Oliver Overhauled

The conductor Otto Klemperer once said, “Listening to a recording is like going to bed with a photograph of Marilyn Monroe.” Recordings have long been demonized—accused of destroying amateurism and live music, promoting soul-killing perfectionism, cheapening appreciation. The jeremiads have a grain of truth, but only a grain. We would no more give up on recordings than we would electric light. For one thing, they define the difference between Buddy Bolden, a subject of eternal speculation, and King Oliver, the object of eternally strained ears.

The strain has just gotten easier. Archeophone, the indispensable company that resurrected the complete Bert Williams a few years back, is distributing one of the most vital jazz reissues in many years: King Oliver Off the Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings. The careful title reminds us that only the Gennett sides were credited to King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band; “Creole” was dropped for the selections he made for OKeh, Columbia and Paramount. Here they are: all 37 tracks in presumed chronological order and in startlingly resonant audio transfers. Given the tradition of Oliver mastering breakthroughs, I wouldn’t bet a nickel that these CDs will remain the last word in audio redemption forever and ever—just for the next few decades. All earlier editions are now obsolete.

According to engineer Doug Benson, who co-produced with annotator David Sager, he elaborated on a method pioneered by the lamented John R. T. Davies. When I visited Davies 15 years ago, he explained that the grooves of 78-rpm discs contain more information than is usually retrieved, especially in the groove walls, which an ill-fitting stylus will not fully engage. His solution was to make a stylus that snugly fit the grooves of a particular disc. He excoriated the kind of digitalization used by major labels, which sacrifices musical information, especially in high and low frequencies, to blot out surface noise and create a “modern” sanitized sound.

Of course, to mine the details, you need good copies of the originals. Benson provides documentation of his success in finding the best 78s (more than half are graded excellent or better), crafting more than a dozen styli (he gives the size of each and whether it is elliptically or conically truncated), and correcting pitch with playback speeds ranging fractionally from 78 to 81 rpm. The result is a kind of time machine, only better: What was it like to buy, in 1923, a brand new platter of, say, “Weather Bird Rag” and “Dipper Mouth Blues,” and play it at home for the first time? Chances are your gramophone and stylus would not have been as good as Benson’s.

The main thing this set restores is presence, ambience—the very thing that early digitalization removed. I recall the horrified response of Erroll Garner’s manager, Martha Glazer, when she heard the first Garner CD on Columbia. “They made him sound as if he didn’t swing,” she said; an exaggeration, I thought, until I heard it. The brittle, processed, midrange sound emanated from a vacuum that shortchanged his momentum along with overtones and spatial resonance. Swing thrives on resonance, and that’s what this Oliver set recovers after nearly 85 years. One aspect of Oliver’s music that distinguishes it from other New Orleans ensembles is its massed charge, its rhythmic unity. His best performances sustain a proud vertiginous energy, whether the tempo is slow (“Riverside Blues”), medium (“Working Man Blues”), or up (“Snake Rag”).

With these transfers, the massed force gives way to something more human: The band sounds like real musicians in a real place—breathing, thinking, interacting. At the same time, greater resonance increases the group’s rocking and rolling certainty. For one example, consider the prosaic chimes strain in “Chimes Blues,” two blues choruses where Lillian Hardin plays piano triads against the ensemble’s first-beat-of-the-measure chords. I usually roll my eyes with impatience, waiting for it to end and Louis Armstrong’s magnificent trio recitation to begin. Never again: The augmented ringing of the piano and its palpable relation to the ensemble underscores the swinging forthrightness of the passage, now revealed as an agreeably coherent setup for Armstrong.

In the same passage, I am now struck by the dense written flurry of brasses at the turnback between Lil’s choruses. Returning to previous transfers of this music, I could hear that the turnback was always there, always audible, but I had never much noticed it: a lovely two-bar detail. I found myself going back often to LPs and older CDs to check details that had previously escaped my attention. I could always find them. But then the music was hardly impenetrable: Four decades ago, Gunther Schuller transcribed Oliver’s three-chorus trio solo on the Paramount “Mabel’s Dream” and (even more impressively) Oliver’s lead and Armstrong’s obbligato in the first trio chorus of the Gennett “Mabel’s Dream.”

I wonder if even, or especially, Schuller might not uncover overlooked facets in the Archeophone discs. The biggest surprise concerns the Paramount session, once dim, now bolstered with electrifying sharpness—possibly, the producers speculate, because they were recorded electrically in the first place. I marvel anew at the work of each participant. Never did Johnny Dodds sound more warmly personal and evocative than on “Canal Street Blues,” “Dipper Mouth Blues,” “Sweet Lovin’ Man” and “Buddy’s Habit.” How unfairly neglected was Honore Dutrey, whose phrases once struck me as sentimental but now seem witty, knowing, at times almost sardonic. He is variously a rhythmic enabler (“Canal Street Blues”), rock of support (“Froggy Moore”) and formidable lead—his twisty glissandi and boozily whimsical playing on “Tears” is a perfect foil for Armstrong’s nine mind-bending breaks.

Another point clarified here is Oliver’s desire to shift to a weightier big-band style three years before he launched his Dixie Syncopators. Whatever other reasons Oliver had for enlisting Armstong, he clearly relished the opulence Louis brought to the band, his presence indicating a transition from standard New Orleans polyphony to a more cosmopolitan orchestration. That shift is underscored at the last Gennett session with the addition of Stump Evans on C-melody saxophone (possibly doubling on bass saxophone, too), and at the OKeh session with the recruitment of the mysterious trigger-happy bass saxophonist Charlie Jackson. On “I Ain’t Gonna Tell Nobody,” Oliver’s team jets into the zone between embellished and written music, on a flight no one else quite matched.

Originally published in June 2007

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