Paris, the sun wore a shroud of clouds for all of May. Even though plenty of people spoke English, I was spared any jokes about building an ark. As each heavy drop of rain caressed the petals of the flower it trembled. A drumbeat, it was Max Roach with brushes, each beat always followed by a near erotic shiver. We lay there, me as usual facing the window which, as always was open a crack regardless of the weather.
A week in and the rain had become the heavy kind; each drop visually muting the window sill, the leaves of the geranium, wrought iron railing offering up none of the silvered percussion.
I felt her hair across my back; I wished I had put a record on but softly as to almost be subliminal. My shoulder bare, her cheek felt cool or maybe I was warm. Every drop was a prayer she had once said; it was back when she would shyly hum as she set the table and I stirred the sauce.
I was grumpy; a true Parisian does not mind walking in the rain so long as a calvados or good meal is waiting inside somewhere. Although I like it to be far spaced out, I usually enjoy walking in the rain as it sort of bolsters the cities natural beauty akin to seeing a stunning woman in the morning sans make-up.
Again the pen, so much now a part of me, like this city too. I had vaguely promised some lyrics to Maria but in general had the luxury of no deadline; so could put a few balls up in the air at once, an intellectual exercise whose challenge I always relished. A thousand memories bled onto the page which was still wet, vague episodic recollections of childhood daydreams appearing slightly off for lacking the expected innocence. Pen bites paper so that we can relive this, each of us with our own emphasis on what is important. For each of us a different winner.
Nostalgia can be a trap as the attempt to maintain the authenticity of a moment from a then is devoid of any tension which cannot exist without an organic component of “in the moment” that heralds evolution, as every moment must die even as it births another. This is especially true in music. Jazz in its nascence had to come over to Paris where without the same social boundaries as existed stateside, it was better appreciated and able to gestate before returning to its home soil to further grow and expand. Even with the myriad of genres which have popped up since the days Sidney Bechet wandered the city of lights; hot jazz retains a modicum of popularity in Paris. The musicians are generally pretty good and while there is a certain amount of excitement to be had in hearing music which one is accustomed to mainly only hearing recordings of from bygone days, there is a static element which exists in a lot of these performances that tinge the whole affair in melancholy. I am fine with hearing one of my musical peers who cut their teeth listening to Sidney Bechet, Bunny and Bix not put a radical new take on the tunes but also not ignore what their own travels and inspirations pull into each song. On the road the old masters probably had key phrases they would play within the body of a solo but depending on how they felt at that moment and where they were, there would exist all kinds of variations.
I had finished two strong songs which I knew she would want to record, I decided to take a break and do a column. By happenstance one of the few albums I brought with me from the states was “A Little Keyhole Business” by the Midnight Serenaders. Combining elements of hot jazz, country swing and other (now largely) fringe genres from the golden age of vinyl they have always been joyfully old timey without letting their inherent authenticity stagnate them into a specific way of doing things.
The album encompasses a lot of music from the early part of the 20th century which had been successfully recorded and performed across a wide genre of music. This is perfect for the Serenaders as it subtly underscores the makeup of the band, all of them are well versed in the musical early Americana with each member bringing a different aspect to the ensemble to contribute to a cohesive whole.
From 1914, W.C Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” is one of those old standards which I never tire of hearing. Jazz critic Brian Peerless once dubbed the song “The Jazz man’s Hamlet” which is accurate in that the song is rife with dramatic potential but also other emotional possibilities as proven by this version. Under the Serenader’s direction the song starts off in the realm of country swing. The vocal harmonies between Dee Settlemier (who also plays ukulele, washboard & cymbals) and Doug Sammons (guitar) have always been great. Here their singing together shows a laid back precision which can only come from years of singing together. There are several tempo changes but they all occur with a logical progression completely bereft of gimmick. The song veers into hot jazz territory. On trumpet, Garner Pruitt plays a warm middle tone reminiscent of coronet; which is nice as so often now hot jazz playing on horn is automatically equated to the upper registers. I have long been a fan of sax and clarinetist David Evans. There are still plenty of great horn players out there but often their sound rings to some extent of who their influences are. David for sure plays with a sound associated with a school (the rich and warm toned cats, Stan Getz et al) but stylistically, he is always recognizable as himself. On clarinet he has great articulation and a woody tone. His clarinet playing too has the ability to wrap around the other instruments within a piece, sounding like an old friend. The sound for the entire album is pristine but warm. You hear every instrument but there is no sense of things being multi-tracked. The bass has a deep low end rumble yet is never overblown and reminds one that bass is also a rhythmic instrument good for more than soloing. The long lines of Doc Stein’s Hawaiian steel guitar pepper the piece with a sweetish aspect whose sustained declamations make for compelling counter point to the juka-juka strum of Dee’s ukulele.
The album contains some original pieces written by Dee. What is important to point out is that they do not come across as mere parroting of a style which she has mastered. Were one not to know these songs were new, it would not be immediately apparent. There is none of that disappointment of drawing from yesteryears to wrap a new piece in a thin shell of history.
Even with the original songs from the past that leaned a little more towards novelty there was more often than not a literate bent lyrically. At their best they were short stories and vignettes to which one could tap their toes. Dee is able to maintain this tradition, lyrics crowned with laurels soaked in bathtub gin. “Your Mama Loves Plinkin” is my current favorite original on the album. It starts with a hot Saturday night, jangled nerve piano intro from guest star Andrew Oliver, a cascading minor key vamp. In the best hot jazz tradition there is aside from the mini narrative, double entendre. Plinkin is the girl and her instrument but also perhaps the thing which inspires the playing or what a night of playing leads to. The song has sassiness with each instrument mirroring Dee’s strut.
“There Ain’t No Sweet Man Worth the Salt of My Tears” is taken at a slower pace than the version by Bix Beiderbecke and Bing Crosby from the 20’s. It is better suited for the lyrics and to show off the various ways in which the band celebrates the blues, happy to be sad. Dee starts off her delivery soft with a hint of fragility over the mahogany “oh” of clarinet, a chanteuse caught by the surprise that all is not well. There is a great trumpet statement from Garner which is appropriate, the song having once served as a showcase for Bix Beiderbecke, one of the members of early jazz’s holy horn trinity (Louis Armstrong and Bunny Berigan being the other two). The brief slide solo is the injured woman whose revenge is how good she looks as she walks away. As the song goes on, like a growing resolve, the delivery becomes less a lament and more the caveat of a broken heart.
Like the other albums in their oeuvre this one stands up to repeated listenings. Nothing they do is ever merely by rote nor trapped under museum glass nostalgia.
I typed up Maria’s lyrics and sent them express post. I could have called to tell her I was done and winging them her way but it was one of my eccentricities, a strained relationship with phones. She must have looked them over once or twice, instantly knowing that she liked what she saw, before calling me. It was the hour of the aperitif and I could hear the ice clinking against the side of her glass. I myself had been on my way out to grab a Pastis, always becoming uneasy with any interruption with my routine she was going to make me late and so I could not fully enjoy the fact that she had been instantly enamored of them both.
“I will call you tomorrow, bisou-bisou.”
It had pleased me but ego made me act surprised at her call, which came the next day as I was shaving. She wanted me to come down there for the recording sessions and to maybe write a piece which reflected the environment of her temporarily adopted home. I told her I had to think about it and would call her back later. I had pretty much cleared my deck of the self-appointed workload and it was only a few hours train ride, trains being preferable to me over planes any day.
I mentioned it to Charlotte who thought we should go. Still, I was reluctant although I could not say why. The weather would break at any time and I was anxious to get back to my routine of mornings of work followed by the heavy lunches that caused the afternoon drowse on the bed until the patch of sun moved signaling that I should once again got back to the pen who had been patiently waiting at desk for me.
“The sun will be down in Marseilles and besides that there is that place you enjoy with the waitress who likes you, all that bouillabaisse and flinty white wine.”
I shrugged my shoulders. The phone rang again, we were going.
The ride was pleasant enough distracted as I was by my book. Maria had a mix of the usual musicians she worked with and some younger guys. Sammy the arranger in his impeccably clean linen suit was also there. Part of his mystique had been derived from the fact that his suit never seemed dirty nor worn. A handshake often settles the first impression and the best dressed person in the room is usually the one in charge so the legend has served him well over the years.
Years ago during a particularly hard recording session he and I found ourselves with hours of nothing to do as the band went through the charts. In the nearby hotel bar after a few drinks he had confessed his secret to me, each season he buys a dozen of the same exact suit and always travels with at least three.
The first night at dinner Maria kept coming up behind me, draping her arms over my shoulders, telling me to;
“Just eat, drink, enjoy myself and maybe I would become inspired to write something with the flavor of the south, no pressure although she could use something with a southern flavor to bookend the album.”
The sessions went well. I noticed some of the younger players were technically good but lacked the soul of their older peers. There were chunks of time with nothing to do, so Charlotte and I walked around. Maria was a quick study and so Sammy was not always needed to run the charts. Sympatico to the tediousness of downtime I was fine with him accompanying us. I often liked the smaller restaurants which seemed to exist only for the locals. At one spot we sat at a long wooden communal table with a bunch of workers whose enthusiasm left traces of their bouillabaisse all over their shirts and in fragrant splotches on the table. “The glamour of show business” Sammy said to me in English.
The more I walked the city the more I felt the words once again bubbling up. Sometimes I had to trick them out, wanting the freedom of indifference only with accomplishing something. The café was closing. Some of the chairs had been put atop the small tables others not. All those thin iron legs pointing in different directions, threatening at any moment to once again launch into motion and scurry away like so many crabs escaped from the fishmonger’s basket. My street was not well lit which I preferred as every shadow which exists past the borders of the lone street light is a cat or at least I hope so.
I had a piece inspired by this temporary haven. I did not view it as a competition but there was the possibility now of temporary bad blood between Sammy and myself as we had very different creative process and to others his seemingly longer methods was equated to a lesser daemon. The hotel let me use their typewriter which was in a closet whose door was labeled “Office”. Had I formal typing posture and not that of a boxer I would have been hitting something against the door or wall with every tap-tap of the keys.
At dinner I surprised Maria with the new lyrics. She insisted we all run to the studio. I am not a technically great singer; I know how to use what I got just enough to get across how I feel the emotional cadence of a piece should be. Sammy, Maria and I sat at the piano. One of the younger guys had a tape machine which was placed on the lid atop a stack of score paper. I did my best which I guess was ok as Sammy immediately started taking notes. I managed about four or five run throughs before I became overly self-conscious. Then I left the two of them to it.
The next day, our last there, over breakfast the kid shyly came over with the tape machine and asked if I wanted to hear. I shrugged. He left it on the table telling me that I could bring it to the studio later. I pressed play after making sure the volume knob was not turned up too much.
I listened to the tape, instantly she picked up on my disappointment.
“You do not like it?”
“I do not like the way I sound. One hears one’s own voice via the vibrations of the throat, that way, what I heard I liked. You need to hear what I mean, put your ear against my throat darling, here, where the razor goes…”
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