely enters the equation.

For example, Bennie Moten’s sax section does usually stick to the two altos plus tenor arrangement that was standard for most twenties bands. Yet whatever this section may lack in terms of variety as a concerted unit, it more than makes up for in solo permutations. Harlan Leonard, Woody Walder and Jack Washington each play with distinct, contrasting styles. Factor in different approaches to different types of musical material as well as instrumental doubling, and you get a surprisingly broad musical palette.

Leonard plays both bright lead alto and bluesily rococo solos with a delightfully nasal edge. He tosses in fills between the ensemble on “When Life Seems So Blue,” while “Oh! Eddie” and “Mary Lee” include tantalizingly short but hot bridges:

Leonard’s soprano sax is a refreshing alternative to Sidney Bechet’s towering presence as well as the brass clarinet approach many of his contemporaries took to the instrument.  On “Boot It,” he plays with a with a joyous hoedown feel, recalling early jazz’s intersection with country and other folk art forms:

Clarinetist Woody Walder is often demonized for his novelty solos on the earliest Moten sides. Walder’s arsenal of whinnies, pops and barnyard onomatopoeia might be an acquired taste (personally I think he was just anticipating the Art Ensemble of Chicago) but his clarinet solos with the late Moten band deserve more attention. He plays some simple but direct blues in a sandy low register on “That Too Do,” with a few inflections thrown in as a type of musical signature:

Walder interpolates more passionate blues on the non-blues form of “New Vine Street Blues” and plays jittery, high-octane clarinet on faster numbers such as “Sweetheart of Yesterday” as well as shouting obbligatos to close numbers such as “Oh! Eddie.”

Doubling tenor, Walder seems hell-bent on sounding just as massive and brawny on the larger instrument as he is fleet and piercing on the smaller one. On “Everyday Blues” and the jerky, tongue-in-cheek “New Goofy Dust Rag”, he smears notes in a sweaty, agitated style. There are traces of Coleman Hawkins, but none of his harmonic sophistication. This is greasy saloon stuff without any hint of the conservatory:

Jack Washington is best known for anchoring Count Basie’s sax section, but as a younger man he played second alto with Moten and got much more solo space on baritone sax. He displays a burnished, gargantuan sound on baritone that’s closer to a bass saxophone, even pumping out effective bass lines for “That Too Do.” Washington’s unique tone is already put to effective use at this early stage, for example creating dark contrast behind the flashy trumpet on “Rit Dit Ray” and playing lead on baritone for a few tunes. This effect can be heard in other bands from the time, but Washington adds his own unique density:

Washington’s solos are all bottom and darkness, subterranean parties in a delightfully archaic vein. He takes slap tonguing to a whole new level, for example on “New Vine Street” but never forgets to swing; take his solo on “Mack’s Rhythm” or the way he dances all over “Mary Lee”:

“Mary Lee” also includes another Leonard bridge as well as Walder’s percussive clarinet and tenor honks.  Given its sheer range of colors, Moten’s sax section could have been its own band, a front line unto itself. It’s not a Gil Evans affair but neither is it just three players, or five instruments, or even eight if you include the fact that everyone doubled clarinet. It is simply incredible that this was just one section of a band. Then again, who’s counting?

direct proportion

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Bennie Moten’s Sax Section

library-umkc-edu

This is the first of a two-part post on one of my favorite musical experiences. As usual, it’s probably not most listeners’ first choice for a good time, but think of it like the first time you tried sushi, or whiskey…

Jazz lovers can debate their picks for “best saxophone section,” but chances are their selections share some similarities: tight unison playing, rich harmonies with the ability to turn creamy smooth or biting at the drop of a dime, and a distinctive sound both as a section and via soloists spinning out of the unit. There is a certain idea(l) of “saxophone section” in place after decades of well-oiled, multi-hued saxophone sections. Given that tradition, Bennie Moten’s three-man, pre-1930 reed team may sound more like a gap in the chain than a link.

For starters, its modest size comes from an earlier and supposedly developmental stage of big band arranging (with the five-man sax section viewed as the final step in the inexorable evolution of the jazz orchestra). Moten’s saxes also play more like a combination than a section, with a less-than-airtight blend and everyone’s part clearly audible. Finally, the Moten section’s lush sound would simply never pass in the modern age of more cutting sax timbres.

Harlan Leonard, Woody Walder and Jack Washington’s ensemble work is actually quite successful, in its own sweet way, because of their inability (refusal?) to ever jell. The Moten sax section sounds like three people playing, in both the musical as well as recreational sense of the word, rather than reading a part or letting muscle memory rehash what they practiced. The ragged sax soli on “That Certain Motion” would probably have most band directors turning red, but it’s hard to imagine such a deliciously gooey, lazy feel arising after hundreds of rehearsal hours:

Moten’s saxes are also incredibly transparent, perhaps to a fault. Missteps are out there for all to hear. Yet they’re also completely earnest and anything but stiff. “When Life Seems So Blue,” is slightly neater, but as if to avoid the monotony of cohesion, lead alto Leonard pipes in some ecstatic filigree between the full ensemble’s statements:

“Small Black” and “Won’t You Be My Baby?” sound much tighter, but the section’s lush, honking sound makes them seem like one of Botticelli’s zaftig figures compared to today’s lean, mean supermodel sax sections:

It’s easy to hear their sound as some vestigial element, but Moten’s saxes provide as unique a reed aesthetic as anything by the World Saxophone Quartet, Bob Mintzer or Dead Cat Bounce. Sound is never old or new; it’s always in the present and has no expiration date. Whether or not the Moten sax section belongs in the pantheon of great saxophone sections, they make room for themselves as a completely unique experience. That has to count more than playing every note at exactly the same time.

More on the Moten sax section, specifically the Moten sax soloists, next time…

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The Vindication of Woody Walder

Woody Walder Wails (and Then Some) on Clarinet

Woody Walder didn’t so much play the clarinet as deploy it.  His solos with Bennie Moten’s band are closer to sonic found art sculptures than the poems, speeches and epigrams of his Jazz Age colleagues.  Walder pieced together squeals, squeaks, whinnies, whines and cries, sometimes through the insertion of foreign objects into the bell of his instrument, other times with just his mouthpiece.  The effect (Walder seemed all about effect) could be humorous or disturbing, at times grating, but was always surprising.

Walder’s particular sound of surprise hasn’t served his legacy well. Most jazz historians locate Walder’s playing somewhere between a tolerable novelty of the times or a now dated commercial evil, perhaps higher than comb playing and barnyard theatrics, but far below the fine art of plunger-muted brass.

Courtesy of chaka85.wordpress.com

It’s a pity Walder missed out on noise music, the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s experiments or the deliberately nasal, percussive and off-pitch curveballs of the World Saxophone Quartet.  The avant-garde as well as Walder and contemporaries such as Fess Williams (and even King Oliver at his onomatopoeic) all relished vocally inflected, “unmusical,” weird and occasionally cacophonous sounds.  Apparently Walder’s mistake was doing it for a willing and wide audience.

It’s best to listen to Walder on his own terms, neither as historical victim or stylistic precursor, but simply as a musician playing on a record.  Better yet, forget the man and just listen to the wholly unique, singularly “ugly” sounds twisting pitch and time on “Elephant’s Wobble,” “Thick Lip Stomp” and “Yazoo Blues.”  If you’re craving context, listen to how Walder’s solo on “Midnight Mama” at times resembles a hybrid of Rex Stewart’s half-valving and Bubber Miley’s gutbucketing, transplanted to Eric Dolphy’s honking, metallic reed.   It’s a hell of an act, or art, if you’re into that sort of thing.

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White Plays Black

Given Jazz Age assumptions about which bands were supposed to play what, and the frequency of jazz-tinged instrumentals in Joe Candullo‘s discography, it’s remarkable that  the violinist and bandleader was able to record quite a bit of music other bands were simply expected to play. The same ratio of hot to sweet music was the norm for Duke Ellington, Bennie Moten or Charlie Johnson.

Occasionally double standards come in handy. Had the Candullo band’s family trees or repertoire been different, they might just be another jazz band, or another (most likely forgotten) dance orchestra. Luckily, the “novelty” of these players’ backgrounds draws attention to real musical discoveries. The tight ensemble, instrumental variety and tense but energetic beat on “Black Bottom” reveal some distinct archaic pop:

Candullo added his own sound to several tunes that Moten, Fletcher Henderson and King Oliver also recorded. Doc Cooke‘s band, featuring the pugilistic Freddie Keppard on cornet, gave “Brown Sugar” a raucous, red-hot treatment, while Candullo’s version simmers the themes and instrumental textures into a warmer feel [follow the link to listen]:

http://www.dailymotion.com/embed/video/xnowsu
Joe Candullo & His Everglades Orchestra – Brown… by kspm0220s

Historian and collector Mark Berresford notes that “why and how Candullo and his men got to record such material is a mystery.” By the Swing era, the sounds of Harlem, New Orleans, Kansas City and other territories were well known in popular music. Yet saxophonist and bandleader Charlie Barnet‘s unabashed admiration for Ellington, Henderson and Count Basie would earn him a reputation as a derivative stylist, a second-rate soloist and another pop musician getting rich off of others’ creativity.  Assuming that musicians can play great music without innovating, Barnet left behind plenty of upbeat, passionate music.  It’s fairly obvious (and not just from the titles) where performances such as “The Duke’s Idea”

and “The Count’s Idea”

come from, but the emulation is sincere, flattering and far from an exact duplicate of its source material. Barnet was clearly a student of Coleman Hawkins’ tenor and Johnny Hodges’ alto, but does that make his own sax any less swinging and assured? He was also one of the few big band leaders to frequently incorporate the soprano saxophone. It adds a shimmering lead and tongue-in-cheek blues statements to “Pompton Turnpike”:

Thank goodness audiences and critics have moved beyond evaluation by association: just ask Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Leontyne Price, Eminem, Karmin…

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