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Geoff Muldaur's Futuristic Ensemble: Private Astronomy: A Vision of the Music of Bix Beiderbecke

Robert R. Calder

Geoff Muldaur's Futuristic Ensemble

Private Astronomy: a Vision of the Music of Bix Beiderbecke

Label: eDGe
US Release Date: 2003-09-30
UK Release Date: Available as import

Bix, as everybody called the short-lived musical genius with the unwieldy surname, was idolised by Doc Cheatham, who extolled wholeheartedly the influence which led earlier jazz musicians to (Doc's word) "beautify" their sound. Bix could be called the first white genius of jazz, but that's not quite enough. He'd mastered the jazz idiom, which differentiates him from a lot of respectable 1920s contemporaries, including African-Americans, who produced imitations of jazz with a polite accent before they'd heard enough of the real thing. Bix steeped himself in it, with more than a head's start in musical ability. He also steeped himself in gin, at the time certainly illegal and on various occasions chemically unorthodox. "Christ, why am I still alive, the stuff I drank!" his near contemporary fellow cornetist "Wild" Bill Davison exclaimed when reminiscing more than forty years on. Davison could produce a rough, exciting, tearing sound on the instrument, but he had the same home sound which belongs to that horn and would have been a decent legacy of Bix's. Rex Stewart, father of high speed and extra high note jazz trumpet, plays tribute to Bix on some early recorded solos. A Bix approach was almost an orthodoxy of lyrical jazz playing, surviving more obviously in recordings by the recently departed Ruby Braff, a neglected legend in his lifetime. In his youth, Braff had jammed with Miles Davis, whom he insisted was nearly obsessed with Bix.

Beside the instrumental pioneering, there was a deeper musical vision in Bix's feeling for French impressionist music, Debussy, Ravel. His piano compositions "In a Mist", which he recorded, and "In the Dark" and "Flashes", premiered on disc in 1935 by his long surviving friend Jess Stacy, carried French harmonies into an American music these composers had learned from. Ellington and "Birth of the Cool" fed on influences already transmuted into American.

Geoff Muldaur has had a career sustaining the blues music much older men were performing in larger numbers when he began, and a second career as at least a composer of film music. In between he'd an encounter with the folk circuit where the harmonically straighter East Coast blues had its last wide fling, Brownie McGhee to Gary Davis. This was tantalising, looking at the advertisement of this CD, and the "futuristic ensemble" employs an interesting bunch of musicians. I've heard only two of them in the flesh -- both in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh (Carnegie Hall to Scotland's capital). Art Baron played trombone in the last Duke Ellington Orchestra long ago, and less than a year back Wynton Marsalis was embarrassingly frank about Ted Nash's big talents as arranger and all round musician, leaving us to admire his alto saxophone too.

Butch Thompson has, among other things, a mastery of 1920s piano styles; Randy Sandke's background included the Brecker brothers, but beside trumpet playing of a high order, those lucky to hear him live might hear reminiscences of a well-spent youth in Benny Goodman's last bands (and Goodman as the almost hundred percent great musician, with a bare trace element of humanity). Goodman was a close contemporary of Bix. What could Bix have done granted Goodman's longevity and chances of forays (Bix and Bartok?) into European concert music? That question's a cliché, admittedly, but in part because it has been asked about so many who were prevented from doing more by problems of a different universality from that of gin.

The whole set of clichés represented by the film Young Man with a Horn are just an obstruction to the real question, a cliché, Kirk Douglas dreaming of a "sound" and hearing an ambulance siren.

Unfortunately, with its flier's hype, this CD is just another of the same sort of cliché, with the hot air which attended Paul Whiteman in the first celebration of a misrepresentation of jazz, the film "King of Jazz" inflated around a few strands of truth and announcing recognition when engaging in (the adjective was applied before I was born) elephantine pomposity.

The music's mostly inconsequential "easy listening". Too slick. The flier for reviewers (the company didn't send a CD insert) declares that Beiderbecke's two or three piano compositions have been orchestrated as pretty well a gift to the future chamber music repertoire. There's an obvious adaptation of the sound of a little Beiderbecke band into a more Ravel idiom, maybe ten minutes in all. It's neither unprecedented nor unlikely to be surpassed. Then we have the supposed fun bit, songs of Bix's time.

For sheer spontaneity and unpretentious brio, I preferred hammy Dorothy Provine on the old Roaring 'Twenties TV series -- or Some Like it Hot, come to think of it. The singing here is just a cod between standard latterday light entertainment and a few reminiscences of older music with musicians doing very well things much less interesting than they do elsewhere.

One of Bix's masterpieces, with the half-German half-Native-American Frankie Trumbauer on C-melody saxophone, was "Singin' the Blues". The pop version of that here has nothing to do with him, and the similar presentation of "Davenport Blues" sells out on a musical conception realised in a more modern recording by the cornet-piano duet of Alex Welsh and Fred Hunt (a Scot and an Englishman, both long dead), now on CD on the Jazz Colours label. They play, every improvised note, the music of Bix. In solo piano tributes Dave McKenna and the late Dill Jones went some way beyond any notes Bix played, including "Davenport Blues", Bix's repertoire played in different ways but always infused with Bix. Look up the CD lists of GHB or maybe Arbors, and there will be more. A label called, I believe, Metropole, has of late produced a CD of Bix's own recordings re-engineered by the Australian wizard Robert Parker, who can extract from the grooves of 78 rpm shellac discs precise sounds not heard since the original masters were cut in the studio. I'm no expert on the many things done well and too little publicised with Bix's music, but there's one heck of a lot which could be listened to, later developments of it as well as original recordings whose sound has been beautifully restored, in contrast with the lazy pastiche here.

There is a surfeit of commonplace unidiomatic singing where what was wanted vocally was more on the lines of what Thomas Hampson has done with Gershwin. Maybe someone can suggest to Hampson he gets together with a nice cornetist, say Richard Sudhalter, who's made Bixian music on disc since he did so with his Bix contemporary father on saxophone. He's also written the large definitive book on Bix. Marty Grosz, Kenny Davern, even Eric Reed, Barbara Bonney, and some of the men here: it would have to be better than this quasi-hackwork.

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