Casa Loma Orchestra

1930/1934

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Descended from the Orange Blossoms Orchestra, an outgrowth of Jean Goldkette's band, the Casa Loma Orchestra was able to swing with facility and fire, using solid arrangements and coming across as relatively hip compared to most of the other Caucasian jazz ensembles on the scene during the early '30s. The Casa Loma's wonderfully danceable records sound more than a little like those by Fletcher Henderson, Wingy Manone, or Duke Ellington's Cotton Club Orchestra. Alto saxophonist Glen Gray was the instigator, but much of this band's book was written and arranged by banjo and guitar man Gene Gifford. His "Wild Goose Chase," "White Jazz," and "Casa Loma Stomp" (which may have inspired the arrangement on Charlie Barnet's 1936 recording of "Nagasaki") are smoking hot jazz records that make it difficult to sit still. Part of the magic came from Stanley Dennis, a proficient brass bass player who crossed over during these years to become a strident upright bassist, slapping the strings in the old Bill Johnson Louisiana bull fiddle tradition. "Smoke Rings," famous for its ethereal qualities, is anchored by a walking tuba, as it were. "Blue Prelude" was essentially its sequel. These pieces were clearly patterned after the music of Duke Ellington. A pretty, violin-laced version of "Sophisticated Lady" seems to acknowledge the influence. "That's How Rhythm Was Born" is an unfortunate example of a perfectly nice shuffle marred by dopey lyrics including a racist reference to "darkies." This of course was considered perfectly acceptable in 1933. Note also that Hoagy Carmichael's stereotypical "Lazy Bones," based upon the Stepin Fetchit archetype, was also recorded by the all-black Claude Hopkins Orchestra in 1934. The Casa Loma realization of Carmichael's "New Orleans," gilded with fiddle, celeste, and glockenspiel, is mysteriously charming, despite the rather naïve vocal. Thank goodness most of these tunes are instrumentals. There are later recordings by the Casa Loma Orchestra, but these early sides are undoubtedly the cream of the crop. The folks at Jazz Archives seemed at first to be presenting a chronological survey of early Casa Loma material but seem to have been unable to resist stubbornly disrupting the historical progression in order to sculpt a sequence according to someone's private whimsy. Fortunately this minor inconvenience does not detract from an excellent listening experience.

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