Tag Archives: slap tongue

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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(Keep) Franz Jackson, Always Telling Stories

Courtesy of FranzJackson.com

Perennially hip, cynically postmodern ears may hear Franz Jackson’s music as outdated.  Others will listen and be grateful for an eighty-year career spent playing exactly the notes the clarinetist, saxophonist, vocalist and arranger wanted (which is pretty much the definition of “hip”).

For Jackson artistic liberty was expressed through swing, a clear melody and the blues, not to mention such important musical fundamentals as a distinctly warm tone and a sense of humor. Jackson’s role as one of the last surviving voices of jazz’s pre-swing era only added to his musical toolkit, without miring that voice in nostalgia.  For example, “reed popping” was in some ways out of fashion by the late twenties, but Jackson uses it for some percolating counterpoint behind John Thomas’ trombone lead on “Mack the Knife” in 1961.  Jackson’s sandy, rhythmically liberated vocal and clarinet (with some delicious chalumeau trills) evidence a player who had been listening and absorbing but also remembering and reshaping ideas for decades:

That sense of knowing exactly what he wants to say (mixed with an underlying sense of joy at being alive to say it), similarly colors Jackson’s playing on the Jimmie Noone warhorse “Sweet Lorraine.”  Here it’s clothed in a subtle small group swing arrangement, with Jackson in turn using Coleman Hawkins-esque heft to clothe his own coy approach on tenor sax:

Jackson’s clarinet on “Battle Hymn of the Republic” pays uncanny tribute to George Lewis’ ensemble arpeggios (albeit with surer tone and intonation), while his loping solo grooves and arches even at double the tempo. Here and elsewhere Jackson surrounds himself with other clear, direct communicators:

All of the above videos are posted by Jackson’s daughter, Michelle Jackson Jewell, who also maintains a loving tribute to her father at an informative, comprehensive and tune-filled website. She’s also organizing a campaign to fund the release of Jackson’s 95th birthday celebration, his swinging, star-studded last concert in 2008, which she hopes to issue as a double disc set. You can find out more about her father, this project and how to donate here:

“Franz Jackson: Milestone” (A Historic CD Project)

As the clip on that page will show, Jackson could make a chorus of “Happy Birthday” a party unto itself!  He once said, “it’s no good tune if it don’t have a story,” and hopefully the right support can keep Jackson’s story going much longer.

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A Song By Any Other Name: The Right Amount of “Deep Henderson”

“Deep Henderson” illustrates one pop tune that became just popular enough. Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography lists thirteen different bands recording Fred Rose’s composition in 1926, the same year it was published in Chicago, with four other groups cutting the tune the following year (in three different countries, no less). Most bands also used the publisher’s stock arrangement, adapting it to their needs and style rather than starting over fresh as they might with so many other jazz warhorses. Unlike “St. Louis Blues” or “Tiger Rag, ” “Deep Henderson” became a controlled study in the variety of bands and approaches at one small juncture in American popular music.

Bill Edwards describes “…one of the most sorrowful and wistful songs [he’s] encountered,” with “…long sustained high notes leading downwards to the end of each phrase help[ing to] punctuate [his feeling].” Apparently the secret to this song’s success was jettisoning its sad, I-wanna’-go-back-to-the-South lyrics and slow, bluesy feel (which can still be heard courtesy of Edwards here). By the time the Coon Sanders Nighthawk Orchestra hit the studio to give “Deep Henderson” its inaugural recording, the tune was gussied up to make it more flapper friendly:

The Nighthawks were an immensely popular group, and their creamy saxes, strutting brass and re-playable shellac introduced a wide audience to “Deep Henderson.” Co-leader and pianist Joe Sanders handles the written solo with enough downhome swagger to offer some reminder of Rose’s original vision. Yet the rhythm is overwhelmingly upbeat (almost coy), aided by Pop Estep’s bumping tuba walking four to the bar behind the trumpet solo. While their reliance on written music and novelty numbers may deny them entry into the hallowed chapters of “jazz” history, the Nighthawks gave many Americans a good idea of how loose and lowdown pop can get.  They sound downright raunchy compared to Mike Markel’s band (follow the arrow to the link):

Deep Henderson

Markel’s block chord introduction and racehorse tempo likely impressed dancers, with robust saxes and clipped brass choreographing their stomping feet. Yet the band’s jerkier rhythm doesn’t leave much space for legs flying off the dance floor. The horn man (Red Nichols? Earl Oliver? An unknown player?) soars to the occasion, as do the saxes behind the brass, recalling society band string sections. In light of sax riffs getting faster, trickier and uniformly high-flying in the years ahead, their sustained harmonies are a nice touch. Markel’s approach has a nostalgic charm, a reminder of when pop music was intense and tight (in feeling if not always execution). Yet the recording does make the “New Orleans effect” even more apparent when listening to King Oliver and some neighborhood colleagues:

Oliver’s cornet immediately presages a much earthier, more personal account of the tune. The Dixie Syncopators’ tempo isn’t much slower than the Nighthawks, but their easygoing inflection and subtle backbeat make it sound like they’re taking their time. The saxophone section parts way for Barney Bigard’s slap-tonguing tenor, perhaps dated but undeniably percussive (and as texturally original as prepared piano or distorted guitar). Even the soprano sax adds a howling, haunting dimension to the clarinet trio.

Drummer Paul Barbarin’s “Oh, play it Mr. Russell!” during Luis Russell’s solo plays up the informal air, yet such exclamations may or may not reveal the insidious, timeless hand of marketing. Improvisation and swing are the breaking news here: Oliver’s greasy responses over the saxes (especially heroic in light of his aging embouchure), and Kid Ory’s lurching, sly trombone over the closing chorus make this, the second recording of “Deep Henderson” pressed, a very distinct chapter of the tune’s short but hot history.

Of course Miff Mole adds his smoother, more rounded yet equally punchy trombone over the chirping clarinets that close Markel’s recording, and even the drummer gets in some solo syncopations. The way each group, section and soloist navigates this arrangement points to a difference of delivery with a shared intent. The “same old stock” can never be the same, not if you’re a musician with something to say or a record consumer with a paycheck. At a time when pop is reticent to market covers (even as the same tune in the same rendition gets beaten into the ground over air and internet), it’s also a reminder that the question of originality often begins with “how” as well as “what.”

Lord lists seventy-one recordings total of “Deep Henderson.” I must admit that in light of Oliver and others’ experiments, Bela Dajos’ rich, buttery society version comes across as either insularity, or the sincerest form of parody:

Last one, I promise: here’s British bandleader Bert Ambrose’s thoroughly modern swing account from 1937:

Well, we can’t end without hearing Vince Giordano do it!  Live, in 3D, with glorious sound and from outside of Lord’ discography:

Want more? Be sure to share your favorites in the comments, and hope you enjoyed the tour.

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