It's perversely fitting that an entire album dedicated to the notoriously eccentric Pee Wee Russell opens with a strange session led by jazz tympanum virtuoso Vic Berton. His little brother Ralph Berton, in that marvelous memoir "Remembering Bix," describes Vic's career in detail, crediting him with devising the first rudimentary high-hat cymbal, being the first to drum with wire brushes, and even designing cymbals that were impaled through the middle by a metal rod rather than hanging from leather straps. Vic Berton worked a lot with Red Nichols and Miff Mole. He also got into a vicious brawl with his employer Paul Whiteman in the men's room of the Club Whiteman, knocking the corpulent bandleader off his feet and into a sink which was thereby wrenched from the wall! All of this should be kept in mind while listening to five Vocalion recordings by Vic Berton's Orchestra from March of 1935. Pee Wee blows both clarinet and tenor sax, and Vic accents everything with rubbery, disorienting kettle drum runs. Rather than detracting, the effect actually makes these records seem oddly precious. Three of the five songs have vocals by the ubiquitous Chick Bullock, who sounds better, somehow, in this pixilated company than on most of the many records he invaded during the 1930s. "Taboo" is just peculiar enough to serve as effective surrealistic theater. The bracingly racist "Blinky Winky Chinky Chinatown" represents the pinnacle of that all-but-forgotten musical genre, the Oriental Fox Trot. Bullock seems horribly well-suited for the duty of mouthing the lyrics. And the band swings like crazy after all. Berton's two instrumentals are wonderfully comfortable dance tunes, possibly appropriate for tap dance instruction. Pee Wee sounds great, as do Sterling Bose and bass saxophonist Spencer Clark. Next, four carefully enunciated romantic pop vocals by Buddy Clark are accompanied by most of Bud Freeman's Summa Cum Laude Orchestra. The scene then changes abruptly to a Greenwich Village club called Nick's. Pee Wee leads Nick's Dixieland Band, shoulder to shoulder with Muggsy Spanier, Lou McGarity and Ernie Caceres. Apparently these records, bearing the Manhattan label, were actually sold at the club. Four hot stomps, one bounce, and a relatively relaxed Russell original called "Mama's in the Groove" are certainly worth the cover charge. Pee Wee's 1946 "Jazz Ensemble" session, sounding as if it was recorded in a beer hall, is delightfully diverse. "Best Gal" establishes a good rowdy precedent, with hot licks by Cliff Jackson, Vic Dickenson and Muggsy Spanier. Pee Wee and Cliff came up with a magnificent slow burn they called the "Muskogee Blues," possibly the toughest track of the entire album. "Take Me to the Land of Jazz" is a rare example of Pee Wee Russell actually using his voice. He sings the words gruffly, pacing his delivery in some other meter besides the one being used by the band, confining himself to no particular key, slurring, salivating and gritting his teeth before Muggsy horns in on him, nipping off the last word. With a clarinet back in his mouth Pee Wee continues to explore his own alternate universe as the band knocks the stuffing out of the old tune.
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