Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost but not forgotten.
Pops plays “The Father of The Blues.” Could it get much better? The answer, immediately apparent in the first three seconds of the album’s opener, “St. Louis Blues”, is found in seven notes from Armstrong’s horn: no, no, absolutely not.
W.C. Handy is a name that has been tossed around a few times in the history of In The Dust. It happens to be a very important one, particularly when concerning the blues. Popularly referred to as “The Father of The Blues,” Handy is most well known not for inventing the blues, but inventing its modern form and building the archetypal framework for cross-genre interpretations of the blues and visa versa. He introduced blues scaling, color and form into jazz music, a marriage that has stood the test of time and grown to become nearly one. Because of this, it is no surprise that Armstrong would select Handy as his subject of interpretation. However, when concerning Armstrong’s own personal history and musical development, it is a tad curious.
Armstrong grew up in a rough-and-tumble area of New Orleans known as “Back of the Town”. He attended a nearby boys’ school but did not last long. He dropped out at age eleven and joined a boys’ vocal quartet, but the unstructured, latchkey lifestyle led to trouble. Because of periodic delinquency, and firing a gun in a crowded square, Armstrong was sent to the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs. It is here he learned how to play coronet, joining a military-style brass band with an emphasis on discipline and musicianship. Despite just learning the instrument, Armstrong quickly became bandleader, garnering considerable attention for his command of the instrument at such a young age. Armstrong graduated to playing in city brass bands and fell under the tutelage of the great Joe Oliver, better known as “King”, of King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band.
Armstrong remembers Oliver thusly:
It was my ambition to play as he did. I still think that if it had not been for Joe Oliver, Jazz would not be what it is today. He was a creator in his own right.
Armstrong credits Oliver as a father figure, and the one who taught him nearly everything he knows, joining Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1922, the hottest and most popular New Orleans’ jazz band of the time, and playing with him off and on for the rest of Oliver’s career.
It is interesting to note that only three years later, in 1925, after Armstrong had moved to New York, joined Fletcher Henderson’s band and switched from the coronet to the trumpet, he played on Bessie Smith’s rendition of Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” a recording that become of the most popular of the 1920’s and garnered Handy, and Smith, widespread fame and considerable pay.
Armstrong continued to revisit Handy’s work for the remainder of his career, and in full on this collection. Perhaps for economic reasons, perhaps for reasons unbeknownst to the author, but, while Oliver’s influence is the one that dominates Armstrong’s sound, it is the work of Handy that dominates his oeuvre. This collection asserts that, maybe, it is because no one but Armstrong can play Handy so beautifully.
“St. Louis Blues,” the song that inspired the foxtrot, also known as “the jazzman’s Hamlet”, opens the record, beginning with a classically beautiful Armstrong fanfare that, despite the year of this album’s recording, 1954, seems right at home snaking over the undulating dance floor of Harlem’s famed Savoy Ballroom or Cotton Club. The tempo and color when compared to Handy’s 1912 recording is indicative of Armstrong’s recognition of the need to modernize, while retaining the song’s essence and an eye, always, on New Orleans, an impulse that followed him, more or less at times, throughout his career. In his horn and the thick, sultry vocals of Velma Middleton you smell the Pastis and taste the Sazerac as the mixture cascades down upon impossibly slowly, like molasses, until you are encompassed and saturated with joy.
“Yellow Dog Blues,” follows, a lazy-river blues that relieves the tension of the terrifically jubilant, 8:50, “St. Louis Blues,” and sets a deep, upright bass-heavy groove that shines a light on Armstrong’s beautifully quirky and remarkably infectious voice. Drunken horns laugh in the background, cracking blue jokes and downing bourbon with droll, harping clarinets as Armstrong issues references to classic blues lore of the “easy rider,” the “bole weevil”, the “cotton stalk” and even those immortal words W.C. Handy first heard at the Tutwiler Station, waiting for his train, on the infamous day he first heard the blues and the namesake of this song: “goin’ where The Southern cross The Dog”.
“Beale Street Blues,” a true slow-blues standout, opens with soft-lipped clarinets over a fat backbeat, Armstrong singing what is one of the author’s favorite lines in all of music, and, more importantly, the spirit of New Orleans: “You’ll see pretty browns / In beautiful gowns / You’ll see tailor-mades / and hand-me-downs / You’ll meet honest men / and pick-pockets skilled / You’ll find that business never closes / Till somebody gets killed.” Armstrong unrolls his trademark vibrato like a red carpet unfurling, flapping and bouncing past drunks, bums, slinking adulterers, and down a gas-lit promenade. “If Beale Street could talk,” he growls, “if Beale Street could talk / Married men would have to take their beds and walk / Except one or two, who never drink booze / And the blind man on the corner / Who sings the Beale Street Blues”. An image echoed in blues from Blind Willie McTell and a host of others to follows in Handy’s footsteps, “Beale Street Blues” is the familiar smell and the feel against your cheek of the cool side of the pillow on your first night back home after a long time away. Perhaps you have never been to Beale Street, or New Orleans, but this Beale Street, and the warm, bright and perpetually breathtaking solos of Armstrong, are there to greet you and assure you that you never really left.
Armstrong selects “Atlanta Blues (Make Me A Pallet On The Floor)” to close out the collection. The tempo, walking bass line and shuffling hi-hat of “Atlanta Blues” makes a sly, joker’s nod-and-wink to the emerging bebop movement before returning to the rapturous, Charleston-ing blues bounce of Armstrong’s New Orleans, “hot” jazz, Dixie sound. Featuring some of his most boisterous and emphatic solos, it is clear that this song, in classic New Orleans style, is Armstrong’s give-it-your-all send-off. “Just make me a pallet on the floor,” Armstrong repeatedly suggests, as playing like that would leave anyone bushed, and a pallet will suit his humble needs just fine.
And in grand style, Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars draw their tribute to W.C. Handy to a close, Armstrong repeating, “So please, just make me a pallet on the floor,” for once the listener has concluded the last track in this collection, is it not the end of their time together. The curious timbre and lovable theatricality of Armstrong’s voice, the amazement at his unparalleled virtuosity and his friendly, comforting persona will stay with you, as the most welcomed and celebrated houseguest, for some time.
This is a record not to be missed, with a place in every jazz or blues lover’s collection. Handy first appropriated the blues for jazz in 1912. Louis Armstrong, in 1954, re-appropriates Handy for everyone, and in gratitude, respect and pure love, we devote to them, and their brilliant careers, as much space as they should like.
Every listener has their soft spots. Certain sounds, when stroked, squealed or sung in a particular manner, do it every time. We can safely rely upon these sounds, like the best comfort foods, to guide us through an ugly break-up or a string of shitty luck. We bring other sounds out for celebrations, to ease a hangover or complement a good buzz.
For several years now, the succulent songs of the Crescent City have remained my auditory comfort food of choice. I am particularly taken with the post Professor Longhair era of New Orleans, featuring artists like Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, Dave Bartholomew, Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Benny Spellman and others. Together, these musicians accounted for a golden era of soul and funk rivaled only by Detroit’s Motown and Chicago’s Chess Records.
Tuba Skinny harkens back to an earlier era in N’awlins. The one that the city is arguably most famous for: dixieland. On their January release Garbage Man, the six-piece band sends listeners on a tour through 1920s-30s blues and jazz. Since they formed on the streets of New Orleans in 2009, Tuba Skinny has managed to revisit this era in a way that never feels stale or played out like their counterparts the Preservation Hall Jazz Band can sound at times.
Stream Garbage Man in its entirety below. Purchase the album for $10 HERE.
Written by Rob Peoni
Listen via Spotify
I have been constantly altering a list throughout my lifetime entitled, “Best Humans I’ve Ever Seen Do Things.” I have had the privilege of witnessing some spectacular individuals. Michael Jordan remains the greatest basketball player that I have ever seen grace the court. Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback and arguably the greatest offensive mind of my football generation. When I start to think about the greatest musicians that I have ever seen live, the list becomes muddled and varies based upon my mood.
For a couple of years, though, a single musician has sat, unwavering near the top of my list. Hiromi Uehara was born in Hamamatsu, Japan on March 26, 1979. She began playing piano at age six, and started playing jazz at eight. A prodigy at an early age, Hiromi had performed with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra by age 14. Before she had reached adulthood, a chance encounter with Chick Corea led to a guest spot alongside the legendary pianist during a performance on his tour of Japan.
Hiromi wrote jingles for a few years, composing songs for large Japanese corporations like Nissan. Eventually, she enrolled at Berklee College of music in Boston, where renowned pianist Ahmad Jamal mentored her. She was already signed with the jazz label Telarc before her graduation in 2003.
By the time I saw Hiromi’s quartet Sonicbloom in 2009, at the Blue Note in Manhattan, she was known by jazz aficionados worldwide as one of the planet’s premier musicians. Her moniker rang out like a Brazilian soccer player whose surname was all that proved necessary. Her style of play must not be too unlike riding shotgun with a professional racecar driver. Hiromi drives at a break-neck speed while remaining in complete control. The adrenaline flows as she plays at an impossible rate, but there is never a bead of sweat on her brow or a shred of indecision in her hands.
It was electrifying. In a promotional video for her 2011 album Voice, drummer Simon Phillips picked the perfect word to describe Hiromi, calling her “relentless.” Her solos stream one after another, an endless barrage of flawless, speed-infused mind benders. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. She obliterated jazz standards like “I’ve Got Rhythm” and “Caravan.” The show was so good that I immediately walked up to the box office and purchased another ticket for the following night.
Voice opens with the title track. A dark, descending piano progression. The progression dissolves into a single repeating note, ringing out like the proverbial dinner bell. Her right hand continues to sound the alarm while the left hand joins into a stronger version of the initial break down. A cymbal splashes and superstar Anthony Jackson enters on contrabass. The beat builds from there. The trio stays on course with the song’s melody, but it grows increasingly funky. The first track clocks in at 9:13 and serves as a statement for the rest of the album. This is not a pop-infused joy ride. Hiromi challenges her listeners, from their attention spans to their tolerance for experimentation.
Hiromi is at her most frivolous on “Now or Never.” This song sounds the most like her work with Sonicbloom, with Hiromi switching flawlessly back and forth from her Yamaha grand to the electric keys for the first time. For all you jam fans out there, this is what Mike Gordon and Trey Anastasio sound like in their wettest of dreams. “Now or Never” offers a legitimate give and take between Hiromi and the rest of the band. The song begins with a full-on onslaught from the trio before the drums and bass take the back seat mid way through. She waits to kick it into hyper speed this time, content to riff over her partners from the upper register. It’s at this point in the album that the trio’s collective voice begins to gel, and Phillips and Jackson sound most comfortable.
If there is a forgettable track on Voice, “Temptation” may be it. No real risks taken. That’s not to say that the song is dull, it just lacks the complex explosiveness that Hiromi’s projects typically entail. Whenever the song seems to pick up momentum, it recedes before capitalizing. That being said, “Temptation” serves as a welcome breather when taken in amongst the rest of the album.
“Labyrinth” proves an apt name. The song is confusing, without ever reaching the point of discomfort. The listener is lost, but it feels as if you’re lost with intention. Hiromi has designed this maze and your three guides will get you out of it. Jackson shines in the latter half of the track, playing some incredible lines.
The problem that Hiromi faces is the same one that confronts nearly every virtuoso: Where do you go from the top? I’m sure for the avid jazz fan, there are nuances to be discovered with everything that Hiromi plays. However, for the novice listener it has the potential to become redundant. In my opinion, the only way that Hiromi will be able to ensure that her music remains interesting for herself and her audience is through increasingly unusual collaborations. Bela Fleck serves as the model for this mindset with his exploration of Asia via Abigail Washburn and Africa through Throw Down Your Heart.
Surprisingly, the album’s last track proves its most successful and accessible. The trio’s take on Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata No. 8, Pathetique” is stunning. It begins with the same restrained melancholy that so many pianists have stroked over the years. But Hiromi quickly cuts to the core of the song’s melody. Coupled with Phillips’ subtle snare pattern, she breaks Beethoven’s piece down into a bluesy number that would feel at home in any smoke-filled bar. Here she proves, without question, that Beethoven got down and dirty in his time.
Hiromi may go down as one of the greatest musicians of our generation. However, with the Grammy’s recent decision to scale back the number of jazz categories, I wonder how many people will continue to discover artists like her. One thing is certain, I’ll be listening. Below is a recent video of The Trio Project. Watch and learn:
Written by Rob Peoni