Call it "Dixieland" or "New Orleans Jazz," traditional Southern jazz maintains its popularity among jazz fans of all ages by conveying a joie de vivre, a high-spirited energy carried by small, brassy bands. As any traveler to New Orleans will convey, the music loses much of its vitality when translated into compact disc. So it is a rare treat to find three discs, all on the budget-priced Tradition label, that do convey something of the soul of traditional jazz.
Big Dixie is an ideal compilation for anyone unfamiliar with the New Orleans sound beyond its formalization by trumpeter Louis Armstrong. The collection juxtaposes early jazz recordings in the 1920s by Armstrong and his first employer and band leader, King Oliver, with examples of the style revitalized in the '40s by Muggsy Spanier and Jack Teagarden.
The music from several decades shares a strong stylistic common ground. Dominated by brass-playing lead melodies, and rhythmically flavored by heavy bass-drum beats, solos are concise. The differences between the '20s and the '50s are immediately evident on a casual listening to "Big Dixie."
Spanier and Teagarden smooth the rough edges of King Oliver's art. The raw, sometimes wildly unrefined trumpet blowing and sometimes imprecise rhythm section playing become refined and polished over the decades. Perhaps this is something like the stylization of creole cooking, but following that comparison, a savory experience is worth savoring in any blend.
There was only one Louis Armstrong, and High Society captures many of his finest early recordings, both with King Oliver as well as with his own bands. Jazz-colored blues dominate, with Armstrong's gravelly vocals and bravura cornet solos. Although Tradition advertises that these are "rare" recordings, most jazz fans have seen them before on various CDs, although the remastering here is unusually clear and well balanced.
What Armstrong was to the New Orleans sound in the '20s, clarinetist George Lewis was in the '50s, meaning that they were instrumental giants with unmistakably individual sounds. Jazz Funeral in New Orleans is an inaccurate title for one of the greatest sessions of New Orleans jazz ever recorded.
While all eight songs might be strung together in a band's performance at a funeral, rest assured they wouldn't be played in the sequence presented here. Recorded in Los Angeles, this session highlights an ecstatic interplay among old veterans like Lewis (whose wobbly yet happy-sounding vibrato dominates), trumpeter "Kid" Howard, and trombonist Jim Robison. Particularly appealing is vocalist Monette Moore's recitation of the sights on various New Orleans streets, like a musical tour guide warning "to you it might look a little wild," but assuring us that a good time is had by all.
Each disc comes with highly informative commentary, rare period photography, and sells for a modest retail price of $9.98. At a time when record company heads are befuddled by diminishing disc sales, they should pause and reflect on Tradition's example: valuable music reissued for value-conscious fans.