Times Picayune “Lagniappe” August 27, 2001
TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS young, the indefatigable Dukes of Dixieland close in with two new releases that tout the benefits of injecting fresh blood into an old body of work.
The makers of Bose audio systems produce the “Bose Select” CD series to demonstrate the capabilities of their equipment. In liner notes to “Riverboat Dixieland,” company producer Mark Schilling describes spending eight fruitless days and nights in the summer of 1995 scouring New Orleans for a Dixieland band with the right combination of skill and spontaneity. On his final night, he found it aboard the riverboat Natchez, in the form of the Dukes.
This version of the Dukes included leader/drummer Richard Taylor, bassist Everett Link, trombonist Ben Smith, young-gun trumpeter Kevin Clark, clarinetist Tim Laughlin and pianist Tom McDermott. When Schilling returned in April 1996 to record the music that ended up on this CD, he found the sextet playing with a fire and grace uncommon in acts that toil mostly for tourists.
Witness the spirited ensemble playing, recorded live aboard the Natchez, in “Milneberg Joys,” taken out by Clark’s clarion call of a trumpet. Or the way Laughlin’s sweet-toned clarinet chaperones the trumpet and trombone on “Royal Garden Blues” until engaging them head-on. Or how McDermott positively storms through “Honky tonk Train Blues.”
These players are not afraid to mess with tradition. Link deposits an unconventional bass solo in “Just a Little While to Stay Here.” On “Big Noise from Winnetka,” Taylor taps and scratches his drumsticks against the strings of Link’s upright bass; Link slips in bits of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and other playful covers (the Natchez also gets into the act with an impromptu blast from its steam whistle). On “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” the inventive Laughlin toys with the familiar melody, answered by trumpet and trombone. Oddly, no proper vocal microphone was used to record the between-song introductions, which come across muddied and small. But the main priority, the music, shines through beautifully.
More recently, a revamped version of the Dukes — Earl Bonie replaced Laughlin on clarinet and Jamie Wight took over for McDermott on piano — recorded “BarnBurners.” While the playing is lively once again, the overall program does not jell as consistenlty as on “Riverboat Dixieland;” with 17 cuts, “BarnBurners” might have benefited from judicious editing.
After a big intro by Taylor — who, at every pause, gives his snare drum a workout — Clark and the others speed through the appropriately named opener, “Running Wild.” Smith turns in a nicely muted trombone in “Hindustan” and Bonie shows off his clarinet tone in “Avalon.” However, the vocals that appear periodically are mostly a distraction; Taylor’s boogie-woogie “Big Bend in the River” is also out of place.
But, mostly, the Dukes demonstrate that they still have much to offer Dixieland.