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.