Tiny Parham & The Blues Singers – Various Artists – Complete Recorded Works (1926 – 1928)
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Informative booklet notes by Reide Kaiser. Detailed discography. Document Records, in collecting together these performances, have revealed another side to Parham, that of the accompanist. These are also a record of his piano style, although of course they were never so intended. The singers backed by Parham needed a sensitive, restrained accompanist to support them and add to their performances. In this context virtuosity is a mixed blessing; a pianist who wishes to do a solo turn will not be in great demand. Besides being entertaining in themselves, these recordings allow us to glean quite a bit about Parham the musician. He demonstrates a sensitivity to the blues particular to Midwestern pianism (with traces of the eight-to-the-bar rolling basses), a knowledge of white novelty piano (manifested by an oft-repeated figuration of fourths), and the broken tenths typical of much black piano playing. There is an overriding impression of classical training. Parham also has impeccable timing.
The sessions with Ardell “Shelly” Bragg are amongst the earliest here, waved at the dawn of Parham’s recording career. Her performances are a mix of standard blues choruses, with some quirky ones (listen to Bird Nest Blues). The atmosphere of depression and listlessness engendered is not shared by Parham. These blues accompaniments are full of a quiet subtlety and sensitivity which repays careful listening. Listen, for example, to his off-the-beat step-time chords in the fourth chorus of Don’t Fail On My Bones, rendered in perfect time, and the surprising coda consisting of diminished chords. In Bird Nest Blues Parham begins and finishes the recording with a series of solemn block chords, thereby providing a neat framing device. Wolf Man demonstrates Parham’s fine grasp of harmony, and Doggin’ Me contains a particularly nice passage by the pianist in the second-last chorus.
These recordings demonstrate an interesting relationship between Parham the pianist / accompanist and Parham the bandleader / arranger. He is perhaps most inspired when backing Hattie McDaniels, who was later to have a considerable Hollywood career, appearing for example, in the original film version of “Showboat”. Her performances here are a delight, displaying a vibrant personality and sense of humour. On I Thought I’d Do It and Just One Sorrowing Heart we have two of Parham’s best performances. On the latter, his work is extremely colourful and sympathetic, ranging from a skilful interpolation of the minor into the blues chord sequence (“I slew my Dan”) to a funereal death-beat in the bass, to passages in double time (“careless ways”).
Two of the four Sharlie English sides offer Parham with Bert Cobb on brass bass. As we know from his band sides, brass bass was Parham’s bass instrument of choice. Cobb’s playing is very blue and a delight. Cobb is not present on Broke Woman Blues and Down On The Santa Fe. Parham’s playing is particularly nice on the former. He uses the same introduction as Twe Twa Twa Blues. He gets a chorus to himself here and good humouredly throws in a smeary arpeggio in response to Sharlie’s spoken comments. His playing on Bertha Henderson’s So Sorry Blues is marvellous, with impeccable after-beats and gutsy right-hand figures. We also have our only chance to hear his speaking voice, when he asks Bertha “What kind of blues?”, and then proceeds to offer a very good kind indeed.
The standout recordings here are of course the sides with the great Johnny Dodds. The New Orleans clarinettist is at the peak of his form, and Parham backs him well at both brisk and bluesy tempos. 19th Street Blues is probably the best of the three sides. On the other two, and on the Daniel Brown sides, we have a rare chance to hear Parham stretch out and show what he can do at faster tempos. Note that he never distracts and that he is conscious of the fact that his role remains subordinate to Brown’s religiosity and Dodds’ moving clarinet.