REVIEW: The Sugarfoot Ramblers / Denis Ball-Eugene Ball Sextet, Chapel Off Chapel, Sunday 18 May, 2pm for Stonnington Jazz
The Sugarfoot Ramblers played at Wangaratta last year in a festival that offered quite a lot of so-called classic jazz. I missed that gig, by graduates or current students of the jazz course at Monash University who shared a fondness for New Orleans Jazz led by Jason Downes — described by artistic director Adrian Jackson as “an elder statesman”.
The Ramblers set, with Downes (clarinet), Travis Woods (trumpet), James Macaulay (trombone), Brett Thompson (banjo), Marty Holoubek (bass) and Daniel Berry (drums), was quite different from what followed.
These young musicians served up foot-stomping New Orleans jazz that was fast and fun. The opening Panama set the tone with trombone, clarinet and banjo solos in a piece that grew faster as it progressed.
In The Sugarfoot Stomp Downes delivered a bright, exuberant solo that was a taste of many to come in the set, while Woods’ horn was plaintive despite the upbeat tempo. The band members had fun with James Macaulay’s vocals in Linger Awhile, and I loved Downes’ solo in this as well as the way Macaulay’s ‘bone — as is often the case with this instrument — seemed to make suggestions or hints at notes.
Berry treated us to some washboard in Just A Little While, with the ‘bone and clarinet conversing. Weary Blues, which was a highlight for the wistful, floating horn notes and a swinging, fast clarinet solo, was introduced as being from “the best album of all time” — festival patron Allan Browne‘s album Out of Nowhere.
Downes excelled again in Egyptian Fantasy, as did Macaulay, and in Fidgety Feet there was a whole lot happening, but gently, before breakouts by banjo and clarinet and a frenetic finish. Jelly Roll Morton’s Georgia Swing rounded off a thoroughly engaging set full of youthful energy. Toes were tapping throughout.
The second set brought a time shift forward to the forties or later and mainstream jazz. A focus was on this opportunity to hear respected traditional jazz exponent Denis Ball (clarinet) play with son Eugene Ball (trumpet) and learn where some of the younger Ball’s fluidity may have had its roots. They were joined by John Scurry (guitar), Howard Cairns (bass), Allan Browne (drums) and — with impeccable timing — Steve Grant (piano).
This set has a much gentler feel throughout, a change of mood and pace that seemed to give out a vibe to the audience of sit back, relax and be nurtured by this music. There were soft edges, a sense of lightness and subtle nuances to be valued.
There were lovely moments, such as when Denis Ball suggested John Scurry “I’ll listen to your first couple of notes” to decide on the key he was using. It was a testament to the flexibility of jazz musicians.
Billie Holiday’s Willow Weep for Me was my highlight in the set, with solos from Cairns and Scurry, plus the clarinet and horn together absolutely luminous.
Reflecting on these classic jazz sets, I thought how good it was to see how at home Eugene Ball and the Sugarfoot crew with traditional jazz. The love of this music, and the skills needed to play it, are not being lost.
It was also great to see Al Browne had escaped from his recent time with Alfred.