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.