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Skeets Tolbert: 1931-1940

You’ve got to love a label (Classics) that issues the complete works of unjustly forgotten alto saxophonist/ clarinetist Tolbert, whose groups, called the Gentlemen of Swing, usually containing, beyond himself, a trumpet, tenor sax, piano, bass, and drums, were quite popular in the late 1930s and early ’40s. Aside from two hot 1931 territory band selections on which Tolbert appears, these tracks were cut from 1939-42.

Tolbert’s unpretentious, jumping band had much in common with the Savoy Sultans and Louis Jordan’s combo. A number of their pieces contain vocals, some with interesting period lyrics, e.g., “WPA,” “Draftin’ Blues.” Tolbert played alto infectiously with a fast vibrato like Tab Smith. The band’s top soloist, though, was Carl Smith, best known for his 1936 work with Count Basie and Lester Young. A powerful, big-toned open-horn player, Smith also turns in tasty muted work here. Sometimes his dissonant playing reminds me of Red Allen. Piano chores are handled capably by Red Richards. Also appearing on piano is pioneer R&B artist Buddy Johnson. His boogie woogie soloing is featured on “Uncle Eph,” but he takes a Teddy Wilson-like spot on “Big Fat Butterfly.”

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