Ralph Carney's Funny That Way

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Ralph Carney's Serious Jass Project: Seriously (Smog Veil)

One of the great things about recycling old jazz is that there are so many styles to choose from. On the evidence of this CD, saxman Ralph Carney (known as a member of Tin Huey and Oranj Symphonette as well as for his contributions to records by Tom Waits, the Black Keys, Black Francis, the B-52's, Bill Laswell, Elvis Costello, Galaxie 500, Allen Ginsberg, Marc Ribot, William Burroughs, Pere Ubu, and many more) has a great fondness for small-group swing and jump blues, but taps a few additional subgenres as well. He's even more versatile as an instrumentalist, credited on this album with six types of saxophone, two types of clarinet, and flute, trumpet, English horn, lap steel guitar, and vocals, with a moderate amount of overdubbing at times.

Of course, when Carney includes "serious" in the band and album names, he's not that serious, because Seriously is great fun, but he does have serious skills and knowledge. The set list alone impresses with its crate-digging depth: have you got Buddy Tate's "Blue Creek Hop" -- the opening track, which sets the uptempo swinging mood -- in your collection? With guitarist Mike Groh joining the rest of the band (drummer Randy Odell, bassist Ari Munkres, and keyboardist Michael McIntosh), Carney mixes in enough honking and squealing to suggest a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert, but did any JATP band ever include lap steel? Next up is Coleman Hawkins's "Meet Dr. Foo," where the stakes are higher even if the tempo's lower: the Hawk was THE saxman at that time (1939), which may be why Carney plays this one straighter

"Echoes of Harlem" by Duke Ellington, with its slinky harmonic feints in the introduction, moves into slightly more modern territory, but then the guys take note of the Cootie Williams trumpet lick that got turned into the "Hidee-Hidee-Hidee-hi" part in Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher" and emphasize that (this cut's practically a medley). Duke's catalog is utilized again on the uptempo "Carnival in Caroline," with Karina Denike's vocals many cuts above what the band members muster when they take to the mic on other cuts.

The most jump-blues track is Freddie Mitchell's "Moondog Boogie," with Carney's array of saxes melded to make some super-phat chords and riffing behind his own wailing solo. Then it's back to Ellington for "Gypsy without a Song," the obligatory change-of-pace slow tune; Carney alternates clarinet and sax, but it's definitely the former that's featured, and he's got a luscious dark tone.

The standard "Linger Awhile" gets a peppy treatment, with Groh returning for some hep rhythm strumming; eventually, after a burning sax solo, Carney croons in a slightly goofy yet charming baritone (with Denike chiming in), before cutting loose on clarinet. The arrangement of "Pompton Turnpike" is strongly based on the Charlie Barnet version until Carney takes off into the stratosphere on (I think) C-melody sax; later, McIntosh shows off his tasty piano chops. There's no vocal on the Barnet version, but there is here -- the band as chorus and, for a verse, McIntosh to the fore -- and what's here has the aura of an in-joke, perhaps the band's poker-faced explanation of the tune's title.

"I Wish I Were Twins" has some more effective sax overdubbing -- who can resist the bottom laid down by bass sax? Rodgers and Hart's "You Took Advantage of Me," which is pretty funny to begin with, is hilarious here in its ricky-tick arrangement, and Carney's lugubrious vocal lament adds to the humor. "Happy Feet" brings things up with its zippy tempo; some uncredited vibraphone is a nice touch.

And then, perhaps for laughs but maybe to show he can be seriously serious (the best part may be that it works equally well as abstract music and as a joke), there's the closer, "Echoes of Chloe," an original that may be a collective improvisation (but with Carney overdubbing). Carney can't keep a straight face all the way through, though, ending with some amusing snark.

Recommended for jazz fans who have a sense of humor -- and anyone who enjoys a good time and understands that there was good, and fun, music  before rock. - Steve Holtje

Ralph Carney

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer who most recently wrote a three-part song cycle setting tanka by Fumiko Nakajo.

steve-holtje

Sierra Club