Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Battle of the Bands!

Last weekend was pretty busy. On Saturday I had a three-hour gig with the Mission Gold Jazz Band down in Monterey. That went very well; the band had fun, and the audience did too: we had people dancing whose ages ranged from the teenagers manning the food booths up to the senior citizens.

Sunday I drove back to Monterey again, for the Monterey Dixieland club's "Battle of the Bands." Monterey holds a three-day jazz festival, the "Jazz Bash by the Bay", every year in March. Bands appear by invitation only. For their 30th anniversary in 2010, they decided to hold a competition to select one "wild card" band to appear at the Jazz Bash in 2010. Four bands competed, and I was in two of them.

One of my bands was brand-new: Valerie Johnson and her King Bees. Sunday was our premiere performance. But I have played with Val and nearly everyone else in the group before, and it's always good music and great fun. Val sings songs ranging from naughty novelty songs, to the blues à la Bessie Smith, to gospel. She's the best jazz singer I know. You can hear Val sing with the Creole Syncopators here: Valerie Johnson: Good Tunes.

My other band was the Mission Gold Jazz Band, a group I've been performing with for over 15 years. We've had our ups and downs during those years, but bandleader John Soulis has always tried to keep to the King Oliver / Lu Watters two-cornet style. After 15 years I can play a lot of these tunes in my sleep; but I don't, because a really rockin' two-cornet band is (in my opinion, anyway!) considerably more exciting than, say, the SuperBowl.

Sunday's challenge for me was that I was playing trombone with the King Bees, and cornet with Mission Gold. Now, I'll tell you a secret: playing a brass instrument is an unnatural act. It takes considerable development of the embouchure (the muscles around your mouth and in your lips) to be able to do it at all. Switching between a low-register instrument like the trombone, and a high-register instrument like the cornet, adds a whole new layer of challenge to it. I've been asked how the hell I do it, more than once, by other brass players. (Usually I answer, "Badly.") On Sunday, I had fifteen minutes to jump off the stage after the King Bees' set, run and change my yellow-and-black shirts for the MGJB's button-down shirt and tie, run back and move my stands and horns around, and tighten up my chops for cornet work. Twice. Believe me, I was tired when it was all over.

I'm sorry to report that the King Bees seemed to be under a curse that day. We didn't get to rehearse because we come from scattered areas around California; Sunday was the very first time we had all played together. Half the band was late to the first set—well, we started only a minute or two late, but they literally ran from their car onto the stage, pulling on shirts as they came; no chance to settle down and focus on music. Then the sound system went bad on us; we couldn't hear each other and nobody but me could hear Val (I was standing next to her).

Nevertheless the band performed well, on the whole. I think the audience didn't realize what level of musicianship they were hearing, some of the time. One tune finished with a spot-on ending that most bands would have had to write out and carefully rehearse; the King Bees just pulled it out of the air. And in the second set we played a tune that the reed player had written out during the break for the benefit of the rhythm section. It was "Never Swat a Fly", in honor of the swarms of bugs we all endured. That tune came off perfectly, again as if we'd rehearsed it. (Side note: I actually did suck down a bug at one point, and had to spit it out again before I could continue playing—bleah! It really wasn't the best conditions I've ever performed in!) The King Bees will be making appearances at other festivals in future, and as we settle in I expect great things.

Mission Gold, on the other hand, had a great day. We did get to rehearse beforehand, for weeks, and we'd had that three-hour gig the day before. We were in top form, and if I may say so, we blew the audience away. Mission Gold won the Battle of the Bands by count of ballots, but I think we could have won it by simple acclamation: we were the only band for whom the audience broke into applause simply because the judges mentioned our name.

So that means that the Mission Gold Jazz Band will appear at Dixieland Monterey's Jazz Bash by the Bay, March 5-7, 2010, along with a host of other fine bands. I expect to have a blast.

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