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Sister Act 

A recent set of CD reissues is a reminder of how New Orleans' Boswell Sisters revolutionized jazz vocal groups.

Storyville, Satchmo and Jelly Roll in the teens and '20s, then a jump to "The Fat Man" and Professor Longhair in l949: this is the way New Orleans music unfolds in most chronologies. What happened in the intervening 20 years, a musical void? Of course not; among other things, our city gave the world the superb Boswell Sisters.

From l931-36, the Bozzies -- Connie, Vet and Martha -- were international stars, with best-selling recordings, two tours of England and Holland, weekly radio appearances, and guest shots in Hollywood films. While practically inventing the jazz vocal group -- some credit must also go to their contemporaries, the Mills Brothers -- they influenced all who came after, most famously the Andrews Sisters and Ella Fitzgerald, who always claimed Connie (also spelled Connee) Boswell as her main mentor.

And yet today, despite the efforts of the revivalist Pfister Sisters and the occasional oddball music journalist, they are, if not forgotten, seriously underappreciated in their hometown. Recently a Danish label, Nostalgia Arts, has tried to alleviate this amnesia by issuing their complete works on five CDs, sold separately. Now every note of the Boswells is available to enhance their legacy.

An optimal Boswell's performance is a lunatic concoction with several key changes, four to five tempo shifts executed with uncanny precision, unexpected returns to the verse, choruses sung in something resembling pig Latin, and blues refrains or complete reharmonizations of the melody thrown in just because they feel like it and have the musicianship to pull it off. While they didn't improvise per se on their recordings (no wild scatting here), they completely tore a tune apart and reassembled it, reconfiguring it to fit their dadaist worldview. Their music is fragmented because it reflects all the music they heard growing up in New Orleans, from Louis Armstrong and Enrico Caruso to blues and parade music.

It's best, then, to think of the Boswells not as simply superior musicians but as part of the New Orleans continuum of extrovert amalgamators and entertainers, trying to please at all costs. The Boswells' antics fit in with Satchmo's mugging, Louis Prima's Italian schtick, Fats Domino bumping the piano across the stage with his gut, Dr. John's voodoo trappings, Harry Connick Jr.'s tap-dancing, Jelly Roll's diamond tooth. None of that play-your-chorus-then-turn-your-back-to-the-audience cool jazz posturing that passes in the rest of the country.

The best one-CD sampling of the sisters' 75 or so commercial recordings remains the 20-track That's How Rhythm Was Born, on the Columbia/Legacy label. Many of their greatest are here: "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," "Sophisticated Lady" (the first recording of that tune's lyric), "Sentimental Gentleman from Georgia," "Darktown Strutter's Ball" and "Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day," in which our three nice girls from Uptown sing a coded paean to the joys of opium use.

The complete Nostalgia Arts series is a haphazard affair. Had they done it properly they'd have started in l925 with the Boswells' fledgling teenage efforts and proceeded chronologically to the end. As it stands, the CDs jump around time-wise, with alternate takes spread out over different CDs; it's a confusing jumble.

This is not to say that you shouldn't buy all five CDs if you're a Boswell fan; there's great stuff on all of them. For those who just need a supplement to the Columbia best-of collection, however, start with Volume 5: 1933-36. By the end of their career, their producer, flummoxed by their multifarious tempo changes (The kids can't dance to it!), had most of them excised, and this takes a lot of the surprise out of these arrangements. However, the strength of the material compensates, spearheaded by Irving Berlin at his best ("Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," "Let Yourself Go," "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and more). "Darktown Strutter's Ball" is here, along with lesser-known gems like the kicking, bluesy "Why Don't You Practice What You Preach" and "Don't Let Your Love Go Wrong," zigzagging from rumba to swing to tango and back without a nanosecond's loss in impetus.

Second place would be awarded to Volume 3: l932-33, which includes "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" and "42nd Street," a gorgeous "Mood Indigo," the absurdist "We Just Couldn't Say Goodbye" and the anthemic "Crazy People." A close third would go to Volume One: l931-32, with the snappy "It's the Girl," and the amazingly reconstituted "There'll Be Some Changes Made." There certainly were!

Accompanying the sisters on many tracks are star jazzmen like the Dorsey Brothers, Bunny Berrigan and Joe Venuti, with sporadic horn arrangements by a young Glenn Miller. All three sisters played instruments as well as sang, and some of Martha's tasty piano filters through on the odd cut. But the real star, of course, is the Boswell's vocals, the blending of which reached a level of perfection that could only be achieved by growing up together. Ask the Nevilles or the Bouttes. It's a family thang, and all of New Orleans should be enjoying it.

click to enlarge The Boswell Sisters' Collection Vol. 5 includes "Don't Let Your Love Go Wrong," which zigzags from rumba to swing to tango and back without a nanosecond's loss in impetus.
  • The Boswell Sisters' Collection Vol. 5 includes "Don't Let Your Love Go Wrong," which zigzags from rumba to swing to tango and back without a nanosecond's loss in impetus.
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