Steppin On The Gas - Ricky Riccardi Review

Shotgun Jazz Band
January 2017  by Ricky Riccardi, Archivist at Louis Armstrong House Museum

Storytime! It’s snowing and I'm listening to some good music and want to bend your ear about what I’ve been listening to this week. You see, it all began in 2014. It's almost difficult to fathom but two-and-a-half years ago, I had no idea the Shotgun Jazz Band Jazz Band of New Orleans even existed. Then, during a trip to Satchmo Summerfest, I read a profile in "Offbeat" and my curiosity was piqued. I heard a brief part of their set on stage outside of the Mint and made a note to explore further. Back in NJ, I dialed up YouTube, found "You Always Hurt the One You Love," watched it about 8 times in a row and realized I had a new favorite band. And that was before I heard "Yearning."

Oh, "Yearning." That was Shotgun's brand new album at the time (with "You Always Hurt the One You Love," track two) and one listen on Bandcamp was enough to hook me. I bought it, downloaded it, burned it onto a CD, put it in my beat-up Volvo's 4-disc changer and never took it out. Other CDs have come and gone but not "Yearning." Holy hell, what an album.

At that point, I did what all creepy folks do and friend requested the husband-and-wife co-leaders John A Dixon and Marla Dixon. And don't you know, instead of being just blank-faced social media "friends," we actually developed something of a legitimate friendship, complete with music sharing, ball-busting, food obsessing, all the good stuff. When I went back down to New Orleans almost a full year later, we finally met and hit it off, to the point where they let this ham-fisted amateur pianist sit in a few times, a scenario that was repeated again in 2016 (scroll through my Facebook videos for a hot "Weary Blues").

But through it all, once I'd get back home, it was always right back to "Yearning." Would the band ever record a new album? There were whispers of a new album in the pipeline but nothing materialized as 2016 dwindled to a close.

And then, BOOM. On December 31, there was the Shotgun Jazz Band on my electric teevee set, performing on CNN for a wasted Don Lemon. For internet-minded folks, CNN streamed nearly 14 minutes of the band uninterrupted, a video that is approaching 300,000 views as I write this. And then, 24 hours later, there it was: a new album, STEPPIN' ON THE GAS. That was Sunday night. Almost a full week later, I think I've listened to the new album every day and believe me, it's the best possible way I could have started off 2017 or any other year.

Where do I begin? (He writes 445 words later.) First, the personnel. The Shotgun Jazz Band is an equal opportunity entity and they employ seemingly dozens of able-bodied musicians, shifting shape and personnel on a gig-to-gig basis depending on who is available and who is still talking to the members of the band. But to me and other Shotgun freaks, the core of the group--the true All Stars--are Marla on trumpet and vocals and John on banjo, naturally, but also James Evans on reeds, Charlie Halloran on trampagne and T Werk Thomson on bass. Occasionally, the group uses a pianist and when they do, it just doesn't get any better than the great David Boeddinghaus, who makes his presence felt on each and every track of this album. Thus, this is pretty much the perfect iteration of the Shotgun Jazz Band.

But wait, there's more! Literally! On six of the album's 18 tracks, the group is enlarged by two other frequent Shotgun associates, Tom Fischer on reeds and Ben Polcer on trumpet. Those numbers, particularly the album's title track, contain some of the great moments of the 21st century, period. I urge you to listen to the last choruses of "She's Crying for Me" or "Steppin' on the Gas" repeatedly and each time, focus on a different instrument and see how they approach their role in the ensemble. How five horns can blend together so seamlessly is damn near miraculous. And with all of that going on on top of that pulsating rhythm section, this is likely the closest we'll get to the famed Sam Morgan Columbia sides from 1927 in this day and age.

When I started listening to the album, I was immediately put at ease by the familiarity of the opening track, an evocative version of Bessie Smith's "Gulf Coast Blues," spotlighting Marla's vocals and Boeddinghaus's accompaniment. Anyone with half a brain would be more than satisfied with an entire album of "Marla Sings Bessie" so I let out a little exhale, thinking, "Excellent, same old Shotgun, doing what they do, sounding great as always." But then the second track started, a romping version of the New Orleans Owls' "White Ghost Shivers" featuring the enlarged band with Polcer and Fischer. In the middle of it, a few arranged passages jumped out and almost knocked me off my chair. I hadn't previously heard anything quite so polished on a Shotgun record and it gassed me. Even the free-for-all last chorus stops on a dime for an arranged ending.

That's when it hit me that yeah, there'd be the familiar Shotgun hell-raising vibe, driven by the endless strings of quarter-notes pounded out by the tremendously tight tandem of Thomson’s bass and Dixon’s banjo. But there's a helluva lot of variety on this album: intelligent song choices, different ensemble configurations, even multiple vocalists. If you allow (and if you're still reading at this point, I guess you've allowed), some random thoughts on the music.

I've already mentioned the driving rhythm section that gives Shotgun so much of its character but the front line is pretty perfect, too. Marla Dixon's no-nonsense trumpet playing keeps everything grounded and melody front and center, allowing Halloran and Evans--two complete individualists--to do what they please around her lead. Halloran's tailgate is comfortable blatting out rhythmically satisfying low-register statements while Evans tends to stay up in the stratosphere of his reed instruments, always generating a tremendous amount of heat. And as soloists, Halloran and Evans are a marvel, too. Just listen to Halloran's slippery sliphorn on "Smiles" or how Evans frequently catapults himself into his solos, the listener forced to ask at times, "Is he going to make it?" (He always does.)

A lot of folks are drawn into the Shotgun orbit by Marla's singing and those people won't have anything to complain about here. Since nearly 300,000 people watched her warble "Whenever You're Lonesome" thanks to CNN, it's valuable to have her take on the Sweet Emma classic (should be on the top of the Billboard pop charts in a just world). "I Hate a Man Like You," a vehicle for Marla and Boeddinghaus, is a stunning tribute to the Lizzie Miles-Jelly Roll Morton classic, but both Dixon and Boeddinghaus stay true to themselves instead of just recreating the original. "Curse of an Aching Heart" used to be done as a weepy lament (ever see Laurel and Hardy's "Blotto"?) but on this storming version, Marla makes the listener feel for once that her heart aching and she is super pissed off about it. On "Moonlight Bay," she's downright charming and on "Down By the Riverside," she leads the congregation with soulful abandon but it's Randy Newman's "Guilty" that is her showpiece this time around, another perfect song choice that illustrates the variety of influences on these musicians(Kid Thomas Valentine didn't perform many Bonnie Raitt tunes) .

The group's country side is explored on a rousing "Old Kentucky Home," led by the vocals of "Tex" Thomson, hailing from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Canada. And like "Love in Bloom" from "Yearning," we get another supremely heartfelt vocal by James Evans, this time on a pleading version of "How Am I To Know?" This band can sing!

This band can also play, as demonstrated on track after track. Instead of just sticking to the "good old good ones," you have to applaud a group that pulls out an arrangement of an obscurity like "Rose of Bombay" and admire how they spend more time on the lesser-known strains of "Ole Miss" rather than the more familiar blowing strain (and when they get to it, they offer up some different changes).

And I know I'm starting to repeat myself but what a wonderful repertoire! (These aren’t liner notes, folks, this is a stream-of-conscious Facebook status update.) In addition to the aforementioned tributes to the likes of Randy Newman, the New Orleans Owls and Sam Morgan, the Nat King Cole pop hit "Pretend," done with a whimsical feel at a foot-patting tempo, is an ingenious choice (I never realized how similar the song was to "Cocktails for Two"). And in "Breeze" we get the kind of ancient pop hit popular with many past New Orleans musicians from George Lewis to Sweet Emma but it’s one that doesn't seem to be done too often anymore. It fits Shotgun like a glove. (Excellent Boeddinghaus, as usual, on "Breeze," too.)

And for all the great three-horn--and five-horn--ensembles, there’s also some noteworthy duet action. Whether it's Evans and Halloran casually conversing on "Pretend" or Fischer and Evans raising the intensity level on "Stepin' on the Gas" or Marla holding down the lead while Polcer soars on "She's Crying for Me," some of my favorite moments on the album come from the different pairings that abound.

"Yearning" ended with Halloran in the driver's seat for a closing-time rendition of "I'll See You in My Dreams." Not to mess with a good formula, "Steppin' on the Gas" once again ends with Halloran featured, but this time he closes the album in church (perhaps to atone for the band’s rough and rowdy ways) on a haunting, emotional version of the spiritual "Deep River" that I'll admit had me fighting back tears by its conclusion.

The sequencing of the last third of album shows off all of Shotgun's strengths impeccably: the large band properly playing all the strains of "Ole Miss" to make Bunk Johnson proud, followed by King Cole's "Pretend,” the countrified "Old Kentucky Home," Marla's showpiece, "Guilty,” the joyous title track recreating the glorious Sam Morgan sound, and the final tear-jerking spiritual. That's a well-rounded ending to a well-rounded album performed by a well-rounded group of musicians.

Oh! Final thought: 18 songs, each one ranging between 2:26 and 4:34. Most of the tracks are in the three-minute sweet spot of the old 78-rpm days and like the master musicians of bygone eras, they manage to pack a lot of information into a short amount of time. (This reminds me of the first time I saw the band at the Spotted Cat and a version of "Over in Gloryland" began to meander past the five-minute mark, causing John Dixon to shout to his bandmates from the banjo chair, "Wrap this shit up!" This band strives to play a song, make you feel it and move on before it becomes tedious. "Wrap This Shit Up" would make a fine album title some day....)

So yeah, that's all I have to say about this new album. I'm not in the mood to discuss all the hot button issues of the day--Frenchman street, transplants moving to New Orleans, the state of the tradition in 2017, Tyler Thomson's unexplainable allegiance to the Toronto Blue Jays--I just wanted to say a few (thousand) words about a band I happen to love and an album I’ll continue listening to incessantly until the next one. Let’s hope it doesn’t take two years!