“oh mister come quickly, come down to my house and play that thing!”
Inspired to dust this one off after seeing the newly restored 1930 film King of Jazz. Funny thing about that one: its wobbly tightrope of despicable racism and cultural appropriation aside, there’s also no jazz in it. Early on, I perked up at a promising but fleeting exchange of licks between guitarist Eddie Lang and violinist Joe Venuti during a meet-the-band number, but they were scarcely featured again and soon my revulsion for this slickly packaged garbage made me turn against the film entirely. I can’t blame the fellas for a good paying gig (there’s a reason why the so-called king Paul Whiteman has not stood the test of time) but I’ll always prefer to hear them playing hot stuff, especially in co-led sessions from a few years before.
In retrospect, comparisons to Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli are not unfair, and if Eddie and Joe don’t always swing quite so effortlessly, we have to remember these are early days of recording jazz and those two Frenchmen hadn’t even met each other yet. So if they sound a tad stiff on “Wild Cat” they’re also inventing a template—the violinist soloing like crazy over chugging guitar. The pace is a little less frantic on the flip “Sunshine” and Lang gets a bit of space to do his thing too. The limitations of the technology are apparent on “Doin’ Things” with the addition of a piano that sounds like it’s being played from the studio washroom. An indication of the fun they’re having is in the silly names for the songs paired for each 78 release—“Doin’ Things”/”Goin’ Places”; “Kickin’ The Cat”/”Beatin’ The Dog”; “Cheese & Crackers”/”A Mug of Ale.” Apart from the animal abuse, all these things go pretty well together. The addition of Adrian Rollini brings a bit of looseness, playing woodwinds like the goofus and ‘hot fountain pen’ (clarinet that is, which kinda makes sense when you think about it). I’m not sure the bass saxophone is a great lead instrument, especially against backing as exposed as this, but Rollini’s sheer commitment is almost enough. They’re finally at ease and simmering nicely by “Cheese & Crackers”—Venuti plays behind Lang a little on this one, and the guitarist gets two lovely and very different solos. “A Mug of Ale” is just as tasty and the main riff always reminded me a bit of “Aquarela do Brasil” (known to me best from the film Brazil) but again the boys are ahead of their time, for that tune was first recorded more than a decade after this one. Structurally it anticipates “Hotter Than That” by a few months too, and I have to wonder if Louis heard it—from the very Lil Hardin piano to the coda with all the members trading flourishes like Louis and Lonnie Johnson later would on my single favorite Hot Five tune. I’m sure someone better-schooled could set me straight, but it’s what I hear—though we do know that Louis tapped Lang for a recording session before the decade was up.
Lang has a wonderfully dissonant tone in the main theme of “Penn Beach Blues” and the piano sounds like it has finally been moved into the studio proper. “Four String Joe” is more than just a feature for the violinist, and they’re all swinging pretty hard, though Don Murray’s baritone is only a tad less lumbering than the bass sax, but I’ll gladly take the tasty clarinet solo from him. “Dinah” was pretty new in 1928, only recorded by a few singers, and this relaxed-but-still-cookin’ take may have something to do with it becoming the jazz standard it would be by the 1930s. I love the tasteful stop time parts from the other players interwoven with Lang’s guitar solos. “The Wild Dog” is unleashed with some thrilling tempo shifts and Venuti in particular tears this one up. Singer Rube Bloom keeps up a tease in telling us about “The Man from the South” though all we learn is that he “had a big cigar in his mouth.” Still, he scats ably and Venuti enhances the mystery nicely with some haunting phrases, aided by the most convincing baritone sax on this whole set. “Sensation” had been well established as a hot number, and this one throws a brief curve with its pastoral intro, before swinging as hard as any version from the last century.
In a drastic move several years ago I unloaded a bunch of CDs, including two discs of these same (and more) Venuti-Lang sessions, which seemed like more than I needed (since expanded by JSP into a 4CD set!). Stupidly I’ve since been replacing a lot of that stuff with vinyl and chose this one for my faves “A Mug of Ale” and “The Man from the South” but if I had another LP of these guys at hand I’d put it on right now. Even if King of Jazz was insistent on denying the African American contribution to the art, it would have been wise to at least feature some small combo performances by these white guys who could capably invoke the spirit.