KING 4343; FEBRUARY 1950


It’s no secret for anyone who’s read previous Earl Bostic reviews here, or for that matter anyone who’s ever heard most of his work, that the man could play just about anything.

Fast, slow, loud, soft, raucous, tender, crude, sweet, jazz, pop, blues, rock. If it had notes, he could pull it off, no matter how technically advanced it may be, he was your man.

But unfortunately he also couldn’t seem to decide on WHICH of those styles to tackle – not just song to song, which would be confusing enough, but also within the SAME song. It was as if Bostic was so full of ideas that he felt if he didn’t get them out of his system the moment they came to him then he’d lose them forever or that they’d pile up as even more ideas followed until finally he collapsed under the weight of them all.

So for better or for worse Earl was determined to let all of them see the light of day at the same time. Needless to say this could make for some very confusing records.


Heading Into The Forest
Normally we’d be inclined to place some blame on the record label for trying to lure in customers from various constituencies by having the records contain key attributes of different (often widely disparate) styles. In fact we saw King Records do just this with the first releases from Big Maybelle two years ago, sinking her chances at firmly establishing herself because they couldn’t decide which genre she was best suited for leading them to try them all within a single song.

But they seemed to have learned their lesson of late and have mostly avoided that scattershot method when choosing material… Bostic on the other hand was often unfocused from the start, even when he was recording for Gotham Records, so this was definitely a problem of his own doing.

Choppin’ It Down is yet another example of this “cast a wide net” approach. It’s a song that features some magnificent parts that are right at home in rock and some parts that don’t fit in this genre at all and while it’s got one of the brightest stars in the musical galaxy sitting dead center in the sky it also lets in too many dark clouds to obscure that star’s light.

Worst of all is that as good as some of it is, the record is done in by an arrangement that features absolutely no game plan whatsoever and so all of your admiration for the pieces that work are bound to lead to frustration when so much around those pieces let you down thanks to his tendency to put these things together with no apparent rhyme or reason.


Find The Tallest Tree
Let’s start with Earl’s contributions since he’s the main attraction.

The record takes awhile to get its feet under it with another unfocused introduction featuring a back and forth riff between horns that is sort of nondescript. Earl’s first featured spot coming out of that is fairly mundane as well. Played with no shortage of skill of course, just not played with any real emphasis either. The first problem here is the melody itself doesn’t do much for you while neither the power or technique isn’t standing out either. It doesn’t really build towards anything to get you leaning forward in anticipation. It’s enough to keep you listening maybe, but something that you’ll be easily distracted from all the same.

But then, just shy of forty seconds in and perhaps sensing attention starting to wander, Earl rips off a ten second interlude that he should’ve started Choppin’ It Down with, something that reaches into the depths of the earth then soars high in the stratosphere, showing that the range of his alto is not confined to our planet in any conceivable way.

It’s exactly what a rock song opening SHOULD be – exhilarating and attention getting, yet also with a natural exit strategy to it so that he can return to something more structured to carry us along as the song plays out. Unfortunately this does not kick off the song and when he reaches its pinnacle he pulls the ripcord too quickly and floats lazily back to the ground, resorting to a jazzier landing that does the song no favors.

Yet as soon as he hits that ground he proceeds to throw those shackles off again, instantly recapturing your focus as he snorts and paws impatiently in the dirt, looking as if he’s ready to tear off across the countryside…

Until he’s tripped up by a trumpet.

And so it goes. Earl does something worth the price of admission, like his next solo, a stuttering riff with a melodic pull-out heading into a siren call-type note, but then he follows it with a section that gets almost schizophrenic as he loses his way for awhile. The more he tries to get his bearings the more he spins in circles and becomes disoriented.

Fear not though for before long Super Earl is back, his cape flowing in the breeze as he takes off with arguably his best single stretch at the 2:15 mark, succinct, melodic, tough and catchy as can be.

Of course that’s the sign the record is also winding down, leaving us wanting more on one hand, yet at the same time fearful if we get more it’ll turn out to be what we hoped all along that he’d jettison, starting with his supporting cast.

Part of Bostic’s ongoing problems is he defers too much to his sidemen, good musicians all, but musicians in over their head when it comes to matching him or just delivering something suitably rough and tumble for rock ‘n’ roll in general.

What he needs is fewer musicians. As in almost none. A drummer. Maybe a pianist, maybe not. Anything else is really superfluous.

Instead he gets a full cast, including other horns and being the generous guy he is Earl actually gives them something to do during the session rather than let them sit idly by and play crossword puzzles or flirt with the secretary in the hall.

The responses of the other horns here not only don’t add much of anything to the song but they force Bostic to make too many adjustments to fit them in. Then when he doesn’t take them into consideration at all he tends to start clashing outright with their parts and so it all starts to fly off the rails.

When the trumpet gets its ill-conceived solo all the life is sucked out of the song, or if you want to tie it in with the song’s title, it’s kind of like they traded in Paul Bunyan’s giant axe for the little saw contained in a Swiss Army Knife. Meanwhile the drummer, who should be slamming the skins to keep the backbeat from lagging is merely flicking his wrists most of the time, doing just enough not to lose the rhythm but very little to actually add to it.

Because of this it’s not hard to see that Choppin’ It Down is a record where less would definitely be more. By stripping the excess parts it’d give Bostic the freedom to move around unencumbered. Had they used those trees they chopped down to give the drummer suitable sticks that packed more of a wallop then the song would’ve had the appropriate drive to lock you in. If the only other instruments were a piano to maintain the melody when Earl went off in another direction, or maybe a bass if you wanted to double up on the rhythm, then you’d have a streamlined powerhouse of a single.

Instead it’s got a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a grab bag of ideas, all thrown together willy nilly.

Log Rolling
The thing is, Bostic himself is so good, so diverse in his playing, so creative in his approaches, that the only thing he really needed was better advice. Had someone at King Records told him that he was going to do say five sessions a year, twenty songs, and out of that they needed eight pure unadulterated rock songs, sans trumpet of course, heavy on the beat, either using raunchy tones played with explosive power or deep grooves that were repetitively melodic, then issued THOSE four singles as his main output marketed at rock audiences he’d have been far better off.

The other twelve songs could be split into three camps – four to six pure jazz cuts, (welcoming back the ostracized trumpeter if he wanted) to keep Earl’s hand in that field, toss in a handful of pop stuff, familiar songs with pretty melodies, maybe even giving him some strings to set them off and even issue them with a different color label to differentiate them from the rockers… then lastly let him go in whatever direction he wants on the remaining cuts and get experimental as he wants and use those as album cuts down the road.

Instead, though he actually recorded more sides than any other artist in King Records’ history, he always seemed as if he was expecting to be told at any moment that he was being locked out of the studio and so he tried to get each and every note buzzing around his fevered brain into one chaotic performance.

Sometimes that worked and sometimes it doesn’t. On Choppin’ It Down it works just enough to be mildly appreciated, yet not enough to allow you to listen without some lingering reservations about the aimless direction he still seemed to be headed.


(Visit the Artist page of Earl Bostic for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)