Jimmy Hamilton: Can't Help Swingin'
“Jimmy Hamilton is hardly as well known as he deserves to be.” I didn’t say that (Stanley Dance did, in 1961) but I agree. While he gained recognition with Clarinet Summit in the ‘Eighties, and served long with Duke Ellington (1943-68), he is still less known than Barney Bigard, the man he replaced. He rarely led dates, and this disc gives you two of them, recorded two weeks apart. You get standards, blues, and a bit of tenor sax (surprising next to his other reed.) It all has an easy feel you’ll like, and a sense of fun you can’t help seein’.
The first date is a sextet, with every number a blues. All the horns had played for Duke, as had Blanton’s cousin Wendell Marshall. “Mr. Good Blues” has a nice lope, with good rasp from Jimmy’s tenor. He is solidly in the Lester-with-bite mold of Gene Ammons, though not as intense. The horns pop a nice riff behind, and he lets with a scream – beauty. Britt Woodman drawls a bit – the sound of a yawn. Clark Terry is similar; he’s gentle, with a fuzzy tone. The clarinet comes in on the tail: woody depths and spooky high notes. He joins the others in a train whistle, and the track rolls away.
“Peanut Head” shouts, a hard-bop tempo with a great swinging line. Itty bitty solo, traded fast – I love it. Jimmy has the only full solo; he’s icy cool, with a high note of nearly a chorus. The brass take a punchy riff, and the leader fights hard to outshout them. He succeeds. “Nits and Wits” is good and slow, Tommy Flanagan opening with a line close to “Walkin’”. Terry gets the first solo, with that smooth slyness he excels in. Woodman is slow, with a better turn than “Mr. Good Blues”. Hamilton flutters, landing in the middle register with soft assurance. The brassmen exchange, and the tenor gets gritty, slow but with muscle. A big flourish, and they’re off. Don’t sound like nitwits to me!
As if to answer, the next tune is “Stupid But Not Crazy”; fast on the theme, leisurely on the solos. Woodman is faster here, with a round tone close to a French horn. Her steals it easy, though Flanagan is also good. “Two for One” has a lovely line with a dash of soul: Flanagan shines, thick notes echoing a bluesy joy. Jimmy is breathy: a simple musing, and his best clarinet solo. Hear Terry’s rasp: almost a kazoo with valves! And “Gone with the Blues” opens with a killer wail – the tenor screams; the band shouts him on. He’s the only soloist, and the only one you need. It caps a very strong album, and it has a home-run swing.
Two Fridays later, Jimmy was the sole horn at another session. The tone is more intimate, showing his sweet side; it would have been perfect on the Moodsville label. “Definite Difference” is a “Georgia Brown” variant, with a gentle Jimmy. He’s closer to Lester here, with maybe a bit of Ben Webster. This really shows on “Pan Fried”, with Flanagan lush and lovely. When Hamilton struts in the middle, it’s slow, soft, and the tone has rounded edges. In other words, it’s a gem. His clarinet is similar to the first date: high and airy, with strength on the low notes.
“Lullaby of the Leaves” pauses over the notes, Jimmy thinking as they go by. He has vibrato here, and a tone pretty enough to embrace. He’s got it, and Flanagan helps mightily. It’s also there on “Please Come Home”, with a touch of Coleman Hawkins (and hear him scream at the end!) “Dancing on the Ceiling” brings a frail clarinet, breathy and beautiful. When Jimmy climbs the mountain at the end of the theme, you’re on the ceiling. And “Town Tavern Rag” is a breezy jaunt through the city, gentle swagger and bright chords. He shouts on the solo, winks on the theme. It’s a confident tone, the sign of a job well done. And it is.