Omer Simeon – [1929-1930] (1965)

“Gonna put it away, I might use it some more!”

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For a couple years I hosted a community radio show on 1920s & 30s jazz, and it was later I realized, maybe because it was kinda work, that I was primarily hearing this stuff when I was either preparing for or actually doing the show. In my pleasure hours I had to concede that I’m pretty much a rock guy. I still love much of it, but I was acquiring pricey import CDs (usually from Scandinavia for some reason) packed with obscure recordings, and 75 minutes of anything is too much. These days I’m interested in early jazz reissues from the LP era, mostly because 20-minute doses are about right for me (clearly I’m not a purist, and fortunately have not slipped down the 78-collecting slope). I’m particularly fond of the mid-60s reissues on the UK Ace of Hearts / Ace of Clubs labels, and one that’s a top-to-bottom satisfying listen is this collection of clarinetist Omer Simeon in a half dozen sessions. I don’t know if it was a retro thing at that point, and if beat-crazy teenagers were going for this stuff in 1965, but it certainly rocks hard enough.

I’m not sure I’m gonna find words for every selection, but I’ll give it a go. I’m not enough of a musician to compare Simeon’s playing to Johnny Dodds or Jimmie Noone or Junie Cobb, but it sounds endlessly inventive and pleasingly melodic to me. Combos from this era take on Louis Armstrong at their own peril, and a rare Simeon-led session generated a “Beau Koo Jack” that doesn’t sound much like the original from less than a year earlier. Backed only by a piano (or two?), the clarinetist doesn’t even state the main theme, but nonetheless comes out of the gate soloing like crazy, and wisely there isn’t a trumpet player anywhere near this one. “Smoke House Blues” is one of two songs Simeon originally recorded with the Red Hot Peppers, led by his old boss Jelly Roll Morton—the other is “The Chant” and perversely, Simeon ups the tempo on the former and slows the other down to a still-jaunty crawl. Being his show now, he makes a lot more soloing room for himself. Next we get Omer as sideman with Harry Dial’s Blusicians (what a great band name!) and the leader belting out the sound advice “Don’t Give It Away.” Of course, Simeon is all over this and “Funny Fumble,” but Shirley Clay, who I don’t know at all, has a mean cornet attack of his own and incredibly doesn’t come off as a Louis-soundalike. Jabbo Smith on the other hand, is best remembered as an aspiring contender to Louis’ crown, and he’s here on “Tougaloo Shout” with Alex Hill And His Orchestra, sounding very fine indeed (the Ace of Hearts Jabbo LP has got pretty much all you need of him as a leader too). We’re on to side two with the “The Chant” and one thing I like about this album is that while it only covers a precisely one-year period, it’s not slavishly chronological and instead opts for a sequence that works as a record, particularly evident in the next haunting stretch. “Congo Love Song” has a dirge-like exoticism, and I guess by now everyone had caught the Armstrong influenza, as the intro in particular sounds like the spoken section of “Tight Like This.” Snakes, and just about everyone else, would be charmed by the clarinets on this one. The LP concludes with a couple dates by Reuben ‘River’ Reeves And His River Boys, and right off the bat, it sounds like Reeves is taking on “West End Blues” in the humbly-named “River Blues,” trading the opening fanfare for several mini-flourishes by other band members, and himself weirdly sounding more like Jabbo Smith by the end. “Parson Blues” has another jungle beat, some high-register Simeon, nice bluesy guitar by Harry Gray, and brother (?) Gerald Reeves laying down some impressive bizarre trombone effects—clearly all under the spell of the contemporary Duke Ellington band. “Papa Skag Stomp” has a mystery female scat vocalist with a limited vocabulary in an otherwise pretty hot number. “Bugle Call Blues” oddly misses the built-in heat of this reliable standard, and its a strange reading indeed with otherwise unknown (?) lyrics lamenting not being able to find one’s britches in the morning rather than having to rise early and blow some horn.

Oh man, I’m so in love again, the rabbit hole of all these players and their brethren has swallowed me again and for the moment at least, I can’t fathom why I waste my time with all that rock n’ roll rubbish.

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