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GOTHAM 180; JUNE, 1949



When we first met Jimmy Preston back in November 1948 it was with an instrumental befitting the fact that the Philadelphia club musician was undoubtedly signed by the local Gotham label in an attempt to capitalize on the rock instrumental boom that had dominated the charts throughout 1948.

That Preston played alto, not the more robust tenor sax meant that he was starting from a bit of a hole when it came to connecting with the rock audience, but in spite of coming of age in an earlier jazz-dominated era (he was 35 at the time) his effort on Messin’ With Preston had the right intent to appeal to the rock crowd, even it if was a little light sounding at times in comparison to the biggest hits to date.

But since that time Jimmy Preston the saxophonist has given way to Jimmy Preston the singer and somewhat surprisingly he’s done quite well in that regard, delivering songs with a confidence that belies his rather pedestrian voice. Though most of the songs he’s been asked to handle haven’t exactly had a plethora of deeper sentiments to mine he’s nevertheless shown the ability to fully grasp the intended message, however basic it may be, and convey it with an authenticity that’s reassuring for anyone doubting his legitimacy in the field.

With his first chart success on Hucklebuck Daddy, his best vocal side to date, in the books – or in the trade papers Billboard and Cash Box as it were – you might start to assume that everybody involved, from Preston himself to Gotham Records, would decide to abandon his attempts at instrumentals and stick with what was paying off for them recently.

But here he is dusting off his saxophone once again to weigh in with another stab at connecting with the rock fans who could care less about following along to storylines and would prefer to just grind away and lose their inhibitions to the music.

No matter how this one turns out it’s at least heartening to see they haven’t cast aside this approach altogether.

Back Home
There’s never a BAD reason to diversify in life. Whether we’re talking financial investments spread over a number of unrelated entities so that a drop in one won’t adversely affect the others, or if we’re speaking in more general terms as far as having a diverse community made up of people of all different backgrounds to provide a wide array of cultures, experiences and viewpoints from which to be exposed to, the indisputable fact of life is that diversity is always a good thing.

So it is for music as well. An artist who churns out material that sounds the same each time out is bound to see diminishing returns on their releases. What made something so appealing the first time you heard it when it was fresh and unexpected becomes absorbed over time and by the next outing it starts to sound familiar… even unchallenging. Yes, you certainly can improve on an earlier template, improve upon its weaknesses and build upon its strengths but even then there’s a limit as to how many times you can draw water from the same creative well. Eventually you’ll lose the interest of all but the most narrow undiscerning audience who resists change and only wants to immerse themselves in the inherent safety of what remains recognizable.

Artistic nature in its purest form rejects that kind of thinking because it limits creativity and keeps an artist stuck in a box, used only to satiate one specific mood or feeling.

Rock music, as much as any style, thrived on constantly evolving and while you can argue that Preston is merely returning to something he’d already tackled, what he’s doing in fact is really making sure that he doesn’t get hemmed into one approach. Just like he’d done when first adding vocals to his releases so that he wasn’t merely limited to honking away, now that he’s gained much more notice for the vocal records he’s revisiting the instrumentals to give himself another option for the future.

Besides it’s not as if the sax instrumental is a bad investment to make. The sound that defined 1948 is still going strong in 1949 and since the top side of this release, Hold Me, Baby, is a cover of a current hit by an even bigger artist in Amos Milburn and thus maybe not as likely to meet their sales expectations should audiences find it comes up short in comparison to Milburn, the presence of an instrumental in Home Cookin’ gives listeners a clear alternative when depositing a nickel in the jukebox. As we’re constantly preaching here B-sides should be used to offer something different than the top side and thus give an artist another way to make an impression on audiences. This qualifies in that regard if nothing else.

Turn The Stove Up
How the group – known rather simplistically as The Prestonians – approach this meal is the first interesting morsel to sample from the plate.

Preston certainly wasn’t a holy terror on the alto sax, nor do I think he ever claimed to be. He was never a virtuoso whom others felt honored merely to share the stage with, but rather he was a fairly skilled bandleader who ran a good tight outfit and was reliable, which meant a lot when trying to get paying gigs as a club act in Philly. If his records are any indication he also knew enough to let his fellow band-members take more of the musical spotlight that’s required to sell these song and their collective ability is going to be key to making Home Cookin’ work.

With the recent trends in sax-led rock instrumentals acting as guideline for their potential tactics we can tell there’s been a change in the basic recipes for these plates since they last entered the studio to cut one of these things. Back in 1948 the slower seductive grooves were still more than holding their own against the more recent flamboyant honking styles that started catching on by mid-summer. By the spring of ’49 however, with the arrival of even more notable honkers such as Big Jay McNeely, it’s those hotter dishes that have taken over as the best sellers on the menu.

In response to this shift in tastes the role that the churning repetitive groove held down so admirably has been largely replaced by a lighter, yet more melodic, feel as exemplified by Paul Williams’s monster smash The Hucklebuck. That would also appear to be the approach best suited for Preston, particularly since both he and Williams were altoists (though Williams also played baritone) rather than holding down the tenor seat at the table.

That style also plays into Preston’s broader musical demeanor as befitting a middle-aged bespectacled future minister. Yet on Home Cookin’ he can’t seem to make up his mind, almost as if he’s trying to offer two distinctly dishes for two totally different tastes.

It starts of rather deliberately with a slower stop-time lead-in that is indeed reminiscent of the pace and mood of The Hucklebuck and that part works well enough even if the melody isn’t anywhere near as catchy as what Williams deployed. But as it goes on the temperature is turned up in an effort to get things simmering and here’s where we run into the aforementioned limitations of Preston’s cooking abilities.

For starters his horn is, if not out of tune, at least is out of practice as his discordant blowing at times veers into screeching blasts and seems unable to follow a sensible melodic line, wandering instead all over the map, particularly in the higher register. When he drops down it works better but the musicians are clashing frequently – by design I suspect because they keep repeating the same riffs so it’s not as if somebody got lost along the way and just can’t find their place for a few bars.

When they take a brief stand alone spot it works better, as these are delivered with grit and passion, but then the ensemble comes back into view and start to plod along again and it breaks down even if it never completely falls apart.


Doing The Dishes
That’s not to say that it’s all bad even though it does sort of confirm the club band reputation they had. The song’s structure is pretty decent, you can see how they properly assessed the components that were required to get across such a tune. They keep the underlying riff intact throughout, they let the horns solo at the appropriate times and they increase the urgency of them too as they go along, ramping up the energy to suitable levels. They even manage to bring it back full circle and wind it down in a way that leaves a decent impression on the listener.

But the problem is they just weren’t good enough musicians to compete with the best bands who were launching instrumentals with far more firepower on the front lines in the form of the lead horns, as well as heavier artillery in the rhythm section to keep the earth shaking beneath them.

These guys couldn’t pull that off, even with the right concepts in place they were simply overpowered on the battlefield… yup, we just switched analogies from the kitchen to the battlefield, which you have to admit occasionally DOES happen when you go back home for a meal and old arguments over dredged up memories take place, but I digress.

What Home Cookin’ shows is that their level of commitment to rock ‘n’ roll, something that may have been in question in some corners, fairly or not after their first three releases which clearly stuck to the rock path on the A-sides of their records at the very least, was indeed genuine. These guys were determined to be a well-rounded rock ensemble capable of getting you grooving on the floor or entertaining you lyrically while you sat at the table.

But it also shows that without those vocal sides they were at risk of being cast aside, not due to a lack of authenticity so much as a lack of ability to keep pace when left to their own instruments. Though Preston’s vocals were also fairly modest in terms of his skill-set his deficiencies were better kept at bay there, not to mention it kept the musicians behind him from exposing their faults too plainly.

The two entities held each other in check, complimenting one another admirably and never requiring either side to carry too much of the load themselves. But here, with the vocal half of equation sitting this one out, there’s no such balance and the results suffer for it.

So while Home Cookin’ doesn’t compare well with the best rock instrumental sides we’ve come across in 1949, not even close really, it inches up just past the point of dismissing it entirely out of hand for being a waste of our time. It’s not a waste of our time or theirs, quite the opposite actually. It may not amount to much in terms of musical satisfaction on its own terms, but its mere presence alone says a lot about the group, their regard for the audience and for the genre of music they’re plying their trade in. These guys who were pulled from obscurity less than a year earlier are wholehearted in their attempts at earning your respect and keeping your attention.

They may not be the most naturally gifted outfit drawing a paycheck but they’ve shown that they understand the idiom enough to feel comfortable branching out into more than one realm and they believe in the music’s worth to do so without any reservations.

For a style that was still at times struggling to convince the establishment of the validity of those attributes, even with all of its recent commercial success, here was a group who on the surface may have appeared to be outsiders simply dragged into this world without much say in the matter who made damn sure you knew they were rockers, not because they were coaxed into it to hop on a growing commercial trend, but because they wanted to be because they identified with the music just as their audience did.

That might not seem like a lot, and wouldn’t be worth as much down the road once there was no question as to rock’s veracity, but for now it’s still something to be admired… even if we admire that quality in the band more than we admire the quality of the record the band churned out in this case.


(Visit the Artist page of Jimmy Preston for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)