Wooden Joe Nicholas - Rare & Unissued Masters 1945-1949 [AMCD-136] CD Review by Marc Medwin
Date Posted: 2013-10-13

Here's another offering from the expertly curated American Music label, a companion piece to their earlier Wooden Joe Nicholas disc. Full biographical information can be found in label founder Bill Russell's excellent notes to that earlier release, thus the decision to fill his new booklet with photos instead of recapping Nicholas' life.

For those unfamiliar, Nicholas (Sept. 23rd, 1883 - Nov. 17th, 1957) was a mainstay of the New Orleans of Buddy Bolden and King Oliver, with whom he was playing clarinet in 1915. The story goes that he tried Oliver's cornet during a break and the rest is history. As with other legendary New Orleans musicians, Nicholas was not recorded in his prime, nor did he ever have the profile of several other veterans gracing these private sessions, such as guitarist Johnny St. Cyr and drummer Baby Dodds; the 1945 and 1949 sessions constitute Nicholas' legacy on record.

We are treated to what might be called jam sessions. They cannot really be compared to those glossier dates made by the better-known New Orleans working groups such as those led by Kid Ory or King Oliver. There is a laid-back feel to these tracks, mixed with a certain raw power, which, most likely for technical reasons, is less palpable in Oliver and Ory's '20s work, even when it is restored for such excellent labels as Off the Record.

Some 30 years after Storyville closed down, the vibe is one of relaxed friendliness as Nicholas swaps easy phrases with trombonist Joe Petit on "I Ain't Got Nobody" or cuts loose on the second of two versions of "St. Louis Blues". For the most part, his bold sound eschews Louis Armstrong's wide vibrato and it seems that subsequent musical developments must have has their influence. Equally interesting for the student of this music is the fact that Dodds and Albert Jiles' drums can be plainly heard driving the music forward, unlike in the Oliver Creole Jazz Band recordings, where wood blocks had to be substituted.

Givin the acoustical problems posed by empty concert hall and rather claustrophobic home recordings, Russell's recordings are nothing short of miraculous. Ann Cook's vocals on 1949's "Where He Leads Me" come off as majestic and slightly intimidating by turn while never eclipsing St. Cyr's guitar and "Climax Rag" bristles with energy, due in large part to Albert Burbank's beautifully captured clarinet agility.

This is an important addition to the American Music catalogue, further documenting the full, rich sound of Nicholas' trumpet. The warts-and-all honesty of thematic, accompanied by excellent photographic and historical documentation, makes it irresistible for those interested in jazz' formative period.

Reprinted from THE NEW YORK CITY JAZZ RECORD Newsletter

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