Rick Shubb and Bob Wilson, with Charlie Warren (string bass). Recorded in 1999, this remains a good showcase for all three players.
Listen: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson
Liner notes by Paul Shelasky
It is my pleasure to help unveil a musical duo that certainly qualifies as on of the “best kept secrets” in acoustic jazz. Rick Shubb and Bob Wilson have for the last thirty years been much better known among their musical peers than to the general public, but hopefully this fine CD will remedy the latter situation.
I first heard the Shubb-Wilson trio about 1970, and their music is still as fresh and unique today. It can truly be said about Rick and Bob on their respective instruments that each sounds like nobody else; each has an instantly recognizable style.
The Shubb-Wilson trio has heretofore been represented on disc by one LP produced in 1976. Rick and Bob have been playing almost steadily from then until now, but never the full-scale touring or recording that their talents deserve.
Bob has been a full-time teacher in the public schools while still finding time to play with Rick as well as electric top-forty gigs and various trad-jazz and swing dates.
Rick played in and led many bluegrass bands in California and Oregon until about 1980 when he gave up full-time performing to develop a line of music products which has become highly successful worldwide. Ironically, while Rick put his performing career on the back-burner, his name has become a household word to every bluegrass banjo player and acoustic guitarist of every conceivable style. I think all these musicians will be curious to finally hear the man behind the name!
Rick credits the great Earl Scruggs as his major influence on banjo. I believe that Rick is considered by his peers to be among the earliest exponents of the “melodic” style of banjo. Certainly by the early 1970s Rick’s style was fully-formed, and he was beginning to explore jazz.
The writer has played in various bands with Rick since 1971, and I believe myself well-qualified to comment on his style. Rick’s style is characterized by a delicacy of touch and an evenness of articulation. His timing is precise and steady. He has developed his own very considerable arsenal of “licks,” and as I have said before, his playing is always instantly recognizable.
Few five-string banjo players have attempted to play jazz, and fewer still have succeeded. It is only in the last few years that a handful of players have won recognition for the banjo from the jazz audience. When Rick plays jazz, he never loses sight of the inherent qualities of the five-string banjo. He uses banjo technique and doesn’t sound like a guitarist. He plays the right changes and he swings, but it always sounds like a banjo.
Bob Wilson first picked up the guitar at age twelve, playing country and rock’n’roll. In his early twenties he embarked on a pop/rock singing career, recording several sides on the major independent label ERA. Bob got considerable airplay and did many TV appearances, and seemed on the verge of stardom. He was drawn to jazz, though, and went on to become a fine, straight-ahead guitarist, usually playing a hollow-body electric.
It was only after meeting Rick that Bob began to play gigs on the acoustic. Unlike many guitarists who have considerable experience on electric, Bob gets a big, full-bodied tone on his acoustic and it’s the same on any guitar he picks up. I believe even the casual listener will notice how unusual and full Bob’s tone is, especially on chordal solos, and this quite apart from his obvious technical mastery and sense of swing.
Bob’s sound on the acoustic was first influenced by Hank Snow and Merle Travis. (Merle, incidentally, plays on four of Bob’s early 45 recordings.) Other early guitar influences on Bob’s style were Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, George Van Eps, Tal Farlow, and Johnny Smith. On one fateful day in 1960, Bob met both Barney Kessel and the yet undiscovered Wes Montgomery, both of whom became major influences on his playing.
Guest bassist Charlie Warren is also well known to the writer, who played along side him for the last five years of his fourteen year stint at Disneyland. Charlie began his bass/tuba studies at age eleven and along the way mastered many baroque and renaissance instruments as well.
Charlie’s playing on this CD is typically understated and swinging. His intonation is precise and his sound is big and full. One of the most sought-after musicians in both the jazz and classical Los Angeles music scene, Charlie was the perfect choice for Bodega Sessions.
Rick and Bob’s first gig together was on Halloween, 1969 at the Freight and Salvage Coffee House in Berkeley, Ca. As the 30th anniversary of their collaboration approaches, their many longtime fans and admirers will welcome this, their first CD, and a host of new admirers will discover California’s “best-kept secret” …the music of Rick Shubb and Bob Wilson!
The songs on “Bodega Sessions”
(notes by Rick Shubb)
Take the Freight Train
Actually a medley of four songs: The old Elizabeth Cotton fingerpicking standard Freight Train, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s Take the A-Train, Chatanooga Choo-Choo, and Atcheson, Topeka, and the Santa Fe. I assembled this medley several years ago, and Bob and I have featured it in performances. We’ve always called it “the train medley,” until we renamed it for the CD. It seemed like a nice number to start the set off with.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson
I first heard this by one of my favorite contemporary groups, the Rhythm Brothers. I loved the song, and thought it would be a good number for Bob and me, so we dug up our recording of it by the Spirits of Rhythm and listened to that. Our version is sort of a cross between those two sources, with some of our own touches thrown in. Charlie Warren, our bassist on Bodega Sessions, was on the Rhythm Brothers version of this song, too, so I suspect he holds the record for most recordings of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
Lullaby of Birdland
A jazz classic written by pianist George Shearing. Bob and I have featured this for many years, and it is one of the first numbers on which I began utilizing a “mute” on my banjo. The “mute” consists of a pair of wooden clothespins which I have modified so that they lock onto the banjo bridge. My use of this setup is not so much to reduce the volume as it is to modify the tone and response …the clothespins reduce the attack relative to the sustain, giving the banjo a sweeter sound; more suitable for certain songs. This sound has become an important part of my playing, and I’ve used it on five of the songs on this CD.
This chestnut is often associated with Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton, although it predates them. Lots of folks have taken a whack at this one, and now we have,t oo. We tried this song once a long time ago and it never got off the ground with us. Then one day we hit on an arrangement and a groove that seemed to suit us, and played it almost constantly for about three days. That time it stuck!
Wrap Your Trouble in Dreams
The lyrics of this old standard carry a great message. Bob does a nice job on the vocal, and I use the muted banjo to keep it mellow.
The familiar Latin tune, our version is a banjo spasm. I take a deep breath before the downbeat and hold it until the tune is finished. Fortunately for me, it’s a short arrangement.
A Bob Wilson original. Whenever you hear Bob playing “finger style” guitar, he is using a flat pick and his fingers. This enables him to incorporate various techniques which utilize the flat pick, such as his chord soloing and single note runs, into an otherwise “fingerpicking” type of sound. The result is a very fluid and satisfying guitar style, which is showcased nicely on Summer Faire. And being a Wilson tune, naturally it is harmonically interesting with some unusual chord changes.
The Old Man of the Mountain
I first heard this in a Betty Boop cartoon, sung by Cab Calloway. Those Fleischer cartoons were wonderful, and many of them featured popular jazz artists. The animated “old man” didn’t resemble Cab facially, but his dance steps were unmistakable. Whenever I sing this minor-key ditty I think of Betty clicking up that mountain in her high heels.
Usually associated with Maurice Chevalier, our version is an instrumental featuring muted banjo and some amazing guitar harmonics.
We were kicking around this Gershwin standard one day and Bob just couldn’t seem to get an idea of how he wanted to play it. Nothing he was doing satisfied him. Later that afternoon we watched an old Jimmy Durante movie, Strictly Dynamite, which included a musical number by the Mills Brothers. Even though they didn’t prominently feature the guitar, there was something about the sound they were getting that lit the lightbulb for Bob. As soon as the movie was over …you can’t just walk out on Jimmy Durante …we went back downstairs and attacked Liza with a new approach, and Bob’s fine chord solo on this tune is the result. Thanks, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.
Lover Come Back to Me
We experimented with this tune years ago. We made a cassette recording of it, but for some reason, never continued playing it. When we had some of the material on this CD already recorded, it occurred to us that Lover Come Back to Me would fit in nicely, so we got out that old cassette and listened to it. We re-learned it from our own playing, and threw in a few new licks. I think we were right, it’s a nice addition to the set.
I Cried for You
Bob takes the vocal on this one. It’s interesting to note the difference in his guitar style between the intro, where he gets sort of a Travis sound with his flatpick-and-fingers, and his hot solo. This song is about as close as I come to playing bluegrass style banjo on this CD, but come to think of it, it’s not really that close.
I wrote this tune and named it for the neighborhood in Berkeley where I lived at the time. It was an unusually prolific period for me; the muse was staying at my apartment, and remained for about two weeks or so. I wrote roughly a tune a day during that time, many of which I still play. I dedicate this one to Rob De Witt, whose talent and support kept the muse around a little longer. Walnut Square has just a touch of bebop in it, a style I was exploring at that time, which is enhanced by Charlie’s driving bass.
The Fats Waller classic, and a standard if there ever was one. It’s been done a lot, but its still a great melody. We play it as an instrumental.
Bye Bye Blues
We’ve often used this up-tempo instrumental to close a set, and it was a good choice to close our CD. Bob plays the head, and we feature a lot of interplay between guitar and banjo.
Take the freight train on a wonderful ride
By Philip Elwood, S.F. Examiner music critic
Published in the San Francisco Examiner, Saturday, April 10, 1999
Classic standards from Shubb and Wilson on “Bodega Sessions” CD
Rick Shubb and Bob Wilson, “Bodega Sessions.”
Rick Shubb is among the best five-string banjo players in the country, acoustic guitarist Bob Wilson is a fine lead guitarist and a brilliant, imaginative harmonist. As an improvising duo, Shubb and Wilson routinely swap lead lines (which, naturally, become solos); and for good measure, Wilson sings in his light, vintage tenor on many of the 15 selections here.
Ten of the numbers here are classic standards — “Avalon,” “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” “Liza,” “I Cried for You,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Bye Bye Blues” and “Lullaby of Birdland” are typical. “Take the Freight Train” is a wonderful ride through a series of references to “Take the A-Train,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and other such numbers.”The Old Man of the Mountain,” which I remember from an early-’30s Boswell Sisters disc, has a bouncy, pre-swing beat. It’s from the pen of Billy Hill, a Boston violinist who made a bundle writing cowboy and old-timey country songs.Shubb and Wilson also include “Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson,” an unpublished Johnny Mercer number from an early Marx Brothers talkie — its one appearance on records was a 1934 vocal version by the New Spirits of Rhythm, a vocal group featuring Leo Watson, whom Jon Hendricks considers the “father” of jazz singing.
There are instances on this CD that one is inclined to call Shubb the “Django of the banjo.” Listen to him on “Avalon,” and “Liza”; on “Louise” note the inserted themes from “Darktown Strutters Ball” and “Nola.” And enjoy the full-length “Lover Come Back to Me,” which includes some of Wilson’s best guitar harmonizing as well as the usual virtuoso performance by Shubb.Wilson’s tune, “Summer Faire,” is a breezy affair that blows through some tricky key changes; Shubb’s “Walnut Square” is a hot, raggy number. The disc’s last track is “Bye Bye Blues,” a big favorite of tap-dance teams in the 1930s. Here, up-tempo, Wilson and Shubb have a grand time swapping choruses and suggesting the stop-time segments that dancers so enjoy.
Shubb and Wilson, both Bay Areans, have been having instrumental fun together for 30 years. I’ve known Wilson since his high school days, and reviewed these two for The Examiner at the original Freight & Salvage in Berkeley in 1969. They occasionally still play there and a few other places.