Thursday, April 17, 2014

Skokiaan—Or—How A Motion Picture Influenced The Southside Aces

Watch The Impostors. I’m not normally given to issuing commands, but this is highly important. I’ve mentioned this 1998 movie in a previous post, Recognizing DCD.
The Impostors was written and directed by Stanley Tucci, and starring himself along with Oliver Platt. I’m talking about a fantastically funny farce that tells the story of two starving actors who find themselves accidental stowaways on a cruise ship. You need every single one of your digits plus a few of your cat's to count up all the shenanigans, which begin the moment the movie opens, and don’t end until the credits are done rolling and you start watching Terms Of Endearment just to balance out all the laughing. I’ve hurt my gut from the laughter each of the eight times I’ve seen it so far. Laughter hernias. Plus, I say PLUS, it’s all accompanied by a soundtrack that knocks me out every time. This is how I was introduced to one of my favorite Louis Armstrong recordings, “Skokiaan.” From the movie to my brain, my brain to the Southside Aces book, and now what do you know, we’ve recorded it ourselves.

But first let’s head back to 1947, when The African Dance Band of the Cold Storage Division of Southern Rhodesia released the original, the B-Side of which was a rough but spirited version of “In The Mood,” By the way, I’m serious, that’s the name of the band. I mean, it would be like if the Southside Aces were called The New Orleans Traditional Jazz Band of the Men Who Are Aces Department of South Minneapolis. I’m not here to criticize marketing choices, but just imagine the band stationery! How much you’d have to pay to make teeshirts! In 1954, the same recording was released under the band name Bulawayo Sweet Rhythms:

Doesn’t that feel better to your tongue? Can you imagine there must have been some days before the name change when someone asked one of the musicians what the name of the band was, and they started, “The African Dance Band of…oh, forget it.” Sometimes a man can’t be buggered to finish a sentence. The leader of the band, August Musarurwa, published his tune in 1952—

This is the sheet music I have...Secret Weapon!

—and the 1954 release became a nice hit for the Zimbabweans. The melodies and rhythms really are great. I mentioned "rough but spirited." The rough playing may have had something to do with the source of the title. Skokiaan is a type of African homemade liquor. It’s usually pretty harsh stuff, a single-day brewed moonshine concoction that can sometimes include ingredients like kerosene or battery acid…for flavor. When you listen to the Bulawayo fellas play it, notice how the trumpet enters at about 1:08 and only lasts about twenty seconds. Like a barstool debater, who interrupts with slurry eloquence to say what's already been said, and subsides shortly afterwards when he forgets he's the one talking. Spirited indeed. Too much skokiaan will do that to a person. I imagine him tipping out of his chair. I don’t have any proof of the high proof—the session may have been a sober affair—but I may or may not have personal experience with how a horn sounds after an unwise amount of imbibery. 

The record reached the ears of the western world that year, and several diverse artists decided to cash in:

But my favorite, of course, was by Louis. His All Stars recorded it with the Sy Oliver Orchestra. If you compare the original instrumental’s great rhythms and melodies to the Armstrong recording, you can really tell Louis absorbed the Bulawayo Sweet Rhythms version. But he also sings! Where’d those words come from!? Now, here’s the thing about the lyric. An American, Tom Glazer, added words during the 1954 American craze for the tune. It comes off like an African tourist bureau song. 

Oh, ho, Far away in Africa, happy happy Africa, (nonsense, nonsense, nonsense)…
Oh, ho, Take a trip to Africa, any ship to Africa, (nonsense, nonsense, nonsense)…

You get the idea. As far as I can find out, nobody consulted August to see if any insult was brought about by what I like to call “racist fluff.” “Skokiaan” was from that era of song when it was considered harmless popular diversion to write lyrics with minority stereotypes. But don’t underestimate Louis! He never was one to let a silly lyric get in the way of a superb performance:

Now here we are sixty years later about to put it on the next Southside Aces record! It was one of those where we go, "Eh, if we get a good take, we'll put it on the record." If it didn't make the cut, we wouldn't have exactly been despondent. As it turns out, it's becoming one of my favorites. It's a strong cut! We, however, dispensed with the singing. The Zimbabwe tourist office never got back to me. My arrangement, though, is obviously influenced by the Louis version; Zack even nails the high B-flats at the end. We’re in the mixing and mastering stage right now, so you’ll have to wait a little. In the meantime, get your hands on that movie, The Impostors. Do it! And if you can’t find it, let me know and I’ll have a screening over here at the house. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

How To Get Through A Long Winter

February 24th was one of those days this winter with which we Minnesotans became so familiar. It spent a few hours below zero, and the rest of the day not much warmer; mostly single digits above zero. The Aces were in the studio that night recording “Winter Weather” among other things. It’s a 1941 tune that’s been recorded by folks including Fats Waller, Peggy Lee and Jo Stafford. Fats has my favorite. The first line of the vocal starts, “I love the winter weather…” I remember laughing at the rest of the guys on account of the cognitive dissonance they were experiencing. None of them were loving the winter weather at the moment.

Listen to what Fats was talking about:

It’s been a doozy of a winter so far. But that’s not a complaint. I’m a winter man. Of this there is no doubt. Snow and cold give me a thrill. I actually don’t remember a year in which I have once stated the common refrain, “I’m so ready for this winter to be over!” I don’t ski or skate, so it’s not about the athletics of the season. In fact, I abhor having anything beneath my feet that has blades or wheels. I’ll leave that to you adventurous types. No, there’s something about the solitude and introspection that gets me. It sparks my creativity. The amount of music I learn and arrangements I put to paper generally increases dramatically during late autumn and winter. Then, around this time of year, I get a little perverse and sadistic. You know those six-inch snowfalls that come after two weeks of spring weather has raised the hopes of the populace? I get downright gleeful. In the last couple of weeks I’ve been saying things like, “It’s too bad we couldn’t hold out for another ten days of below zero so we could break the all-time record.” I wanted that record. I’m probably lucky people have other things to do, or I might find myself the victim of a grisly murder brought on by my hibernal cheerfulness. “How do you like winter now?!” shouts the mob as they dump my pummeled earthly remains into a snowbank. 

So now you can see how for me “Winter Weather” is a theme song of sorts. Nine days later we were in the studio again to have Steve sing his vocal. I know it was a struggle for him to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. He cracked us up when he sang “I love the winter,” through his gritted teeth. But what are we talking about, really? It IS a song of love. But Fats loves the winter weather for ulterior motives. What with the cold temperatures he can pull his honey closer so they can both warm up! Mother Nature as wingman. 

He and his band recorded it the day after Christmas, 1941, in New York, along with a few other sides. He ostensibly urged America to apply themselves to the WWII scrap drives in “Cash For Your Trash.” But if you listen closely, and remember Fats’ history of naughtiness, you can’t be certain that “Cash For Your Trash” might not be a euphemism for the oldest profession. It is a debate that rages to this day. At any rate, in “Don’t Give Me That Jive,” he admonished the object of his missive to basically hush up and “come on with the come on.” And my favorite title of the day, “Your Socks Don’t Match, “ wherein Fats proves to be somewhat of a perfectionist in regards to his women. “Winter Weather” is easily the sweetest, warmest song of the session. Although I can’t resist the cleverness of “Your Socks Don’t Match.”

Fats was so very playful. He had enough twinkles in his eye for eleven men. Imagine him and his band gathering in the studio after Christmas to put down that great, just-a-little-bit-naughty music. That’s what I’m thinking of tonight when I reminisce back all those three weeks ago to when six Southside Aces assembled at a mere four degrees Fahrenheit to make sweet winter music. 

Get some more Fats in your diet:

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Curse—or How Bob French and Butch Thompson Saved The Day

Well, we’ve gone and done it again. On Wednesday, the Southside Aces warbled away into microphones in order to stick a fork into the perfectly barbequed, tender meat of our latest recording. That made me sort of uncomfortable to say. Steve insisted that what we were doing wasn’t overdubbing vocals, but “underdubbing.” If you want to know exactly what that means, you’ll have to ask him. He conducts workshops and autograph sessions after gigs at the Stop and Shop on 17th and East Lake Street. Confession: I appropriated, purloined, pirated and otherwise directly stole that joke from Erik. Although how do we know Steve doesn’t sign autographs at the Stop and Shop? We don’t keep tabs on him. We again employed Mr. Lance Conrad, the owner and talented engineer of Humans Win! studio (the exclamation point is his). Before our vocal night, we Aces men first spent two chilly February nights up in his Nordeast, Minneapolis joint to capture all the sounds necessary from the brass, reeds, strings and skins. The chill was kept outside, though, as all six of us were staring at each other in this room:

Now with the vocals, we have a carton chock full of jazz, some assembly required. It will be a good handful of months, however, before you can put your ears to it, so until the time comes I’ll be building up your excitement. Can you even tolerate the thrill? All sarcasm aside, I’m actually in a tizzy wanting to get it into your hands! Instead, for the time being I’m going to have to content myself sharing with you some of the originals that inspired us to play and record these great tunes. 

I’m going to begin with The Curse. Over the years, you may have heard Erik announce “Bogalusa Strut” from the stage as his favorite tune. It’s a great song that gets in your hips and stays there, moving you around despite yourself. Back in 2005, when we were figuring out which tunes we wanted to record for our 2006 release, Bucktown Bounce, it was a natural selection. The Aces found the song from a couple different directions. There was Erik, who came to the tune through one of his mentors, the late New Orleans drummer Bob French. 

Bob in the New Orleans Times Picayune. Click here for his obituary

My route to the tune was through my mentor Charlie DeVore of the Hall Brothers Jazz Band. The original was written by Sam Morgan and recorded by his band in 1927. It all came from this:

In the video, check out the first picture of the Sam Morgan Jazz Band. You can see a young Jim Robinson on trombone. You may also have noticed that Sam spelled his tune  “Bogalousa Strut.” That is how they spell the name of the Louisiana town down there, after all. At some point we jazz folk all dropped the O after the L. Maybe it’s because silent Os are dangerous. 

So while you were listening to that, did you run and get your copy of Bucktown Bounce? Maybe you scanned the tune list up and down and couldn’t find the song. It’s because we simply couldn’t get it done. We tried and we tried, until we got fed up with ourselves and left it alone. “Oh well,” you think. You try to be philosophical because there’s always going to be a tune or two that doesn’t make the cut. We were disappointed, but didn’t yet think of the song as cursed. But then came the 2010 sessions for A Big Fine Thing. Take after take of the tune only served to produce enough wincing to get a headache. I believe Erik was the first to say, “That song is cursed.” What was wrong with us? Dave, our band archivist, likes to point out that we could release a whole album of failed “Bogalusa” takes. Don’t worry. That won’t happen unless we get really famous, pass away after long and glorious careers, and our record company (because we’d actually have a record company if we were famous) thinks they could drag a few extra bucks out of you, the fans, if they released all our garbage. They could call it Bogalusa Cut. Or how about Bunch-a-Losers Strut.

It wasn’t the song’s fault, though, and we still loved it and kept working it out on our many stages. The Bob French version originally guided us. He had even added a vocal about a troubled girl—not in the Morgan version—that we used. On top of that, we began to dig into the Hall Brothers recording. Young Butch Thompson produced an epic clarinet solo with the band building up behind him all the way. He starts out alone, and on each chorus they keep adding instruments until they run out of musicians. It’s exciting stuff. 

Check out young Butch on the left. If you have your magnifying glass handy.

So here we are in 2014, after all this absorption and hard work, ready to break The Curse! Right? For us, it would be a double homage. Maybe The Curse could be overcome by the inspiration of two bands. In fact, Bob just passed away in 2012, and this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Hall Brothers recording. Talk about inspiration! We better do it right.

We set a good Bob French tempo, not quite as slow as he liked to do it, but still with that great mischievous bounce that he perfected. Like a man walking by a bunch of women hanging out on a stoop. We all relaxed into that for a couple of minutes, followed by the middle section, where the rhythm guys laid down a couple of choruses by themselves. This was so we could “underdub” Bob’s vocal later. Then came my clarinet odyssey, the Hall Brothers portion of the homage, where I was supposed to burble along by myself to start things, just like Butch did half a century ago. What happened? Dave accidentally played through for a bar, almost yelling an expletive as he did it. 

You have to understand something. Dave NEVER makes a mistake like that. I’m not exaggerating. He NEVER does. We all finished the take, sort of pounding away at it with a lack of dynamics born of frustration, and looked at each other mystified. None of us blamed Dave. It had to be supernatural causes. Did The Curse grab Dave’s arms and force him to play through, like some sort of evil windup monkey drummer?

I’d like to build the drama here. Tell a story of a baker’s dozen of takes each ruined mysteriously. A mistake here, a power outage there, the ghost of a Gypsy woman appearing before Robert pointing her long, bony finger at him, a ceiling tile falling on Zack’s head. The camera spinning around the room showing the men, pale and sweaty, lashing out at each other in frustration as the tension grows and the night wears away, but then…just when they were going to throw in the towel someone grittily says, “We’re going to break this curse if it’s the last thing we do!” They take deep breaths and you see a finger hit the record button, and they valiantly forge on to victory! That’s a good tale, but I’m actually glad I don’t have to tell it that way. As it turned out, victory was right around the corner. We got it on the next take. No drama, we just plain got it! The Bob French mischievousness combined with the Hall Brothers buildup is story enough. The Curse was lifted, and I can’t wait for you to hear it. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Janssen's Temptation

In terms of jazz content, the following story has to be the most oblique rambling I’ve submitted to you thus far. It would be like writing about the Oscar Meyer hotdog factory in your baseball blog. Your ears would have to stick out as far as Bix’s to find the jazz herein. That being said, this is a subject of too great importance to be ignored.

No wonder he heard things no one else could!

My wife and I were invited to attend a Scandinavian potluck the other night. Erik Jacobson, a.k.a. “Santaphone,” a.k.a. “The Swedish Mink,” co-hosted. After a few minutes on the W3—I think that’s what some of the kids call the World Wide Web—Claudia stumbled upon something called “Janssen’s Temptation.” The first word is pronounced “yahn-sens.” The second word is pronounced “temp-tay-shun.” The name alone should be enough to make a person want to stick a fork in it! I hadn’t been this intrigued by a Swedish dish since Ingrid Bergman. For some reason I pictured Jackie Mason when I wrote that last sentence. Who is this Janssen, and what happened to him when he succumbed to his Temptation? 

As it turned out, it’s basically a casserole made with potatoes, onions, cream and tinned anchovies. Not just any anchovies, but “Swedish anchovies,” which are apparently treated like a traditional pickled herring. When cooked in the casserole, they give the potatoes the salt they need, plus that unique pickled sweetness that I normally associate with herring. It really ended up quite delicious. Tempting, some might say. But before I could stick my fork in it, I had to rustle up the ingredients. 

When faced with a purchase involving any sort of Norse edibles, our house always first thinks of Ingebretsen’s. This is a shop right in the neighborhood over on 17th and Lake. They’ve been serving Northern European food and gifts in this town since 1921, so they know a little bit about what they’re doing. When I had to buy a raffle prize for our feature on the Hall Brother’s Jazz Band last year, I went there. I figured with a Minnesotan band playing New Orleans jazz, what better than to procure a prize from one of the most distinctly Minnesotan stores we have? On that occasion, I found Cajun herring. Perfect! Herring for the Minnesota, Cajun for the New Orleans. The guy behind the counter said that day, “I don’t know why we even call it that. You’d think Cajun food would have some spice, right?” He may have been disparaging the nearly non-existent spice levels in the cuisine of cultures of the northern climes, but let me tell you something. If you want herring, you really should try overwhelming yourself with the choices at Ingebretsen’s.

Anyway, I made my way over there last Saturday. People were streaming in and out. Being the gentleman I don’t have to tell you I am, I ended up holding open the door for about fourteen people. I stood there long enough I was almost arrested for loitering. Finally, I entered into Scandinavian Heaven. It must have been heaven, because there were three young girls, teen angels, standing in a row wearing full white robes. Each held before them silver trays filled with ginger snaps, all the while singing Scandinavian carols. I knew I was still on Earth, however, because if it was heaven I don’t think a man would have to take a number to buy some tinned fish. I found that my forty-six years of Minnesota living had given me enough social preparation to be able to handle the Scandiheavenly Host without any fear, so I waded through the throng in back, where stands the meat counter, grabbed up number 84 and began my vigil.

While waiting, I overheard this exchange. A customer, a lady of seven decades or thereabouts was speaking to a similarly aged man working behind the meat counter. He was dressed in a blue sweater with a yellow shirt beneath, the colors of the Swedish flag.

Imagine a blonde man’s head poking out from the top of this:

The woman said, “I don’t know if I can trust you.” Another guy behind the counter laughed and pointed at Blue Sweater, “He’s actually Norwegian. Can’t you tell?” The woman didn’t laugh, so I’m really not sure she was joking when she said, “I don’t want to talk to a Swede.” 

I decided to mind my own business. I resumed staring at about twenty-eight different kinds of canned fish, many without English language labels. An apron-clad Ingebretsen’s man was next to me neatening the shelves in the cooler. “Say,” I inquired, “Where do you keep your Swedish anchovies?” This made it sound as if I were knowledgeable on the subject. “Do you mean anchovy-flavored herring?” he asked. It only took him that one question to destroy the flimsy camouflage I had constructed around my ignorance. “Well,” I stammered, “it’s for some sort of potato dish.” I pointed at my list of ingredients as if it were the list’s fault. Like flashcards, a series of expressions passed across his countenance. First, there was a kind of disdain for my idiocy. Next, the look of resignation upon remembering that it’s his job to cope with the Scanda-challenged. Finally, he softened somewhat into pity. Pity for a man attempting to function in the world without a complete knowledge of canned fish from the Baltic Sea. He looked me in the eye. “Are you making Janssen’s Temptation?” “Yes!” I answered, in surprise and excitement. Before the sibilance of my “Yes!” finished traveling through the air, his arm swung in an arc with his index finger leading the way, and landed without hesitation on a specific pile of cans. This unhesitating action made superfluous any further speaking on his part. The whitening of the distal joint of his index finger as he pressed his fingertip down on the cans indicated our conversation had finished. I thanked him with what I thought was a proper amount of humility.

When my number was called, I took my two cans up to the counter. I set them down, and another Ingebretsen’s man looked at them and stated in the manner of a jovial, confident Swedish detective, “Somebody’s making Janssen’s Temptation!”  

I’m determined to contrive future Eagles Club raffles in order that they consist of goods from that wonderful shop. I never did look up Janssen to find out how he’s doing. And I wonder. Is he only tempted around Christmastime? That casserole is Balluff’s Temptation now. Don’t tell Ingebretsen’s that a German/Polish man said that!