23 March 2017

Post 489: SWEET SHEIKS

A band that has caught my eye on YouTube recently is called Sweet Sheiks. It seems that it normally comprises just five musicians - two young ladies and three gents. From the internet, I discovered this band was formed as recently as March 2016 and is based in Milwaukee. For those of you whose geography is as hazy as mine, let me tell you Milwaukee is in the State of Wisconsin and on the west shore of Lake Michigan, almost 100 miles north of Chicago. To put it another way, it's just over 1000 miles north of New Orleans.


Sweet Sheiks do not exactly describe themselves as a traditional jazz band: they say they play 'antique pop'. But their music certainly comes within what I consider to be the traditional jazz category. They claim to be 'a toe-tapping five-some inspired by the popular music of the tens, twenties, and thirties'. They describe their music as 'refreshingly vintage' - and nobody could argue with that.

The members are:
Jen Müttin-Schrank: vocals, guitar, saw (played with violin bow), washboard
Ousia Lydian: violin and vocals (and whistling)
Garrett Burton: banjo
Andrew Spadafora: clarinet
Aaron Johnson: tuba

You will notice they do not normally have drums or a trombone or trumpet. But that's just fine with me. I am not at all sure that the addition of any of these instruments would improve their performance. It would take an exceptional musician to fit in with their house style and to contribute anything more that might be welcome.

As with so many of the young bands in America, it is such a joy to be able to hear all of the instruments clearly and to note what a great creative contribution each player is making to the overall sound.

Andrew Spadafora's clarinet improvisations are as good as the best you will hear in New Orleans, and the solid tuba-based rhythm, with guitar and banjo, is reminiscent of what Todd Burdick and his team produce in the engine room of Tuba Skinny. But I must say all five of these young musicians play extremely well, both as individuals and as team members. I am looking forward very much to watching how Sweet Sheiks develops.

Catch a pleasant performance of The Curse of an Aching Heart BY CLICKING HERE.

And for something unusual - Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen played extraordinarily well on the musical saw, CLICK HERE.

For a very spirited version of Who Walked in When I Walked Out, CLICK HERE.

By the way, as so often, I must express deepest gratitude to the video-maker codenamed jazzbo43 for bringing so many of their performances to our computer screens.

If those have whetted your appetite, you will be able to find several more performances by the band on YouTube.

As for me, if I ever make it to the USA again, I shall be looking for ways of fitting in a stop-over in Milwaukee on my way to New Orleans!

20 March 2017

Post 488: 'BLAME IT ON THE BLUES'

Recently I recommended the storming version by Ken Colyer's band of Blame It On The Blues. You can listen to it here:
This is such a good number that it is worth a closer look.

Fortunately, Lasse Collin ( http://cjam.lassecollin.se ) - that great benefactor of jazz musicians the world over - produced a lead-sheet of this piece on his website. So we have a good clear version of the music to work from.

Here, with thanks to Lasse, is his lead-sheet.


This piece was composed as a Rag for Piano in 1914 by Charles L. Cooke.

It is typical of its time, comprising two 16-bar themes in one key followed by a more leisurely 32-bar theme in which we modulate into the key a fifth below. This final theme was called the 'Trio' - a term whose usage dates at least from the classical music of the 18th Century.

Think of At a Georgia Camp Meeting, Climax Rag, Hiawatha Rag and Buddy's Habit. They are constructed in a similar way.

Our jazz band version of Blame It On The Blues is remarkably faithful to the original sheet music, (using Lasse's labels) in Themes A and B. But what we play as Theme C (the Trio) is a simplification and reinterpretation of the notes Cooke wrote for the piano. Here's his original Theme C (The Trio). Note that it also had a 4-bar Bridge which our bands do not play:

Theme A, in Eb Concert, is very lively, with much swooping down the octave. B is simple but exciting, because it clambers up through the arpeggio of the Chord of C diminished. This is a very effective device (also found in Memphis Shake and Dusty Rag).

Normally, bands play A - A - B - B - A - before relaxing into C. This final Theme has a good though more leisurely melody, but in the related key of Ab.

Note that, throughout this piece, the chord progressions are basic and memorable. This is a reason why it is a good number to play - and not too difficult.

Playing ends with as many improvisations as desired on Theme C. The chord pattern here is straightforward, familiar, and a joy for clarinet players to work on.  Note what Ian Wheeler manages to make of it in the Ken Colyer recording.

Conclusion? It's a very good tune, a joy to play and hear and - dating from over a hundred years ago - historically interesting and important. Let's play it.

17 March 2017

POST 487: EIGHT DICE CLOTH

During my brief visit to New Orleans in February 2017, I had the pleasure of coming across a young band called Eight Dice Cloth playing in Royal Street.

They were very good and gave an entertaining programme. There were seven musicians, including a violinist; and percussion was provided by a washboard.

This band was new to me, but I gather it was started in 2014 and took its name from a game that originated in Nineteenth-Century England and was quickly imported into America, where the dice game soon became known as 'Bunco'. Its popularity has waxed and waned; and in the 21st Century there have been 'Bunco World Championships' held in Las Vegas.

I took the opportunity of making a video of Eight Dice Cloth playing My Blue Heaven. May I invite you to watch it by clicking on here?

I have since found that the band plays in the clubs and bars of New Orleans as well as in Royal Street. It has also made at least one CD. So, if you would like more information, seek them on YouTube and also click here for a link to their recordings.

And for more information about Eight Dice Cloth, including details of the personnel, CLICK HERE.

14 March 2017

POST 486: 'BALLIN' THE JACK' AND TUBA SKINNY

Ballin' The Jack is one of the oldest tunes in our repertoire and it is a really good one because its melody has a distinctive appeal and because the Chorus follows The Salty Dog Progression, enabling good improvising musicians to be freely creative. The Salty Dog Progression is also found in such tunes as Shine On Harvest Moon, Sweet Georgia Brown, Seems Like Old Times, Up a Lazy River and Jazz Me Blues. It involves starting on the chord of the VI7 and then following the Circle of Fifths, thus:
VI7  -  II7   -  V7   -   I

Chris Smith wrote the music for Ballin' The Jack in 1913; and words were contributed by Jim Burris. These words give listeners instructions for performing the Ballin' The Jack Dance associated with the tune:
First you put your two knees close up tight;
Then you sway 'em to the left; then you sway 'em to the right.
Step around the floor kind of nice and light...etc.


Why am I concerned with this tune today? Because I heard Tuba Skinny playing it in Royal Street, New Orleans, on 20 February, when I was there for a brief visit. And I was reminded that it is a powerful tune and well worth inclusion in every band's repertoire. I made a video of the Tuba Skinny performance and you can watch it BY CLICKING HERE.

Whenever possible, I enjoy comparing the way tunes are played today with the form in which they appeared when first published. Fortunately, the original sheet music of Ballin' The Jack is available and my conclusion is that modern performances (including Tuba Skinny's) tend to be very faithful to it.

It begins in the key of G. Today's bands normally omit the Introduction and Vamping and begin directly on what appears as the seventh bar in the original sheet music (though you will notice that Tuba Skinny creates its own Introduction by playing the final four bars of the Chorus):
...and so we are into the 16-bar verse with its emphatic chords, ending with a strong D7 and transitional F7 that lead perfectly into the change of key to Bb and the G7 chord that opens the Chorus: 
So here is the Chorus, also 16 bars, using The Salty Dog Progression, in Bb:

Bands usually stick on the Chorus, though some go back to the Verse for a final run through of the complete song to finish (as Tuba Skinny do at 2 minutes 54 seconds in the video).

Bands also stay faithful to the keys of the original. I don't think I have ever heard this tune played other than in G →  Bb.