Monday, December 24, 2012

A Remarkable Essay By Ricky Riccardi

When I asked Louis Armstrong Biographer and Armstrong House Museum archivist Ricky Riccardi to write a quote or brief review of my album, Dreams May Take You, I had no idea that he would write a scholarly (yet very warm and personal) essay that goes well beyond a simple review, opinion piece and history lesson about my album and the current state of hot jazz in New York City.

You can read much more of his brilliant writing on his blog The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong and in his engaging new book What a Wonderful World: The Magic Of Louis Armstrong's Later Years
Thank You, Ricky!

At the end of a romp through “Hey! Look Me Over” on Emily Asher’s new CD, Dreams May Take You, saxophonist Dan Levinson can be heard to mutter, “Not bad.”  It’s the understatement of the year, as what came before it—and what follows—is simply extraordinary hot jazz played by some of the finest young musicians devoted to keeping this music alive today.
The phrases “hot jazz” and “young musicians” might seem as incompatible as “peanut butter” and “dice” but it wasn’t always that way, and as this CD makes clear, it’s not that way today. But first, a quick  history lesson.
In the days before jazz became “Art” with a capital A, it was a social music, music for dancing, for dining, for drinking and for partying. Young people tend to partake in such activities so it only made sense that hot jazz became the soundtrack to their lives in the 1920s and 1930s. Even after World War II, when jazz was beginning to take a backseat to the popular crooners of the day like Frank Sinatra and Dick Haymes, hot, traditional, New Orleans-influenced jazz remained popular with young crowds in rowdy New York nightclubs like Central Plaza and Eddie Condon’s and on university campuses across the country. By the late 1950s, though, rock-and-roll had begun to take over as the music of choice for the younger generation. Jazz continued to move farther and farther away from the sounds of popular music, until it became a respected art form with a small audience. Traditional jazz survived but was mostly a niche, even ignored by the more mainstream jazz musicians and press.
But that’s not the case anymore. Gradually building in the last decade or so, traditional jazz is thriving once again with young jazz musicians (tired of Coltrane substitutions and eager for ensemble interplay) and almost more importantly, young listeners looking for lively, swinging music suitable for dancing and  listening to without a perquisite doctorate degree in musicology.
One listen through Dreams May Take You amply illustrates why this is: this is not museum piece music but rather something completely fresh and exciting, music that’s clearly fun to play for the musicians to play and fun for the disc’s listeners to experience.
Because traditional jazz has its share of passionate, detail-obsessed devotees (once dubbed “moldy figs” in the 1940s), there will probably be some hardened listeners out there with memories of Jack Teagarden, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Kid Ory clouding their brains, who might not think today’s hot jazz proponents really know the music. Well, that’s a wrong assumption to make; these musicians have studied and pay tribute to the past masters in a variety of ways: on “Muskrat Ramble,” Kevin Dorn replicates Cliff Leeman’s drum break from Eddie Condon’s recording of “Beale Street Blues”; the vocal arrangement of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” is lifted directly from Tommy Dorsey’s recording with the Sentimentalists; a snatch of Dizzy Gillespie’s arrangement of  “Umbrella Man” makes its way into “Hey! Look Me Over” (and Gillespie was no moldy fig, proving the band has big ears). This is not repertory music filled with recreations of the past but these small glimpses illustrate that these musicians are comfortable building on what the master’s left them.
As for trombonist Asher, she announces her arrival and shows off her credentials on the disc’s opening track, “Ory’s Creole Trombone.” This showpiece for New Orleans trombone pioneer Kid Ory is not an easy one (I once heard Asher exclaim before a live performance of this number, “See you on the other side!”) but the Seattle native handles it deftly, surely making the Kid proud, not only with her virtuosic solo statements but also with her superb work in the ensembles. In the song’s coda, Asher humorously performs a mini “History of the Trombone,” quoting Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” Henry Fillmore’s “Lassus Trombone” and Tommy Dorsey’s theme, “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” in the span of about 15 seconds.
(But the glory of Dreams May Take You is you don’t need to know any of the tunes I mentioned in the last two paragraphs to enjoy it. The older generations of hot musicians did not create music for specialists and historians and neither does Asher’s crew.)
After the history lesson on “Ory’s Creole Trombone,” Asher settles down and spends the rest of the recording offering stirring examples of her many talents. As a trombonist, her tone is warm and smooth (perhaps best shown off on her duet with Gordon Webster on Louis Armstrong’s “Someday You’ll Be Sorry”) but she’s not afraid to mix it up in the ensembles, showing a natural gift for the joys of polyphonic improvisation. As a singer, Asher’s voice is unfailingly sweet and earnest, one created for music such as this. Her touching delivery of “Lullaby for a Little One” (written by her father, Rick Asher) is a particular highlight (especially for those with kids). And as a composer, both “Sweet Pea” (which sounds a bit like Duke Ellington’s “Saturday Night Function” as played on Sunday morning) and “Great Big Wall” (an exotic number inspired by a trip to Israel) are melodies that linger in the mind long after the CD has stopped spinning.
Asher is also a pro at pacing Dreams May Take You. {Emily's note: much credit is due here to co-producer and mixing/mastering engineer Jeff Jones, "the Jedi Master," for track order and overall sonic experience}  Too many albums consist of two tempos (fast and slow) ping-ponged back and forth from selection to selection. But Dreams May Take You is constantly changing its atmosphere: nods to Louis Armstrong on “Muskrat Ramble” and “Someday You’ll Be Sorry”; middle tempo, walking-and-swinging numbers like “Sweet Pea” and a perfectly paced “On the Sunny Side of the Street”; a two-beat country stroll through “You Are My Sunshine”; a full-blown New Orleans party atmosphere on “There’ll Be Some Changes Made”; and free-for-all romps on “Emperor Norton’s Hunch” and “Limehouse Blues” that illustrate the joyous abandon that made this music so popular in the first place.
The album’s other cast of characters is mighty impressive. Wycliffe Gordon, a mentor of sorts to Asher, shows up to whoop, holler and generally raise hell on “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” “Great Big Wall” and “Limehouse Blues,” both on trombone and sousaphone. Bria Skonberg morphs into the 21st century Louis Armstrong at times, especially in the rideout chorus to “On the Sunny Side of the Street”; drummers Rob Garcia and Kevin Dorn illustrate that press rolls didn’t die with Paul Barbarin; reedmen Dan Levinson and Will Anderson also score on their various outings; everyone, from top to bottom, sounds like they’re having a ball and that feeling is contagious.
Though the album doesn’t contain anything that remotely resembles a dud, for me, the track I keep coming back to is “Emperor Norton’s Hunch,” a Lu Watters composition I wasn’t aware of until the modern traditionalists (oxymoron?) have started including it in their repertoire. From the opening, arranged introduction until the final charge after the last drum break, I thought I was listening to a prime Eddie Condon record from the 1950s. The rhythm section kicks everyone along with almost frightening intensity while each of the horns absolutely nail the arranged and improvised portions, resulting in ensemble-generated ecstasy. It’s probably the single most exciting new track I’ve heard in 2012.
That one track alone illustrates all the quality that spoke to young people in the 1930s and 1940s and is speaking to them again in clubs around Brooklyn and Greenwich Village today: music that is full of passion, swing, abandon, intensity, melody. Those qualities will always remain timeless which is why hot jazz will never die. And in the hands of Emily Asher and the other musicians on Dreams May Take You, the music is alive, well and swinging like mad. 

You can purchase Dreams May Take You through Bandcamp (easy and most profit for artists), CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon and many other online retailers.

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