Ralph Carney Gets (Moderately) Serious with The Serious Jass Project
If any rock performer can double as a character in a James Joyce novel, it's Ralph Carney. A multi-instrumentalist best known as reedman for Tom Waits and a host of others, the S.F.-based Carney plays the way he talks: expansive, eccentric, and endlessly discursive. As a member of Tin Huey, he was part of the flashpan Akron art-rock scene that flickered for a few months in the bright light of Devo-mania. His bop-punk way with his axe got crowned "King of the New Wave Horn" by his peers. His Serious Jass Project shows Ralph in a historically minded mood, laying down meticulously cheery versions of Depression-era tunes from the varied likes of Duke Ellington, Charlie Barnet, and Coleman Hawkins. Ralph and the Project play BeatBox on Friday, Sept. 30 before heading off to put the word in the palmy L.A. streets.
You're from Akron, yet managed to get hooked on oldtimey country blues. When did you learn to play the banjo?
My mom was from Tennessee and we used to go there. It was poor and very exotic, kind of like going to Cambodia.
Yeah, I'm from Appalachian Virginia and know what you're talking about.
When I first started playing music I was 13-14 and had a five-string banjo when everyone else was trying to play Led Zeppelin. There was a lotta that (country) stuff happening at the time, like my brother had a copy of The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I saw John Hartford playing banjo at about that time and I was like "Oh, yeah! I wanna do that!" That's where I started playing music.
How did this lead to getting in on the ground floor of the art rock scene in northern Ohio that eventually mutated into punk?
I started wanting to play that kinda stuff and said, "I don't know if I wanna play bluegrass. Now, blues is almost the same word, so I'll try that." I started playing harmonica, electric harp, and listening to Paul Butterfield's Blues Band record before getting into everyone -- Little Walter, Muddy Waters. You can find older guys to jam with playing stuff like that. Then I switched to saxophone and I worked in a record store for a coupla years and met Harvey Gold, who was the leader of Tin Huey, then got into jazz, Can, and all that German stuff. They asked me to play with them, and they were all four or five years older than me. We'd rehearse three nights a week, even though we had no gigs. This was like '76.
Tin Huey's Contents Dislodged During Shipment was released on Warners in 1979. Getting a major label to put out your debut album was better than many of your contemporaries got.
Yeah! We were thought we were gonna be rock stars, man. We weren't (laughs). Talk about a high! I was floating on the air for a year and then reality kicked in. Once the record came out, we saw they really weren't gonna do anything for us. We got money, but it's all a big lesson of "Guys, don't take the advance." I guess it depends on the label and the deal, but you think you're gonna be rich because of all that money, but then comes recoupment on anything else you make. We got dropped and they paid us not to make another record! We had a two-record deal and the industry was on the verge of collapse because of the oil situation. Jerry Wexler, of all people, signed us. The label's New York office was kinda edgy and got us, but the L.A. people didn't. It was a great experience when you're 22 years old. Devo and the buzz about Akron made for a great few months, I can tell ya.
You've since become the Junior Walker of your generation, playing on records with Tom Waits, Grant Lee Buffalo, and Allen Ginsberg. How did this ongoing session man cacophony prepare you for such a focused study as the Jass Project?
I had a cool band, so I decided to try to combine all that oldtime stuff I like. I wanted to record something under my own name that wasn't all overdubs and me accompanying myself. Then I did a second one and actually got Smog Veil to put it out and on vinyl! I was really happy with the Tin Huey release they'd done. That was all unreleased tracks and live stuff. I just listened to the new Jass Project record on a 1950s hi-fi Magnavox and I was like Oh, yeah!
How do you go about selecting material?
A lot of it is just taken from rare CDs with great stuff on them that never gets played. You always hear "Take the 'A' Train" and other big band stuff. I do covers of Johnny Hodges and Rex Stewart and don't try to do note-for-note. The rhythm section is more Fifties than Thirties -- kind of like the oldtime guys from that era who recorded into the Fifties.
It's pretty straight and not so much Beefheartian mishigas.
Well, I couldn't resist putting the free-form thing in at the end just to confuse the swing dancers! Other people will say "That's more the Ralph I know." "Echoes of Chole" is more like Coltrane and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I just got an English horn and I play it on that.
Like the first-wave psychedelic albums of the Sixties, which typically had some kind of free-form freakazoid trip-out at the end.
It must've seeped into my bones. I can't help it. I can't do a straight record! Sorry. (laughs) It's a field day for me to play stuff like this.----
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