Liner notes for Johnnie Valentino: Stingy Brim (OmniTone 15212)
He chortles "I went from the tuba to buying a stingy brim hat, because the two reflect each other. The stingy brinm hat is a fine hat, but it has comedy in it, and that's like the tuba," explaining how preparing the music for Stingy Brim led him to buy a stingy brim hat, an essential accessory for men in the community where he grew up. "In those days, it could be 110° outside and you could be wearing a t-shirt and shorts, but you needed to wear a hat," he continues. "I went to a restaurant in LA recently and saw a 1920s picture where everybody at the beach had a hat on."
It's hard to say (even for him) where Johnnie Valentino gets his inspiration, but that's probably because sources of inspiration are all around him. It's as though life itself is inspiring for the LA-based, South Philly-raised guitarist, composer, and sound designer, who values family, friends, and almost everything related to the Italian-American and jazz traditions that are central to his life. Johnnie greets life — like almost everyone he meets — with a knowing smile that reveals a thoughtful, observant nature that's keen to see the humor in things.
"I'm a serious person, but not so serious that I can't laugh about things," says Johnnie. "I believe you have to do that in life."
Johnnie grew up in the '60s and '70s in a neighborhood filled with diverse musical and cultural influences, including guitarists Eddie Lang and Pat Martino, studying music with the legendary music teacher Dennis Sandole, doing local club dates and recording sessions at the Alpha recording studio for Philly World Records, and performing on the Atlantic City "scene." Since relocating to Los Angeles in the mid '80s, Johnnie has continued his diverse musical pursuits by writing, recording, scoring, performing, and sound designing for TV and films and recording with some of today's leading contemporary improvisors. His previous release on ToneScience, the unconventionally "orchestrated" Eight Shorts in Search of David Lynch, showcased Johnnie's ingenious sound design skills and prowess for producing fascinating new music by having musicians improvise with eight multi-layered "sound beds" he created.
One thing about which Johnnie is serious is jazz history and tradition and that led to the initial motivation for Stingy Brim. Make an album to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the demise of the tuba (in favor of the string bass) as the keeper of the bass line in jazz. Add clarinet to give the album's timbral mix period authenticity hearkening back to 1907 New Orleans, where bassist George Murphy "Pops" Foster burst on the scene to become "Father of the Jazz Bass." Explore "earlier jazz" in the context of creative improvised music. "The other thing about the clarinet and the tuba is that, even though the music is serious, they're happy," adds Johnnie. "When you hear the tuba play the bass line, it makes you happy … and that kind of reflects some of my personality by my wanting to be a little more 'comedic' in the music."
Though you can certainly hear "early jazz" influences in the bouncing tuba and wailing clarinet of tracks such the loping "Dog Eggs," the Crescent City's musical traditions also pervade the album's catchy, irresistibly funky and witty tunes, often propelled by permutations of a New Orleans' second-line backbeat. ("Dog Eggs" is also evocative of Prima, Johnnie's bouncy – and slightly wacky – dog, an Italian Spinone, pictured on this CD booklet, appropriately bonneted and posing with the song's title subjects.)
The clarinet and tradition of another sort led Johnnie to fatten the sonic mix another instrument not often heard in jazz: harmonium. "When I hear harmonium, because it sounds like an accordion, I hear Italian roots music with the accordion and clarinet,"reveals Johnnie, adding that using harmonium "also has a kind of has a spiritual quality, too. Harmoniums are what chaplains used during the World War II during prayer services." (The Hammond B-3, which doesn't sound at all like a harmonium or accordion, edged its way into the project for faster passages that are impossible to play on the harmonium, an instrument with notoriously sticky key action.)
With instruments selected and hat purchased, Johnnie assembled the right players for something only his "inspired" mind could conconct: a tuba-clarinet-organ quintet. For tubist, he called on fellow LA-based composer and professional tuba player Randy Jones, with whom Johnnie had worked on Eight Shorts. Johnnie's long-time friend and musical collaborator Mick Rossi, who also co-produced Eight Shorts, performs on organ, percussion, and harmonium, after suggesting the latter be substituted for accordion, something Rossi had heard played by his professional accordionist father, but had never learned himself to play. ("4M2", written for Rossi, "means 'For Mick,' but without trying to get too mathematical," quips Johnnie.)
LA-based studio musician and jazz multi-instrumentalist Bob Sheppard, most recently known for his sax work with Chick Corea & Origin, provides a "trad" clarinet sound in an updated context. Versitile, in-demand drummer and percussionist Mark Ferber, who splits his time between New York and LA, helps joyously propel the group through the multi-faceted journey of Stingy Brim.
Recounts Johnnie about the session, "We just looked at the music at that moment and said, 'Oh, yeah, let's go for it!'" And, though it's thoroughly updated, engaging, creative improvised music, with Johnnie Valentino at the helm, go it does to many places, respectfully dressed in style from an earlier time: well-habidashered and with tuba in hand.