Sunday, January 25, 2015

Hot & Jazzy Western Swing: Noel Boggs Trio and Quintet

Any big band enthusiast should naturally have more than just a passing interest in western swing, the jazz-derived dance music that developed mainly in the Southwest in the 1930s and that was a mixture of traditional fiddle music, jazz, blues, and pop. Western swing was mainly played by large bands that, like those of Bob Wills and Spade Cooley, featured fiddles, steel guitars, electric guitars and electric mandolins, pianos, and very often a whole brass section. Their popularity throughout the '30s and '40s (and, in some cases, into the '50s and beyond) was such that it was not uncommon for Wills and Cooley, for instance, to draw bigger crowds in some spots of the Southwest than established name swing bands such as those led by Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey. The style is nowadays mostly considered a subgenre of country music, but it would be just as pertinent to view it as a subgenre of jazz and swing. After all, as Jon Guyot Smith points out in the liner notes of the CD that we are reviewing today, "although the western swing musicians often wore cowboy attire, featured fiddles alongside pianos, brass and woodwinds, and occasionally performed songs with lyrics more reminiscent of rural country than Tin Pan Alley, western swing was heavily influenced by Dixieland jazz, blues and mainstream '30s pop music."

Charlie Christian had a big influence on Boggs
What is more, among the ranks of western swing bands, one could find excellent musicians who were steeped in jazz, whose playing styles were decisively influenced by contemporary jazz musicians, and who could play decidedly hot solos. Also, some of the featured vocalists with these orchestras, such as Tommy Duncan and Tex Williams, often sounded like hip country cousins of Bing Crosby and other pop and jazz singers of the day. A whole host of western swing performers were virtuosos on their chosen instruments, which is definitely true of the man whom we are introducing today: steel guitarist Noel Boggs. The steel guitar was prominently featured in western swing orchestras, and so there soon emerged a group of very accomplished steel players, such as Leon McAuliffe, Joaquin Murphey, and Boggs himself, among others. Born in Oklahoma City in 1917, Boggs grew up enthralled by the sound of the steel guitar and was exposed to the strains of Western, Hawaiian, blues, and jazz music. He was heavily influenced by the style of legendary jazz guitarist Charlie Christian, with whom he was reportedly good friends, and throughout his long career, he played for some of the most renowned western swing bandleaders, namely Hank Penny, Bob Wills, and Spade Cooley. He contributed highly inventive hot solos to hit records by Wills's Texas Playboys ("Roly Poly," "Texas Playboy Rag") and by Cooley's band, whose arrangements were often incredibly elaborate. Besides building a reputation as a top sideman, Boggs was also an extremely sought-after session musician who worked numerous studio dates with a wide range of vocalists, from his friend Jimmy Wakely to pop singer Jo Stafford.

However, Boggs did not take part in too many dates as a leader, although those that he did get to record produced some music of consistently high quality. Fortunately, two sessions that he cut in 1958 and 1964 for Shasta Records, an independent label founded by Jimmy Wakely, are currently available on a CD entitled The Very Best of Noel Boggs: The Shasta Masters (Varese Sarabande, 2000). By the late 1950s, Boggs had stopped touring with large western swing bands and had been performing strictly in a small-group jazz setting, which is what both sessions capture. The 1958 recordings find Boggs leading a quintet that also features Paul Smith on piano, Ivan Ditmars on organ, and Neil Levang on guitar. Besides some classic western swing instrumentals ("Steel Guitar Rag," his own "Steelin' Home") and a few songs that pay tribute to the Hawaiian influence on his music ("Paradise Isle," "Magic Isle"), Boggs concentrates mostly on jazz and pop standards, such as "Caravan," "Perdido," "Coquette," "Tenderly," and "The Birth of the Blues," which the quintet performs with gusto, allowing Boggs ample space to demonstrate his mastery of his instrument. They even have time to rework the Andrews Sisters hit "Beer Barrel Polka," reminding us that polka music had long been a staple of many western swing bands, especially those that appeared in Texas. Their haunting, Hawaiian-style take on Kurt Weill's "September Song" is one of the highlights of this highly satisfying date.

Noel Boggs (left) and Spade Cooley (center)
The 1964 four-song session has Boggs leading a trio this time, featuring Paul Smith and the under-recorded accordionist Leroy Krubl. The song selection once again leans heavily toward jazz and pop standards, including a reading of Ray Noble's "Cherokee" introduced by bongos, and versions of "Wabash Blues," "Lover Come Back to Me" (not Rodgers and Hart's "Lover," as the CD incorrectly states) and "Dardanella." The trio sounds modern and very inspired throughout, with Krubl showing that he has definitely been listening closely to jazz accordion whiz Art Van Damme, and it is really a pity that Boggs did not make more recordings in this very agreeable setting. Sadly, about ten years after cutting these sides, in the summer of 1974, Boggs unexpectedly passed away at age 56. His friend Wakely reissued his trio and quintet recordings in the late 1970s, and we are fortunate to have them available on this fine CD, with perfect sound, a knowledgeable biographical essay, and a few pictures. These compelling, jazzy recordings are good proof of the talent of Noel Boggs on the steel guitar, an instrument that, outside of western swing, is seldom used in a jazz environment.

Further reading

For more information on Noel Boggs, you can read this short biographical piece on the Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys website.

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