Saturday, May 7, 2022

Minneapolis Bump

Minneapolis Bump is a 2022 recording by the Southside Aces, a jazz group dedicated to performing traditional (that is ragtime and Dixieland-influenced) music.  Tony Balluff, who plays clarinet with the group, has composed 15 tunes for Minnesota Bump all of them written in a form that invokes jazz compositions by Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Sydney Bechet and other masters of that genre.  The CD is excellent and I recommend in highly.  The tunes are composed for a small ensemble and designed, generally, to state a theme on which the musicians each improvise in turn -- that is, the standard form used in Dixieland jazz.  Sometimes, there is a brief evocative introduction.  In some cases, the entire ensemble returns to restate the theme, although in ornamented form, at the end of the song.  The compositions are short -- the longest sing on Minneapolis Bump is about four minutes and most tunes are between three and 3 1/2 minutes in duration.  The songs are unassuming but have a strong impact and the ensemble is comprised of excellent musicians each of whom display to excellent advantage the qualities of their instruments.  The music seems authentic -- that is, "truthful" if that term has meaning in this context.  It's worth thinking about how this CD fits into a great tradition that is, nonetheless, not much heard in popular culture and, lamentably, exotic and unfamiliar for many listeners.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote a famous short story about the problem of anachronism in art.  The story is called "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" published in 1939.  In the very short tale (only six pages long), Pierre Menard, an eccentric polymath, decides that he will rewrite Cervantes' Don Quixote.  Menard's ambition is not to revise or "update" or translate Quixote.  Instead, his project is to school himself so completely in Cervantes' culture and sensibility that he can compose the Quixote verbatim, that is word-for-word albeit in the 20th century.  After years of effort, Menard manages to write a single paragraph of the Cervantes' novel.  Although the words are precisely the same as those in Cervantes' original book, of course, they have a completely different meaning -- that is, because the time intervening between 1602 (when Don Quixote was first published)  and 1939 has produced connotations in the language (shadow meanings that are historically dependent) that didn't exist in the earlier work.  I think some of the same implications arise in Mr. Balluff's devoted recreation of musical forms that had their greatest currency in the late 1920's and early 30's.  Here, precision is important.  It would be imprecise to say that Balluf has "revived" Dixieland style -- the music is eternal; it didn't go anywhere and hasn't perished:  Beiderbecke's "I'm coming Virginia" (to use one example) is still with us and remains, like all great art, timeless.  Similarly, it would probably be unfair to say that the tunes of Minnesota Bump are "imitations" or a "pastiche" of the Dixieland style.  "Imitation" or "pastiche" implies a distance between source material and the work that it influences that I don't really detect in this music.  I think it would be better to invoke Menard and say that Mr. Balluf and his colleagues have followed the inner logic of traditional jazz to create these works -- they are a transmutation of an older style into something that sounds similar (as in Menard almost identical to its origin material) but that is, nonetheless, new and different.  You hear bee-bop, for instance, by its absence in these songs.  The melancholy wars in Afghanistan and Iraq infuse the music; you can sense, faintly, the ghostly influence of another famous Minnesota musician, Prince, in some of these tunes.  If this music had been composed in 1929, it might be the same note-by-note with similar jazz made at that time.  But heard in 2022, the tunes have a very different meaning and emotional valence.  This isn't meant to be obscure:  I am making a very simple point.  We don't listen with "innocent ears" -- music made in our time is always of our time whether we like it or not.  After World War Two, the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony means something completely different than what it meant in 1815.  

All of the tunes on the record are noteworthy.  "St. Anthony Strut" stars with some grief-stricken chords but,  then, advances as a four-square Dixieland march tune -- it 's like the Second Line at a New Orleans jazz funeral and has mixes up some of the emotions that you might experience at such an event.  "The Roar" features a kinky-sounding banjo solo that has a discordant effect that wouldn't be possible (or, perhaps, audible) in 1930.  "The Sorrow" commences with a weird sounding foghorn bleat sounded over a tremolo of drum.  The tremulous drum introduces us to a lovely ballad-like melody played with heavy vibrato. This is a wonderful song.  "Zutty Charges In" (these songs have engaging names) is a suitably jaunty melody composed in short distinct units.  "My Inside Voice" sounds, in part, like Prince would have sounded in 1930 -- it's a funk tune with simple, gorgeous theme featuring an eloquent drum solo near the end.  Balluff is a fine composer of catchy melodies:  in "Lullaby on the Avenue,"  the theme is particularly pretty, a rich singing cantabile melody that is adorned by a guitar solo -- the guitar sounds like Chet  Atkins but ends with arpeggios that imitate a harp. ("Lullaby" is part of a trio of songs "on the Avenue" including the cheerful "Frolic on the Avenue" and the very slow, lyrical, and yearning "Dawn on the Avenue" -- I assume the titles reference Hennepin Avenue and the late lamented "E Block" in the chill light of early morning, fast food sacks skittering along the frigid sidewalk only recently abandoned by the pimps and their whores.)  "Lullaby" also invokes effects and sounds that wouldn't be admissible in 1930.  A sinister stalking theme introduces the eponymous tune, "Minneapolis Bump"-- there's a stop-time muted trumpet solo that is particular wonderful, a remarkably fluent clarinet solo played against what sound like minor key vamping figures.  I could annotate each song with my impressions, but I fear that my vocabulary isn't exactly correct and, in any event, the verbal description of music is always, I think self-defeating.  Music describes itself in its performance and, generally, words are superfluous.  

The breezy uptempo"Upstairs at Barts" is the most classically Dixieland number of the CD.  "Yeah you bet" features raunchy gutbucket trombone and starts with a chaotic-sounding blast of nose.  The trombone blares and bleats and sounds like someone blowing his nose -- I mean this as a compliment.  On the Beatles White Album, I recall that there's a song called "Honey Pie" featuring suavely massed saxophones that mimic thirties Hollywood dance music.  "Mordecai Promenade" has a similar ambience with sleek glissando stylings and a sort of Art Deco elegance -- the song shows the group's versatility and range.  "If I had a $1.50" is a tune with vocals:  the singer pleads for his girl to come back to him in doggerel verse ("Rockefeller" is rhymed with "Old Yeller"); the nonchalant vocals remind me a little of Jack Teagarden singing "Ain't Misbehaving" or his duet with Louis Armstrong on "Rocking Chair."  In "Whole Tony", the trumpet is tightly muted simulating the tinny sound of music overheard on an old radio.  The astonishing "G's Goodbye" concludes the CD -- this is an exceptional song, a swing-time waltz that manages to be both elegiac and hymn-like at the same time centered around an extremely eloquent and moving trombone solo.  

The CD is dedicated to luminaries of the Twin Cities jazz scene, Charley DeVore, the Hall Brothers, Bill Evans, Butch Thompson and others.  The personnel on the record are Tony Balluff on clarinet, Dan Eikmeier on trumpet, Eric Johnson playing trombone, Erik Jacobson on tuba, Robert Bell (guitar and banjo) and Dave Michael playing drums. The CD is decorated with the Minneapolis skyline, perhaps as seen from Lake of the Isles.  A mischievous-looking loon with demonic red eye floats on the water.  If you see this CD, buy it,

No comments:

Post a Comment