Saturday, March 25, 2017

Capt. John Handy - All Aboard

It used to be a truism that the saxophone is not an instrument that belongs in a traditional New Orleans jazz band. Sure, it's fine for R & B, or even in the city's brass bands, but in the small trad bands, the front line should be trumpet, trombone, and clarinet. Period.

Luckily, no one told Capt. John Handy that. An accomplished clarinetist, he took up the saxophone in the 1920s, when the instrument was as popular as the electric guitar would become four decades later. He got his nickname when, after correcting the banjo player's harmonies at a rehearsal, the offending musician sarcastically proclaimed, "All hail Captain John Handy, the chord master."

When the so-called "New Orleans revival" hit in the 1940s, Handy was overlooked by the earnest young men who came to the city to find and record whatever early jazzmen who were still active. Handy didn't record until the 1960s. But he recorded frequently in that last decade of his life, although most of the records were for small jazz labels, and most of his output has remained obscure. Some of his best records have never been reissued in digital form.

In December, 1965, the Connecticut Traditional Jazz Club brought four New Orleans veterans north for a series of concerts: trumpeter Kid Thomas Valentine, Jim Robinson on trombone, drummer Sammy Penn, and Handy with his alto sax. Three young New Englanders and a visiting British clarinetist, Sammy Rimmington, filled out the group, which came to be known as The December Band. Two of the concerts were recorded, and each of those concerts resulted in three full LPs. The December 3 concert in Stamford produced The December Band, Volumes 1 and 2 on Jazz Crusade and Sleepy Time Gal on Center. From a West Haven concert three days later, we have the three volumes of All Aboard on GHB.

The December Band has become legendary among traditional jazz fans, and when you hear the records, it's easy to understand why. The northern musicians are strictly functional; Rimmington is better, but was still not much more than a George Lewis imitator at this point. (He has gone on to a long and distinguished musical career.) But the New Orleans guys - whew! They are fiery and enthusiastic, and totally original - none of them sound remotely like anyone else.  Handy was always an aggressive and exciting saxophonist, and he's at his best here.

I bought All Aboard, Volume 1 when was around 16 - it was probably the first New Orleans revival record I owned. I loved Handy's playing right away, but Kid Thomas's odd sound and style turned me off at first. It wasn't until I discovered the work of avant-garde jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie that I could hear what Valentine was getting at. I love the interrelatedness of the different eras of jazz history; the music is a continuum, not a series of revolutions, as some jazz critics portray it.

Between those concerts, the band visited a television studio and recorded an hour-long broadcast. Rather than present any of the tracks from the All Aboard albums, I thought I'd add a clip from that show, starting with "Ice Cream," which was one of Capt. John's signature tunes.

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