Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Road Trip to New Orleans, Minnesota

Do you ever get that deep down hunger for some Cajun dinner? You rush out the door in search of someone with the requisite skills to cook it up, and at that point—if you live in these parts—a gust of snow hits you in the face reminding you of how you’re about 1102 miles from New Orleans. South Minneapolis just isn’t south enough. Last night, however, instead of just curling up on my front porch letting the snow make little eddies around my head, I headed north, all the way up to the town of Circle Pines, Minnesota. While you ponder that seemingly counterintuitive response, why don’t you listen to one of my favorite Professor Longhair tunes:

No need to send the white coats over to the Balluff house. I’m not going through some sort of cabin fever. Unless you’re talking about a Louisiana cabin. A Cajun dinner and “Big Chief” met me in Circle Pines last night at Bistro La Roux. Chef Tim Glover opened the place last year to be able to serve Minnesota during all four seasons in combination with his bright green food truck called Cajun 2 Geaux. He hails from Houma, Louisiana, and it’s an understatement to say he knows his stuff.

Chef Tim overseeing a pot

My table started with fried green tomatoes, to which Chef Tim adds a little honey, a perfect sweet and savory combination. This was followed by Jambalaya, jalapeno cornbread, crawfish and shrimp etouffee, a catfish platter with gouda grits and greens, and finally a plate of beignets smothered with about a half pound of powdered sugar. 

Said Jambalaya

This incredible dinner was served with a soundtrack that included, along with the above tune, such New Orleans staples such as “Joe Avery’s Piece,” “Do Watcha Wanna,” and Professor Longhair’s hit, “Mard Gras In New Orleans.” 

There isn’t a time of the year when I don’t have an ache to visit New Orleans. It isn’t that I’m one of those who believe I am living in the wrong place. I love Minnesota, and it is very likely you will be able to find me living here all my years. But I do love to trek to New Orleans on a regular basis, and the food is definitely one of the biggest draws for me. Last night, I walked out of Bistro La Roux with a pleasantly stuffed belly into cold air to see the diamond snow on a Circle Pines parking lot lit up by that big beautiful full moon in the northern sky. This was not a New Orleans scene by any stretch of the imagination. But Chef Tim had somehow given me that feeling inside that I get when I’m down in Louisiana. And I’m not talking about the pain of overindulgence. It’s that feeling that there isn’t any peace that couldn’t be brokered over a meal like that, that people are good and I’m lucky to be living in the world right now. It’s an invincible feeling that with such magical food my ability to play New Orleans music is unlimited. Frankly, I had a Louisiana buzz going. 

Minneapolis folk, make the drive. You could call it a New Orleans road trip. But this one only takes twenty minutes.

More information:

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

New Old Jazz II

Can a toddler compose 1930s swing with a Johnny Jump Up? That’s the question I will answer today. To tell this story properly, I need to rewind again to that moment at the Eagles in December of 2013 when I issued a challenge to the band to come up with original music for the upcoming recording. We were toasting the year behind us with some backstage bourbon. Just to assure you, this refers to where we were when we were drinking the bourbon, not where we found the bourbon.

Right then Steve stepped up and surprised us. It was as if he was soda pop and my challenge shook him up, causing his bottle cap to pop off! If I may interrupt for a second, and you know I will, I’m pretty sure if Steve were soda pop, he would be the old style Mountain dew:

You have to admit, Steve “tickles your innards.”

Psssshh! A tune erupted from him with no more preamble than, “How about this?” It was a swinging, up-tempo, wordless number in a minor key. He kept saying, “And then there’s this part,” and another theme would pop out of his mouth without any false starts. I waited until I was sure this musical geyser had safely come to a rest before asking, “When did you write that?” It seemed so fresh in his mind I would have guessed he’d composed it during dinner before the Eagles. The story goes, however, that his son, Micah, possessed tireless hopping muscles as a toddler. He would express himself vertically in one of those Johnny Jump Up contraptions. 

Micah in his chosen medium, along with Uncle Jim and Zippy. Zippy is the dog. 

So there’s Steve, about a quarter century ago, watching his son bounce around, and out popped music. Though he had committed the flashes of melodies to paper, they had lain dormant for many years, never really reaching the light of day. Yet, as we heard at the Eagles, the song seems to always reside in an easy-to-reach file in Steve’s brain. After a successful archeological dig at his house, he produced the physical evidence of his composition, two old sheets of staff paper scribbled with six different melodies. Atop one of the sheets was written the title, “J For Jump.” It sounds like one of those alphabet books, with a picture of jumping next to the letter J.  Actually, J is Micah’s middle name. So it’s more like one of those times when you say, “If you look up jump in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of J.” Steve asked if I would arrange it for the band.

We only had a little over two months before the recording, so I set to work. After pounding away at my piano for a bit, I realized these six seemingly disparate melodies all had a cohesive feel. Maybe watching a toddler employing a Johnny Jump Up causes your brain to scatter handfuls of short, related tunes all about the place. Do you know how when you listen to a ‘20s/’30s swing recording—maybe Fletcher Henderson or somebody—and it amazes you with all the twists and turns the band takes in such a short time? That time was limited by the recording technology of the day, so they made the most of it. From main themes and secondary themes, to underlying riffs and interludes, you really find out how much a band can get done in three minutes! Well, this is how Steve’s melodies felt to me. Separate, but all of a species. Though I don’t quite have Micah and Steve’s handle on Johnny Jump Up composing, I had the temerity to add a couple of my scribbles to his scribbles—some chords here, and a harmony or three there.

Then I assembled the six pieces in an order I felt would make for a great single expression. Kind of like a wedding photographer herding relatives. Suddenly, there it was. From a Bouncing Micah, through the Mind of Steve, to the judicious use of Tony’s Music Arranging Hot Glue Gun, the Southside Aces had our own 1930s three-minute swing odyssey! New Old Jazz. Our good friend Dave over at Hymie’s Vintage Records likened the feel of it to Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Listen to it now; Micah and Steve’s Johnny Jump Up masterpiece!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

New Old Jazz

As you may have figured out by this recent barrage of posts, I have strong, unchecked urges to tell you all about the Southside Aces new release, Second Thursday. I remember back on a cold night in December of 2013, when the Aces had just finished our Christmas Pageant at the Eagles. I had an impromptu band meeting regarding our upcoming February nights in the studio. I said, “Guys, I have a goal of having at least three original tunes on the new record.” 

There is debate in the early jazz world, or maybe mostly in my own early jazz head, about whether or not a person should bother writing new material. The question revolves around the fact that despite diligent effort on the part of any musician, there is very little chance said musician has enough time to get around to playing all the great tunes that were written in the way back. So why throw new ones up on the heap? Even if I confined myself to three of my favorite guys, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, and Duke Ellington, after all the tunes I’ve already learned I still have about 29,000 to go. I may be hyperbolic, but you get the idea.

One of the 29,000.
by Duke Ellington and Harry Carney. 

I mean, just listen to that! For a long time, I kept myself safely entrenched in that school of thought. But then, coinciding with my decision to become a full-time musician at the end of 2012, I had an epiphany. I can break it down into a drama in two parts:

Part One: Artistic Man 
(classic orator pose—standing center stage, one arm extended with palm facing up)
“The Great American Invention called Jazz is a living, breathing organism! I shall compose original music inspired by the masters as well as my 21st Century life. This shall invigorate Old Jazz, like a puppy to an old hound!” 

The dog analogy wasn’t actually a part of my original epiphany. I have to tell you, though, the next time I bring a dog into my life, I have to strongly consider naming it “Old Jazz.”

Part Two: Pragmatic Man
(classic problem-solving pose—sitting at breakfast table, staring off and to the right, twisting the lips to the left, furrowing the brow, and slowly nodding head)
“Hmm. The more originals I put on my next album, the less I have to pay in royalties. Take that, Sonny Bono!”

My seemingly random pot shot at Congressman Sonny is a subject for a whole other post. Depending on your perspective, he did a good thing or a frustrating thing, or both. No matter what, though, its fun to say, “Take that, Sonny Bono.” Try it.

The truth of my philosophy combines elements of all the above. I do believe that the music of the ‘20s through the ‘40s would be more than enough for any musician to be getting on with. I also believe that fresh composition injects new life into the art form. I also like saving money when I record an album. Dead horse, high horse, pack mule. At that time in 2012, I surprised myself with a creative need to resume composing, something I hadn’t done in years. I sat down at my piano in January of 2013, and out flowed “Little Duke.” 

Do you hear how that Ellington recording above behaves? “Demi-tasse” features tight, swinging harmonies, with all the solos backed up by underlying riffs. It and its ilk really is some of the happiest music ever, and will put all kinds of bounce in your step.  It's on the modern end of my jazz-listening spectrum (true modern jazzers will laugh), but is some of my favorite music of all time. Though there isn’t a particular song to which I can point, that famous Washingtonian’s small group stuff was definitely a guide in my composing.

Inspiration comes in many forms, however, and sometimes in small packages. I am the jazz uncle to a little man name of Edward. Just a few years ago, not long after Edward came into the world, his father asked me which famous jazz guys were named Edward. I told him Duke Ellington seemed kind of famous. So the youngster wasn’t yet out of infancy and he had already earned a righteous jazz nickname. "Duke!" Incidentally, in case you historians were thinking of writing in, don’t imagine I didn’t think of Kid Ory. But I’ll go on record right now: “Duke” is a much better nickname for a child than “Ory.” Edward loves music SO MUCH. To watch his deep connection and response to it reminds me every time I see him of how miraculous it is that I get to be a musician. True inspiration for the song came from him. He is “Little Duke.”

So there you have it. New Old Jazz. Ellington gave me the form, and my jazz nephew filled it in with the wonder and joy of it all. A combination of a jazz master and my 21st Century life made me write a song, and now you can hear it:

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Getting Cozy With The Southside Aces

“Yeah!” Out of all the people who’ve ever uttered that singular word of excitement, out of the entire history of being excited, I think Fats Waller arguably uttered it best. I think his inflections could give it about seventeen different meanings. Of course, you add an “Oh” to it, and the honor shifts to Mr. Armstrong. But we can debate Yeah Semantics another time. My point is to talk about “Winter Weather.” Upper case. This song appears on the slowly-being-released Southside Aces album, Second Thursday, a vocal feature for Steve. As far as your lower-case winter weather goes, this year Minneapolis might lose it’s status as the go-to spot for a white Christmas. What we have instead is a rainy, foggy, sunless dreariness. The go-to spot for Rudulph! But it doesn’t diminish my enthusiasm for the tune.

It was 1941 when pianist Ted Shapiro wrote this holiday classic. When I call it a “holiday classic,” I’m saying it because the Internet tells me to. It’s more apt to call it a “seasonal” classic, as it maintains a strict focus on weather, not Christmas. At any rate, I confess it didn’t cross my radar until a few years ago, and I even like holiday tunes. Ted also had the distinction of being Sophie Tucker’s musical director for some forty years, and for her he wrote, “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How A Fat Girl Can Love.” I must be out of the loop, because that song never even bothered to come within the same county as my radar. Only “The Last Of The Red Hot Mamas” could sing a song like that! It included the line, “I’m just a truck on the highway of love.”

Red Hot Mama and Ted

I do digress. “Winter Weather” has a few things going for it. The melody has a falling, sighing quality perfect for a lyric that champions the benefits of spooning. But chief among its virtues is the fact that Fats Waller recorded it.

Click to hear Fatsy Watsy: Winter Weather

He brings it in on piano in that jaunty yet sly way that was his specialty. Even while he was being masterful, Fats always made you feel like he was winking at you. Then he sings a chorus. I’ve mentioned before how Shapiro’s lyric puts Mother Nature in the roll of wingman (see my previous post about that and the other songs Fats recorded in that session: “How To Get Through A Long Winter”).

I’m going to again boil the story of the song down to one paraphrased sentence: “When the temperature drops I get to snuggle with my sweetheart, so I’m going to go ahead and say I love the cold!” Fats is saucy, as you’d expect, making the innocent song blush just a little. “I love the winter weather,” he sings, “because I got my love to keep me warm.” He thoughtfully lingers on how warm his love is in the coda, “So warm, so nice and warm,” and concludes with one of his aforementioned famous exclamation points. “Yeah!” 

Did I mention naughty?

A young Peggy Lee had a hit singing it with Benny Goodman. I like it; it swings. But it’s speed makes the kissing and cuddling a little perfunctory. So we took our cue from Fats. In our recording, I copped Fats’ introduction for the horns to play, then we trade choruses with Steve, the band going first. The tune inspires a certain amount of lazy warmth, and we play as if we’re saying, “Hey. It’s cold out. Wanna come cuddle with the Southside Aces?” In case the image of cuddling with the whole band makes you a little uneasy, I won’t mention it again. Steve’s vocal on the other hand is sweet and personal, a slow dance. The rest of us cut in to say, “But if you want to take a nap with the whole band…” Sorry, I promised. Steve takes it back and finishes, down to the last “Yeah!”

Now. We made a mistake. When the Aces were going through the mixing stage of the album, we sort of forgot about “Winter Weather.” There’s quite a bit of reverb on the song that we never pulled back. At first we smacked our collective foreheads. But the more I listened, the more I thought “Happy mistake!” To me, the song comes on like a 1960s network Christmas special. 

I’m using Dino as my template

I picture Steve in profile looking to his left at the camera, fake strolling in front of a rolling winter diorama, soap flakes falling all about. Or maybe Steve in a smoking jacket lying on a plush white rug in front of the fireplace winking over a snifter of brandy, the band backing him up from the stairway that goes to a nonexistent second floor stage right…

I know I covered this, but are you sure you don’t want the Aces over for some cozy time? Come on, just put your head on our shoulder.