Shake Your Wicked Knees - Rent Parties And Good Times
Written by John Miller Shake Your Wicked Knees - Rent Parties And Good Times, Yazoo 2035
I recently found this CD, which is sub-headed "Classic Piano Rags, Blues & Stomps 1928-43", on sale, and I'm so glad I picked it up, for it is superlatively good. It is one of the series of CDs of Blues piano music that Yazoo has released that were produced (which in this instance, I assume, means the cuts were selected and sequenced) by the English record collector Francis Wilford-Smith. Other CDs in this series include one devoted to Roosevelt Sykes and Lee Green (reviewed elsewhere in this section), one focusing on Charlie Spand, and two devoted to the Blues piano stylists of St. Louis in the pre-War era. Francis Smith's knowledge of this material must be encyclopedic, for I had the feeling as I listened to the program that I was hearing the very best that the various artists had to offer.
A couple of extra-musical impressions began to develop as I listened repeatedly to this CD. One is that in the context of a rent party, a pianist's musical skills must have been taken as a given; just as important, though, must have been the ability to entertain, to act that host, engage in banter with the guests and maintain a stream of humorous woofing going along with the music. Not an easy job description! A high percentage of the cuts here have either the pianists themselves or someone else acting as a host/emcee, constantly reminding the listener how much fun everyone is having. Another realization that comes with getting to know this material is how much it anticipated a lot of African-American Pop music of the '60s and since, in its documentation of regional dance crazes (or its attempts to create them) and its being at the cutting edge of Popular slang of the day. It is really not so far from the music and language used on these recordings to that found in present-day Hip Hop and Rap--the stylistic particulars and content may differ, but the place they occupy in the society seem very much the same. Anyone with a special interest in these bygone dance crazes and the slang of the period would be well-advised to get ahold of this CD.
Then there is the music, and spectacular music it is. There is a way, as a guitarist, that I would expect a greater degree of sameness in sound and treatment from a group of Blues pianists than I would from a similar group of guitarists. I should know better. There is a tremendous amount of variety here with regard to favored ways of grooving, use of the left hand to provide the harmonic underpinnings of the music, harmonic imagination, and so on.
The infectiousness of the time-keeping of the players here is nothing short of miraculous. On at least five cuts, the music reaches a level of what I think of as a "die happy" groove, meaning you hear it, step outside, and maybe get hit by a bus--no regrets! Rather than go through the entire program cut by cut, I'll mention a few highlights, players and their performances.
* The work of Romeo Nelson is a real eye-opener. His playing is eccentric in the best possible way. Neither of his two cuts, "Head Rag Hop" and "Gettin' Dirty Just Shakin' That Thing" conforms to a conventional blues structure, yet they are unmistakeably Blues. He grooves very intensely, is clean as a whistle, and always has something in reserve. "Gettin' Dirty", which is a sort of combination of "The Dozens" and The Duck's Yas Yas Yas" has one of the best opening verses I have heard:
Now sister fooled brother, man, and brother, no doubt
You're broadcastin', you're signifyin', you're breakin' her down
Kind mama just pizened you, sick and tired, the way you do
Sprinkle goo-goo dust around your bed, in the morning find your own self dead
Gettin fill of just shakin' that thing
That's a mouthful!
* Pine Top Smith was a wonderful pianist whose career was cut short by a premature death. His "Jump Steady Blues" is played with alacrity, and he rips off considerable difficulties like rapid octave ascending tripet runs with great aplomb. His cut, "I'm Sober Now" is one of the funniest commentaries on the life of a professional musician in a world where the customer is always right that I have ever heard.
* The sadly under-recorded Joe Dean, is represented here by the ferociously grooving "I'm So Glad That I'm 21 Years Old Today". This definitely hits the "die happy" standard.
* "Pitchin' Boogie", on which pianist Will Ezell is joined by Roosevelt Graves playing slide in Spanish (pitched at Bflat), Leroy Graves playing tambourine, and a cornet player pegs the needle on the groovemeter, too. When time is this good it is like having your spine in the proper alignment.
* The formidable Charles Avery, on piano, is joined by Tampa Red, playing slide in Vastapol at C, as they accompany Lil Johnson on "House Rent Scuffle". This is some of the very best playing I have ever heard from Tampa Red, and that is saying something. He keeps up a steady string of runs, using the slide very sparingly, and is absolutely locked with Charles Avery's pulse.
* The real star of the two cuts by the Hokum Boys & Jane Lucas is Bill Broonzy. While Georgia Tom Dorsey and Jane Lucas (Victoria Spivey?) keep up fitfully amusing commentary on the two cuts, Broonzy is just smoking. Both tunes, "Hip Shakin' Strut" and "Hokum Stomp", are in Eflat, and Broonzy is playing out of a C position in standard tuning, so if you want to play along, capo to the third fret, fine-tune and fasten your seat belt. Georgia Tom clearly places more importance in his comedic role than his musical role; once the songs start he pretty much disappears, pianistically. Jane Lucas's "ha ha ha" on "Hip shakin' Strut" could be taken as an aural definition of mirthless laughter.
* The obscure Jim Clarke (only one title recorded) plays beautifully on "Fat Fanny Stomp", though his gleeful exhortations to "Shake your fat fanny!" begin to pall after a while. Clarke's touch, approach to keeping time, and harmonic imagination bespeak a different background than that of most of the other players here.
* Montana Taylor, a spectacular pianist is represented on three cuts here. According to the CDs excellent liner notes by Bob Hall, Taylor quit the music business and moved from Chicago to Cleveland relatively soon after cutting these sides, saying "Nobody wants to hear me play.". Ouch.
There are a host of other great performances and players here. Truthfully, I do not know if this CD is still in the Yazoo catalog. All the more reason to pick it up if you see it. I found it on sale for $9.99, and it is a long time since I got such a bang for ten bucks.
PROGRAM: 1. Romeo Nelson--Head Rag Hop 2. Pine Top Smith--Pine Top's Boogie Woogie 3. Pine Top Smith--Pine Top's Blues 4. Cow Cow Davenport--Back In The Alley 5. Joe Dean--I'm So Glad I'm 21 Years Old Today 6. Will Ezell--Pitchin' Boogie 7. Meade Lux Lewis--Honky Tonk Train Blues 8. Charles Avery--Dearborn Street Breakdown 9. Jim Clarke--Fat Fanny Stomp 10. Cow Cow Davenport--Cow Cow Blues 11. Hokum Boys & Jane Lucas--Hip Shakin' Strut 12. Lil Johnson--House Rent Scuffle 13. Romeo Nelson--Gettin' Dirty Just Shakin' That Thing 14. Pine Top Smith--Jump Steady Blues 15. Montana Taylor--Detroit Rocks 16. Montana Taylor--Whoop and Holler Stomp 17. Pine Top Smith--I'm Sober Now 18. Montana Taylor--Indiana Avenue Stomp 19. Henry Brown--Stomp 'Em Down To The Bricks 20. Hokum Boys & Jane Lucas--Hokum Stomp 21. Jimmy Yancey--Jimmy's Rocks 22. Cow Cow Davenport--Mooch Piddle 23. Mozelle Anderson--Tight Whoopee