A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

Back when I was still on good terms with a certain jazz magazine that had previously employed me, and was called upon to participate in their annual Critic’s Poll, I always cast one Hall of Fame vote for Eddie Condon – to the best of my knowledge the only person ever to do so. The reason was simple: to my way of thinking, anyone who made it their business to get Pee Wee Russell into the recording studio as often as Condon did deserved not just credit, but sainthood. The fact that he was a fine rhythm guitarist (opting for the unamplified four-string model, a cousin to his first instrument, the banjo) has nothing to do with his lasting reputation; his genius emerged as a shrewd entrepreneur and tireless spokesman for his music of choice – a style of jazz that drew primarily from New Orleans small group precedents, meaning plenty of ad hoc ensemble polyphony, swept along by a relentless rhythm (first-class drummers a must), spiced with solos of urgency, finesse, and wit, and imbued with a contagious, boisterous espirit inspired by a sincerely shared bonhomie and frequently (in Condon’s words) “the juice from a quart of scotch.” It was sometimes called Chicago-style.

As ringleader of a rotating crew of like-minded musicians, Condon took responsibility for securing club dates, concerts at Town Hall, and record deals; more often than not he’d put together the band, call the tunes, and do all the talking – essentially, providing quality control over the product. An Eddie Condon session was a guarantee of hot, no-holds-barred swing and rough-and-tumble blues, interrupted only by the occasional romantic, nostalgic ballad. So even though his musical contribution may have been overshadowed by the talent around him, it’s absolutely appropriate that he receive top billing in Mosaic’s recent release The Complete Commodore & Decca Eddie Condon & Bud Freeman Sessions (more about Bud in a moment). But let’s not leave Milt Gabler out of the mix.

Gabler, after all, started Commodore Records as an offshoot of his Commodore Music Shop, produced an impressive body of recordings starting in 1938 with the first Condon session included here, and later was hired by Decca where he was responsible for artists ranging from Billie Holiday to Bill Haley & the Comets. And though he was a fan of the music he was no figurehead behind Condon; once he decided to issue records of Chicago-style jazz (aka Nicksieland, a pun on Dixieland – a label nobody liked – and Nick’s, the Greenwich Village club that was their home until Condon decided to open his own establishment) he had definite ideas about who should play, what they should be playing, and how the records should sound.

And they sounded great, for the most part, thanks to the often-brilliant musicians who were able to play the kind of music they liked in the way they wanted, free from commercial considerations – which is not to say that they didn’t tussle with the odd song selection or the stylistic shifts that took place between ‘38 and 1950 (the collection’s final session). Condon’s fondness for jazz standards from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and New Orleans Rhythm Kings, as well as obscure items from the ‘20s penned by even the best of writing teams often gave the bands a retro feel, especially as the musicians began to incorporate the more streamlined rhythms of the ‘40s. (The Beiderbecke-related tunes tackled by Freeman’s Summa Cum Laude Orchestra suffer in this regard.) And the switch to Decca seems to have led to more formal arrangements. Make no mistake, these were players who loved to stomp, sizzle, and wail – and classic performances like the opening “Love is Just Around the Corner,” “Serenade to a Shylock,” “Strut Miss Lizzie,” “Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll,” and “Georgia Grind” (with Fats Waller on piano), all waxed between ‘38 and ‘41, resound with a rambunctious swagger unlike any other. Not surprisingly, Gershwin songs always seemed to put the troops on their best behavior. But a few too many choruses of “Fidgety Feet” over the years may have led to complacency (although an exception is a rip-snorting 1946 “Farewell Blues,” even without Pee Wee) – and whose idea was it to have Jack Teagarden sing “It’s Tulip Time in Holland (Two Lips Are Calling Me)”?

Over the course of 32 separate sessions and 199 performances (75 alternate takes) there are bound to be a few clunkers, but the overall excitement level they achieved should seduce progressives and moldy figs alike. Among the many highlights are the consistently remarkable trumpeters/cornetists – the poignant Bobby Hackett, the powerful Wild Bill Davison, the punchy Max Kaminsky, the peppery Yank Lawson, even paunchy latecomer Billy Butterfield who shines on “She’s Funny That Way.” Drummer George Wettling is a terror and a delight in those early years, when Gabler must have put a microphone in his lap; he kicks off “Carnegie Jump” like a man possessed and leans on those Krupa tom-toms on the out chorus, rattles and clatters behind Freeman’s tenor sax and Jess Stacy’s piano on “You Took Advantage of Me,” whacks and rolls on woodblocks, cowbell, and the drum rims to keep “Jelly Roll” cooking. And Condon used his clout to bring in guest pianists Waller and James P. Johnson; their mastery is displayed on every take.

And now a few words about Bud Freeman. He receives co-billing due to the inclusion of his 11 trio numbers (plus alternates) split between Commodore and Decca, and his Summa Cum Laude octet (consisting of the usual suspects, among them Kaminsky, Pee Wee, valve trombonist and arranger Brad Gowens, and Condon himself) for Decca. As a tenor saxophonist, he is one of those rare examples of a stylist who has been over-rated and under-rated at the same time. Not an innovator, he nonetheless secured a reputation for his booting tone, lilting rhythmic insinuations, and sly manipulation of phrases. He typically finagles his way around melodies (“Keep Smiling at Trouble” is a good example) with a rococo approach to ornamentation, resorts to old-fashioned crooning on ballads, and animates uptempo lines like a jittery, talky guy who can’t relax. But when he clicks – as he does here on a kickass “I Got Rhythm” and several head-scratchingly unique intros, breaks, and codas – he can be stunning.

Which brings us to Pee Wee. A miracle of imagination and daring, he’s the best reason for investing in these eight CDs. From ‘38 to ‘45 he doesn’t miss a session, then for a time he’s replaced by Edmond Hall, Joe Dixon, Tony Parenti, or Peanuts Hucko, versatile and forthright clarinetists all, until he returns for a final ‘47 triumph. (In the interim, he did have several recording dates in Muggsy Spanier’s band; for what it’s worth, after the ‘47 Decca session it was six more years before he was in the studio again.) One of the joys of having so many of his performances collected together is that rather than being simply mesmerized by a specific solo or two, we are able to experience in concentrated order the full, amazing variety of resources which he brings to a sequence of takes. Bob Dylan once called The Band’s Robbie Robertson a mathematical guitar genius, but by the same token Russell’s mercurial logic of solo construction makes Chaos Theory seem like a recipe for bran muffins. Let’s start with some of the ways he enters into a solo: he may obliterate the tune’s harmony with a pointillist attack from an oblique angle, or pipe in with a fusillade of high notes, or scorch the air with a guttural blast, or whisper a secret only you are meant to hear. Once he’s initiated a direction he’s sure to subvert it by shifting, feinting, twisting the shape of his line with unexpected note choices, asides, and non sequiturs; rushing up the register to a squeal or dropping down to a growl; morphing his tone through degrees of contrasting textures, like a painter’s impasto; exaggerating the dynamics; coloring his phrases with every manner of warble, mumble, moan, grumble, grunt, groan – all woven together in a spontaneous rush of wonder. An instinctive surrealist, his solos sound like they come from a different dimension.

Examples abound. His solo on the chosen take of “Love is Just Around the Corner” is a remarkable statement of stature and guile, performed with the aplomb of a high-wire artist. On the following “Beat to the Socks” he grabs onto a dissonant note and insists on it until it makes sense. There are four takes of “Memories of You,” and he invents completely new melodies for each one. On “Mammy O’ Mine” he’s obsessed with a low grunt, while his tone is especially vinegary on the second alternate of “Singin’ the Blues.” He commandeers even such a strong group performance as “Serenade to a Shylock” (really a Teagarden feature) by dive-bombing sweet-and-sour notes in the opening ensemble, adding tart responses to Teagarden’s vocal, taking a typically gruff 12-bars once the tempo is doubled, then tearing off a sandpaper-vocalized coda to close. But it’s foolish to try and cherry-pick favorites when everything he plays is an ear-opening revelation.

Listening to the collection track by track, at one point I wondered why Mosaic didn’t include Pee Wee’s 1941 Three Deuces and ‘44 Hot Four Commodore sessions, even though neither Condon nor Freeman appear on them. Certainly, I selfishly thought, they made more musical sense than the five final tedious 1950s Decca sessions, where Ralph Sutton caters to the ragtime craze with tack piano renditions, Jimmy Atkins (a Danny Kaye soundalike) and the nondescript Peggy Ann Ellis chirp “Sweet Cider Time” and “Charleston,” and a lesser combo of Condonites sound brisk and sassy and artificial. Then I took it one step further. Why include any of the Decca sides at all, says I to myself, when they left out so many of Commodore’s Condonesque sessions with similar personnel under other leaders? Consider, between 1943 and ‘46 Commodore recorded 16 sessions under the leadership of Wild Bill Davison, George Brunies, Muggsy Spanier, Miff Mole, Max Kaminsky, and Bobby Hackett, plus Pee Wee’s two featured outings. Why not trade these for the 18 Decca sessions, and make it an all-Commodore box with more consistent personnel? (Mosaic did re-issue all this material years back in three hefty LP boxes as part of The Complete Commodore Jazz Recordings, but those sets are long out-of-print.) Maybe it would have been too much of a good thing, or too much of the same thing. And only a churl would ask for more when given such an enjoyable present as the Condon and Freeman set. But I’ve been called worse.

Art Lange©2015

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