Yves Francois - Blues for Hawk
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cd cover Yves Francois
Blues for Hawk
Delmark (www.delmark.com)

Yves Francois dropped his original surname to forestall dumb requests for polkas (his alto-saxophonist brother Mark Smierciak is also here). His present ensemble Rocambo Jazz plays Caribbean music and African High-Life as well as the same jazz heard here. Baby trumpeter and cub arts entrepreneur, he taped this material not as self-promotion but to record the veteran Chicago reedman Franz Jackson, whose own label issued it on vinyl, before the trumpeter's juvenile solos were replaced with recent ones recorded for this issue.

Jackson (born in 1912 and still making gigs in 2005!) plays tenor, alto and soprano saxophones as well as the clarinet on which he had depped for George Lewis in Lewis's New Orleans band. Even fans who prefer his saxophone work and deplore his saddling with a Dixieland stereotype couldn't deny his proficiency on the wooden instrument.

Unlike his mellow-toned junior Eddie Johnson (whose exact contemporary fellow-Chicagoan Von Freeman had a successful European debut two years back aged 79) Jackson's acknowledged debt to Coleman Hawkins isn't for the whole foundation of his style, but an enrichment of its pre-Hawkins basis, complete with a thrilling growl. It wouldn't have been unidiomatic in the late 1920s, or at the Club de Lisa in 1936 with Albert Ammons, or 1949 with Sonny Blount, or even when Blount, renamed Sun Ra, led pre-Swing Era style, fierce-swinging band performances (rather than spaced-out ones). Short of outright post-bop, this set represents most sorts of non-white Chicago jazz played from the later 1920s on. Late 1920s comes up fresh and idiomatic, also 1940s R&B-jazz as reissued from small label catalogues Delmark's acquired. What Victoria Spivey recorded for a proletarian market with the (genuinely) great New Orleans trumpeter Lee Collins; what Jackson played on now issued late 1930s broadcast dates with Roy Eldridge's stunning little band; even early Basie but without Kansas City accent.

Not recorded extensively, it continued as Jackson did, singing with the same throaty growl his tenor has on the opening title. On the third track the still current pianist Joe Johnson follows Jackson's solo with parodic hints of Franz Liszt; and the drummer's Odie Payne, a well-known out and out bluesman. The rougher stuff might take adjusting to, but this jazz is still folk music.

Yves Francois has composer credit on the title track, Jackson's solo is followed by post-Hawkins Eddie Johnson, and the next title's a lot like what Columbia records once billed as New Orleans in Chicago, bar a backbeat out of a Howlin' Wolf blues band. On the other hand, Eddie Johnson's proto R&B "Tiptoe" has a more relaxed accompaniment, date of birth mid-1930s. This is music of place, not historically periodised.

Jackson's considerable alto playing gets short shrift in the notes. Listen to Yves Francois's dreamy ballad "Kathy," one of a couple of titles with Johnny Hodges small group precedent, and Eddie Johnson playing nice tenor obbligato to Jackson, distinctive on the horn he seems to have stopped playing.

"Catnip" is a neat name for yet another of many themes founded on "Tiger Rag," itself adapted in New Orleans from an original quadrille. More informal jam than prepared session, it features Jackson's tenor, Francois' trumpet, Steve Mengler's trombone, and Jackson's clarinet in duet with Eddie Johnson's tenor. "Mecca Flat Blues" was composed by Jimmy Blythe, sometime barrelhouse pianist, pupil of the Chicago ragtimer (who did make records!) Clarence Jones. Blythe recorded Fats Waller's challenging "Handful of Keys" (alas, never issued) before the Chicago Defender printed his shockingly early obituary in 1931. Over thirty years later Jackson distinguished himself on alto sax on the performance here as on "Just a Feelin'," a tune resembling one I can't put a name to. Stan Warren's tenor joins Jackson in another duet.

The later "Sweet Sue" (1986) showcases Jackson's tenor, Francois' wa-wa trumpet, and Jackson's raspy vocal. James P.Johnson's 1920s "Hot Harlem," at unusual slower tempo, has a strong period flavor and Jackson's tenor growls. He lightens up for "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams" without ever trying for smoothness. On the blues "Spider Crawl," another oldie, Sharon Williams sings in venerable style, Eddie Johnson's tenor is refined but apt, there's more alto, and Steve Mengler's trombone sounds off in lively style.

The closer is a "Yancey Special" variant, with a third Johnson, Andy, on piano with band, Francois on trumpet, and Jackson on the soprano he's played more recently. Steve Warner's tenor emphasizes the jam session nature of the whole set, as the conclusion of the band finale might have done, had the track not been ended with a fade. Unrefined, ebullient, this isn't the music of another age, but of several decades not all that long ago and at times and places still some heres and nows. - Robert R. Calder

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