The beginning of this past April saw the release of a delightful recording of some relatively young people giving a vibrant account of some of the earliest roots of jazz. The group calls itself the Viper Mad Trio, named after a song written and recorded by Sidney Bechet. Noble Sissle sang this number in Woody Allen’s film Sweet and Lowdown, but readers may be more interested in the fact that it was one of the 23 songs collected in the 1989 Reefer Songs album. On this album the provocative lyrics are sung by the trio’s leader Molly Reeves to her own guitar accompaniment. Rhythm is provided by Kellen Garcia on bass, while Ryan Robertson shares melody work on trumpet.
“Viper Mad” is in good company on this album, which also includes Leonard Feather’s “Sweet Marijuana Brown” (also included on the Reefer Songs album). However, the album as a whole is more about early jazz than about any substances that may have been responsible for the early jazz mentality. The title of the album is Buddy Bolden’s Blues, which is its opening track; and Reeves certainly knows how to get down and dirty with this song’s lyrics (while delivering them with the cleanest possible diction).
Most of the tracks involve alternating between lyrics and instrumental takes, which are shared between Reeves’ guitar and Robertson’s trumpet. (Robertson gets a vocal take on “Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” when the attention shifts from weed to beer. Robertson may not have quite the certainty of pitch that Reeves commands, but he is certainly up to her standards when it comes to earthy rhetoric.)
This is the sort of recording that reminds you of why so many people were offended when first exposed to the earliest forms of jazz. This music thrived on the vulgarity that polite society tried to pretend did not exist. Of course what was vulgar in those “good old days” now seems pretty tame; but Viper Mad Trio still manages to capture enough to the edgy spirit to remind the listener of how provocative the roots of jazz could be.
Viper Mad Trio provides a time machine to take the willing listener back to the days before jazz had the class of its “Duke” and its “Count” and before it got too serious for its own good.