Saturday, October 5, 2013

Tricky Sam

              Well, summer is over here and the local bands are starting to rehearse again. A new friend hooked me up with another big band, so now I'll have two groups to play in. What I like about the new band is the challenge of some of the charts (Mingus and Frank Zappa for a start) and some classic Ellington, Ko-Ko and Oclupaca.

            One of the great things about my time at USF was getting to play so much great Ellington stuff that you don't get to hear much anymore. In addition to the aforementioned, I remember doing Jack the Bear, Main Stem, and Happy Go Lucky Local among others. When we did Ko-Ko, the "Tricky Sam" solo was in my part so I got and education on Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton, one of the original Duke Ellington trombonists and the "father" of the plunger mute.
            Years before I bought a 2 disc CD album of the Ellington Orchestra's January, 1943, performance at Carnegie Hall. One of the first tunes on this recording is Black and Tan Fantasy and it was the first time I'd ever heard anyone like Joe Nanton.   
How he produced the sounds was something that fascinated me but I never really tried it until USF. It all sounded so simple so I bought a pixie mute, did the best I could with it then decided I was having enough trouble just playing the trombone.
            Joe Nanton joined Duke Ellington's band in the 1920's when he and Bubber Miley are generally credited with originating the plunger mute for the trumpet and trombone. For the uninitiated, in the early days of jazz, someone discovered that an ordinary toilet or sink plunger could produce some pretty cool sounds when manipulated over the bell end of a trumpet or trombone.  It is the forerunner of a guitar player's wah-wah pedal and for me, the most difficult aspect is the old head pat-stomach rub problem. I can't get my hands to do two different things and haven't ever been able to focus long enough to overcome it. Then sticking a mute in the horn means, if you want to be heard, you have to blow hard enough to give yourself the rupture your mother always warned you about.
            The best source of information on Tricky Sam, or any other Ellington trombonist, that I know of is Kurt Dietrich's book, Duke's Bones. Even if you're not a trombone player, this is a great account of the lives of many of Duke Ellington's musicians and how he used the to create "The Ellington Sound." You'll also learn that Toby Hardwicke claimed to have given Joe Nanton his nickname and that he used a Magosy and Buescher Nonpareil trumpet straight mute with his plunger. It's also a pretty good general history of the Ellington Orchestra. There's also a lot of good stuff on Tricky Sam and plunger mutes floating around the internet.
            This recording of Black and Tan Fantasy is a good example of Joe Nanton at his best. It was recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 1943 so the sound quality isn't up to today's standards. According to the liner notes, the opening "florid mini-overture" merely served as a "prelude". For the impatient, the trombone solo starts around 4:00 but this is classic swing era Ellington and a historic recording so do yourself a favor and don't fast-forward. I'm going to go work on moving my slide and plunger in opposite directions.   

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