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EXCELSIOR 537; FEBRUARY, 1949

 
 

 

Like so many of rock’s earliest artists Johnny Otis had come of age in another era. It may have only been a few years before but the music that had shaped his sensibilities (that of the big bands with their swinging charts of massed horns) was falling out of favor, as he himself was well aware of thanks to witnessing the generational shift that was evident among the crowds at his own Barrelhouse Club in Watts. It was there that the younger generation, musicians as well as audiences, gravitated towards the cruder and rowdier sounds of the honking tenor sax, gritty electric guitars, boogie pianos and emphatic backbeats that will define rock ‘n’ roll.

To meet these demands of the new music the bands were streamlined, the songs stripped down of their excess components until all that was left was lean, fierce, rampaging rhythms that were dripping with attitude and raw unbridled enthusiasm.

But on record… well, now that he was in the studio on a regular basis with no demanding crowd present to fully connect with on the spot, he might be inclined to reach back ever so much just to see if maybe, probably against his own better judgment, he might possibly sway the wider record buying populace into not giving up on the big-band mentality altogether.

It was a dangerous compromise, one he surely justified by saying – and not without SOME merit – that the patrons of his club represented only a certain segment of the larger black music audience who bought records, and the type who might still like a few of the bygone aspects which the younger crowd dismissed might not frequent these kind of clubs but would be willing to lay down 79 cents for a record.

And so he attempted to bridge the gap, giving the raging rock crowd what they were seeking while at the same time harkening back, ever so slightly, to what had come before it.

Needless to say though that was only a recipe that would please neither palette.
 

 
Guanciale
Though certainly not for everyone’s taste Hog Jaws is still a reasonably filling dish and definitely worth our interest not only to examine the growing rifts between eras and styles that would soon force every black artist to choose sides, but also to see what the troops of Otis’s impressive crew were capable of in a piece designed to give them each a platform to showcase their skills. When those musicians include some of the most impressive names on the scene in 1949, including Big Jay McNeely on sax, Devonia Williams on piano and Otis himself on drums, then it’d be hard to dismiss this entirely simply for having some outdated ideas on its fringes.

But as we well know by now those outdated features certainly aren’t going to make things easy for you to fully appreciate this after you’ve been immersed in the more cutting edge sounds being heard as of late… including from Otis and company themselves.

The record starts of with its jazziest section, certainly not a good idea for catching the ear of the rock fan who’d be most interested in what was to follow. Otis rides the cymbal before the horn section, led by a trombone and trumpet (to save me from writing about such a folly again just refer back to any one of about two dozen lengthy diatribes on the lack of effectiveness of those particular instruments in the rock setting over the past 17 months) and though rousing in what they’re playing, the sonic textures are grating to the ears of those who’ve actively been seeking out the more muscular sounds of the saxophone over rock’s lifetime.

The tone of the trumpet, which is played by John Anderson and is the dominant instrument here for the first half of the record, has a very distinct blaring sound. It’s designed to stand out, not blend in, perhaps explaining why Anderson’s lines sound less like a rock session in full swing and more like fanfare from some military pageantry, which remains the horn’s most closely associated usage over the years. Throughout centuries of changing musical tastes and styles, the trumpet’s role in signaling others to perform some pre-ordained task, be it hunters, soldiers, or the peons who were expected to genuflect upon the arrival of some king or queen, has been ubiquitous.

The best trumpet players of the 20th Century – Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis most prominently – have been the featured stars of jazz ensembles where they could improvise and take the spotlight. The trumpet players themselves were shaping the overall direction of jazz music which was designed to accentuate their particular qualities.

But in rock the trumpet never was an easy fit. Because it has the highest register of the horn section it has a tendency to dominate the entire sound when featured and that makes it largely inflexible for the types of arrangements rock was using. Not until the 1960’s did a new mindset emerge that altered the instrument’s approach in rock settings and even then it had to be used sparingly, often just delivering brief accents rather than taking leads.

But of course in 1949 the old thinking still prevailed and so those bands which featured it prominently, as Otis’s did at this stage, were hampered in their attempts at modernity. Anderson plays well, but you can’t help but look around for the cavalry to come riding in on horseback and that’s hardly the scene you want to envision when rocking and rolling.

It’s not just Anderson’s parts that stand out in this regard, his presence – or should I say his prominence – means the other horns must, in some way, follow suit, altering their tone to adhere to the leads he lays out. Unfortunately this manages to taint even the mighty Big Jay McNeely who – if you want to look for the silver lining in an otherwise ominous rain cloud – gives us a chance to see him sounding like a refugee from a jazz convention with his first featured spot.

Needless to say that while it too is played fine, it lacks the urgency and grit we’ve come to expect and rely on from him even at this early stage of his brief career.

Forty-five seconds in and this is shaping up to be a plate we’re going to be sending back to the kitchen as soon as we can catch the waiter’s attention.

Ahhh, but that’s what we get for underestimating McNeely. Try as some might over the years to suggest he was a jazz musician masquerading as a rocker Hog Jaws proves this to be patently untrue. If he ever wanted to indulge in jazzier playing this was his chance but even with the entire first half of the record indicating that’s where he should head he can’t pull it off, sooner or later he’s going to find a phone booth to tear off the suit, tie and glasses and emerge in blue tights and a red cape and by a minute in you start listening for a voice to holler, “Look up in the sky… it’s a bird, it’s a plane…” because it’s now Big Jay McNeely’s turn to take over.
 

The Choicest Cut
And take over he does, his tone coarsening as he goes along, his energy ramping up, jackhammering notes with a vengeance, all while the other horns now have no choice but adapt to HIM.

The rest of the horns promptly fall into a responsorial role, the trombone now leading the trumpet by the nose… err by the bell as it were. This brings everybody reasonably in line but still can’t overcome the issues of tonality. McNeely keeps them in sight out of necessity, but rampages all over them in his increasingly flamboyant march to anarchy.

Eventually he corrupts baritone saxophonist Lem Talley who contributes some rude remarks of his own, but by now the whole thing has simply disintegrated into bedlam. Organized bedlam perhaps – as with Otis everything was always tightly constructed – but the disparate nature of their instruments meant it was going to sound unhinged and slapdash no matter what.

As a result Hog Jaws, for all of its good intentions – or bad intentions if you prefer – to create a sense of musical mayhem, only creates a collision of sound. Loud and crude and obnoxious though it may be intended to come off as, it largely substitutes noise for genuine exhilaration. Not to get too off-color but it’s the difference between simulated sex and the real thing. It’ll get you to stop and pay attention momentarily, but you’ll soon lose interest when you realize nothing’s really going on.
 

 

That’s not to say it’s a total loss however. Noise IS noise after all and at 2AM when everybody is half in the bag it’s still going to be reasonably effective at keeping you on your feet awhile longer. Though not a top shelf effort by all involved it does let the musicians run wild and get a good workout in just to keep in shape if nothing else.

More importantly it showed Johnny Otis himself what he needed to do to adapt his generally solid instincts into something the masses would crave. So if you consider this a prototype rather than a finished product you may look more favorably upon it.

But we can’t judge it as such here simply because it WAS the finished product and as such it had to meet the expectations of the savvier than they appeared rock audience and in spite of McNeely’s presence (remember, he was currently riding high with The Deacon’s Hop) they largely stayed away from this meal.

Making this a little bittersweet is the fact that Otis wouldn’t have the exclusive services of McNeely for much longer, as Jay’s runaway success as a solo artist as we speak would result in him leaving the fold of his Barrelhouse Club running mates where he got his first break, returning occasionally for a session but largely staying busy cutting his own records, leading his own band and causing his own pandemonium with songs that didn’t often try and split the difference between styles as Hog Jaws attempts to do.
 

Table Scraps
In the end of course they both did alright and got plenty to eat at the rock table. Big Jay defined the honking sax instrumental sound that remained rock’s tastiest dish for the next few years while Johnny Otis, stripped of that component, dialed the musical anarchy down while also shedding the outdated facets that held songs like this back and settled into a more consistent late night vibe, a hazy melancholia played with class and precision and songs that emphasized a diverse crew of vocalists he soon employed.

Rock in the coming years as it continued to grow at a rapid pace was certainly big enough for both pursuits and though we’d miss the out of control instrumentals from Johnny’s band that his earliest sides featured, he’d still come up with a few from time to time – usually to spotlight guitarist Pete Lewis – while leaving the paint peeling records to McNeely and his ilk.

As for Hog Jaws it’s hardly all it could be which renders it disappointing in retrospect, if only because we have less chance to hear such an outfit playing in their prime at the peak of their abilities, but IN their time, and for everybody involved, looking forward and not backwards was a necessary lesson for them to learn…. and re-learn… until the message sunk in.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Johnny Otis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)