The Mercury Blues

When you spend all day in a record store, you are sometimes at a loss for what to choose next. Believe it or not, sometimes we’re not sure what to play out of the quarter-million or so records jammed into this building! On those days, we likely turn to a couple of favorite sections: the jazz section (especially the swing and dixieland records) and the local section. And of course, Minnesota has a long tradition of New Orleans style jazz music, sometime we have posted about often over the years (most recently here).

One new local release has become a favorite around here over the past few weeks — The Mercury Blues, the second full-length disc by Patty and the Buttons, reminds us why we have always enjoyed working with Patrick Harison over the years, and also why we love working here in the record store so much. Its the kind of music that puts a bounce in our steps, even on the chilliest of days when our feet can’t seem to warm up from the walk here.

Regular readers are likely to recognize Patty from his work with our ol’ pal Jack Klatt, and his appearance on the Cactus Blossoms’ Live at the Turf Club disc last year. As one of Jack Klatt’s Cat Swingers, Patty plays the role of ‘hype man’ in some of the band’s best numbers, like the as yet unrecorded “Crack Song.” His interplay with Jack reminds us that country music (specifically Bob Wills) invented the ‘hype man’ role decades before Flava Flav put a giant clock around his neck and shouted “Yeah, boy!”

Joining the Cactus Blossoms during their magical Monday night residency at the Turf Club, Patty brought the feeling of New Orleans to their genuine revival of western swing. Their jaunty “Down South in New Orleans” on those lovely nights took its Crescent City flavor from Patty. On Live at the Turf Club he alternates between his accordion and his washboard with the familiar, battered little cymbal. He studied and played in New Orleans, and few young musicians this far upriver can bring its worldly gumbo to a song with such grace. Who but Patty could shift so smoothly from Parisian Gypsy jazz to hokum blues? Sometimes he does it in the same set, sometimes in the same song.

Our pal Patty is also a performer of powerful convictions, especially when it comes to the subject of pop music. We’re guessing he cringes each time the Southside Aces perform Buttons bandmate Tony Baluff’s arrangement of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” (on their awesome disc A Big Fine Thing). It’s a number which surely signifies them as Aces in every way, one you could request if you checked out their third Thursday residency at the Minneapolis Eagles Club for yourself — It’s also based on the sort of pop music Patty loathes, and the sort of cover tune the bands he works with would never record. We understand (we stopped listening to “Bluegrass Saturday Morning” when it felt like every second song was a cover of an 80s pop hit). The covers in the Buttons’ repertoire are all from solid traditional sources.

So, to Muppet-ify Patty we’d describe him as divided somewhere between Gonzo the Great and Sam the Eagle. His dual role as traditionalist and irreverent outlaw reared hilarious results this winter with the release of XXX, a disc of vintage smuts songs recorded by the Buttons and presented as a low-budget kickstarter campaign (an project we enthusiastically endorsed here on the Hymie’s blog). Silly as it seemed, the whole venture pointed out a number of problems, and not just the suspicion of kickstarter campaigns which we share — most poignant for us was the challenge of making any money playing traditional jazz these days. That America’s only truly unique art form merits minimal attention from not just mainstream media, but local media everywhere (here in the Twin Cities in particular) is a tragedy. And yeah, tragedy plus time equals comedy, but we’ve been waiting a while for the laughs to come.

Actually, the marriage of jazz and comedy is maybe the longest-lasting and healthiest in our modern cultural history (except for Ozzy and Sharon, of course). Surely most straight-ahead and serious jazz musicians recognize the inevitable, inherent silliness of their craft, or they’d all end up like the “hot and heavy” guy from Seinfeld. If you don’t understand you ought to listen to a few Fats Waller records, or Lester Bowie’s recording of the “Howdy Doody” theme, or Nina Simone’s masterpiece “Mississippi Goddamn,” in which she takes the edge of biting commentary with prodding asides. “You thought I was kidding, didn’t you,” she says with an arresting combination of warmth and acidity.

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To this end we’re enchanted with Patty and the Buttons‘ new disc, The Mercury Blues. their very best recorded outing to date. The band backs both sides of Patty’s personality through a selection split evenly between original tunes and traditional gems. Patty sings super fun tunes of his own like “I Really Hate Hawaii” and “Just a Little Song.” The Buttons are in top form throughout, especially clarinetist Tony Balluff, whose arrangement of “Back to Black” we’re guessing you already found by following that link above. He and Patty each deliver knockout, nimble-fingered solos throughout, but the best thing about the disc is the band’s solid arrangements. Guitarist Mar Kreitzer is no slouch, and his turn at lead (in a German tune he wrote, “Sag Nur Ein Wort”) is a riotously fun reminder of the band’s varied influence — and bassist Keith Boyles reminds us throughout the album why his is the instrument we most often watch when seeing the band.

Patty’s originals rightly stand out. Our favorite, “You Can’t Swing,” swings itself like one of Basie’s small groups. Rick Carlson’s fingers seem to dance on the keys. As we mentioned, other songs capture the sense of humor implicit in healthy jazz. “I Really Hate Hawaii” is especially fun because we know he often buys the very best Hawaiian and steel guitar records we can find for folks — records which are a relic of the boom in popularity of Hawaiian culture in the pre-War years. That he has taken to learning the steel guitar hints at his serious musicianship, while the song itself is a product of the sense of humor we’ve grown to love.

The various cover tunes, dating from the turn of the century to a very modern 1920, are approached with both reverence and silly fun — it seems likely “Alcoholic Blues” would be the first encounter for many listeners with the songs of Albert Von Tilzer (except for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” which I’m guessing we could all sing together right now). The Buttons’ rendition of this prohibition lament is very potent jazz!

Mercury Blues also boasts the lightest, airiest rendition of “Whispering” we’ve found — more loved by us here than recordings by Oscar Peterson, the Dorsey Brothers, or either recording made by Miles Davis. It feels to us more old-fashioned and more in tune with the spirit of the melody.

The songs we chose to share from the album are all originals. We have been playing the album here in the shop a lot, so it’s likely you’ve heard the rest if you’ve visited over the past few weeks. New Orleans style jazz music is some of the best stuff to warm up days like this, when the walk to work alone leave our bones frozen –Irene might have to take the day off, by the way, but we hope you’ll fight the chilly weather to stop by. At least you know you’ll hear some hot jazz!

 

The band has planned an incredible event to celebrate the release of this magical album –a Saturday matinee performance at the historic Heights Theater on Saturday the 29th. There will be a selection or rare silent films recently discovered by the Library of Congress (accompanied by the mighty Wurlitzer organ!) and a solo performance by Davina Sowers of the Vagabonds. Details? Are there details? Find em here.

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