Lovers of Dixieland—we’re talking serious devotees of traditional, New Orleans jazz—can steep themselves in the genre with this four-CD collection containing four hours’ worth of the Dukes, culled from 16 albums originally issued between 1975 and 2006. Various incarnations of the Dukes include some on their home base (the Steamboat Natchez), some on terra firma, some sessions captured live and others in the studio. Not surprisingly, the overall sound is uneven. But then, changes in players and engineers were inevitable during the three decades bridging post-Assunto and pre-Katrina.
Here are a few highlights from that constant evolution. The strong, surging, brassy sound achieved on “Darktown Strutters Ball” (Dukes’ Place, 1975) owes its bite to an expanded front line: leader-cornetist Conrad Jones is joined by trumpeter Mike Vax, while trombonist Bob O’Rourke is shadowed by trombonist Warren Covington. Vax, alone, provides sufficient assertiveness for the ensemble on ”That’s a Plenty” and “Mississippi Mud” (Creole Gumbo, 1976), but in the same album clarinetist Otis Bazoon manages to coax a soprano sax timbre on “Petite Fleur.” There’s a heart-rending version of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” on their 1984 release, Digital Dixieland, and most of the credit goes to tubist Danny Rubio. Speed was of the essence for Live at Mahogany Hall (1985), as “Tiger Rag” and “Cherokee” zoom by at tempos that would make many boppers drool. Ironically, the slow, quirky vocal on “Me and My Shadow” by pianist Phamous Lambert stole that show. Again, Rubio’s tuba provided some refreshing gap-filling.
Question: Who was the uncredited drummer on Hearing Is Believing (1990) who added so much drive to “High Society”? Bob Crosby and the Bobcats (1995) contained great stride on “Little Rock Getaway” by pianist Tom McDermott. A tribute to Bix (Sound of Bix, 1996) includes the very atmospheric, tuba-like playing on “Goose Pimples” by bass saxophonist Tom Fischer. The basic Dixie configuration of a sextet (Riverboat Dixieland, 1997) showed how intensely trad could swing with two expedients: dynamics (“Royal Garden Blues”) and the renewed vigor from changing key (“Bourbon Street Parade”). Just ignore the glee club in the latter. Finally, check out “Blueberry Hill” (Louisiana Legends, 2003) to hear how a lazy ballad can evolve into a slow burner.