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Some of the music I write about in this space each Friday pushes well beyond what the average person might consider jazz, and there are times when I wouldn’t even try to make the argument myself. But jazz and its influence—via the practice of improvisation—has radiated widely, so that all kinds of sounds could theoretically boast some type of connection. When jazz first emerged in a century ago, the term often had nothing to do with improvisation but instead signified hot dance music, first in New Orleans and then in cities like Chicago and New York. Happy, a terrific new two-CD set from the good folks at Archeophone Records in Champaign, collects 37 tracks made in 1920 by the Isham Jones Rainbo Orchestra, a Chicago dance band that didn’t play jazz but drank from its tap. The music feels of its time, for sure, and there’s very little improvisation, but the voicings shaped by the group’s leader, arranger, and saxophonist clearly reflect the jazz craze. These guys were absorbing the sounds of the great King Oliver, who moved to town from the Crescent City in 1919, but they were serving their white social-dance audience first and foremost, and didn’t allow improvisation or asides from interrupting their responsibility to strutting couples.
Jones, who was born in Ohio and grew up around Saginaw, Michigan, moved to Chicago in the midteens, and by 1918 was leading a seven-piece band at Green Mill Gardens (the celebrated spot known simply as the Green Mill today). But the band that appears on these sides made its mark a bit later at a new spot a few blocks west called the Rainbo Gardens (an Uptown bar that would garner fame in the 60s as the rock club Kinetic Playground). As articulated in the detailed liner notes by David Sager, Jones and company were situated between musical past and present, borrowing ideas from jazz while employing a relatively conservative repertoire and retaining the old-world presence of violin. Jones became a dominant figure in Chicago nightlife in the 20s and 30s (he’s best-known to the world at large as the composer of the standard “It Had to Be You”), embracing jazz more explicitly, but while these recordings are more tame, the arrangements make them stand apart from the usual white-band fare of the day. The group was incredibly precise, a product of Jones’s meticulous attention to detail. In his notes Sager writes, “Ish developed an austere, unsmiling presence on the podium, conducting with a baton, looking like—in the words of Swing Era journalist George T. Simon—a ‘strict manual arts teacher.'”
While the band never let its dance rhythms be sidetracked by extended solos, the arrangements were often in constant motion, with different voices taking jazz-derived obligatos—especially the lines of trombonist Carroll Martin—and various sections of the band (brass, sax/violin, piano/banjo) alternating or playing hot potato with different passages of the compositions so that the complexion of each piece changed often during each three-minute blast. Below you can hear the title track of the collection, where Martin’s trombone playing pretty much steals the show.
Nate Wooley/Peter Evans/Jim Black/Paul Lytton, Trumpets and Drums: Live in Ljubljana (Clean Feed)
Angelika Niescier, Sublim III (Enja)
James Ilgenfritz, Compositions (Braxton) 2011 (Infrequent Seams)
Franco Battiato, Sulle Corde di Aries (BMG, Italy)
Various artists, The Original Sounds of Cumbia (Soundway)