MACY’S 5014; NOVEMBER 1950



They say you don’t miss your water until your well runs dry.

In rock ‘n’ roll’s first three years we were practically drowning in sax instrumentals… one after another came pouring out of the faucet, honking and squealing up a storm, all vying to shock and excite you with their gloriously excessive attributes.

But lately the flow has been reduced to a trickle. Some of this is just the ever-changing landscape that all music goes through, but then again part of the reason the landscape changes is because the old terrain becomes level… as in there are no commercial peaks left to be scaled by following this path.

Still, every so often somebody decides to head down that abandoned overgrown trail again and along the way you find that it still contains some nice views.


Empty Plates
Over the next half dozen years or so Joe Houston would become one of the standard bearers for the type of raunchy sax displays that had briefly ruled all of rock in the late 1940’s and it was simply his misfortune that he came along just a few weeks or months too late to really benefit from it.

Houston made his debut at the tail end of 1949 just when the sax instrumental was beginning its commercial decline. Usually there’s no sudden cease fire enacted by record companies for a specific stylistic trend, as the industry has been known over the years to keep mining the same ground years after the vein has failed to produce anything of value, but in this instance, maybe because they were afraid of going deaf from listening to all that screeching, the end came rather abruptly.

There were still a few honking for their supper, Paul Williams, Wild Bill Moore and a few other veterans of the sax battles, but even such headliners as Big Jay McNeely found that record companies just weren’t in the market for that kind of thing once it had appeared to run its course and they were more than happy to move on to something less frantic when trying to separate you from your hard earned cash.

The style wasn’t completely dead though, only sleeping, and Joe Houston, all of 23 years old, wasn’t about to retire and move to Florida or Arizona to wile away his remaining years.

In fact, he seemed to be actively looking to turn back the clock with Cornbread & Cabbage Greens, a record that goes so far as to conjure up the kind of associative titles with soul food as a selling point for this music. The music of course had nothing to do with sitting down at a table to break bread, for they all knew that if you sat down during these kind of workouts then it meant the artist was doing something drastically wrong.

Full Course
The intro throws you into thinking this might be a vocal record – maybe it was even designed to throw you – but the lines aren’t very meaningful, they just establish the title after running down a few other options on the menu before they settle on the declaratory “Give me some… Cornbread And Cabbage Greens” and the other horns jump into the fray to set the stage for Houston’s arrival.

When he shows up just short of a minute in he’s rather subdued and it’s only the drummer’s steady clip and the boogie backing of the the rhythm section that really gives this an identity early on.

But gradually Houston starts ramping things up, giving us melody, groove and grit in equal measure, even throwing a few honks into the mix just to let us know he’s done more than just flipped the pages of his textbooks absentmindedly and has in fact committed the lessons to memory.

It may never reach the wild heights of the best instrumentals that Hal Singer and McNeely served up, but this is still a plateful of tasty licks and riffs. The musicians behind him are churning with controlled passion, never letting up, never failing to hone in on what works best, knowing that the solid foundation they’re laying down will give Houston the freedom to improvise.

When he does start cutting loose it’s with sense of focused determination and a good idea of where he’s going. This is no shambolic freestyle that might miss its mark, he’s got a firm destination in mind and knows just how to best arrive at it while keeping you from staring out the window and asking impatiently when you’re going to get there, like some hyperactive five year old in the back seat.

Everything about this sounds natural and almost effortless by the end that while you may miss the hang-on-for-dear-life attributes of some earlier sides that first showcased what rock ‘n’ roll in all of its unbridled glory could achieve, this is impressive nonetheless in that it proves there’s still a place at the table for these kinds of flavorful dishes.

Gimme Some More…
A record like this was by now something of an anomaly rather than a major release unfortunately, especially seeing as how it came out on a relatively minor label like Macy’s (although their owner taking writing credit shows no matter how small the company, some insidious practices are universal).

But that being said, Cornbread & Cabbage Greens is a welcome return to the fold for Joe Houston, as well as a joyous reminder of just how much sax-based instrumentals helped to keep rock’s pulse steady while diversifying the sounds being heard across the spectrum.

More than anything it’s a record that reassures us that what we’d fallen for the last few years was still alive and well. Rock ‘n’ roll may have already evolved into far more than it originally was confined to, but the saxophone was still a major part of its DNA even if it was being shifted more to a supporting role.

But that too is part of rock’s evolutionary cycle, re-imagining concepts, injecting old textures into new motifs and allowing each generation – which in music sometimes seems like months rather than years – to adapt what they liked from the previous one to suit their modern sensibilities.

The saxophone is in no danger of being replaced just yet in rock’s stage production and if it no longer is getting as many leading roles, Joe Houston shows that there were still those out there who were capable of handling the spotlight when it shone back on them from time to time.

In other words, the well hadn’t run completely dry just yet.


(Visit the Artist page of Joe Houston for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)