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Music Review: Art Hodes – Friar’s Inn Revisited

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Many cities across North America have buildings of historical significance, usually associated with people who are themselves figures of importance either locally or nationally. (I swear the city I live in has a plaque on every building the first Prime Minister of our country took a piss in.) But how many cities are there where buildings are remembered for the music that took place in them as long as 90 years ago?

Although Chicago has buildings designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright and public art by Pablo Picasso, some of the city's best known landmarks are those associated with music. Aside from the plethora of still active blues and jazz venues that have helped make the city a Mecca for music lovers, there are the buildings that hosted the greats of both genres in times past.

Even those that have fallen to the wrecking ball or whose function has changed are either remembered for the music that played there or have elements of their history preserved. Where else but in Chicago would you find an Ace Hardware that at one time had been a club that hosted the likes of Louis Armstrong? And while Armstrong was playing on the South Side for mainly black audiences during the 1920's, across town the Friar's Inn was providing a jazz education for young whites.
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Before working up the nerve to head out to the South Side, white Chicago kids like Bix Beiderbecke and Gene Krupa would head out to the Friar's Inn and watch the New Orleans Rhythm Kings strut their stuff. In the segregated world of the 1920's the Rhythm Kings were considered the best white band in Chicago, and were the first jazz experience for many a future player.

One of those players was pianist Art Hodes, who would split his time between the blues clubs of the South Side and jazz bars like the Friar's. He was thus one of the few jazz musicians of the time who also developed a love and respect for the blues. Most jazz players looked down on the blues in much the same way a city person would look down on country people, considering it a little too unsophisticated and common for their tastes.

Art Hodes's career followed the usual path of the freelance jazz pianist, complete with ups and downs and career highs and lows. Finally, in the 1950's, he settled into a permanent gig back in Chicago at the just-opened Blue Note, and spent the rest of his days back where he started. In his eight-decade career he did everything from publishing magazines to producing concerts, but he had one last ambition to fulfill.

Hodes had always wanted to make a recording in honour of the band that first inspired him, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. In 1972 he approached Delmark Records with the idea of making a recording with the surviving members of the original band. The result of those sessions, compiled with a couple of earlier recordings, has now been reissued as the fun CD Friar's Inn Revisited.

Right from the first song, you know that this isn't going to be one of those "serious" albums that seem to dominate today's jazz world. These guys know what the word "play" means and have a hell of a good time "playing" music. The original trombonist from the Rhythm Kings, George Brunis, sets the tone for the session with his silly impromptu introduction to the opening track "Angry," where he begs whoever's listening "…please don't be angry, for we the boys from the Art Hodes band; it's your band, it's my band, all Chicago's jazz band…"
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That's the great thing about this whole CD – everyone is having a good time, and it can't help but be transmitted through the music to the listener. It doesn't hurt that the style of music, New Orleans jazz mixed down with some blues, is infectious and fun to listen to as well, but without musicians with the right touch, it wouldn't have sounded nearly as good as these guy make it sound.

Ever since the days of bebop, purists have turned their noses up at this type of jazz, calling it old-fashioned and out of touch. What they were really complaining about was that it focused much more on the play of the group than on individual soloing and improvisation. By their standards, it was therefore restrictive and creatively stifling. But after listening to Friar's Inn Revisited I'd have to disagree with that assessment.

There is still plenty of room for individual solos within the context of the songs, and the challenge still exists for the players to create music that is exciting for both them and the audience. What isn't there are all the opportunities for fills and accents, complicated time changes, and long-winded solos. New Orleans style jazz like this is far more concerned about the tune itself than about finding different ways of interpreting it or looking for and responding to its emotional context, as later styles were.

While it's true none of the compositions on this disc approach work done by performers like Charlie Parker or John Coltrane in complexity, that is no reason to discard it out of hand and discount its influence on musicians. Friar's Inn Revisited is a great album full of fun music and first class musicianship, but more important, it serves as a reminder of just how good this style of jazz is.

Art Hodes wanted to make a disc that honoured the memory of a group of players who helped shape the musician he became. What he has given us 35 years later is a package of great jazz of a style that's not played often enough by players of this calibre. That makes Art Hodes's 1972 project Friar's Inn Revisited just that much more important. It's an example of how great this music can sound when played well. Hopefully it will inspire others to embark on similar projects and discover how wonderful this music can be.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.