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.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Bud Scott Breakdown

As I mentioned in the most recent post, the Southside Aces are about to host the donnybrook that celebrates the release of our latest recording, Second Thursday. It’s been nearly a year in the making, and I’m dang excited about it. From whence the name? Most often you name a record after what you consider to be one of the best tracks, or at least a track that makes for an evocative title. This is why, a million times in your life, you have heard DJs say, “That was the title track off of so-and-sos new blah-blah, blahbidiblah.” Despite the jaded tone of that last sentence, I actually like that method. The Aces named our last three albums after songs. So a while back, Erik and I were gently stirring a couple Manhattans in his kitchen trying to figure out which track made the best album name when I said, “You know something? I think just about every song we picked for this thing is in the Aces book because of an Eagles feature.” The Fraternal Order of Eagles, Aerie #34, has been the Southside Aces habitat once a month for the last few years. Erik sort of threw out, “We could call it Second Thursday.” This, the day each month on which we come together. And now you know that story.

P.S.A. Don’t use this for Manhattans. Only for cleaning drum kits.

Much better.

“What songs did you pick?” might be the natural follow-up, and I’m glad you asked. Sit down, because here’s where I really dig in. As my friend Judith would entitle it: This is the story of the Southside Aces and “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me.” The song title was rejected early on as our album title, but it is one of my favorites off of Second Thursday nonetheless. This minor key song is one of my favorites, period. I’m going to first tell you about what I consider to be two of the finest instrumental versions ever.

The first time I ever heard it was about ten years ago off the amazing 1928 Jimmie Noone recording. Jimmie is one of my all time clarinet heroes; his versions of tunes always appear at or near the top of my lists. I set myself to learning it forthwith, and got to perform it with the Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band now and then. In the Noone recording, Earl Hines starts with a left hand tremolo lead in the lower end of the piano. Slow and insinuating. The song creeps in like a villain out of a fog. But this is no whispy, attenuated villain. Earl is accompanied by guitarist Bud Scott who, instead of strumming chords, peppers the air with fiercely accented eighth notes. The villain has a henchman, and the henchman knows how to punch.

Listen to the two of them go through a whole chorus like that! When Jimmie finally comes in with his plaintive Creole tone, he weaves the melody into his improvisation. His technique is marvelous, while at the same time he brings out the melancholy nature of the melody without being too lugubrious. After his chorus, the song builds with the full band playing the last eight bars as a coda, Jimmie with his top to bottom cascades. I really like that record.

A few years later, I was standing around on break playing a swing dance in Wisconsin. The DJ spun the 1951 Sidney Bechet version of the tune. I’d never heard it before. Though Sidney has his band moving at a full forty beats per minute faster than the Noone version, I was taken by how much it swings. Sidney’s arrangement owes something to Noone’s, beginning with piano, ably plunked by Don Kirkpatrick. But what really makes the song swing is Pops Foster and his rock solid, doghouse-slapping, thumping four-beat bass. Sidney, per usual, wails and growls, spits and churns. He’s offset wonderfully by the other Sidney on the record, trumpeter Sidney De Paris, who keeps things grounded with a strong melody throughout. I really like THAT record.

Since it’s 1919 publication, many people have recorded the tune, though none quite so slow as Noone’s. The idea of the quicker tempo wasn’t Bechet’s. One of the first versions, a cylinder put out by Harry Raderman’s Jazz Orchestra in 1920 is even faster. But by the time Bechet recorded it, the song had become a vehicle for spectacular acrobatics, sometimes reaching speeds of more than 100 beats per minute faster than Bechet! They make his forty beat increase seem very reasonable indeed. To me the acrobatics work best when someone decides to sing the song. The vocal contains a double time lyric which, when attempted, can ratchet the tension of these jackrabbit performances until ladies are fainting in the aisles. When Patty and the Buttons first started playing the tune, we stumbled upon a version by John Denver, of all people, singing on the BBC, of all places. 

Jazz singer, John Denver.

He sings the hell out of it, including a John Denver kazoo solo. If you watch the video closely, you see he hid the kazoo up his sleeve until the last second. Maybe 1973 British sensors didn’t allow kazoos on air. But the real stunner is a section where he sings the double time lyric twice again as fast! Double-double time! The surreal quality of the thing is augmented by His Rocky Mountain Blondeness bouncing with both of his arms hanging down like he’s the animatronic John Denver. He screams, “Yeah!!” at the end, apparently surprised he pulled it off. This is one of those things I watch with a mixture of one part embarrassment, two parts absolute admiration. At any rate, the Buttons took a hack at it on their just-released Mercury Blues. Speaking of admiration, Patty knocks the lyrics out wicked fast, but all the while still swinging like the master of swing that he is. I can’t even order breakfast as clearly as he spit out those words!

There’s a nimble tongue in that bullhorn

But I confess that my favorites are still the Noone and Bechet instrumentals. Which brings us to the Southside Aces version. When we did a Jimmie Noone feature at the Eagles Club a couple years back, I had Robert pluck away in an homage to Bud Scott. We don’t run with a piano in this band, so I assigned the Earl Hines part to Erik on his sousaphone. This makes for a great rhythm section feature, and I get to try to channel Jimmie in my chorus. I really like playing it that way. But then, at a dance here or there, I’ve counted off the song at the Bechet tempo, with the whole band all falling in at the top. I really like playing it THAT way. 

For our recording, I split the difference. We move it along at a tempo that recalls the Bechet without going all the way there. But my first love was the Noone version. I’ve become so enamored of the 1928 Bud Scott work that I wanted to hear Robert’s guitar and Dave’s drums do it all on their lonesome. I hear tell the kids call that a “breakdown.” I want to start calling it the “Bud Scott Breakdown.” You heard it here first. Erik’s sousaphone creeps in halfway through, like a stranger walking through the door at a roadhouse. I get my clarinet chorus before the whole band is finally together. Before we stick a fork in it, you hear a reprise of the “Bud Scott Breakdown.” I’ve listened to it at least thirty-eight times now, and I really like THAT record, the leader of the band says back-pattingly.

A man has song loves, and this is an early love, but a lasting one for me. I never tire of playing it. Here’s our version to put up on the top of your “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me” pile:

Aces breaking it down!
Blues My...

Oh, and in case you haven’t cared about anything I’ve said after the words “John Denver kazoo solo,” go here:
His Denverness

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The 2014 Tony Balluff Record Brochure

I have these memories of visiting my grandfather, Hank, when I was a youngster. He could be a taciturn man. I think I first learned how to be comfortable with silences by being around him. The Balluff men I know and have known, myself among them, can be an odd combination of taciturn with the ever-present threat of a happy kind of garrulousness. Months might go by between visits, and when Hank would talk, he’d just start up at the point he left off the last time we sat together. The man was truly at ease with intervening silence. Hank never lived to know what a blog was, but with me I think you get a good idea of how he’d have run one.

So hello! It’s not as though I haven’t had a lot to report. For instance, this year’s been a good year for the recording side of music life. I started the year in Humans Win! studio with the Southside Aces during a chilly February. We’ll celebrate the release of the music that came out of those wintry nights with our fifth album, Second Thursday

We try not to be too handsome, so as to not cause distress amongst the public.

We’ll be at the Eagles, well, on the second Thursday of this coming January. I’m proud of my Aces! Look here in the next few weeks to learn all about it. 

In between the February recording and the January release (what’s with the Aces’ penchant for ice and snow?), I also spent time making records with other musicianers. I’m the first chair clarinetist in the quartet Patty and the Buttons, so therefore was involved in two projects in 2014. The first one was a six-song collection of obscene songs from the ‘20s and ‘30s recorded right in my dining room. 

It’s good music made by good musicians, with a good-sized load of ear-burningly scandalous lyrics. This album goes a long way to proving that there have always been folks with filthy minds. My dining room is still embarrassed. In September, we played on top of the White Castle at 33rd and Lyndale to bring this one to the public. It gives me a smile every time I think of how my resumé now contains “Smut Concert Atop White Castle.” 

Look closely—I'm the big head sticking out over the music stand in the middle

The band recommends, however, that most parents, grandparents, children under the age of 21, religious leaders, teachers, men and women who hold political office, ice cream truck drivers and school crossing guards not ever be caught with one of these discs on their person. In fact, forget I ever mentioned it.

The second one, Mercury Blues, saw a November birth with a CD-Release Spectacular at the Heights Theater in Nordeast Minneapolis. This was a show to beat all shows, with tap dancing, knife juggling, bullwhipping, rising pit organs, silent films, and, what was it…oh yeah, the music. This record is safe for children, and you’d be proud to bring it home to your parents. There are great songs on it, my favorites being the originals our fearless leader, Patrick Harison, penned. I love the music I make with those guys.

I also contributed a tiny part to Davina and the Vagabond’s May release, Sunshine:

And finally, a few songs on December’s two-CD set put out by guitar virtuoso, Sam Miltich, entitled Sam Miltich and Friends Live at the VFW. I made the trip up north to help Sam launch it. If you’re ever in Grand Rapids, Minnesota of a Wednesday evening, stop by said VFW for the good stuff.

I guess this reads a little more like the 2014 Tony Balluff record brochure than a “What I Did Last Summer.” I promise my historical perspective will go further than last February for my next one. Until then I’m going to settle into a nice, comfortable silence. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Jazz Band Heroism—or—How The Southside Aces Showed Pluck

Do you want to read a story of Jazz Band Heroism? When I say the Southside Aces were “heroes,” I don’t mean firefighter pulls kid out of burning building hero, or Medal Of Honor recipient hero. I’ve never had to discover if I am in possession of that kind of bravery, and for this I feel fortunate. I believe, however, heroism has several different levels, and frequent use of the word is just fine, as long as you understand how quickly the situation can reach parody. For instance, if, after an exhaustive search, my bartender found the last bottle of Blanton’s bourbon in the back of the storeroom, you might hear me exclaim, “My hero!” The definition of hero, in this case, is just a man holding this:

In today’s story, however, I’m talking about Jazz Band Heroism. This kind of valor, depending upon your views on bourbon, falls slightly higher or lower on the Hero Parody Scale than the above pub scenario. Bourbon was made America’s “native spirit” by an act of congress, after all. And June 14th was National Bourbon Day. So in conclusion, I love bourbon! Wait, what was I talking about?
The Southside Aces were hired for the Twin Cities Jazz Festival this year. Yesterday, we played over at Episcopal Homes, otherwise known as Iris Park. This action does not speak of heroism, although we intrepid men did pull off a pretty ripping version of Jelly Roll Morton’s “New Orleans Bump,” which certainly exhibited some musical bravery. No, I’m talking about today. I stood under the sun and enjoyed four of the Twin Cities finest vocalists take the stage right in front of the Union Depot in downtown St. Paul. 

You might say they were “pillars” of Twin Cities jazz vocalist society. Lucia Newell, Maud Hixson, Debbie Duncan and Prudence Johnson, all backed up by the Wolverines Quartet. This was some good music, I can tell you true. Rick Carlson, pianist of said quartet and the villain of the piece, finished playing his last notes, walked up to me and laughed an evil laugh as he said, “We used up all the weather!” 

Sure enough, as various Aces men assembled, the deluge began. The people handling sound rushed around throwing tarps at anything that used electricity, and the whole thing was shut down on account of the lightning. The lightning…it seems like there’s something a person should remember about standing on wet aluminum staging during a thunderstorm. What was it? Anyway, for some reason the band decided to remove ourselves to beneath the overhang of the depot behind the stage. Many of the folks who had come to listen to the music were gathered there between the pillars as well. Erik looked at me and said, “Let’s just play right here. All these people are still here. Come on, let’s do it.” He had his sousaphone up on his shoulder faster than he can eat a sandwich. Before you know it, my clarinet was out, and “Bourbon Street Parade” was echoing up and down the pillars. Dave pulled out sticks and began pounding on the pillar stage left. He was playing the Union Depot, literally. It has to be the largest drum in his arsenal. Soon Steve’s trombone joined the fray, Mark Kreitzer slung his guitar over his shoulder, and Zack put his trumpet to his lips. We had a concert! What mettle! 

You can tell it was raining by how wet Dave's shirt is. This is also when he began beating upon our CD suitcase. Resourceful.

Accounts of most heroes involve them risking life and limb. The Southside Aces can’t claim that. Although Erik is 6’5” and had a large metal lightning rod in the shape of a sousaphone wrapped around his body. But we did save something today. We resuscitated a drowning concert. The folks, thank them up and down, stuck around. Collected beneath the front porch of the depot with the band, or underneath umbrellas out in front or, as in the case of Stan and Mercedes, just swing dancing out under the rain. A word of advice to all you outdoor jazz festival promoters: If you’re going to have torrents of rain hit your festival, make sure you have the Southside Aces hired during that slot. 

On second thought, I'm not THAT heroic. This was fun but let’s not get ridiculous. 

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.