18 December 2017

Post 579: SHAYE COHN - TRADITIONAL JAZZ COMPOSER

In 2017, Shaye Cohn gave us her latest creation - Deep Bayou Moan. Some of you have written to me about it and said you think this is the loveliest tune she has ever composed. You can hear Tuba Skinny playing it BY CLICKING HERE. It is a beautiful, sad and wistful tune, rich in minor chords. To my ear, it's in Ab (F minor).

Shaye is considered by many to be the best traditional jazz band leader, the best traditional jazz cornet player and one of the best traditional jazz piano players and violin players in the world today. I think it's time also for us to recognise her achievement as a composer of our kind of music.

Still only in her mid-30s, Shaye has already given us some wonderful compositions. Think of the very entertaining and clever Blue Chime Stomp. Remember the haunting Owl Call Blues. And there was Salamanca Blues - a lovely melancholy piece with themes in F and then Ab, giving plenty of opportunities to the trombone and banjo. The medium-tempo Tangled Blues is a particularly clever composition: as its title suggests, it sets us plenty to 'untangle', with pretty, wistful phrases popping up in different keys and in two different themes - one of which runs for the highly unusual length of 18 bars. Then there is the mighty Mortonesque Pyramid Strut, composed while her band Tuba Skinny was touring in Australia. This is the most complex of Shaye's creations. It has four themes, as well as an 8-bar bridge, and uses two keys. Lots of 'breaks' are built in and there are witty moments - such as the Coda. You can find videos of all these tunes on YouTube.

Shaye's composition Nigel's Dream sounds so authentically 1920s that you could easily be fooled into thinking it was a previously undiscovered manuscript by King Oliver.

You can hear Shaye and Tuba Skinny performing Nigel's Dream either by clicking here or by clicking here. As ever, we must be grateful to the video-makers (in this case James Sterling and RaoulDuke504) for bringing this tune to our attention.

Its cheeky two-bar introduction involves nothing more than one 'Charleston' bar from the washboard followed by a single chord from the banjo, guitar and tuba. Then we are into Theme A - 32 bars in the key of C. Great use is made of a phrase (reminiscent of the Middle Eight of East Coast Trot) in which a flattened third is accentuated. Actually these 32 bars comprise two almost identical 16s; and at the end of the first sixteen (Bars 15 and 16) we have a 'break' (played by the banjo first time through and by the cornet and clarinet in a witty King Oliver-style mini-duet when the Theme is played again, led by the trombone, later).

The final bar of Theme A takes us through a modulating chord into the Key of Eb, in which Theme B is played. Twice through the sixteen bars (apparently both beginning with the chord sequence IV - IV - I - I) gives us a merry 32 bars. We then go straight back into Theme A (key of C again), with the trombone taking the lead. Then Theme B (in Eb) is re-visited. This is played through a couple of times with some boisterous, polyphonic ensemble, giving the piece a great ending. There is a neat Coda of just one bar.

What a composition! It's just as well written and well played as those King Oliver Jazz Band classics from the 1920s. 

15 December 2017

Post 578: YES MA'AM ARE BACK

Watch this performance from December 2017 of the New Orleans busking string band Yes Ma'am.


I find it utterly compelling, so full of variety and brilliant musicianship. After the gently stated start, note the changes of tempo, the attention to dynamics, the brilliant little solos, Matt's footwork. It will give you some idea of what this group - and especially its founder and leader Matt Constanza - have achieved in the eight years since he formed the band.

But let me go back.

During my April 2016 visit to New Orleans, I was thrilled at last to hear the string band Yes Ma'am. I had admired their work on YouTube for several years but unfortunately did not come across them when I previously visited New Orleans in 2015.

However, in Royal Street on 7 April 2016, I bumped into my friend Randy (the great video-maker codenamed RaoulDuke504 - he who also filmed the video I have recommended above) and he gave me a tip-off that Yes Ma'am were playing at that moment at The French Market. I hurried over and sure enough there they were.

What a dazzling performance! I can assure you they are even more exciting in person than when seen on YouTube. Each musician individually is a virtuoso. The finger-work on some of the solo choruses was mind-boggling. The songs were witty; and the control of 'breaks' and rhythm (sometimes doubling-up) was so clever and effective. You can't help having a big smile on your face and you can't stop your feet tapping when Yes Ma'am are playing.
Elena Dorn has been with Yes Ma'am since
the early days. She plays the violin beautifully
and her subtle improvisations perfectly complement
the textures of the other instruments.
At the break, I was fortunate enough to have a chat with the leader - Matt Costanza. On YouTube, Matt (like Yes Ma'am in general) has always given me the impression of being very laid-back, devil-may-care, unconventional and bohemian in life-style. Well, maybe some of that is true. But I have to report that the man I met that day was also deadly serious about his music, modest, very articulate, extremely hard-working and also kind and generous in talking with me. He allowed me to take this photo.
I thanked Matt for the pleasure his band had given to YouTube viewers all over the world. I told him I was amazed at his own brilliance and versatility: he sits at the centre of the band, playing the guitar with great vigour and lustily singing, while simultaneously providing percussion: with his feet he plays a 'drum' and a tambourine and a bell! In the course of a performance he uses a huge amount of energy.

He very modestly said he did not consider himself a great player. In his opinion, the rest of the band were the technically-gifted players and he was privileged to have them working with him.

Well, there you have the recipé for a perfect team: a leader who is a dedicated, tireless, directing presence surrounded by other musicians whom he respects and encourages to display their skills.

Those Yes Ma'am songs tend to be tricky in structure. Think of the sudden tempo changes. How does the band get to perform them so slickly? And where do the songs come from?

Matt's answers were surprising. He told me he himself now composes about 90% of the material. The band hones and masters it during their many performances on the streets. 

I had guessed they must get together from time to time to rehearse. No, Matt told me. He could recall that they had had two rehearsals. No more.

But is all this really traditional jazz? That's a question I hear some people ask. Well, yes, it certainly is. The links and overlaps between jug bands and string bands and what has become 'conventional' traditional jazz (with a front line of trumpet, trombone and clarinet) go right back to the earliest days; and they have been gloriously revived by the young musicians in the New Orleans of today. Instrumentation in the string bands may be slightly different (though I should mention that Yes Ma'am sometimes - as in the picture below - includes a cornet and trombone), but the principles for playing and interpreting the music are exactly the same.
In the years during which Matt's band has been evolving, there have been several changes of personnel (and I believe he still draws from a pool of players). When I first discovered them on YouTube, they looked like this.
Although two of the ladies from that photo are still usually in the band, the line-up was rather different when I saw them in April 2016. I made a video and you can watch it by clicking on here.

If you would care to hear how they sounded at the end of 2015, click on this performance of Squishin' Bees, an up-tempo 12-bar blues in Bb.

For a very fine video of them with their late-2013 line-up playing a medley, CLICK HERE.

One of my favourites from their earlier days (2011) is this: CLICK HERE  to watch it.

Whatever you think, please watch right to the end: there are surprises along the way. And admire all the little details.

The band appeared to be absent from the streets of New Orleans after the end of 2016. According to an unofficial report, it seemed that Matt felt completely exhausted at the end of that year - hardly surprising, in view of the energy and hard work put into every performance. He decided to take a break, during which he could re-charge his batteries, probably compose some more songs, and make plans for the future. Well, I'm pleased to see he's back.

12 December 2017

Post 577: FEBRUARY IN NEW ORLEANS

I'm looking back on my brief visit to New Orleans last February and, with the help of my photographs, would like to share with you some of the pleasures and memories.

First, some lovely sights.
Next, the flavour of the French Quarter.
As usual, it was a great privilege to be able to video some fine bands playing in Royal Street.
And I had the chance to meet and photograph some of the great musicians whose work I have long admired from 4500 miles away on YouTube. They included Molly Reeves.
I had the pleasure of making a new friend among the musicians - saxophonist Marty Peters.
And it was a great thrill renewing friendship with Marla Dixon and Haruka Kikuchi.
I told Haruka in 2015 that I was adopting her as my grand-daughter, so she now greets me as 'Grandad'!

If you have never seen the storming performance of Royal Garden Blues that I filmed in 2015 (in which Haruka and Marla both play), may I recommend it as a treat?
And this February, as usual, I made time for an occasional stroll by the mighty Mississippi.
I decided this would be my 'farewell' visit to New Orleans. In my old age, and currently being treated for a couple of medical conditions, common sense tells me the 4500-mile journey is too strenuous to undertake any more. But looking at these pictures makes me want to be right back there. I wonder whether I shall be able to make it one more time?

9 December 2017

Post 576: ORIGIN OF THE EXTENDED LEG SIGNAL

Way back in the early months of 2008, Shaye Cohn was still a beginner on any kind of brass instrument, though she was already improvising on one very well.

She had a pocket trumpet in those days.

Later she was to acquire from Ed Polcer the old Yamaha cornet with which she has won thousands of devoted fans all over the world; and the Yamaha is the instrument she is still playing to this day.

But back then in 2008, with her pocket trumpet, she would busk in various groups on the streets of New Orleans. One of these groups was the Sweet Nothings, led by Aurora Nealand.

What a piece of good fortune that a video-maker codenamed bixerbecke filmed them at this time. His video is a valuable historical document. Not only do we see Shaye playing her pocket trumpet - and improvising a simple but decent chorus from 1 minute 10 seconds to 1 minute 44 seconds; we also have an amusing episode from 2 minutes 38 seconds when Shaye discovers for the first time that it is conventional to provide the response 'got no pants on' when someone is singing 'The Sheik of Araby'. She finds it hilarious, and joins in.

Aurora, leader of the group, was already playing brilliantly (but dare I say that she too has gone on majestically improving in subsequent years?). And it's fun to hear Aurora struggling to sing the highest notes of the song. They could have pitched it in a lower key for her, instead of Bb, as used by most bands. But this would have been a change hardly worth making.

However, another point of interest in this video is Aurora's use of the extended leg to signal to the band when they are on the final chorus.
Aurora extends the leg to signal the final chorus
This is a device used so much by Shaye when leading Tuba Skinny in the years that followed. Many of you, I am sure, believe that Shaye 'invented' this signal. But as this video shows, Aurora was using it back in 2008. My guess is that Shaye picked it up from her and that Aurora was the 'inventor'.

I am indebted to my friend Phil Lynch in the USA who reminded me of the existence of this video.

You can watch it BY CLICKING HERE.