Albert Nicholas With Art Hodes' All-Stars
All too often, current jazz artists take the easy way out, tossing off variations on the tried and true for an ever-shrinking audience rather than experimenting with new approaches. But that's not to say the tried and true has entirely lost its charm. Trad jazz -- the term used to describe the music's germinal form -- lacks the structural shifts and frequent surprises associated with bop, post-bop, post-post-bop or any of the other increasingly meaningless handles that get hung on this genre. At their best, however, the results sound like the America that once was and can be again -- at least for the length of a CD.
Chicago's Delmark Records is currently among the few domestic labels trafficking in trad, and recent reissues such as George Lewis's Hello Central...Give Me Doctor Jazz, the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra's Grace and Beauty and Saturday Night Function by Jim Beebe's Chicago Jazz Saturday all provide unmistakable pleasure. But it's Albert's Back in Town that most succinctly encapsulates trad's appeal. Clarinetist Nicholas, the man behind the record, was a key contributor to the development of jazz as a member of King Oliver's band, and he later played alongside or cut sessions with Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, Kid Ory and other luminaries. Unfortunately, many of these sides are a bit difficult for today's listener to enjoy as a result of the primitive recording technology used to capture them for eternity -- but not so Back in Town, cut in 1959 with better gear and a first-rate cast of collaborators who effortlessly recapitulate the brightest, shiniest aspects of the Roaring '20s style. "Farewell Blues," the lead track, belies its melancholy title with a chugging parade tempo, a brassy melody and Nicholas's lines, which wiggle and wave at ground level before shooting skyward. That's followed by the dizzying "Fidgety Feet," the ecstatic "Shimme Sha Wabble" and six bonus tracks, including an elongated alternate take of "Creole Love Call" that manages to be quaint and mysterious at the same time.
A steady diet of trad isn't recommended; its allure can curdle in the heat of overexposure. But the purity of the music is bracing, slicing through contrivance and leaving bliss in its wake.
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