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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, "The First Day"

Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis
"The First Day"
Blue Note (1939)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

After John Hammond’s “Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938, the blues/jazz movement of boogie-woogie piano playing proved to be more than just a dancehall craze, but a genre that could appeal to the aristocracy as well. Two of the stars of the show, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, are good examples of the sophisticated side of boogie-woogie.

The performances of the duo so impressed producer Paul Lion that he started a record label to put out their music. Odds are, based on the label’s eventual success, he had plans to start Blue Note Records anyway, but Ammons and Lewis got the ball rolling. As the track “Changes in Boogie Woogie” indicates, “The First Day” was not to be like the boogie-woogie records of old.

The key difference is in a term that Moon uses frequently: “relaxed.” Prominent jazz pianists of the era, especially in the boogie-woogie scene, liked to play at ridiculously fast rates, almost the thrash metal of its day. But Ammons, and especially Lewis, were far from the machine-gun playing of Art Tatum. The mood is set early, with the first four parts of Lewis’s “The Blues” series (The 18 track album is comprised of eight solos by Lewis, nine by Ammons and two dual pieces, grouped together under the title “Nagasaki”).

Lewis is the quintessential relaxed piano player. As the title of his five-part “The Blues” series suggests, he leans towards the feel of the sad man’s song. His playing is far from mournful, but the easygoing 4/4 time is a great soundtrack for an optimistic man down on his luck.

Ammons is a long way from the slow pace of his friend Lewis, but his music is almost as relaxed, even if deceptively so. He tends towards more traditional boogie-woogie fare, such as the appropriately titled “Boogie Woogie Blues” and the equally jumpy “Bass Goin’ Crazy.” These songs are fast and fun, but Ammons’s playing is plenty relaxed, not the coming-off-the-rails feel of Tatum’s recordings, despite the speed.

Perhaps the only disappointment on this album is the lack of “dueling pianos.” Boogie-woogie was a movement that invited two, and sometimes even three pianos to tackle songs at once. Only “Nagasaki” features both pianists playing off of each other in by-far the album’s liveliest track. It would’ve been nice to see more of the duo’s interplay, but “The First Day” is still a fun and easygoing album.

INTERESTING FACT: The "Spirituals to Swing" show was a big deal, but not the biggest in Ammons's career. He played the inauguration of Harry Truman in 1948.

Boogie Woogie Stomp by Albert Ammons on Grooveshark

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