Tag Archives: Jimmy Lytell

A Version of Jazz History

john-tenniel-alice-looking-through-the-looking-glass-1-of-2-this-sideThey’re not a proper account of the landmark moments in jazz history, but these records do make for fascinating comparison and enjoyable listening (especially if you’ve already taken one or two Jazz History courses)…

“Livery Stable Blues,” made famous by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band as the first jazz record, played by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings:

The NORK’s “Tin Roof Blues,” best known for trombonist George Brunies and clarinetist Leon Roppolo’s solos, referenced by Miff Mole and Jimmy Lytell on the Original Memphis Five’s recording:

“Singin’ The Blues,” forever associated with Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer, given rhythmic tribute by the Fletcher Henderson band:

“West End Blues,” synonymous with Louis Armstrong, in its restrained inaugural recording by composer and Armstrong mentor Joe “King” Oliver:

Duke Ellington, best known as a composer, with a simple but highly personal arrangement of the WC Handy standard “St. Louis Blues” for backing Bing Crosby:

Meanwhile, across the pond, British bandleader paying homage to Ellington’s music by getting people out on the dance floor:

Jelly Roll Morton revisiting Scott Joplin’s ragtime staple “Maple Leaf Rag” on his own pianistic terms:

Morton’s “King Porter Stomp,” perhaps the most popular Morton tune when it comes to distinct approaches by bands, soloists and arrangers, becomes a swinging guitar partita in Teddy Bunn’s hands:

Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump,” for many the apotheosis of the riff-based, blues-soaked Kansas City sound, live at Carnegie Hall in 1938 with the Benny Goodman band expressing their admiration as well as their own unique sound:

Finally, Basie’s innovations in the scope and sound of the rhythm section, the prominence of the soloist in an ensemble setting and the very concept of “swing,” taken to turbo-charged abstraction on Gil Evan’s arrangement of the Basie staple “Lester Leaps In”:

These are just a few ways to mess with a jazz history syllabus. They might not be innovative recordings but they do show musicians listening and learning from one another while expressing themselves. That has to count for something in jazz, or music.

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Jimmy Lytell Gets Some Spotlight

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.

bdw8069This 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:

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Phil Napoleon: To Jazz Or…

Swing, blues and a completely fresh improvisation at every performance: three common (for some essential) descriptors of “jazz” that were only beginning to take root at the height of Phil Napoleon’s career. Sounds from New Orleans and the Midwest territories were not as widespread when Napoleon was blowing trumpet for the Original Memphis Five. Louis Armstrong’ rhythmic and solo innovations were still to come, and jazz remained a collective experience with strong influences from ragtime. Yet even beyond his musical and historical surroundings, Napoleon always had other priorities.

Those priorities included a brilliant yet inviting tone, given to clipped articulation and rhythmically tense phrasing. That tone usually supported a powerful, balanced lead, but could also supply spare, neatly organized “hot” patterns. “How Come You Do Me Like You Do” features Napoleon’s direct ensemble lead as well as his witty muted obbligato behind Jimmy Lytell’s clarinet:

Richard M. Sudhalter explained, “The Memphis Five appear to have ‘routined’ their arrangements in advance and in detail…A routine on one number doesn’t change from take to take.” This stick-with-what-works ethic makes sense the more one hears (and feels) Napoleon’s overriding concern for balance and blend. If Napoleon knows exactly what he’s going to play next on “He May Be Your Man,” and if the rhythm is more sway than swing, he still conveys spontaneity alongside restraint. He even adds subtle sardonic color to Lem Fowler’s naughty little tune [just follow the arrow to listen]:

He May Be Your Man

The chamber intimacy of these recordings combined with Napoleon’s clean, resilient sound betrays his background as a classically trained player. Even at his most unbuttoned, for example on a later date with Miff Mole, his “Dixieland” sound is perfectly centered, and he executes a tortuous muted passage (in tight harmony with Mole’s trombone!) neatly and convincingly:

Throughout his career, Napoleon never completely absorbed the loose rhythms and bluesy rhetoric of Louis Armstrong, or the coaxing warmth and harmonic palette of Bix Beiderbecke. It’s probably one reason why Napoleon has had a modest presence in most “jazz” histories. Here he is leading a group of other Jazz Age stars, instantly recognizable and dependable as always. Napoleon remained his own man, something even Armstrong and Beiderbecke could have related to:

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