Don't Walk Away From The Stove
reviewed by Joe Bebco
for The Syncopated Times, August, 2019
In an era when many review copies come as downloads, or even streaming links, I was overjoyed to receive an exceptionally packaged LP with equally exceptional music inside. I was prompted to contact the author of this work of art, Chicago musician John Hasbrouck. I’ll refrain from turning over the balance of this column to his enthusiastic response but I do want to share his words with you:
"Don’t Walk Away From The Stove is a snapshot of the traditional jazz scene that developed a few years ago at Honky Tonk BBQ, a popular venue in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. I’d had a residency playing string ragtime there with my duo, The Northside Southpaws, for several years when The Fat Babies Jazz Band began their Sunday night residency. I was there one night with some string players and we decided to swipe The Fat Babies’ book and start a string jazz quartet of our own. It turned into a weekly rehearsal band. We told the Babies, ‘We’re stealing your book’. They loved it.
“Local music scenes come and go. People move into the neighborhood. Others move away. There’s a constant flux. You know what happened: after a few years, everybody was working with everybody. Spontaneous duos, trios, quartets formed. Set lists overlapped.”
To capture the scene in Pilsen, Hasbrouck called on 22 musicians to record a unique album of instrumental string band jazz. I asked him how he decided on instrumentation:
“I wanted to have variety in the instrumentation, so there’s a duo, a couple trios, on up to a quintet. Also, I wanted lots of resonator instruments. This is because I have dreamed for years of having The Chicago Reso-Phonic Orchestra, an 8- or 9-piece ensemble in which everyone is playing a resonator instrument.
“A few of the tracks on the LP are credited to The Chicago Reso-Phonic Orchestra. I make no secret that there are a few overdubs on these orchestral tracks. That happens when I want resonator mandolin, resonator octave mandolin, and resonator tenor guitar all on the same track. On the other hand, there’s a duo track featuring me on a traditional mandolin and an upright bass player.”
The song selections are largely traditional jazz stalwarts like Limehouse Blues and Angry so I asked how they were chosen, and a secret was revealed:
“The book we stole from The Fat Babies is called the Firehouse Fake Book. My rehearsal group read from this book in my basement every Monday night for about 18 months before our first gig. During that time, for my own edification, I created mandolin chord melodies of the Firehouse tunes I liked, and I would then bring these to rehearsal.
“But not all of the tunes are from the Firehouse Fake Book. 4 or 5 of the 15 tunes were transcribed from old 78 rpm records. One tune, Chicago Tangle, is original, composed by Eric Noden.”
Hasbrouck’s background is playing in ragtime string groups and pre-bluegrass old-timey bands. When the Fat Babies took over Sunday nights at Honky Tonk BBQ with their straight early jazz sound the crowd response was so ravenous that he decided to see if they would also respond to jazz from a string band. On a local radio show he straightforwardly says that he was going for “a string band version of the Fat Babies.” The comparison is apt.
This isn’t the formal pre jazz sound of a ragtime string orchestra, it isn’t gypsy jazz or cafe jazz, nor is it the hokum heat of a jug band on a New Orleans street corner. The talented musicians create a direct transposition of hot mid-20s Chicago jazz for strings. It’s refreshing, palate cleansing, and joyful. Much of the album has a soft feel resulting from the instrumentation but the rhythmic drive can match any band with horns. All comers will want to claim this foot-tapping cross style sound for their genre but it is certainly jazz and nothing but American.
Other tracks include Sweet Lorraine, Baltimore, Mean to Me, Chinese Breakdown, Sugar, and Harrisburg Itch, a country string band tune that in its 1927 original form shows how small the leap to jazz is.
Most of the musicians credited are unfamiliar to me, and there are too many to list. Those in the Chicago area will surely know more of them. Their other bands include The Fat Babies, The Hat Stretchers, and The Pre-Modern Sounds, and one guesses many others. They don’t all come from a jazz background but they are all skilled and I’m happy they were drawn to this project.
I assumed from all this largess that the album was a big professional production. In reality, half of it was recorded in John’s living room and the other in his friend Alex Hall’s studio. It’s a testament to how accessible modern technology has made the recording process.
Lest the reader simply seeks out a download I need to describe the artwork containing the art. The LP comes between sturdy boards, with an attractive cover design, and on the reverse, a chart for determining the players on each track, the instruments used, and the bands those players are associated with. Inside you’ll find a foldout transcription sheet for Cold Mornin' Shout. Hasbrouck spent five years working it out for mandolin and banjo, something he calls an “intense learning experience.” On the album, it is one of the highlights. A harmonica, guitar, mandolin-banjo trio number that goes beyond creating a feeling to tell a story without words and, being the second track, tunes you up to receive the rest of the album.
The inner sleeve is sturdy with a photograph of a fire alarm on one side and something on the other that illustrates how this album was both a community effort and a personal success for John Hasbrouck; a 1981 letter dismissing him from his college music major. The packaging also contains a pretty little card with instructions so you can get your download.
The session for Angry featured two Fat Babies: Andy Schumm on tenor banjo, and Jake Sanders on resonator guitar. When the session began, I remember hearing Andy say to Jake, “We should figure out an intro.” Jake said, “OK,” and they got down to business. This is where I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut and simply observe as the creative sparks flew between these guys. This is why I invited them. They immediately cooked up a perfect intro for the song – for the whole LP, in fact, since Angry is the opening track. I recorded the quartet live with a stereo microphone in my living room. (Mixing with a stereo mic is very much trial and error. Lots of “…move a little bit to your left, please.”) A few days later, I decided Jake’s solo was a little bit low in the mix. But I had an idea. I asked Jake if he would mind if I learned his improvised solo note-for-note, and then double his solo on the record. He was delighted with the idea. I ended up using an octave resonator mandolin for the job. It’s the first solo on the LP. Andy takes the second solo on tenor banjo, and he nails it.
I’ve known Joel Paterson since he was 15 when we were both busking in Madison, Wisconsin. There was never any question that he’d be on the record. One day I was reading through a TuneDex card of I Surrender Dear and I decided that that’s the one for Joel and I to record. I immediately recorded a brief chord melody of the tune with my mandolin – verse/chorus – using my iPhone and sent it in a text message to Joel. He wrote back, saying, “I like it. I like the chords.” And that was that. Now, Joel is Joel, which means he has no interest in rehearsing or multiple takes. I think we did one run-through to get the form. Joel said, “Don’t play that A minor chord. It’s corny.” So we did our one take, and there’s a MISTAKE in it. I said, “Shall we do it again?” And Joel said, “No no no.. Let’s just punch it in,” because fixing a mistake is far preferable to doing a second take. And so that’s what we did. One does not argue with Joel Paterson about such things. Fifteen minutes later we were done. Joel is also credited with Flash Photography on the LP.
A prominent recording engineer once told me, “John, you don’t get a gold star for having no edits.”
Chicago Tangle was written by my friend Eric Noden. One day Eric and I were hanging out and I asked him if he’d like to be on my new album. He said he would. Eric is a prolific composer, so I asked him if he had any new material handy. He said, no, it’s easier to just write something new. He asked me what I had in mind. Without thinking too much, I told him I wanted a piece that sounded like an old Jelly Roll Morton solo piano number in a minor key with multiple sections. We talked about the “Spanish tinge” that Jelly Roll said was so essential to jazz. Eric later called me and asked what key I would prefer. (D minor.) A week or so later he was done. He came over and taught me the tune by ear. (At no point was the tune written down.) We also recorded a demo and decided we’d ask Beau Sample to play upright bass. Eric and I had one more rehearsal where I finished memorizing the tune and we made another demo which we sent to Beau. Eric and Beau came over the following Sunday afternoon (with plenty of time before The Fat Babies show up the street) and we set up the stereo mic. Two hours later we were done.
Most of the sessions lasted 2 or 2.5 hours, including rehearsal and tracking.”