Alex Belhaj's Crescent City Quintet
Back in May 2015, Alex Belhaj’s Crescent City Quintet gathered at cornetist Dave Kosmyna's pad in Toledo, Ohio to record their music for posterity. While the ensemble heard on Alex’s earlier Crescent City Quartet album had delivered the goods like nobody’s business, the addition of drummer Pete Siers brought out the very best in each participant.
Back in May 2015, Alex Belhaj’s Crescent City Quintet gathered at cornetist Dave Kosmyna's pad in Toledo, Ohio to record their music for posterity. While the ensemble heard on Alex’s earlier Crescent City Quartet album had delivered the goods like nobody’s business, the addition of drummer Pete Siers brought out the very best in each participant. One week after this session, Belhaj hit the road for New Orleans where he would spend the next five years making friends, absorbing the culture, gigging like mad and making records with bands like Hal Smith’s On The Levee Jazz Band, The Riverside Jazz Collective, Benny Amón’s New Orleans Pearls and master musicianer Dr. Michael White. On returning to Michigan, Alex revealed that he had this fine recording on ice waiting to be released. I am fully convinced that it’s his band’s best recording to date.
New Orleans native Spencer Williams based his perky strut Boodle Am on riffs from two of James P. Johnson’s best-known melodies: the famous Charleston, and the Carolina Shout. Subtitled “Charleston pat”, Boodle Am was first recorded by the Dixie Washboard Band in May 1926. Waxed for the Victor label in December of that year by Lockwood Lewis and the Dixieland Jug Blowers, a now-hyphenated Boodle-Am appeared on Victor records with Shake added as a dance genre marker, like “shimmy one-step”, “stomp” or “fox-trot”. This was during the golden age of peculiar song titles; another side cut at the same session was christened Don’t Give All the Lard Away. Once again the Belhaj unit demonstrates their marvelous knack for vocal harmony. Whereas songs invoking an errant female named Corrine or Corrina trace back at least as early as 1918, the definitive version of Corrine Corrina was recorded in December 1928 by mandolinist Charlie McCoy and Armenter “Bo Carter” Chatmon of the Mississippi Sheiks. The Quintet’s interpretation is faithful to the Chatmon/McCoy original.
Clementine (from New Orleans) was popular among dance bands in 1927. Recorded in that year by the California Ramblers, the Goofus Five and the Don Voorhees Orchestra, it is also memorable as the last title that cornetist Bix Beiderbecke cut with the band led by Jean Goldkette. Hearing this number performed in the twenty-first century is a special treat. Listen for the interplay between Heitger and Kosmyna, and the way Pete Siers channels the spirit of Warren Baby Dodds during the out chorus. Cherry is a song of romantic attraction by saxophonist, arranger and smooth vocalist Don Redman, who rose to prominence with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra and introduced Cherry with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in 1927. With few exceptions it has always served as a feature for stylish crooners; Heitger opts for the tried and true visceral delivery.
Guitar Rag was the brainchild of (Louisville) Kentuckian Sylvester Weaver, who first recorded it in 1923. Western Swing enthusiasts will recognize the melody from a record cut in 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys that showcased flashy steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe. In full communion with Weaver’s original, Alex delivers a solitary personal rumination. He learned about Sylvester Weaver from our friend Weston Hughes, soft spoken scholar of historic musical traditions. My Josephine is based on a record cut in 1926 by cornetist Oscar Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra. Vocal on this handsome little walk around the block is by Dave Kosmyna, a wickedly adept cornetist whose contribution to the Belhaj discography, the Great Lakes regional trad jazz scene and the evolution of the human genome has yet to be adequately acknowledged.
Of All The Wrongs You’ve Done To Me first saw the light of day as a danceably brisk record cut by Louis Armstrong and the Red Onion Jazz Babies in 1924. Transformed here into a reflective slow drag, the tune blossoms like a Garden District magnolia into a contemplative feature for Ray Heitger’s clarinet, with a fine vocal by Alex Belhaj. Fidgety Feet was introduced by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1918, at the height of U.S. involvement in the First World War. This explains its alternate title, War Cloud. Sing On is a fine example of traditional New Orleans parade music. The Belhaj mob takes it to the street! Shake That Thing was written by six-string banjo-guitarist Papa Charlie Jackson, whose career took off when he cut a record of it in 1925. Covered the following year by clarinetist Jimmie O’Bryant’s Famous Original Washboard Band, it’s typical of the naughty hokum genre that Jackson helped to establish. Belhaj’s gang rips it briskly, with a gutsy call and response vocal by Ray Heitger that’s really fulla mustard, as Papa Charlie might have said.
The story behind Do What Ory Say speaks volumes about the competitive atmosphere that prevailed in New Orleans back in the day. In his autobiography Satchmo - My Life in New Orleans, Louis Armstrong explains that Joe Oliver and Kid Ory put together a boisterous stomp for use in cutting contests when musicians on horse-drawn bandwagons squared off in public. “If you ever run into Kid Ory,” wrote Pops, “maybe he will tell you the name of that tune. I don’t dare write it here. It was a cute little tune to celebrate the defeat of the enemy. I thought it screamingly funny and I think you would too.” Asked for the name of the tune he’d cooked up with Ory on the bandwagon, rather than repeating the obscene title, Joe Oliver cleverly answered Do What Ory Say. In August 1940, a group fronted by Crescent City legends Kid Rena, Alphonse Picou and Big Eye Louis Nelson assembled at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans to cut a few records. Afterwards, when 22 year old session organizer Heywood Hale Broun asked for the title of a certain punchy number with short choruses, the musicians burst out laughing and told him “just call that Get It Right.” Back in New York he played the record for Zutty Singleton, who chuckled and said “Oh, that’s an old song called Kiss My Fuckin’Ass.” Mercifully, the version heard here uses the familiar toned down title and lyrics. Because you know Ray Heitger could evacuate an entire dance hall by belting out Ory’s original bandwagon refrain.
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