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Tickling Dixie
The Dixie Ticklers

 

The Dixie Ticklers

The Dixie Ticklers

 

In 2005, Dom James Passmore was studying Physics at Imperial College, London. He was also playing clarinet with the University of London Big Band. The band invited musicians from the jazz course at the Guildhall School Of Music And Drama and those who came just happened to be working on the Early Jazz module on the course. 'I had been playing a lot of Swing stuff. I was into Duke Ellington and the playing of Jimmy Hamilton and Barney Bigard,' says Dom. 'I particularly liked the early music of people like Johnny Dodds and I was intrigued by New Orleans and its culture.' Together with some of the other musicians from the Big Band, including trumpeter Will Dom JamesRixon and drummer Daoud Merchant, he started to explore early small group jazz and they put together a band they called 'The Dixie Ticklers'.

'The band was generally well-received,' says Dom. 'There were several vintage festivals going on and we found ourselves in demand there and at burlesque shows. Suddenly there seemed to be loads of gigs.'

Dom James

Ten years later, Dom James, Will Rixon and Daoud Merchant are still playing with The Dixie Ticklers and the band is still attracting enthusiastic audiences. I saw them in December 2015 in the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall, set out as a 'cabaret' room and where the walls feature portraits of famous musicians like Ella Fitzgerald who have performed on the Hall’s famous stage. It was a late-night gig that started at 10.45 pm and ended at 11.15 pm. Late, perhaps, but the room was packed. I didn't count, but I am guessing we are talking somewhere over a hundred people of all ages.

A number of things were clear. These musicians have an obvious respect for early jazz. Dom says they are 'a band of friends who like playing this music', but it is more than that, they have an understanding of the music that, as time has passed, enables them to play together symbiotically, and their enjoyment of the music is tangible. Dom James is a natural leader whose enthusiasm drives the programme. In introducing a Louis Armstrong Hot Five number Dom told the audience the Hot Five and Seven were 'inspirational to us all being jazz musicians.' These are skilled musicians and the audience appreciated that.

But there is something else I noticed. All of these musicians also play in contemporary jazz bands; their approach to early jazz remains Nick Costlet-Whiteauthentic, but their experience of other forms of jazz enhances their solos. The inclusion of Nick Costley-White on electric guitar at first seems incongruous, but the instrument fits well.

Nick talks about how he sees his part in the band: 'My approach to my sound in this group is to try and create as acoustic tone as possible, whilst also providing something that will project over a drumkit in a loud venue. For this I use a fairly traditional archtop guitar amplified in the most transparent way that is practical, so as not to effect the acoustic sound of the instrument. The band doesn't have a piano, so providing clear harmonic support to the front line is essential. We also only have two frontline horns so often I am filling the role of a third blower which means I need to have a sound loud enough to cut through when playing single note lines as well as chords. The Dixie Ticklers is almost exclusively the only setting in which I play early jazz, so inevitably the sounds of the modern styles also influence the way I play and improvise. I try and include this influence in a natural way that hopefully brings new colour to the style which I have so much love for.'

Nick Costley-White

These days The Dixie Ticklers' core players include drummer Daoud Merchant (AKA Washboard Merch), percussionist Zands, trumpeters Will Rixon and Miguel Gorodi, bassist Tommy Antonio and guitarist Nick Costley-White. They have already put out three albums: Standing Pat (2012); Live in London (2009) and The Dixie Ticklers - PARADE - Jazz for Kids (2008). Take a look at the track list for the Standing Pat album, it includes Oh, Didn't He Ramble; St Louis Blues; Ballin' The Jack; Li'l Liza Jane and Wild Man Blues.

Not long after they had formed in 2005, the band started busking in the Kings Road, Chelsea. Their street music developed and in addition to the regular six piece band, 2013 saw the first outing of The Dixie Ticklers Street Band (ten piece). You can see from this excellent video how popular the street band is from the reaction of the public, in particular the children.

Here's a joyous video of The Dixie Ticklers Street Band playing Eliza Jane.

 

 

 

Dom describes Sidney Bechet as one of his inspirations and in performance the band plays Bechet's Make Me A Pallet On The Floor with Dom singing the lyrics. Fats Waller's Jitterbug Waltz and Honeysuckle Rose played at the Albert Hall gig saw inspiring solos from Miguel Gorodi and Nick Costley-White, while the arrangements and ensemble playing of Sweet Georgia Brown and the St Louis Blues, the latter taken at a very fast pace, demonstrated the quality of the writing and playing.

That the band is popular, is demonstrated by the fact that it has been playing for ten years. They have also toured Australia, Spain, Italy, France, Sweden and more as well as leading their much celebrated jazz workshops for young players. Festival appearances at Green Man, Henley Festival, London Jazz Festival, Jazz in the Vines (Aus) and Shambala have led to a very loyal cross-genre following as has their legendary touring micro-festival, Gumbo Soup. 2014 saw their first visits to Norway and Switzerland.

2014 also saw them exploring the music of Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly). Members of the band each investigated aspects of the Blues singer's music and the Huddie Project resulted in some of the music being played on tour. Here is a short video of the band playing Go Down Old Hannah during a visit to Norway.

 

 

 

This beautiful old holler came to The Dixie Ticklers by way of Leadbelly's performances during their Huddie Project. Dom also made contact with Johnny Mars, the American electric blues harmonica player, singer, and songwriter, during a B.B. King tribute set at the 2015 London Jazz Festival and together with the Huddie Project, Dom James would like the band to make a Blues orientated recording at sometime in the future.

The band were caught on video playing B.B. King's Woke Up This Morning with Johnny Mars at The Jazz Nursery in 2015.

 

 

 

The Dixie Ticklers jazz workshops for children is a further interesting project. There have been a few emerging in recent years such as Michael Janisch's project Jazz For Babies, the work being done by Serious Learning and Participation, and workshops for children at various jazz festivals. The Dixie Ticklers have brought out an album The Dixie Ticklers - PARADE - Jazz for Kids (2008). If you go to the album's page on their website you can click on your favourite character to hear the album tracks (click here).

We can listen to The Teddy Bears Picnic from the album.

 

 

 

In February 2016, The Dixie Ticklers were back in the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall. Two sessions on 18th February 2016, found Jazz For Kidsthem 'Jumpin' at The Royal Albert Hall', introducing kids to hot, swinging jazz. Dom explains that the sessions last for about 45 minutes and are aimed at children between the ages of 4 to 9 years old. The band play their usual material, and perhaps a couple of children's tunes such as The Wheels On The Bus arranged for jazz, but they also describe to the children what is behind the music and during a final fifteen minutes, allow time for the children to get up close with the instruments.

Aside from the band, Dom James works composing music for film, theatre, television and advertising, and the band has been involved in some of these projects. The Dixie Ticklers have performed their music for film shown at The Cinema Museum, London as well as having their music featured in films appearing in festivals across the world. In 2016 they will be playing the film score for an animation Aftermath produced by the Jazz Nursery PosterTrunk production company who created a beautiful lyric video for Kylie Minogue’s cover of Yazoo’s chart topping hit Only You. Dom James and Will Rixon also run The Jazz Nursery Jazz Club. One of London’s most eccentric music venues, Jazz Nursery opens its doors on the final Thursday of each month and is currently resident on The Golden Hinde II, London Bridge, SE1. The night showcases cutting edge talent, creating a stage for the best up and coming bands in London. Constantly reinterpreting jazz and improvised music, artists play new material, try things out and bring their sound to a wider audience. Entrance is £10, there’s a bar in the hold and two great bands over the course of the evening.

Like Dom, The Dixie Ticklers musicians are all involved in other work and other bands. Daoud Merchant has played with John Law and Empirical, Will Rixon with Joss Stone, Nick Costley-White with Gareth Lockrane and Martin Speake, and Miguel Gorodi with Ian Shaw and the London City Big Band. Peter Bacon at The Jazz Breakfast sums up the result well: 'The band manages to bring in a deep scholarly understanding of New Orleans and Dixieland jazz without letting it undermine their enthusiasm for performing, and they manage to bring a contemporary London edge to the music while being true to its origins. They represent a fresh re-invention driven by joy.'

Here's a video of Dom James talking about the recording of the Standing Pat album.

 

 

 

This raises an interesting question. How does a musician switch between the essence of classical jazz and the style of contemporary music? And, as much to the point, is it possible to bring some of today's ideas to the Dixieland and New Orleans jazz played by 'standard' traditional bands? The band's website describes the musicians as aiming to 'combine their deep love and understanding of early jazz with a truly modern aesthetic and musical vision'. Guitarist Nick Costley-White earlier gave us his take on this point, and drummer Daoud Merchant adds:

'The music has a specific set of parameters (which can be said for pretty much any genre of jazz, or art). There is a very great sense of pulse necessary since this is really music for dancing and moving, but the compositions demand it; they have such strong senses of Daoud Merchantresolution throughout melodically and harmonically that you have to match that with a strong rhythm for it to be felt. Also, as you have noted, Nick and Miguel will thread in a lot of modern material which I'll respond to in different ways. Sometimes it requires something very stable and traditional to contrast against, other times I will allude to swing or later because their playing asks me to go with them.'

Daoud Merchant
Photograph courtesy of Hayley Madden / PPL

'As for my own solos and improvisation I think much less about genre and far more about melodies, bass drum and snare drum interaction etc. When large parts of the music have a bass drum on beats 1 and 3 and a snare drum on beats 2 and 4, there's a tremendous sense of momentum with the constantly alternating low and high sounds that I can suspend, compress, deviate from or embellish as the music demands. I think it's everyone thinking about the music in these sorts of ways that allows it to remain in a tradition while it not becoming derivative, and for the New Orleans scene in general to be something constantly evolving while keeping the earliest composers and compositions relevant and in focus.'

'I think I approach this music in exactly the same way as I would a more contemporary situation but the incredibly grounded compositions will naturally manifest as more grounded rhythms and melodies. Maybe instrumentally I'll put more focus on the drums than the cymbals, but that's as much to do with the melodic possibilities of the 4 drums as any genre concerns.'

The Dixie Ticklers are already booked for another European tour visiting Norway, France, Switzerland and Spain in August 2016. Book them or look out for them in the UK and if you know of children who will be interested, book tickets for the Elgar Room sessions in February. In my opinion The Dixie Ticklers are a life-affirming, inspiring band; a treat for anyone who appreciates jazz.

Listen to the band playing Sister Kate from the Dixie Ticklers Live In London album.

 

 

 

Click here for The Dixie Ticklers website.

 

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