Engaging take on early jazz

The mouthful of a title does injustice to this charming album, which resurrects the repertoire of African-American pianist-composer-conductor James Reese Europe's World War I era band.

Europe led the Harlem Hell Fighters' Band, an all-black regiment band, around France from 1918 to 1919. The music is an engaging blend of the white high society orchestral arrangements Europe was known for in New York, typical brass band sounds as well as ragtime and early jazz motifs.

The Americus Brass Band, dedicated to 19th-and early 20th-century brass music, is the perfect ensemble to recreate Europe's music. Its music director Richard Birkemeier has cherrypicked a programme mostly based on Europe's 1919 Pathe recordings.

Some tracks - St. Louis Blues and The Dark Town Strutters' Ball - are recognisable to jazz fans. But the arrangements are more staid than the traditionally freewheeling versions.

St. Louis Blues, for example, is founded on an oompah rhythm with a restrained trumpet spelling out the solo - a contrast to Louis Armstrong's definitive wail that defined a whole new school of hot jazz sounds.

Similarly, The Dark Town Strutters' Ball, with its sedate foxtrot time and cartoon whistle effects, is different from the bright swing style jazz fans are more accustomed to.

Nonetheless, some numbers are eye-opening glimpses of another era.

On Patrol In No Man's Land is inspired by Europe's wartime experiences and turns traumatic trench warfare into comic lyrics: "Don't stop lobbing with those hand grenades, there's machine guns, holy spades!" and "Alert! Gas! Put on your mask" - complete with machine gun and warning bell sound effects.

  • JAZZ

    THE AMERICUS BRASS BAND PAYS TRIBUTE TO JAMES REESE EUROPE'S HARLEM HELL FIGHTERS' BAND

    Cambria Master Recordings

    4 stars

A tad macabre, but certainly a different way of looking at, and listening to, early 20th-century music.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2019, with the headline 'Engaging take on early jazz'. Print Edition | Subscribe