The Smiler, Stomp Off CD1258
from The Mississippi Rag, November 1994
It has been almost half-a-century since old Bunk Johnson left this world behind, and exactly 50 years since he recorded a few numbers with the remnants of the pre-World War II Yerba Buena Jazz Band. Over a decade passed before they were issued on one side of a Good Time Jazz LP entitled Bunk and Lu, with the flip side being the reissue of the first Lu Watters releases originally on the Jazz Man label. Bunk is reported as saying in his later years that the San Francisco crew was the best band he recorded with during his comeback.
In his notes for The Smiler, leader Chris Tyle informs us that there were more performances recorded by Bunk than the eight that were issued. Tyle's project was "...to record a few of the unissued tunes, with some appropriate extras, with a band playing in a style approximating the 1944. I feel we came close to capturing the ambiance of the original band but we also created a compelling unique sound."
I fully agree with his assessment. This CD is a remarkable approximation of Bunk's Frisco band that avoids copycatting by steering clear of all the issued numbers and imaginatively selecting apposite alternative tunes. The Silver Leaf Jazz Band does have a sound of its own, a New Orleans/San Francisco blend that is buoyant and exciting.
Chris Tyle (cornet/trumpet) has done an admirable job of emulating Bunk. The phrasing and attack show careful study of his style, and it is fun to hear Bunk's favorite ideas woven into new material. John Gill's trombone in reminiscent of his former employer, Turk Murphy, with a few Kid Ory licks thrown in for good measure. Nice clarinet work is provided by Tom Fischer and Barry Wratten. Steve Pistorius on piano is obviously fond of Jelly Roll Morton and Eubie Blake, and that doesn't hurt a bit. Lars Edegran, banjo, Tom Saunders, tuba and string bass, and Hal Smith, drums, round out the fine rhythm section. This is a strong lineup, and the guys sound like they are enjoying themselves.
And the tunes! What a great batch! There are some rarities here you've probably never heard (at least I hadn't), and there are some historical surprises. For example, "Bright Eyes, Goodbye," a tune by Egbert Van Alstyne, turns out to be the prototype of "Blue Bells Goodbye," which Bunk recorded in 1942. (He evidently got the title confused with another song, "Blue Bell," by Madden and Morse.) "Baby, I'd Love to Steal You" is an unpublished Tony Jackson number. Percy Wenrich's "The Smiler" is a delightful rag, very possibly in Bunk's memory bank. "I'm Afraid to Come Home in the Dark" is another Van Alstyne pop song that Bunk was eager to record, but never did. These are just a few of the intriguing tidbits of information in Tyle's liner notes, which are interesting to read and contain much material of interest to Bunkophiles.
We'll skip citations for solos (although there are plenty of good ones) except to note that all the band members get to takes breaks on "It Looks Like a Big Night Tonight," and they do make the most of it. Scampish as they all are, it is Hal Smith who takes the cake on this number with some delightfully frisky licks.
This CD is dedicated to the memory of jazz historian William "Bill" Russell, who first recorded Bunk Johnson and was his sponsor and benefactor. It is a worthy tribute.
from Jazz Journal, May 1994
Chris Tyle is not only an excellent trumpeter and jazz researcher but also a stylistic chameleon. On a recent Ted des Plantes release he managed a fair impression of Red Allen, but here he's turned his attention to Bunk Johnson. Tyle's notes explain that the records Bunk made with the Yerba Buena band were the inspiration for this collection. Added to the tunes recorded on that occasion are some which Bunk and the Yerba Buena supposedly recorded, though they were never issued, and some which Tyle discovered (from discussions with Bill Russell) that bunk liked but never recorded. The leader doesn't try to imitate Bunk precisely (which would surely be very difficult) but he does capture the terseness of Bunk's style and a triplet-based phrase which was one of Bunk's trademarks crops up several times. Gill is suitably elemental and robust on trombone and the rhythm section bounces along cheerily though neither clarinet player makes much of an impression. Musically therefore this is nothing out-of-the-ordinary and it's the concept which would need to appeal for purchase to be considered.