Compact Disc Reviews

On The Levee Jazz Band: Swinging New Orleans Jazz For Dancing – Or Just Listening! 

Big Al BACD – 701

  • From JUST JAZZ (July, 2018)

One of my first jazz record purchases as a teenager was on the the Good Time Jazz label — Down Home Rag b/w 1919 March, by Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band.  Recorded in 1945, it featured Mutt Cary on trumpet, and Darnell Howard on clarinet.  Here, the On The Levee Jazz Band pay homage to Ory, but veer towards his 1950s band rather than the 1940s.

Hal Smith has re-created the Ory band to perfection.  Ben Polcer displays his forceful and formidable technique throughout, whilst Goldberg recalls the liquid tone of the great Joe Darensbourg.  Kris Tokarski is obviously Morton-inspired (Wolverine Blues) and on Maple Leaf Rag he pays tribute to the great Don Ewell  — another inspiration of his.  Multi-instrumentalist Clint Baker was the perfect choice for the Ory role, prodding and punching the beat, plus great solos (Beale Street Blues).  Guitarist Belhaj plays solid 4/4 and the Ed Garland-inspired Gouzy drives the band along mightily.  If you are a fan of the Kid Ory band, you will love every track on this CD.

One of the traits of the Ory band was drummer Minor Hall ending a tune with a cymbal crash on the third beat of the last bar, giving it the required ‘Amen.’  Hal Smith emulates this admirably, maintaining his reputation as the number one Traditional Jazz drummer — bar none.  There is no drum feature here — just the occasional four-bar break, but Hal supports and cajoles the band into some exciting jazz.

In the past, I have had the pleasure of working with Hal.  To say it was a joy is an understatement.  As well as a great drummer, he is a walking encyclopedia of jazz.  This is a great band he has assembled.  The CD cover states ‘For Dancing — Or Just Listening.’  At my age, I’ll forego the former, but I’ll certainly be listening to this again and again.  Wonderful.  — Neville Dickie

  • From the SYNCOPATED TIMES (June, 2018)

The On The Levee Jazz Band takes its name from a San Francisco nightclub owned by Kid Ory between 1958 and 1961.  The group was organized by drummer Hal Smith with a specific goal of playing in the sound of the Ory band of the revival period.  Smith is an admirer of Ory drummer Minor Hall and found for this band a team that includes pianist Kris Tokarski, who was interested in the music of Ory pianist Don Ewell; Clint Baker, enamored with Ory’s trombone playing; and, most fortunately, bassist Joshua Gouzy.  Gouzy considers Ory bassist Ed Garland to be his primary influence and his playing really stands out on the album, not showy, but shining through.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that a band led by a drummer would be noteworthy for its pulsing rhythmic feel, but there it is.  This would be a good album for those keeping time to study from.

Smith filled out the band with busy New Orleans musicians Ben Polcer, trumpet; Joe Goldberg, clarinet; and Alex Belhaj, adding to the rhythm on guitar.  The band has already found success playing around New Orleans and in Pensacola where they debuted last fall.  More festivals are in the works, so the band is a going affair and not just an album project.  That’s a great thing for the scene.  While there are some bands with 50 years in, or more, still playing in revival style, none are doing it with the intentionality of this group.  That focus gives the music a freshness that will bring a smile to long time fans.  For the younger fans it’s a chance to stop in and look at what came before, on their way back to unearthing lost gems of the twenties.  The younger band members will even carry the influence of this band back with them to other groups.

The album is made up of revival standards, all instrumental, played slow and low with a bobbing swing.  The titles are familiar — “At A Georgia Camp Meeting,” “Milenberg Joys,” “Wolverine Blues” — but they are standards because a good band can always find something new in them.  The album has a summertime feel, good for a joyful rest on the patio, or well-paced dancing.  A sure hit for the Dixieland crowd and, if you’re a musician, worth playing along with at home.  My pick: “Down Home Rag.”  — Joe Bebco

  • From THE L.A. JAZZ SCENE (February, 2019)

During 1944-61, veteran trombonist Kid Ory led a series of classic New Orleans jazz bands. The musicianship was always excellent (there was no question that the musicians would be in tune), the soloists were colorful and melodic, and the many ensembles were both clean and exciting. Whether it was his bands with cornetist/trumpeter Mutt Carey, Andrew Blakeney, Teddy Buckner, Alvin Alcorn (my favorite edition) or Henry “Red” Allen, Ory performed spirited and memorable music.

The On The Levee Jazz Band brings back the sound of Ory’s groups. While the lack of liner notes or information beyond the basic song and personnel listings is unfortunate, the music very much speaks for itself. Drummer Hal Smith is the leader of a septet comprised of trumpeter Ben Polcer, multi-instrumentalist Clint Baker on trombone (probably his best ax), clarinetist Joe Goldberg, pianist Kris Tokarski, guitarist Alex Belhaj and bassist Joshua Gouzy. The band comes close to sounding like Ory’s group with Alcorn. Baker really has the Ory style down on trombone, trumpeter Polcer offers a solid but not dominating lead, clarinetist Goldberg is fluent while staying melodic, and the rhythm section is subtle and swinging.

The 14 selections are all taken from Ory’s repertoire on his Good Time Jazz recordings with the highlights including jubilant versions of “Original Dixieland One Step,” “Wolverine Blues,” “Royal Garden Blues” and “Panama.” Actually all of the performances are quite enjoyable. The band even explodes now and then going into the final chorus just as Ory and Alcorn used to.

Fans of Kid Ory, New Orleans jazz, and joyful music in general will certainly want this excellent outing which is available from www.ontheleveejazz.com.  — Scott Yanow

*******

Ragtime New Orleans Style – Vol. 2 

Big Al BACD – 702

  • From Jazz Lives Blog (Apr. 22, 2019) “What Would Jelly Do?”

Kris Tokarski has been one of my favorite solo and ensemble pianists for some years now.  It can’t be “many” years, because Kris is perhaps half my age, but my admiration is not limited by the length of our acquaintance.  He listens, he creates melodies, he swings, he sounds like himself, and he has a deep appreciation for the past without being chained by narrow historical definitions.  He’s recorded in a variety of settings, but here I draw your attention to two CDs of ragtime pieces done with delicacy and individuality: the first, issued in 2016 on Solo Art, paired him with drummer-scholar Hal Smith and string bassist Cassidy Holden, pleased me and others immensely: read more about it here: https://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2016/06/07/tokarskis-nightingale-and-other-rare-species/.  KINKLETS from that disc: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=deDJf7DO79A

The second disc by Kris and  Hal, now joined by bassist Joshua Gouzy, issued on Big Al Records, is called RAGTIME – NEW ORLEANS STYLE, VOLUME TWO, and it’s a real pleasure. Hear a sample for yourself here: http://www.kristokarski.com/cds/ (scroll down the page through the evidence of how well Kris plays with others and on his own). 

The premise is a collection of rags that Jelly Roll Morton planned to record — or would have known and played.  And it’s not a fanciful vision, as Hal Smith’s  solid annotations show — in 1939, Morton discussed with Roy Carew his plans to play Joplin and others in his own style, because, as he told Carew, “he didn’t know of anyone more qualified to do it than himself,” and he envisioned recording thirty or forty rags.  (Oh, had he lived for another decade!)

He didn’t live to accomplish this, but we have Tokarski, Gouzy, and Smith to make the fantasy real.

I am especially fond of projects that take a gently imaginative look at the past. Let those who feel drawn to such labors reproduce recordings: the results can be dazzling.  It takes decades of skill to play BIG FAT MA AND SKINNY PA and sound even remotely like the Hot Five.  But even more entrancing to me is the notion of “What might have happened . . . .?” going back to my early immersion in Golden Era science fiction.  An example that stays in my mind is a series of Stomp Off recordings devoted to the Johnny Dodds repertoire, with the brilliant Matthias Seuffert taking on the mantle.  But the most memorable track on those discs was Porter’s YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME, a pop tune from 1929 that Dodds might well have heard or even played — rendered convincingly and joyously in his idiom.  (It really does something to me.)

That same playful vision applies to this disc.  It merges, ever so gently, Jelly Roll Morton and an unhackneyed ragtime repertoire, mixing piano solos and piano trio.  That in itself is a delightful combination, and I replayed this disc several times in a row when I first acquired a copy.

Kris plays beautifully, with a precise yet flexible approach to the instrument and the materials.  He doesn’t undercut, satirize, or “modernize”; his approach is simultaneously loving and easy. It’s evident that he has heard and absorbed the lessons of James P. Johnson and Teddy Wilson — their particular balance of propulsion and relaxation — as well as being able to read the notes on the page. He doesn’t pretend to be Morton in the way that lesser musicians have done (with Bix, Louis, Monk, and others) — cramming in every possible Mortonism over and over.  What he does is imagine a Mortonian approach, but he allows himself freedom to move idiomatically, with grace and beauty, within it.  And he doesn’t, in the name of “authenticity,” make rags sound stiff because they were written before Joe Oliver and Little Louis took Chicago.  He’s steady, but he’s steadily gliding.  His approach to the rags is neither stuffy reverence nor near-hysterical display.

He’s in good company with Josh and Hal.  Many string bassists working in this idiom confuse percussiveness with strength, and they hit the fretboard violently: making the bass a victim of misplaced enthusiasm.  Not Joshua, who has power and melodic wisdom nicely combined: you can listen to his lines in the trio with the delight you’d take in a great horn soloist.  Every note sings, and he’s clearly there with the pulse.

As for the drummer?  To slightly alter a famous Teagarden line, “If Hal don’t get it, well, forget it right now,” which is to say that Hal’s playing on this disc is a beautifully subtle, completely “living” model of how to play ensemble drums: gracious yet encouraging, supportive.  He doesn’t just play the beat: he creates a responsive tapestry of luxuriant sounds.

The CD is beautifully recorded by Tim Stambaugh of Word of Mouth Studios, and the repertoire is a treat — rags I’d never heard (THE WATERMELON TRUST by Harry C. Thompson, and ROLLER SKATERS RAG by Samuel Gompers) as well as compositions by Joplin, Lamb, Scott, Turpin, Matthews, and May Aufderheide.  Nothing overfamiliar but all melodic and mobile.

Here’s another sample.  Kris, Joshua, and Hal are the rhythm section of Hal’s Kid Ory “On the Levee” band, and here they play May Aufderheide’s DUSTY RAG at the San Diego Jazz Fest in November 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPaq8dabThw

Hear what I mean?  They play with conviction but their seriousness is light-hearted.  Volume Two is a disc that won’t grow tired or stale.  Thank you, Kris, Josh, and Hal!  And Jelly, of course.

May your happiness increase!  — Michael Steinman

  • From The SYNCOPATED TIMES (February, 2019)

Most contemporary piano performances of ragtime from the classic era (roughly 1899 – 1916) are taken pretty straight with the pianist playing what is included in the sheet music.  However even during the early time period, pianists often improvised variations of the themes.  Certainly Jelly Roll Morton did not feel shy to infuse the compositions with his own musical personality, demonstrating in his Library of Congress recordings from 1938 how he changed Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” into New Orleans jazz.

Pianist Kris Tokarski, in a trio with bassist Cassidy Holden and drummer Hal Smith, demonstrated that approach throughout his earlier Solo Art CD Classic Rags — New Orleans StyleRagtime – New Orleans Style Vol. 2 (which has Smith and bassist Joshua Gouzy) builds upon the approach and lets one hear what Jelly Roll Morton might have sounded like interpreting pieces by not only Joplin but James Scott, Tom Turpin, Harry C. Thompson, May Aufderheide, Theron C. Bennett, George Botsford, Joseph Lamb, Artie Matthews and Sam Gompers.  Although Morton never recorded in a piano – bass – drums trio, one could imagine that this is how he would have sounded around 1915 playing rags in a Los Angeles bar.

Tokarski, who has the Morton style down very well but also displays his own ideas, generally plays the rags straight at first before turning them into vehicles for early jazz improvising.  Certainly these versions of such songs as “Frog Legs Rag,” “Weeping Willow,” “Pineapple Rag,” “St. Louis Tickle,” “Black and White Rag” and “The Cascades” are different than any other recorded versions, swinging harder than the usual renditions with Tokarski opening up each number to add spontaneous yet tasteful ideas.  Jelly Roll Morton would have approved.  — Scott Yanow

  • From OffBeat Magazine (Feb. 27, 2019)

Most of the traditional jazz players in New Orleans try and reproduce the music from the ’10s through ’40s by emulating that music as closely as possible, rhythmically, harmonically and in the spirit of the earlier improvisations. Others go quite a ways out from this approach in their desire to update the music to take into account later music trends.

Pianist Kris Tokarski has taken a sensible approach of taking the music that predates jazz— ragtime—and playing it in the style of how the early New Orleans jazzmen might have taken it. Pianistically, this means, for the most part, Jelly Roll Morton, who recorded at least three rags in his early jazz style. This disc presents 15 rags from 1903–16, seven with the simpatico accompaniment of drummer Hal Smith and Joshua Gouzy on bass, the others on solo piano.

Some tracks, especially the brisker ones, work better than others: James Scott’s “Frog Legs Rag,” Joseph Lamb’s “Patricia Rag” and Theron C. Bennett’s “St. Louis Tickle,” to name three. But every track will evoke smiles from those who are familiar with the ragtime/Jelly Roll canon. With dozens of albums out there repeating the scores verbatim, these variations are most welcome.  — Tom McDermott

*******

Hal Smith’s Swing Central: Windy City Swing

Tuxedo Cat 1401

  • From JUST JAZZ (November, 2017)

Hal Smith has long been recognized as the USA’s top Traditional/swing drummer, fronting bands and recording numerous LPs and CDs over the years.  Stomp Off Records featured many of his groups, and Hal invariably booked compatible musicians for the sessions.

This CD features brilliant clarinetist Jonathan Doyle, accompanied by a first-rate rhythm section.  If you enjoy listening to the quirky sound of clarinet virtuoso Pee Wee Russell, or Chicago legend Frank Teschemacher (My Honey’s Lovin’ Arms) you will love these renditions.  That said, Doyle is no copyist, and has an outstanding technique.  He introduces six of his own compositions — using chord sequences of well-known tunes, but with a completely different melody line, i.e. Bats On A Bridge uses the chords of I Found A New Baby; not a new approach, but quite effective in this instance.

The Lady’s In Love With You is a great opener, recalling Pee Wee Russell’s wonderful quintet recording of that tune nearly 60 years ago.  Little Girl features exciting clarinet and piano, a percussive bass solo, plus some inventive guitar from Cummins.  The outchorus is a joy.

Pianist Dan Walton was previously involved with Western Swing bands, and the influence of that genre shows in Pig Foot Pete, where he delivers a fine vocal, accompanying himself with some very good boogie woogie piano.

Hal Smith has a reputation for putting together first – class outfits, and this one is no exception.  — Neville Dickie