January 12, 2013

Choosin' A Few Blasts From The Past For Carnival

{Update: Audio links have been removed. You can hear these tracks in rotation at HOTG Radio streaming 24/7.] 

With Carnival season 2013 having commenced his past Sunday, January 6, and Mardi Gras coming early this year, February 12, I’ve got to kick up the posting to compensate. The funk grooves and struts of street-parading brass bands are an important aspect of New Orleans’ frequent celebrations, especially during the annual primetime partying  and festivities from Twelfth Night to Fat Tuesday. So, in that spirit, I’ve got on tap two tracks from rare LPs that mark steps in the resurgence of the brass band movement in New Orleans.

Probably the most significant event in the rise of a new generation of brass bands in the Crescent City happened, oddly enough, through the efforts of a church. In 1970, Rev. Andrew Darby of Fairview Baptist Church asked one of his members, esteemed guitarist, banjo player, songwriter and jazz historian Danny Barker, to assist him in organizing a youth brass band specifically to give fledgling musicians a chance to learn the musical repertoire and tradition, gain experience performing, and stay out of trouble. Barker and his wife, Blu Lu, had moved back to New Orleans a few years earlier, after three decades living in New York City, where they had participated famously in the jazz scene.

The two men recognized that the vibrant, vital local marching brass bands needed to connect with a new generation of players, if they were to continue their important, long-term cultural role of providing jazz music in and around the streets of their community for various occasions, from funerals to joyous second line parades.The program’s earliest recruit was Leroy Jones, Jr., a 12 year old trumpet player from the neighborhood, who had already been playing for a few years and quickly took to the music. Under Barker's supervision, he became the leader of the Young Fairview Baptist Church Christian Marching Band, and they rehearsed in his family’s garage. Over the course of the next year, the group grew to over twenty members, gaining recognition at home and afar. They played their first professional gig at the 1971 Louisiana Heritage Fair in New Orleans, which later would become known as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, or simply JazzFest. That same year they also performed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.

Over the next few years, more and more youngsters participated in the group, so many in fact that at times there were three versions of the band available to perform. A number of players who came through the band went on to join or found other significant brass bands in the city, or moved into careers in jazz and other musical genres. The more well-known names among them: Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Kirk Joseph, ‘Big Al’ Carson, Michael White, Herlin Riley, and James Andrews. The Fairview band played regularly under their mentor’s guidance until 1974, when a dispute with the local musician’s union forced Barker to dissolve the program, ending the band. But in short order Jones started the Hurricane Marching Band of New Orleans, their name bestowed by Danny, with members from the original band.

The next year, the new group, many like Jones still teenagers, made their only album, which documented their impressive chops and high energy sound.

“Joe Avery’s Tune”
from Leroy Jones and His Hurricane Marching Brass Band of New Orleans,
LoAn Records 1975.

While based on the original jazz tune, “Joe Avery Blues”, from early in the 20th century, the Hurricane’s arrangement actually had its origins in a popular 1962 Mardi Gras season two-part 45 titled “Second Line”, recorded by Bill Sinigal and the Skyliners and released on the White Cliffs label. I discussed the background of that version when I featured the single two years ago. To the traditional “Joe Avery Blues” Sinigal added a trumpet introduction (played by Milton Batiste) taken from a 1950 local R&B record [a rockin’ beer commercial, actually!], “Good Jax Boogie”, by Dave Bartholomew , who had borrowed that trumpet line from another jazz classic,  “Whoopin’ Blues”.  

Brass bands around town took up Sinigal’s arrangement; but the popular single itself went out of print when White Cliffs went under several years later. Around 1973, Senator Jones released a new version of “Second Line” for Carnival season on his J.B.’s label, recorded by Stop, Inc., that has become a part of the Mardi Gras music canon. I’m not sure whether Leroy Jones and his band sourced their take on the song from one of the records or from another brass band’s playlist (perhaps the Olympia). But their calling it “Joe Avery’s Tune” rather than “Second Line” shows that they were aware of the song’s long history, likely the result of Danny Barker’s influence.

Along with Jones, players on this well-done LP included Charles Barbarin, Jr,, bass drum; Raymond Johnson, Jr., snare drum; Anthony ‘Tuba Fats’ Lacen, tuba; Lucien Barbarin, trombone; Michael Johnson, trombone; Henry Freeman, tenor saxophone; Darryl Adams, alto saxophone; Gregory Davis and Gregory Vaughn, trumpets; and Charles Joseph, clarinet.

A few years later, Jones briefly studied jazz at Loyola University and then struck out on his own as a jazz musician, having a varied and successful career that continues to this day.  The Hurricane disbanded; and Charles Joseph (who switched to trombone), Lacen, and Gregory Davis became founding members of the innovative Dirty Dozen Brass Band around 1977 along with saxmen Kevin Harris (another Fairview alumus) and Roger Lewis, and bass drummer Benny Jones. But, Tuba Fats didn’t stay with them long, instead choosing to start his own outfit, The Chosen Few, to concentrate on more traditional brass band material, while still bringing the funk forward.

"Mardi Gras Iko"/"Food Stamp Blues"
from The Chosen Few Brass Band N.O. LA, Syla 349, 1986

According to Jerry Brock’s informative notes for this LP, which was released on Milton Batiste’s Syla label, the Chosen Few formed in 1979. As their performance indicates, the group that coalesced around Lacen’s killer tuba grooves was a tight working unit, even though the band’s membership varied somewhat over the years. The other players on the album included Benny Jones, who still beat the streets with the Dirty Dozen, too; Andrew Green on snare; alto saxophonist Darryl Adams, who had come up in the Fairview and Hurricane bands;  Elliot ‘Stackman’ Callier on tenor sax; Edward Parish on trombone; and trumpeters George Johnson and Kermit Ruffins. Of course, Kermit also played in  the Rebirth Jazz Band, which he had co-founded with Keith and Philip Frazier in 1983.

Something else I learned from Jerry’s notes is that Tuba Fats had masked with the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indians and Benny Jones drummed regularly at Indian practices. Thus, “Mardi Gras Iko”, their take on Sugarboy Crawford’s classic R&B hit, “Jock-A-Mo”, inspired by the Indians, was a natural choice for the band. With the Caribbean feel they gave the second line groove, the song reveals several of the varied cultural currents flowing through the city’s music.

One tune seamlessly becomes another as the band shifts into the harder drive of “Food Stamp Blues”, which Tuba Fats recalled hearing as a brass band jam played by many groups over the years. Known previously as “Ain’t Got No Dawers”, the Hurricane Brass band had done a version of it that came to be called “Food Stamp”; and the Chosen Few added “blues” to the title along with the refrain, “Ain’t got no food stamps....” Musically, they were clearly inspired by the Dirty Dozen in arranging an aggressive, complex, irresistibly funky groove that effectively bucked tradition to the benefit of pure dancing abandon. About a decade later, the Treme Brass Band recorded their own monumental version of “Food Stamp Blues” that appeared on the Arhoolie CD, Gimme My Money Back.

Tuba Fats kept the Chosen Few going throughout the rest of his life, while also performing with numerous other brass bands as well as traditional jazz artists. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 53, but lives on in recordings and the continuing grooves of the movement he helped revitalize.

Enjoy those king cakes and parades. And maybe even that momentary distraction called the Super Bowl. Da Saints ain't in dat. More Mardi Gras music is comin’ next month.

January 05, 2013

Toussaint: Footnotes & Follow-ups, Part 1

[Update 5-9-2013 - Audio links for this post have been removed.]

Bonne année et bonne santé! I’m kicking off 2013 with something I never got around to putting up last year [one of many!]. As you may recall, each January, I try to focus several posts on an important figure in New Orleans music, Allen Toussaint, as it is his birth month. He’ll be 75 this January 14, and continues to perform, record and create. More power to him.  

Of course, aspects of his prodigious work and multifaceted career certainly can be hot topics around here at any time; but, this new year I hope to get into some recordings, information, and speculation that will supplement previous posts I’ve done about his endeavors, which is why I’m calling this mini-series “Footnotes and Follow-ups”.

Today’s three conversation pieces center around Toussaint’s sessions for the third album of his career, Life, Love and Faith, which came out in 1972. Recording took place in the New Orleans Central Business District (CBD) at Jazz City Studio, which had been previously owned by the legendary local record man, Cosimo Matassa. After Cos went bankrupt, the studio was taken over for a couple of years by Arthur ‘Skip’ Godwin, a young engineer who continued to employ his predecessor and try to keep the operation going. By late 1973 or so, both were hired on as staff engineers at the new Sea-Saint facilities built by Sansu Enterprises, the production company owned by Toussaint and his business partner, Marshall Sehorn, and Jazz City was no more.

Somewhere in 1971, Sehorn had pulled a rabbit out of his deal-making hat, getting both the Meters and Toussaint signed to Reprise Records, a division of Warner Brothers. The deal brought in enough seed money to allow Sansu to finance construction of the new studio. The ensuing year was incredibly busy with Toussaint producing the Meter’s lead-off LP of the new deal, Cabbage Alley, and also making his own. Meanwhile, he continued to develop material for Lee Dorsey’s Polydor contract, and had begun to produce artists from outside the New Orleans sphere, as well [more on that later in the series]. For other details on the period, reference the prior posts listed below.*

First off, here’s a musical taste from Life, Love and Faith on a promo 45 Reprise spun-off as a single.

“Am I Expecting Too Much” (Allen Toussaint)
Allen Toussaint, Reprise 1132, 1972

Life, Love and Faith is full of choice examples of the convergence of Toussaint’s many talents, as he wrote, arranged, and produced all the songs, played piano, acoustic guitar and harmonica on various tracks, and, of course, sang lead. The marvelous funk-rock hybrid,  “Am I Expecting Too Much”,  is no exception. Having an essentially linear structure with few chord changes, the song derives its power from the driving, yet syncopated groove Toussaint incorporated into his typically deft arrangement of parts to create a buoyant, poly-rhythmic, push-pull interplay among the instruments and his vocal.

The core rhythm section on the album varied a bit from song to song; but at least some of the Meters (Art Neville, Zig Modeliste, Leo Nocentelli, and George Porter, Jr.) played on every track. The liner notes don’t detail which songs each player was on - so, excuse my half-educated guesses in the case of this tune. I’ve always assumed Zig drummed on most tracks; but Joe Lambert [the ‘Little Joe’ Lambert who played for Earl Stanley & the Stereos/Roger & the Gypsies?] is also on the list, as are conga players Alfred ‘Uganda’ Roberts and Cyril ‘Squirrel’ Neville. Porter has my vote as bassist here, though Walter Payton played on some of the tracks. Oddly, Art Neville’s name does not appear, nor is any organist credited; but he would still be the best bet to have been handling the Hammond heard on this track. Guitarist Nocentelli, who played the electric sitar so effectively on numerous sessions  back then, surely did so here, and was supplemented by the guitar work of another local, George Plummer. Finally, a typically outstanding horn section completed the tracking crew, with Gary Brown probably doing the sax soloing on this one.

Obviously inspired by the band’s great chops and the chugging bounce they mustered, Toussaint’s singing was strong, rhythmic, and soulful, allowing him to turn the song out despite not having much of a melody to work with. For my money, this emphatic, unfettered performance ranks high on the list of his most memorable vocals on record, a number of which can also be found on Life, Love and Faith.

Though never considered his strongest asset, Toussaint’s singing voice has always been distinctive and expressive, if somewhat limited in range. People have made it big with considerably less. But whether due to self-consciousness, introversion, or both, he kept his vocal roles primarily supportive for much of his early career, singing mostly backup on his productions for others. When the 1970s came along and opportunities arose for him to make albums as a frontman, he stepped up and overcame his reluctance, at least in the studio. His onstage persona took even longer to blossom. Once he started working on his own major projects, it readily became apparent that Toussaint was among the best vocal interpreters of Toussaint.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Several years back, I happened upon a previously unreleased track with Toussaint on vocal that was hiding on the back side of a 7” gray-market import EP (from Germany maybe?) containing what seem to be outtakes from Life, Love, and Faith. As you can see from the label shot, the record doesn’t directly name Toussaint, the album, or the tracks, but uses as graphics both the back cover photo of him and the three symbols found on the LP jacket. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Also on the EP label are the semi-descriptive words: “New Orleans 1972 SansuSwampFuzz 001 Studio Outtakes”. You get the idea.

The Discogs listing for this EP describes the material as “unreleased studio outtakes from the album Life, Love and Faith from 1972. 500 copies in existence,”  Hmmmm. The European dealer I bought mine from pretty much described the content the same way, offering no clue as to where that information came from. But I took a chance.

Without some verification from studio logs or the master tapes themselves, there’s really no sure way to tell if the tracks came from the LP sessions or others done around the same time. It does sound like most of the Meters were involved instrumentally; and some of them can be heard on the backing vocals, too. What we do know is that “When Can I Come Home” did not appear on Toussaint’s album, but was issued the same year with Lee Dorsey’s vocal in place of his on the Polydor single pictured below, a mono/stereo DJ copy of the song. The commercial release had “Gator Tail” on the flip side.  Except for some slight differences in the mix and better sonics on the Dorsey single, the music and backing vocals are identical on both versions.

”When Can I Come Home” (Allen Toussaint)
Toussaint’s  version

Lee Dorsey’s version Polydor 14147, 1972
No doubt Toussaint could have intended this song for Life, Love and Faith, but withdrew it before the final mix for some reason, deciding instead to recycle it as a Dorsey single. Alternately, he may have specifically cut it around the same time for Dorsey’s use, singing the lyrics as a guide for the band to play to and/or Lee to hear prior to overdubbing the master vocal. Either way, Toussaint’s version was a rough mix demo of sorts, rather than a finished product. We may never know for sure which way it went down; but it’s interesting to hear both side by side, so to speak.
Studio Outtake 1 on the other side is an instrumental “jam” that has piano, bass, guitar and drums playing around with a very simple Meters-style vamp without much purpose other than maybe to allow the engineers to set levels for the session. Nothing significant. The real surprise is the full take of “When Can I Come Home” (2) with Toussaint on vocal and piano, and apparently at least some of the Meters again backing him. The last cut (3) consists of nothing more than the fairly short ride-out of the song left over after engineers had faded the track. To suggest that it is worthy of being considered a separate outtake is disingenuous at best, as it dissolves quickly into meaningless noodling and random vocalizing never meant to be heard.
The song itself is enough of a find. I had never paid that much attention to Dorsey’s version until I took the time to compare it to its secret counterpart. It’s a minor-key stylistic mash-up of blues, soul, and rock with a dark, moody feel. In a way it has a passing similarity to Toussaint’s classic original, “On Your Way Down”, which not only made it onto Life, Love and Faith, but also appeared on a 1973 Dorsey single (Polydor 14181), and gained its fame via Little Feat’s inspired cover version on Dixie Chicken. If “When Can I Come Home” was recorded for his album, I can see why Toussaint chose to jettison it, being too close in feel to “On Your Way Down” but not quite measuring up in terms of quality.
Still, the tune has its own appeal, though admittedly there are several strange structural and performance elements that seem experimental. Listen to the counter melody and rhythms of the brief bridge section (“Would I be wrong if I tried over and over again...”), and the rock-influenced vamp that suddenly crops up out of nowhere as the song’s ride-out to the fade. Consider, too, that the backing vocals throughout are just this side of off the wall (who is doing all that high wailing?). Nocentelli’s lead guitar riffs, morphing between blues string bending and more forceful, Hendrix-like attack, only add to the song’s overall sense of disquiet. Since the lyrics speak of love about to drive the singer insane, what might at first seem to be random, disjointed aspects of the song structure and arrangement snap into focus. Toussaint, with his usual intense attention to detail, was using the music as much as the words to convey a mental state.  
I know it’s futile to second guess; and I do like both takes of the song, but I still wonder what it would have sounded like from a deeper soul singer with more range. I’m thinking of Eldridge Holmes, Betty Harris, or Willie West, who all worked with Toussaint to fine effect but had no commercial success. I think the tune was worth another shot from one of them; but, then again, they didnt’ have a record deal. What’s more, Toussaint was at that point about to leave making singles totally behind to become an acclaimed big-time album producer for hire. He had bigger fish to fry and has not revisited the song since Dorsey cut it. It’s not too late!
Wherever Toussaint’s performance of “When Can I Come Home” came from, it is truly a rare bird. Outtakes from his sessions and demos of his songs hardly ever turn up, leaving the obsessive fans among us to speculate and fantasize about all sorts of scenarios, including what else might be lying dormant and forgotten on the shelves of some storage room or corporate vault, or, even worse, lost forever in the federal flood of ‘05.... Fortunately for all concerned, a great amount of the best stuff saw daylight and is still available to enjoy in some form. So, let that be your cue to pick up more of what you don’t have and feast your ears. Even music we consider timeless might someday disappear.....

* Prior Related Posts:

Allen Toussaint: Defining Success in the 1970s
Sansu 70s: Allen, Lee, and Lou The Importance of Herman Ernest, Part 1 The Importance of Herman Ernest, Part 2