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Culture: Prague pays tribute to Satchmo's inspiration; Martin Longley checks out the JJ Jazzmen, who bring a touch of Prague to the Birmingham International Jazz Festival this weekend.

Byline: Martin Longley

Led by trombonist and singer Jan Jirucha, The JJ Jazzmen have dedicated their latest album to the music of Louis Armstrong.

Unusually, their favoured part of his repertoire appears to be the twilight period of the 1960s, when Satchmo had most of his pop chart hits.

So instead of highlighting the classic years of Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, the Hello Satchmo! album concentrates on the less likely Hello Dolly, Mack The Knife, Cabaret and What A Wonderful World. Just like Pete Allen, seen at the start of this year's festival, Jirucha can do a fulsome impersonation of old Satchel Mouth's slurring delivery.

The band will be playing six times in the Birmingham International Jazz Festival from today until Sunday, and I spoke to Jirucha a few days before he packed his bags.

He told me that the band was formed in 1993, with all of his previous work being as a sideman in many other bands, of varying styles. The Prague scene stretches from old-time jazz up to funky fusion, and many players will find themselves doubling in both types of band.

The JJ repertoire has been known to include Dixieland and swing classics, and even a smattering of original material, but their overriding obsession is with Armstrong. The title track on the new album is partly sung in Czech and was written for Louis when he was appearing in Prague in the mid-1960s.

This was the time when Jirucha first came under Satchmo's spell: 'When I was 15 years old, I heard Louis Armstrong for the first time, and I was fascinated. From that time, I tried to imitate his voice.'

One of the band's more unusual choices is Remember Who You Are, from 1962's Real Ambassadors, written by Dave and Iola Brubeck. That album's songs addressed the whole climate of racial injustice and the problems encountered by the Civil Rights movement, establishing a more melancholy vision for Armstrong.

The version of When It's Sleepy Time Down South features a guest spot from clarinettist Joe Muranyi, who was a member of Armstrong's All-Stars right at the end of his career. Muranyi played gigs with the Jazzmen two years ago in Prague and Berlin. Jirucha is certain that they won't do another Louis tribute album, not least because the record racks are already full of the original's reissued product. The band have struggled to release three albums so far, but in Prague the manufacturing process isn't as straightforward (or as cheap) as it is in the UK. Not so long ago, there were only two or three recording studios in the city, though this situation has recently improved.

Last year, the JJ Jazzmen were invited to perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. They played an hour-long show, then set about the daunting task of deciding which of the other 450 bands to check out.

The Jazzmen have recently played around Denmark and Germany, as well as appearing at several festivals in the Czech Republic, but this weekend will mark the band's first UK visit. Jirucha himself last came over to England as a sideman, about 25 years ago.

Even though this weekend's dates will highlight the Armstrong repertoire, Jirucha stresses that he also has wider interests. He's particularly enraptured by the Hammond organ sound, with an appreciation of Jimmy Smith and Joey DeFrancesco illustrating his full grasp of the instrument's chronology. The only problem is that there aren't any Hammond organ players (or even organs) in Prague.

The JJ Jazzmen arrive in Birmingham today, playing at Revolution (1pm) and the Edgbaston Priory Club (8pm). On Saturday they're at The Water's Edge (12.30pm) and The Brasshouse (5pm), and on Sunday they sizzle up a jazz barbecue at the Quality Hotel (1pm), before finishing at the Hard Rock Cafe (9.30pm), where they close up the festival.


The JJ Jazzmen play the works of Louis Armstrong on their new album and at the Birmingham International Jazz Festival this weekend
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jul 12, 2002
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