Various Artists: Arbors Records Sampler, Volume One
The ‘Thirties were an interesting time for jazz. The years between Dixieland and Swing brought a lot of new players on the scene, brought new instruments to the fold (guitar, tenor sax), and did wonders with the pop tunes of the Golden Age of American Song. The ‘Nineties are an interesting time for jazz. A record label is using modern technology (digital recording, the long playing time of CDs) so this joyous music will be heard on more than scratchy 78s. They record veterans of the era (Ruby Braff, Bob Haggart) and modern groups playing in this style. The label is Arbors, and their sampler gives you a taste of what they’ve been doing. If you like the jazz of this era, you’ll find it quite tasty indeed.
The album doesn’t waste time; the first track is an absolute monster, eight minutes of live Ruby Braff with sidemen like Dave McKenna and Scott Hamilton. As McKenna strides into “Rosetta”, you hear the crowd approve and Braff shouting him on. Braff’s own solo comes with a lot of warmth, tiptoeing his notes with a soft power. Hamilton’s solo could be a bit louder, but it rules, recalling Lester here and Hawkins there. The whole group marches off together, and the crowd cheers, as well they should.
The flavors here change with every song, showing how broad this style really is. Dick Hyman’s “Baby Boom” is one of two originals here. A sophisticated New York waltz, Hyman and guitarist Howard Alden trip gently through its delicious melody. Right next to it is a four-sax tribute to Coleman Hawkins, playing a tune Bean did on The Hawk Relaxes. The mellow ensemble sound is straight from the ‘Thirties, minus the pops and scratches; plus you get a modern drum sound! A similar mix comes from the next track: John Sheridan’s light stride benefits from modern piano recording, while Dan Barrett’s muted trombone comes from a bygone age. And Kenny Davern’s clarinet on “You’re Lucky To Me” – how do I describe it? Happy. I hear this and smile. Don’t you wish all music could do that?
All the previous tunes were done straight; the next few are pastiches. Barbara Kilgore opens “I Saw Stars” with a spoken call-and-response with the band. It’s corny but it’s supposed to be – and it sounds like the group vocals of the day. More over the top is the rightly-named “Excessively Happy Tune” of Peter Ecklund, who’s recorded with the trad group Paris Washboard. This has whistling, banjo, something called a sarrusaphone, and lots of strumming. I’m not sure it’s jazz but it’s fun, and it works here. “Coquette” sounds like a vintage dance band; Phil Bodner has a great clarinet solo, and the sound is very full for a septet. Tongue may be in cheek for all of these, but they still swing.
Come the midway point we get a few more styles. “Then I’ll Be Happy” offers up boogie, with Dan Barrett’s trombone on the side. “Midnight Blue” is a Pee Wee Russell tribute, with great sour trombone (Barrett again), and a rhythm guitar reminding me of Waller’s man Al Casey. “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” is an ornate piano feature for John Bunch, which uses thick chords, a dash of Ellington, and scattering lines, all to good effect. “Cheek to Cheek” gives us a giggly girl singer (Daryl Sherman) and a big band. It’s a little too cutesy for my taste, but it has its charms, and the arrangement is nice. And “Curse of An Aching Heart” is straight from the ‘Twenties; Rick Fay’s sarcastic vocal has great fun with the sly lyrics. All this comes from different schools, but they’re all in the same neighborhood. And you wouldn’t mind living there.
Come the end, there are still a few surprises. Bob Haggart, bassist with Bob Crosby in the ‘Forties, does a new version of his hit “Big Noise from Winnetka”, this time as a trio, and without drums. It sparkles, thanks in part to Bucky Pizzarelli. Chuck Folds’ stride number “How Can You Face Me?” has a lush tone not common in this style, and it makes you listen closer. And Tom Saunders’ version of “Cornet Chop Suey” takes us back to Dixieland; while Saunders is good, the ensemble parts are terrific. With that the disc ends, and we are back in the present.
Granted, this isn’t for everyone. If your tastes are modern, you’re not likely to buy this. But if you’re fond of jazz’ earlier days (or want to learn about them) it’s worth a listen – and it’s budget-priced to boot!