Talking & Drum Solos + Country Brass Bands
Atavistic Unheard Music Series UMS 241

Warning Light
Plutonium PLU-003

Bands consisting of just brass and percussion have always been popular, whether they’re European martial concert bands, New Orleans social club orchestras or projects put together by more sophisticated players who add a POMO fillip to the proceedings.

Brassum, made up of three of Los Angles’ top players as well as the tuba and compositions of Albuquerque New Mexico’s Mark Weaver, is definitely one of the later, as it proves on its excellent CD.

But what the quartet — and by extension other modern brass and drum outfits — accomplishes wouldn’t be possible without the foundation of rhythmic polyphony created by early 20th century New Orleans brass bands — and others before them. The two country brass bands, recorded in Alabama in 1954, which take up 20 of the tracks on the BABY DODDS CD are examples of that. But considering they were selected by folklorist Frederic Ramsey Jr. to illustrate how pre-Jazz bands may have sounded, the results are more unabashedly primitive than anything Brassum — not to mention citified Crescent City brass aggregations — would ever record.

One of the standout players on WARNING LIGHTS is Toronto-born percussionist Harris Eisenstadt. While he brings his original ideas and adaptations of other jazz and ethnic styles to his playing, much of his conception wouldn’t have been possible without the craft of early Classic Jazz drummers. One of the first to determine how to optimize playing the entire kit was Warren “Baby” Dodds (1898-1959). Eight tracks on his eponymously titled CD are a reissue of a rare Folkways EP, recorded in 1946 by Ramsey. It gave the drummer a solo forum in which to explain and demonstrate his style and by inference the roots of jazz drumming.

Back to the future though — the 21st Century to be exact — where rambunctious Brassum nearly tore down the walls of a small Los Angeles theatre creating this CD in spring 2003. Weaver, comfortable in solo forays, but cognizant of his instrument’s history as the brass bass in Classic Jazz, fills both functions admirably here. Someone who also recorded with Swedish saxist Biggi Vinkeloe and Bay area bassist Damon Smith, he helps keep experimental music alive in his hometown. Veteran trombonist Michael Vlatkovich divides his time between commercial projects and improv gigs with Vinny Golia’s Large Ensemble and Rob Blakeslee’s quartet to name two. Cornetist Dan Clucas has been in bands as different as Jeff Kaiser’s massive Ockodektet and backing up Love vocalist Arthur Lee. He was also part of bassist Henry Grimes’ first public comeback performance. In the short time Eisenstadt has been on the scene he’s managed to play and record with outstanding musicians on both coasts and beyond, ranging from saxophonist Yusef Lateef and Sam Rivers to trumpeters Roy Campbell and Taylor Ho Bynum plus violinist Phillip Wachsmann.

Brash, and with a sense of fun, the quartet struts its stuff on pieces like “Minus”, a slinky nightclub blues borne along on Weaver’s raucous low tones. As Clucas climbs up the scale with brassy, double-tongued open horn notes, Vlatkovich counters with snorting plunger mute emanations straight from Tricky Sam Nanton’s Jungle band repertoire. Weaver’s rhino snorts add to all this as Eisenstadt keeps the beat steady.

“Avenue” on the other hand has a shuffling, near R&B beat, where the polytonal and polyrhythmic output includes the cornetist and trombonist growling notes back and forth at one another with ascending in triplets. King Oliver and Kid Ory memories anyone? Later Clucas, likely using his hand as an artificial mute, squeals out a separate melody accompanied by a light Dodds-like underpinning from the drummer.

Pumping tuba blats and duple paradiddles and rim shots aren’t all that’s on show either. On “Riparian Creatures”, above Weaver’s pedal point accompaniment, and Eisenstadt’s shuffle, the cornetist plays a Spanish-tinged rhythm that Dodds’ old employer Jelly Roll Morton said was necessary for jazz. But Morton’s Red Hot Peppers never had an arrangement featuring the lead brassman working his way chromatically up the scale as the lower horns encircle him with deeply vibrated notes.

Other elements come play as well. Slower than other tunes, “Elements” features what could be interpreted as quasi-African rolling drum tones and “talking” cornet lines. Then, after Clucas slurs out some adagio bent notes, the piece continues at a stately pace with a brass bottom from the tuba and roistering Eisenstadt on snares. With the drummer’s rumbling over the kit meeting elephant-like trumpeting from the tuba, the regal tune finally resolves itself as these two meld with the other horns for creamy smooth brass combinations.

“Elastomeric” features a serpentine, Balkan-like dance rhythm with the lead carried on the cornet’s melodic grace notes, leiderhousen outfit memories implicit in Weaver’s oomph pah pahs and the drummer keeping time with sticks on his rims.

Finally there’s “Mesa Negra”, the longest tune, that features versatile Clucas on flute, tooting out a Brazilian-style theme. Following a flute cadenza, the band gets brassier, with the tuba taking the lead and the other horns riffing like the JBs behind James Brown. Following some slurs from the trombonist, the drummer shows off his command of Dodds’ language. Coda highlights include the flute and horns reprising the theme and an ultimate drum thump.

There are plenty of thumps, smashes and bangs on show during the performances by The Laneville-Johnson Union Brass Band and The Lapsey Band on the other CD. There’s also a goodly collection of out-of-tune horn squawks, wavering tempos, frayed rhythms, mushy off-mic dialogue and a general program of unrehearsed discordance.

But even in 1954, these country cousins wouldn’t be confused with the worldly brass bands that worked New Orleans Second Line celebration and funeral parades. For a start, their instruments are beat up and more than ancient. Second, the rural musicians captured here are elderly amateurs, last of the breed, lacking the appreciative young disciples they would have in the Big Easy. The tracks were recorded outdoors, at night, during cotton-picking season.

Constructing tunes out of short motifs with sodden beats, the drums, sousaphones and tubas come through most clearly. When a trombone or cornet lead does appear it isn’t isolated for long — a practice given up in Classic Jazz combos as early as the end of the First World War. With the bands playing a repertoire of sacred and secular material, it’s often hard to distinguish the blues from the hymns, or even from one another. It’s possible that some of the musicians couldn’t even whistle “Dixie”. They don’t seem able to play it.

Maybe it’s reading too much into it, but when the Lapsey Band does attempt to play the Confederacy’s national anthem, what comes out sound a lot more like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” a musical gesture that may have been subversive in small west central Alabama towns near the Mississippi line. Perhaps, though, the groups were so unschooled that they really didn’t know the difference between the tunes, though. Their ragged, irregular performances testify to that.

Still there’s a certain archeological fascination listening to these examples of involuntary free counterpoint and improvisation by accident by the unidentified band members. Brass bands organized during the 19th Century sounded something like this, according to Ramsey (1915-1995), and provided the power that matched the culture of higher-brow Crescent City musicians that gave birth to jazz. Listen carefully to the lines that range from “Sun Gonna Shine In My Back Door Someday” to “When I Lay My Burden Down” and you’ll hear — albeit imperfectly — the expanse that would soon be filled with talent by jazz’s first master musicians.

One of those was definitely Baby Dodds. A percussionist who developed his craft before ride cymbal solos and the connected hi-hat were in common use, he was versatile enough to play any kind of job, creating his own rhythms and tempos. Pit bands, marching bands and show bands all employed him, as did all three of Classic Jazz’s most influential ensembles: King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven and the Red Hot Peppers.

Articulately explaining his musical philosophy to Ramsey as he plays on the disc, Dodds with his one snare, one bass drum, sizzle cymbals and quartet of cowbells, demonstrates how a solo drummer can be an orchestra by himself. Snatches of records by the bands he was featured in are heard to amplify this. When he plays a “Careless Love” made up of press rolls, you hear the origins of modern stickmen like Max Roach or Jerome Cooper. Other time he plays riffs, biffs, ratchets and lots and lots of rim shots.

Dodds was current and old-fashioned at the same time in 1946 as he shows off his shimmy press rolls and cowbell mastery. Furthermore when he starts demonstrating what he calls “nerve beats”, rattling the sticks in one hand, immediately the ear flashes to the sound of ethnic percussion preferred by many contemporary drummers.

Merely two CDs, but three centuries of percussion — the 19th, the 20th and the 21st — are showcased here.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Talking : 1. Spooky Drums No. 1 2. Drums In The Twenties 3. Shimmy Beat/Press Roll Demonstration 4. Careless Love Blues 5. Rudiments 6. Maryland 7. Spooky Drums No. 2 8. Tom Tom Workout 9. Precious Lord Hold My Hand 10. Take Rocks & Gravel To Build A Solid Road 11. Wild About My Daddy 12. Sun Gonna Shine In My Back Door Someday 13. I’m Going On 14. O Lord Let Thy Will Be Done 15. Conversation 16. My Baby Gone And She Won’t Be Back No More 17. Fare You Well Daddy, It’s Your Time Now 18. Sing On 19. Dixie 20. Going Up The Country 21. I Shall Not Be Moved 22. Ship Is Over The Ocean, The 23. Mama, Don't You Tear My Clothes 24. Nearer My God To Thee 25. Like My Lord 26. I’m All Right Now Since I’ve Been Converted 27. Just Over In The Gloryland 28. When I Lay My Burden Down

Personnel: Talking: Baby Dodds (drum kit [tracks 1 to 8]); The Laneville-Johnson Union Brass Band [tracks 9 to 17]); The Lapsey Band [tracks 18 to 28])

Track Listing: Warning: 1. Seven Enchiladas 2. Riparian Creatures 3. Minus 4. Clear 5. Movie 6. Avenue 7. Elastomeric 8. Elements 9. Mesa Negra

Personnel: Warning: Dan Clucas (cornet, flute); Michael Vlatkovich (trombone); Mark Weaver, (tuba); Harris Eisenstadt (drums)