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Firehouse Five Plus Two: Twenty Years Later

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One look at the cover will lead most people to say "You've got to be kidding. And you'd be right - sort of.

There are many reasons to think the Firehouse Five are not worthy of your attention. They were amateur musicians, most of whom worked for Walt Disney. (Two members, Ward Kimball and Frank Thomas, were part of Disney's famous "Nine Old Men", the key animators on Disney films for close to 40 years.) They wore ridiculous uniforms, including fire hats; most of their album covers feature an old fire truck which, yes, they owned and, yes, drove to gigs in. Their singing voices are at best average (that's really being kind), and yet nearly half of the tunes here are vocal numbers. And there are lots of really corny sound effects and noisemakers. Some of the funny stuff works, and some is embarrassing, but throughout you can tell these guys are having fun and, if you're in the right mood, so will you.

Considering the album's title, some history is in order. The 1940s New Orleans Revival, which rekindled interest in traditional jazz and brought many original musicians out of retirement, also led many younger musicians to play in that style. Many of these newer groups, like Lu Watters/Bob Scobey and the Bay City Jazz Band, were based in the Los Angeles-San Francisco area, and the Good Time Jazz label was set up to record them, starting with the Firehouse Five in 1949. In 1969, twenty years later (hence the title), interest in traditional jazz had dwindled and most of the original revival groups had stopped playing. Label owner Lester Koenig (who also operated Contemporary Records) decided to shut down Good Time Jazz, ending it the way he starting it, with a Firehouse Five record. It proved to be their last as well.

The boys decided to do some things different on their swan song. (No swans actually sing here, but there are bird noises aplenty.) While their repertoire was usually trad standards (the liner notes quote Kimball as saying "we've played the "Muskrat Ramble" at least 1,470 times") this time they chose to do more recent material. This means you get the folk tune "Walk Right In" with tuba and banjo, and you also get a rendition of that notable jazz standard "Winchester Cathedral". They also chose tunes closer to their vein, like "Hello, Dolly!" (a really nice rendition, with good soprano sax) and "Petite Fleur" (with soprano man George Probert doing his best Sidney Bechet impression.)

While enjoyment of this album depends greatly on what you think of the novelty effects, this group could definitely play straight-ahead traditional jazz; examples here are "Petite Fleur" and a really good version of "High Society" where two more sopranos join Probert on this one number. (One of them, a student of Probert's named Tom Kubis, is still active today.) It's quite the fun record, and a festive send-off for this colorful group.

Record Label: Good Time Jazz

Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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