Talking and Drum Solos represents yet another step back into jazz history for Atavistic's Unheard Music Series, which made a point of mostly documenting avant jazz until this year's reissue of George Gruntz's straight-ahead Mental Cruelty soundtrack from 1960. And it's a big leap indeed. Baby Dodds (1898-1959) is regarded as one of the most influential early pioneers of jazz drumming, coming from New Orleans and subsequently working out of Chicago. His experience with King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Jelly Roll Morton was more than legendary. Plenty of modern drummers insist he is their primary inspiration. Ironically, drummers were never in the foreground of early jazz recordings.
So this record (which brings together two Smithsonian Folkways recordings from 1946 and 1954) is one for the archives, at the very least. It contains the first solo drum record ever, with a good helping of conversation with Dodds and accompanying demonstrations, all recorded by Mose Asch in 1946 over eight tracks. The last 17 come from a Country Brass Bands record made by Frederic Ramsey in 1954, aimed at documenting Southern rural black music from out of the nineteenth century continuum. As a relic that supposedly predated jazz, this portion of the record is a revealing document.
You have to come to terms with the fact that there's no way to appreciate early jazz like this outside a "documentary" setting at this point, because of the influence of technology on recording. Talking And Drum Solos is just such a documentary. It's not party music; it's not background music. It's not foreground music, either... just a window into another world. Kevin Whitehead's (generous) notes bring some explanation into the matter without being heavy-handed.
Dodds plays with confidence and style, his free-wheeling approach cloaking a very specific technical knowledge to his instrument. He compares his work with the Oliver band (where he mostly stuck with beats in two) to his playing with Louis Armstrong (who preferred beats in four). Unfortunately the samples do little to illuminate the point, but his solo playing makes up for that.
With most of these tracks clocking in at two minutes or less (yet again an artefact of technology), you don't get much more than a nibble at the different styles, but that's usually enough. To be honest, the solo tracks are informative but the extremely loose group recordings (the second half of the record) give much more of a feel of the music in action. And thankfully, the drums are forward in the mix.
Talking and Drum Solos is a documentary aimed at spotlighting the torchbearer of early jazz drumming. Taken at face value, it's a totally unique and unparalleled doorway to the roots of so much music we take for granted today.
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Personnel: Baby Dodds, drums. Various others.