Fishface O’Henry and the Jazz Musketeers is a live album by Fishface O’Henry and the Jazz Musketeers. For those who don’t know who these pioneering jazz cats are, they’re pioneering jazz cats who’ve been breaking musical boundaries for almost half a century.
Fishface first cut his chops in New York, becoming a regular jazzman around town. A trumpeter, he got the nickname for the way his face would inflate when he played, sometimes to an enormous size. He soon became one of the biggest names in the NY club scene, and after being on a few good records as a session musician, formed his legendary group The Jazz Musketeers in ‘69 whose records and live performances quickly made them a national, then international act of great renown.
The band is still made up of its original members, apart from pianist Duck Withers, who passed in the early 70’s from a bad batch of heroin. He was replaced by the legendary Eggs Boscome. The other members are Curly Van Peterson on drums, Earl Klutz on alto sax, Max Django on bass and Moggsy Anderson on trombone.
Fishface hasn’t used an instrument since ‘72, instead becoming possibly the worlds greatest mouth trumpeter. The story goes he did a bunch of acid before giving his what he thought was his best trumpet performance to date. People at the show agreed, and the crowd went wild. It was only later when he sobered up that he realised he hadn’t even being playing an instrument. In the words of Moggsy:
"Man, that shit was crazy. He we all are up on stage, warming the crowd up for Fish you know, ‘cos he liked to come on a little after the band for suspense or whatever. Anyway he comes on stage with his trumpet case, same as usual, only when he opens it, there’s nothing there, it’s empty! I’m thinking ‘oh shit, he’s done lost his mind’ with him reaching into the case to pull out, well nothing! There he is acting like there’s an trumpet in his hands, us still playing, waiting to see what he’s gonna do. I’m looking at the crowd, who clearly think this is some kind of a joke or something, when he raises that imaginary goddamn trumpet to his lips and starts blowing. Man, nobody thought it was a joke then. He’s laying out the baddest trumpet playing anyone had ever heard, and he didn’t even have a trumpet! Shit, those crazy fish cheeks of his were bulging and he was making the sweetest sounds. When he finished that first number the crowd all stood and cheered the damn roof off. Whew! I’ll never forget. When I told him what happened later he looked at me like I was mad ‘till the rest of the guys confirmed it. After that he never looked back, never played an actual trumpet again as far as I know. Never does on stage."
Fishface’s mouth trumpeting is what gives the group its unique sound and approach, and this comes across very clearly on this live album, recorded in Holland in 2003 at Jazz Fest. The group might have been going 40 odd years by this recording, but the music sounds fresh as ever, full of off kilter rhythms and intertwining melodies. I included one of the shorter tracks, Tumbling Potatoes, above to give a taste of what you can expect.
It’s certainly not easy listening. These guys play loose. Real l o o s e. The music they make tends to follow abstract themes and feelings, rather than melodies, set rhythms or anything restrictive to the vibe. This is what makes them such a great live act because they never play a song the same way twice, basing their sound on the players moods and approach to the subject at the precise moment they’re playing. In this track, they set out to catch the essence of potatoes tumbling and rolling down stuff. One day it might be the jolly tumbling of the taters down a soft, grassy hillside on a sunny day, the next it might me their bloated stumbling down the cold steps of a cellar. Listen to the track and don’t tell me you can’t picture those potatoes doing their thing. It’s like a perfect Haiku in music form.
As a whole album, this live performance catches the essence of the band and their music as well as anything they’ve released in their career. The years they’ve spent playing together has made them a seriously competent unit, but not at the expense of the spontaneity and spirit of discovery that has always been the backbone of their sound. Take Cats Scramblin’ in the Kitchen, or Old Mans Swagger from this album and tell me aren’t just as fresh and exciting as the versions they recorded in the 80’s and 90’s. If you’re new to the group, give this a listen not once, not even twice but a few times. What at first sounds like mindless chaos will slowly start to make sense, then click. Before you know it, you’ll be revelling in its complex simplicity and, dare I say it, genius.
Subjective Rating: 9/10. Would’ve got ten if they’d included Chubby Lobster in the set. But hey, that’s just a personal thing.
Objective Rating: 10/10. Both a flawless jazz and live album, down to the banter and crowd participation. It really catches them at their stunning, dynamic best.