Friday, May 30, 2008

Belly Up to the Buffet

Today, May 31, jazz saxophonist James “Red” Holloway turns 81. About 45 years ago, I got hold of his debut single, “Simple Steps” (Mad 1297). This time, I’m going to examine the flip side of that single, “Ala Carte.”

First, in case you haven’t had a chance to check out the bio on his website, I’ll summarize it here. He attended DuSable High School in Chicago, and he was a classmate of saxophonist Johnny Griffin. When he was 16, Gene “The Senator” Wright, of Dave Brubeck fame, hired Red. After serving in the Army, Red played with Dexter Gordon and others. When he was 21, Roosevelt Sykes asked him to join the Sykes band. Later, Red played for Willie Dixon, Bobby “Blue” Bland, B.B. King, Lloyd Price and John Mayall, to name just a few.

Other musicians he backed include Billie Holiday, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Lionel Hampton, Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt. From 1963 to 1966, Red played in Jack McDuff’s band, along with George Benson. Beginning in 1969, he held a 15-year gig at the Parisian Room in Los Angeles, where he also served as talent coordinator.

Though his associations gave him a lot of work as a blues saxophonist, his solo work leans toward jazz. If you check the last post, you’ll see what he can do in that idiom.

And when you listen to today’s song, you see just what a range he has.

The two rockers he released on Mad (part of an album’s worth of material he recorded, according to Robert Campbell’s Mad page) are extremely accessible tunes musically. The lyrics of the chorus to “Simple Steps” are a dance call, a precursor to the laid-back calling on “The Madison Time” by the Ray Bryant Combo. “Ala Carte,” however, is a different creature altogether.

A solid sax groove drives this tune, as it does “Simple Steps,” but Leon Hooper, the drummer and likely vocalist on this cut, added some gut-wrenching lyrics. The premise is odd food, and the food is odd: fried elephant lips, pig knees (better than pygmies, I presume), grasshopper toes, and the like. Hooper lines out a many-course meal for us, and considering how he starts to gargle at the end of the song, you get the feeling he sampled everything on the buffet line. At last he capitulates and asks for some baking soda.

Three-year-old caithiseach found the song’s menu very amusing. I wondered what some of these items would taste like. I didn’t turn up my nose at many foods. Once, my dad was eating something with horseradish on it. I asked to try it, and he refused. I persisted, and finally he decided to shut me up by giving me the horseradish. Now is when I’m supposed to say that I loved it, to his amazement. But he got the reaction he expected, and I didn’t eat horseradish again until I started using Chinese mustard. And then I discovered prime rib and horseradish sauce. Oh, my. I’m getting hungry.

The song talks about a lot of “foods” that are obtainable from animals, but not necessarily the parts one would eat. For example, I suppose that most people would eat elephant steaks rather than elephant lips, which are normally relegated to elephant hot dogs. Why eat just the toes of a grasshopper when the entire insect creates such a satisfyingly mouth-filling crunchiness?

Sure, you’ll say that we should not eat elephants. I agree. I never have eaten an animal that could be anywhere near the endangered list. No shark for me, no . . . elephant. But I have eaten ostrich, alligator, iguana, bison, squirrel, rabbit and, I suppose, a few I’ve forgotten. Among those options, I suggest the iguana, if you can get it baked and barbecued. Make sure they share the tail with you.

One time I tried to eat something unusual and failed. When I lived in Mexico, my favorite food was pozole, a soup made of pork and dried hominy. A good pot of pozole required a pig’s head, as well as loin and perhaps shoulder meat. The brains were cooked in foil separately from the rest of the head, and as for the pig’s eyes . . . my future sister-in-law Lupe always got those.

Being the adventurous eater I was, I asked once if I could try one of the eyes. She agreed, and I took the spoon. I was about to pop it into my mouth when I realized that the eyelashes, as black and even as those on a child’s doll, were still attached. In fact, they were fluttering coquettishly in my direction. I gave back the eye.

My cowardice aggravated me, and a year later, I had another chance. For the very same reason, I begged off again. Now I was really annoyed with myself.

About ten years later, a student of mine who lived on a farm mentioned that her family was going to slaughter a pig. I got her to promise to bring me an eye, and she did. I took it home and cooked it. Overcooked it, in fact; it didn’t look like the Mexican pigs’ eyes. But I popped it into my mouth and started chewing. It reminded me of a golf ball made of chicken gizzard. (Now you don’t have to try one.)

I’m over that particular challenge, but I still love unusual good food. Just not the stuff Leon Hooper suggested in the song, like baboon eyeballs. Check out his menu and the intense sax.

Next week, I’ll lead from Red Holloway into the most obvious segue of the year. See you then!

Red Holloway, Ala Carte

Ala Carte label

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