Before diving in to my review of Art Hodes's Up in Volly's Room, I must disclose a personal connection to the late Chicago-based jazz pianist.
Back in high school in the mid 80s, I developed an interest in jazz. Since my father played guitar, bass, and drums, I grew up listening to it constantly, whether on his stereo or him playing various standards. One of my father's coworkers (and a close family friend), also a jazz fanatic, learned of my desire to delve into jazz history. He began taping various classic albums (yes, this was the era of the “mix tape”) from his considerable collection, educating me about the big band era, vocalese, and some modern jazz. In my senior year, he gave me a very special gift: an Art Hodes LP, Someone to Watch Over Me, autographed by Hodes himself. At the time I knew little about the pianist, but understood this was a special present, as my friend knew Hodes and had him personalize the album for me. Someone to Watch Over Me, a live recording from 1981, featured Hodes at his best: just him playing standards in front of an intimate crowd. The LP holds a special place in my music library, as it reminds me of Hodes but also of a good friend who was one of my great music teachers.
Born in Russia in 1904, immigrating to Chicago while still an infant, Hodes grew up listening to Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, later becoming a tireless supporter of traditional jazz. Although Hodes died in 1993, his music is kept alive via Delmark reissues, most recently with Up in Volly's Room. A jam session with veteran traditional jazz musicians Barrett Deems (drums), Volly Defaut (clarinet), Truck Parham (bass), and (on two songs) Nappy Trottier (trumpet) and George Brunis (trombone), the album serves as a love letter to New Orleans jazz and blues. Up in Volly's Room is a testament to Hodes' great love for the genre, particularly with the presence of Defaut, a former member of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings who also recorded with Morton and other legends. Originally released in 1972, the album also served as Defaut's last recording, as he passed away one year later.
Since Hurricane Katrina, interest in traditional New Orleans music has surged, and Hodes' work provides an education and homage to the passion and emotion of the form. “Ode to Louis Armstrong” features a heartbreaking version of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” with Hodes' deft playing becoming a lament to the man and the city. “Ja Da” illustrates Hodes' skill at incorporating jazz and blues into a rhythmic mix (accented by Parham's intricate bass). Parham also shines on “Tin Roof Blues,” with his walking bass lines providing the anchor to the song. The mood turns lighter on “Panama Rag,” with Trottier's trumpet leading the band in a joyful Dixieland journey.
“Struttin' with Some Barbeque” also features Hodes' deceptively simple playing, with Defaut's clarinet-infused melodies intertwining with the piano's rapid rhythms. No New Orleans tribute would be complete without “Basin Street Blues,” and Hodes leads the group in a simple, mid-tempo version that (like “Ode to Louis Armstrong”) transforms into an emotional ode to not only the music, but musicians like Defaut that were early architects of the sound.
Up in Volly's Room may not break new musical ground, but it serves as a testament to New Orleans and its profound influence on jazz. The reissue also highlights Hodes' often-underrated skills as a pianist, and the magic that can happen when musicians in top form come together to perform music they dearly love. While listening to New Orleans originals provides the ultimate introduction to Dixieland, this CD further educates listeners in its classic sound. Pick up Up in Volly's Room and receive a master class in New Orleans culture and exemplary jazz piano. I know that my late friend and teacher would approve of this resurgence of interest in Art Hodes' artistry, and I thank him for introducing me to it over 20 years ago.