Maria Muldaur Teams New Orleans-Based Street Band Tuba Skinny for ‘Let’s Get Happy Together’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

There are few practitioners left that concentrate on vintage jazz and blues from the ‘20s and ‘30s. It takes huge amounts of research that only a dedicated musicologist is willing to invest in. It takes a sassy embrace of some salacious material, and mostly, unless it’s a solo act like Rory Block, it takes skilled musicians who are willing to channel the music of those past eras. Maria Muldaur, known mostly by the masses for her huge pop radio hit, “Midnight at the Oasis,” has long been one of our foremost links to the music born a century ago. From her stints in Jim Kweskin’s Jug band to remarkable albums like Naughty, Bawdy, and Blue Muldaur has blazed trails by looking to the past. So, linking up with the New Orleans-based street band Tuba Skinny in one sense seems pre-destined and appropriate since much of this music on Let’s Get Happy Together was born in the Crescent City.

The genesis for this pairing occurred at the International Folk Alliance Conference held in New Orleans where she asked Tuba Skinny to collaborate with her on a showcase performance. Tuba Skinny is comprised of, believe it or not, young musicians, some who originally hailed from the Woodstock area and are now living in NOLA. Muldaur became aware of them as they came across the speakers of her favorite clothing store in Woodstock. That led to listening to five of their CDs and a longing to perform together one day. Members of the eight-piece Tuba Skinny are Shaye Cohn (cornet), Todd Burdick (tuba), Barnabus Jones (trombone), Jason Lawrence (banjo), Craig Flory (clarinet), Greg Sherman (guitar), Max Bien-Kahn (guitar), and Robin Rapuzzi (washboard).

This is a project that sheds light on the early New Orleans women of jazz and blues, the fruits of Muldaur’s tireless research. She unearths a tune from the Goofus Five, a popular band of the era, and certainly an obscure name to we less informed folk that serves as the perfect opener replete with economical solos from many of Tuba Skinny’s musicians, even down to a brief washboard spot. The title track was written by perhaps slightly better known Lil Hardin Armstrong, with the kind of lyric that reminds of that famous weed tune, Fats Waller’s “If You’re a Viper.” There’s plenty of double entendres and humorous passages. “Be Your Natural Self” was originally sung by Frankie “Half Pint” Jason, who sometimes entertained as a man and sometimes as a woman – a transgender well ahead of the times. “Some Sweet Day” is another Jason tune that appears near the end of the album.

Muldaur gives plenty of space to Tuba Skinny with Flory’s clarinet and Jones’ trombone gracing the long intro to “Delta Bound,” originally recorded by Ivy Anderson & the Duke Ellington Orchestra, long one of Muldaur’s favorite songs that spent lots of time on the shelf looking for the right backing musicians until now. Muldaur counts “Swing You Sinners” as one of her top discoveries, recorded in 1935 by Valaida Snow, a woman who became an internationally celebrated artist that had somehow escaped Muldaur’s radar. Snow was known as “Little Louis” and “Queen of the Trumpet.” Even Satchmo dubbed her, conceding little, as “the second-best trumpet player in the world.” Another Snow tune with a positive message appears later– “Patience and Fortitude.”

” He Ain’t Got Rhythm” by Irving Berlin is a nod to the version sung by Billie Holiday with Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Lester Young at the height of the swing era. “Got the South in My Soul” is from New Orleans’ own Boswell Sisters who fronted many big bands during that era. “I Go For That” is one of the brightest tracks among an exceedingly bright album, It was originally sung by Dorothy Lamour who later became a sultry exotic movie star after being married to a big band leader and singing material like this with its share of hip humor. Annette Henshaw, who was a huge radio star in ‘30s originally recorded the ode to loneliness, “Big City Blues” and with a nice touch, Muldaur closes with “Road of Stone,” recorded in the ‘20s by Sweet Pea Spivey, sister of the more famous Victoria, who was Muldaur’s mentor in her early career.

One can’t help but smile and marvel at how well the music fits with Muldaur’s vocals, especially her phrasing. Not only is Muldaur educating us with these vintage songs, she and Tuba Skinny prove the value of totally organic, acoustic music. It’s amazing how expressive each of the Tuba Skinny musicians can be in solos and short spots that sometimes pass in just seconds, let alone minutes. This collaboration takes the term ‘infectious’ to a completely higher level.

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