Ham Carson Quintet, featured most Thursdays at Seattle jazz club
The New Orleans Creole Restaurant, playing Rosetta:
Ham Carson: Hotter and Hotter Swing—
Steady Gig Keeps Fans Humming
Many years ago, there was a refreshing jazz band called Great Excelsior on the Seattle scene. The group played Dixieland and swing with great abandon and joie de vivre, and without the purist's fidelity to old recordings that can make revivalist music dull.
Great Excelsior's clarinetist, Ham Carson, always gave me shivers, with his liquid sound, easy flow of ideas and ticklish sense of swing.
Carson moved to Los Angeles in 1982, but when he returned to the Northwest six years later, his own quartet got a gig every Thursday night at the New Orleans Restaurant. We tend to take such groups for granted, but it's a mistake. Carson is one of Seattle's finest jazz musicians.
Born in Pennsylvania, the good-natured reed man studied with Jelly Roll Morton's clarinetist, Omer Simeon, in 1950 in a Harlem YMCA, and played on Manhattan's thriving traditional jazz scene throughout that decade, working with J.C. Higginbotham, and gigging on Cape Cod with the highly respected trad-jazz pianist, Bob Pilsbury.
In the mid-1950s, Carson took a day job in the burgeoning computer industry, from which he recently retired, but he never stopped playing jazz. Last year, he put out a CD, recorded live at the New Orleans; now he has followed it up with "Joy of a Gig Vol. II." The Ham Carson Quartet celebrates the release of the new disc, at 7 tonight at the New Orleans.
Carson's group plays unpretentious, joyous "small-band swing" in the tradition of Jack Teagarden and the small groups that recorded with Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey. The tunes come out of hot jazz, swing and blues— "Blue and Sentimental," "Body and Soul," "Beale Street Blues," "Honeysuckle Rose." The delivery is infectious, friendly and fresh.
In a letter to the trad-jazz magazine, Mississippi Rag, Pilsbury notes, "I shall never forget hearing Ham's first 5-10 notes (on clarinet). His tone was extraordinary, beautiful and lovely then—and still is." Carson has expanded his arsenal to include baritone and tenor saxophones. His light tone and looping phrases on tenor come out of classic, late-'30s Lester Young and Bud Freeman. His baritone approach is hardy and straightforward.
"The saxophones are to let people know that we're not just doing Dixieland," Carson explains. "We play swing, all kinds of things."
—SEATTLE TIMESJazz Inside Out by Paul de Barros
"Ham Carson is a warm, soulful musician with plenty to say on all of his axes, whether the group is roaring along on a hot numbr, or swinging easily on a ballad. While years ago his playing was clearly derivative of Pee Wee Russell on clarinet and Lester Young on tenor, his own personality now dominates, although he still pays respects to the earlier players, more by feel than direct copying…He mixes varying tonal subtleties with questing, sometimes eccentric ideas, occasionally surprising the listener with inventive, harmonically sound yet outside-the-norm phrases."
—THE MISSISSIPPI RAG
"Quite simply, the best swing clarinetist in town…one of Seattle's jazz treasures"