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Kid Ory: The Complete Kid Ory Verve Sessions

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There is no confusion these days about what New Orleans “tailgate” trombone playing is all about. Most modern practitioners of that venerable style tend toward an exaggerated down-home aesthetic: screaming yawps, wild-man growls, howling blasts, blaring gutbucket smears. That is, all the unsubtle tricks and tropes that make people think of the trombone as a carnival novelty act.

If the current state of trad jazz trombone is any indication, then the philospher was right-history does repeat itself as farce. But the first time around, New Orleans slip-horn playing was not the self-parody it has become. All the proof you could ever need is to be found in a new box set from Mosaic records: The Complete Kid Ory Verve Sessions. Recorded in the late 1950s, when Ory was in his early 70s, the Verve sides compiled by Mosaic demonstrate that Kid Ory’s Creole trombone playing may not have been particularly complex or harmonically challenging, but for all its rambunctiousness, his music is nonetheless subtle and lyrical.

Ory arguably invented tailgate trombone playing, and without a doubt was essential to the sound that spread from New Orleans in the ’10s and ’20s. Born in La Place, La., on Christmas Day 1886, Edward “Kid” Ory was playing professionally on banjo and valve trombone before Louis Armstrong was even born. By his twenties, Ory was a successful New Orleans bandleader whose sidemen included Joe “King” Oliver, and later Armstrong himself: “Louis was still a kid when he replaced Oliver in my band after Joe went north,” Ory recalled in a 1960 interview with Richard Hadlock.

Ory is known best for the work he did in the mid-1920s with the men who had once been his employees. Many essential King Oliver recordings feature Ory, and he is perhaps most famous as the trombone voice on Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five sessions. Ory’s ensemble playing on “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” would be enough, by itself, to earn Ory pride of place among tailgate trombonists.

Come the Depression, Ory hung up his horn and went to work on a chicken farm outside of Los Angeles. Later, he found employment in a railroad office. It wasn’t until 1942 that Ory got back into the music business: His career enjoyed a renaissance starting in 1944 when Orson Welles hired the pioneering trombonist to lead a band for his radio broadcasts.

By the mid-’50s, when Ory started recording for Norman Granz at Verve, Ory’s second blooming was in full flower. He was touring Europe and the United States to packed houses. Audiences in France were so enthusiastic that Ory supposedly mistook their exuberance for aggression-he thought he was being jeered when he was actually being cheered. A recording of that night’s performance opens the Mosaic set, and in that hyper-charged atmosphere one will hear the closest Ory comes to the sort of raw rowdiness that is typical of so many trad trombonists today.

On the other seven discs Ory is truer to form-indeed, remarkably true to the way he sounded in 1925, when he recorded the “Gut Bucket Blues” with Armstrong. There are plenty of the glissandi that in lesser hands degenerate into smears; there is that reliance in his solos on the repetition of the minor triad that might sound primitive were it not done with such grace. And there is the distinctive tone-robust but not raucous.

The music in this set-as with all the best New Orleans music-is party music. And that suggests a metaphor for describing how Ory’s playing differs from that of today’s pretenders. Imagine a party at which everyone has had enough from the jug to be pleasantly buzzed: What you get is an atmosphere of relaxed excitement. Now imagine that party many hours later when the only folks left are the angry drunks, and they’re all in your face. Ory’s bands are always a party-but never out of control.

No matter how good the party, eight CDs may prove to be as exhausting as a week’s worth of Mardi Gras. Which is one downside with this Mosaic set: Recorded when Ory couldn’t have been more set in his ways, there is little variation from session to session, from tune to tune. Still, it’s worth listening to the lot, if just to get to disc five, which features Ory with trumpeter Teddy Buckner revisiting the music of W.C. Handy.

The only thing missing from this Mosaic set are the sort of liner notes that can be found on a Good Time Jazz records reissue of one of Ory’s pre-Verve ’50s sessions. The back of that record cover is devoted to Ory’s recipe for red beans and rice. It’s almost as tasty as Ory’s Creole trombone.