One of the year’s funnest concerts was back at the end of July at Metrotech Park in downtown Brooklyn, where three of New York’s most distinctive jazz vocalists – Catherine Russell, Brianna Thomas and Charenee Wade – sang a lascivious and occasionally heartwrenching mix of blues and early swing tunes. Daycamp kids, retirees, office workers on their lunchbreaks and others playing hooky from work (guess who) hung around and grinned in unison when Russell sang the story of what happened when Miss Liza Johnson’s ex finds out that she’s changed the lock on her front door. “He pushed it in and turned it round,” she paused, “And took it out,” she explained. “They just don’t write ’em like that anymore,” she grinned afterward.
Wade made her entrance with a pulsing take of Lil Johnson’s My Stove’s in Good Condition and its litany of Freudian metaphors, which got the crowd going just like it was 1929. Matt Munisteri, playing banjo, took a rustic, coyly otherworldly solo, dancing and then frenetically buzzing, pinning the needle in the red as he would do often despite the day’s early hour. Thomas did a similar tune, working its innuendos for all they were worth. And the split second Wade launched into “I hate to see that evening sun go down,”a siren echoed down Jay Street. Not much has changed in that way since 1929 either. That was the point of the show, that the blues is no less relevant or amusing now than it was almost a hundred years ago when most of the songs in the setwere written.
The band – Munisteri, Mark Shane on piano, Tal Ronen on bass, Mark McLean drums, Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, John Allred on trombone and Mark Lopeman on tenor and soprano sax – opened counterintuitively with a slow, moody blues number that sounded like the prototype for Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy, Munisteri’s beehive of a tremolo-picked banjo solo at the center. They went to the repertoire of Russell’s pianist dad Luis for an ebullient take of Going to Town, a jaunty early swing tune from 1930 with brief dixieland-flavored solos all around. The rest of the set mined the catalog of perennial favorites like Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith, with a bouncy take of bouncy take of Fats Waller’s Crazy ‘Bout My Baby to shake things up.
The show’s most riveting number was a hushed piano-and-vocal duo take of Ethel Waters’ Supper Time. Thomas took care to emphasize that it was the grim account of a woman explaining to her kids that their dad wasn’t coming home anymore since he’d been lynched. Shane’s piano matched Thomas’ understated anguish through austere gospel-flavored passages, occasionally reaching into the macabre. Then she picked up the pace just a little with a pensive take of the Bessie Smith classic I Ain’t Got Nobody, fueled by Shane’s striding lefthand and Kellso’s energetically shivery, melismatic lines.
Russell let her vibrato linger throughout maybe the night’s most innuendo-fueled number, Margaret Johnson’s Who’ll Chop Your Suey When I’m Gone (sample lyric: “Who’ll clam your chowder?”), the horns as exuberantly droll as the vocals. The three women didn’t do much in the way of harmonies until the end of the set, which would have been fun to see: Wade with her no-nonsense alto, Russell with her purist mezzo-soprano and Thomas’s alternately airy and fiery higher register. How does all this relate to what’s happening in New York right now, a couple of months after this apparently one-off collaboration was over? Russell has a new album out – which hasn’t made it over the transom here yet. Stay tuned!
If you’re a jazz singer, why on earth would you want to cover a bunch of songs that have been done to death by thousands of others over the years? New York singer Sari Kessler took a bunch of them – along with a few choice obscurities – reinvented them and made them her own, a rare and distinctive achievement. Kessler is a very attentive and nuanced interpreter, working these numbers line by line. Depending on the lyric, she can be disarmingly direct, even biting one second, then misty and melancholy, or coy and sultry the next. Much if not all of her latest album Do Right is streaming at her music page (it hasn’t hit Spotify yet). She’s playing Minton’s uptown on August 21 at 7:30 PM; there’s no cover but there is a two-item (food/drink) minimum which if YOU do right shouldn’t run you more than twenty bucks, maybe a lot less. Remember, coffee and seltzer are drinks.
The album opens auspiciously with a take of Burt Bacharach’s Walk on By that does justice to the Dionne Warwick (e) original but also puts an artsier spin on it. Elvis Costello’s Bacharach collaborations have a lot to recommend them, but this outdoes them in the purist jazz ballad department. Then Kessler reinvents the old Bessie Smith hit After You’ve Gone as a jaunty, defiant bossa, fueled by John di Martino’s dancing piano and Houston Person’s tenor sax, the bandleader taking a coolly triumphant little scat solo as the song winds out.
Kessler subtly builds the Depression-era swing lament Why Don’t You Do Right – the album’s title track, more or less – to a gritty exasperation, echoing the classic Rasputina version emotionally if not musically. The album’s most shattering track is The Gal from Joe’s. Di Martino’s rainy-day piano in tandem with Willard Dyson’s brushy grey-sky drums make it a real haunter, on par with Jeanne Lee’s iconic collaborations with noir pianist Ran Blake.
Kessler and band go a long way toward redeeming Bobby Hebb’s Sunny – reputedly the most-covered song ever – adding a similarly dark, clave-fueled undercurrent. Tackling It’s a Wonderful World may a recipe for disaster, but Kessler reinvents it by duetting with Steve Whipple’s bass, Sarah Vaughan-style, with a hint of klezmer acerbity. Then di Martino comes in and the band swings it, spacious and dancing.
Kessler gives I Thought About You a tender, wistful, gentle clave groove, the balmy horn chart and Nadje Noordhuis’ judicious flugelhorn solo matching guitarist Ron Affif’s purist, low-key bossa approach. The old novelty hit The Frim Fram Sauce, and its Dr. Seuss menu, has new relevance in this era of trendy new spots slinging organic locavore artisanal curated bespoke cuisine in the furthest ghetto corners of Brooklyn; Kessler’s totally deadpan delivery drives the satire home.
Feeling Good follows a steady upward trajectory, Affif’s cautious-then-exuberant solo at the center. The slow drag My Empty Bed Blues has equal parts bittersweetness and retro charm. Kessler imbues Too Close for Comfort with a Sinatra-like knowingness and precision, matched by di Martino’s clenched-teeth solo.. The two wrap up the album with a piano-vocal lullaby take of Moonglow. If you’re sick to death of restaurant singers phoning in stuff like All of Me, Kessler and her first-class band are a breath of fresh air.
Rosie & the Riveters sing irrepressible, irresistible, original four-part-harmony swing tunes inspired by 30s girlgroups like the Andrews Sisters, spiced with equal parts jump blues, 18th century African-American gospel, and vintage soul music. Their vocal arrangements are packed with clever, amusing twists and turns. Likewise, their lyrics have a playfully retro charm. Their delightfully electic new album Good Clean Fun is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re making their New York debut at the small room at the Rockwood on August 11 at 8 PM.
The album’s opening track, Red Dress gets a gentle, coy intro and then a jaunty shuffle, fueled by piano, acoustic guitar and a.swinging rhythm section. Everybody in the band, each a strong solo artist in her own right, sings; Allyson Reigh takes the lead here, working every slinky angle in the blue notes, the band punching in with gospel harmonies on the chorus. All I Need, with its clever rhymes and blend of dixieland and Lake Street Dive blue-dyed soul, is a showcase for Alexis Normand’s pillowy delivery:
I don’t need a Strat guitar
I don’t need a limo car
I don’t smoke a fat cigar
To know I’ve found success…
And the list goes on. Likewise, A Million Little Things. roses out of a slow intro, into a cheery, resolute, accordion-driven bounce, Melissa Nygren’s wise, knowing vocals channeling optimism in the midst of everyday annoyances, the women in the band taking a droll round-robin midway through. The group take an unexpected and bristlingly successful turn into noir oldschool soul with Bad Man:“Behind that liar’s tongue are sharp,sharp teeth,” Farideh Olsen asserts. “Love won’t even find you in the grave.”
The band keeps a brooding minor-key groove going with the rustic, oldtime gospel-flavored Ain’t Gonna Bother, Reigh channeling a murderously simmering nuance. Honey Bee, a cha-cha, contrasts the tenderness of Nygren’s lead vocal with a spiky, biting undercurrent, fueled by moody clarinet. Hallelujah Baby follows a briskly scampering country gospel shuffle on the wings of banjo and steel guitar. Milk ‘N Honey is sort of the shadow image of that one, a bluesy minor-key number that brings to mind the Asylum Street Spankers.
With its “we don’t get out of here alive:” chorus, the stark, spare Go On Momma has a chilling mid-50s country gospel feel. The slinky, latin-flavored take of Dancing ‘Cause of My Joy, sung with a retro soul triumph by Normand, makes a striking contrast. The band returns to a darkly bluesy, banjo-infused atmosphere with the creepy global warming-era cautionary tale Watching the Water Rise. The album winds up with another period-perfect 1950s style gospel number, the gentle, resolutely sunny Yes It’s True. Pretty impressive for a quartet of gals from Saskatchewan. Sometimes if you come from outside of a musical idiom, you have to do it better than the original to earn your cred, and that’s exactly what Rosie & the Riveters do here.
On one hand, would you ever want to hear anybody other than Dave Brubeck play Take Five? OK, maybe the surf rock version by Mike Rimbaud. On the other hand, there’s the argument that jazz, like classical or folk music, is a repertoire that any artist with the requisite talent ought to sink their teeth into. Which is where Champian Fulton is coming from on her new album, After Dark, a Dinah Washington tribute streaming at Spotify. Fulton will be playing that material and more in a rare duo show with bassist David Williams at Mezzrow on April 26 at 7:30 PM; cover is $20.
Covering material so closely associated with such an iconic figure is a potential minefield, but Fulton meets that challenge head-on, in a performance that’s respectful but not reverential. On one hand, Fulton has assimilated Washington’s style – those coy little swoops up into head voice, the dips into feline lows, and the spaces between the notes – to the point where there are are many places on this album where, if you didn’t know who the singer was, you would assume it was Washington. On the other, Fulton puts her own stamp on these songs. The new album is a mostly trio affair, with Williams and drummer Lewis Nash as rhythm section plus her dad Stephen Fulton on trumpet and flugelhorn on a handful of numbers.
Another way Fulton differentiates her versions from the originals is that she’s as nuanced and expressive a pianist as she is a singer. Lots of iconic tracks here, beginning with a slowly swinging, uncluttered, gently seductive take of Ain’t Misbehavin’, the elder Fulton’s gentle, smoky muted lines in contrast with the younger’s nonchalant good cheer. That Old Feeling has even more subtlety but also exuberant wit, right from the LOL intro. How does she tackle Washington’s signature song, What a Difference a Day Makes? She lets Nash give it a masterfully hushed, bossa tinge, her piano as spacious as her vocals, a lot more low-key than the original.
Blue Skies gets a rubato intro with a few wisps from Williams’ bow, the trumpet adding a New Orleans jauntiness as the swing kicks in, up to a considered, purposeful piano solo. The group does a perfectly acceptable job with Keeping Out of Mischief Now; on the other hand, it’s sort of redundant, Ain’t Misbehavin’, round two.
A Bad Case of the Blues is a showcase for the bandleader’s elegantly expansive command of that style on the piano as well as on vocals. Travelin’ Light makes a striking contrast between a rather stern, embittered backdrop and a distantly embittered, matter-of-fact approach to a sad storyline, the band picking it up, wryly trading eights as they wind it up to the final chorus. Mad About the Boy is the most stunning reinvention here, part Brecht/Weill, part Beethoven.
All of Me may be the Hotel California of vocal jazz, but the singer makes it worthwhile, with a bass/vocal intro that looks straight back to Sarah Vaughan and Joe Comfort. Give a close listen to the piano solo on slow, slinky version of Baby Won’t You Please Come Home: through the first verse, Fulton voices the lyrics emotion for emotion with her fingers, phrase by phrase, a neat trick. A steady, slow, vocal-less solo piano Midnight Stroll makes an apt closing track, another showcase for her purist command of the blues.
Throughout these songs, what’s most striking is how much care and attention Fulton gives every line, every word: she really sells the lyrics, which isn’t easy because, let’s face it, some of them would sound awfully prosaic delivered by someone who didn’t give a damn. Fulton moves effortlessly and vividly from delight, to wistfulness, to wounded angst in a matter of seconds and makes it seem completely natural, the work of a deep and insightful individual and a rare force on both the keys and the mic.
One of the most individualistic and stylistically diverse bands on the New York oldtime swing scene, the Fascinators call their music “old jazz for the New Depression.” What distinguishes them from the legions of lickety-split shufflers out there is their originals, bandleader/guitarist Lenny Molotov’s wryly amusing, corrosively clever lyrics, and their distinctive blend of purist, bluesy Ellingtonian style and jaunty, Django-inspired Romany sounds. They’re bringing all this to Sidewalk at 8 PM on February 5.
This blog caught them most recently back in October. Beyond Molotov and his longtime collaborator, bassist JD Wood, the band has a shifting cast of characters. This time out, in place of another similar deep blues purist, Queen Esther on vocals, they had the torchy, dramatic Carrie Jean Sooter. Jazz drummer Art Lillard propelled the unit, which also included a second guitarist who added several edgy blues-infused leads. They opened with a swaying, unexpectedly desolate, practically Lynchian take of Stardust, then Lillard pushed them into sunnier territory with his playful cymbal splashes throughout a pulsing take of Pennies from Heaven. Then they took their time behind Sooter’s brassy resilience in When the Sun Comes Out. But all that was just a warmup.
Molotov’s period-perfect 1940 vernacular matched Sooter’s saucy delivery in their new version of the Ink Spots’ Java Jive, which was a lot funnier than the original, at the expense of the French and others (including Molotov himself, who doesn’t drink coffee). Then they built a broodingly dusky Old Depression ambience with another Molotov original, Chicago Special. Sooter brought the energy up again as Lillard tumbled and spun through an unexpectedly brisk, fun Blues in the Night, then the drummer gave a wry latin spin to the band’s version of the old New Orleans standard Junco Partner (which the Clash famously covered as a reggae tune).
From there, Sooter brought the lights down with a chilling, doomed, slowly shuffling mashup of Memphis soul and Jimmy Reed blues. They scampered their way out from there, hitting a peak by putting an irresistibly funny political spin on Count Basie’s Topsy, punctuated by a tapdance solo by Sooter. It’s hard to imagine any other swing band in town with as many flavors as these guys and girls have – and you can dance to all of them.
By the way, if you’re wondering what a fascinator it, it’s one of those over-the-top Prohibition-era flapper hats with some kind of garish centerpiece.
True to their name, the Hot Jazz Jumpers‘s sound springboards off of oldtimey 20s and 30s swing. And in the spirit of those mostly unsung, regional combos who ripped up dancefloors back in the day, the Hot Jazz Jumpers mash up styles from all over the map. The seventeen tracks on their new album The Very Next Thing and live concert dvd comprise swing, delta blues, southern rock, C&W, Carolina Coast folk music, free improvisation and more. So their sound is totally retro – yet completely in the here and now, another case where the old is new again. they’re playing the album release show on Friday, November 6 at 11 PM in the cozy confines at Pete’s, which should be party in a box – literally. As a bonus, guitarist/bandleader Nick Russo does double duty, opening the night at 10 with a set with his ambitious large-ensemble jazz project Nick Russo +11, who’re celebrating their ninth year in business.
The new album opens with a scampering take of Back Home Again in Indiana, sung by banjoist/guitarist/dancer Betina Hershey. Lots of period-perfect, quirky touches here, from the twin banjos, to Walter Stinson’s sotto vocce bass solo, even a dinner bell. They follow that with Freight Train, a dobro-driven oldtime C&W tune, Hershey’s honeyed vocals evoking Laura Cantrell. The take of Caravan here is a long, loose, otherworldly-tinged shuffle with vocalist Miles Griffith’s rustic, impassioned gullah-inspired vocals, Russo’s spiraling solo echoing Gordon Au’s jaunty trumpet lines.
Griffith’s gruffly animated scatting contrasts with Hershey’s summery warmth on You Are My Sunshine, reinvented as a sprawling soukous jam. Nobody But My Baby Is Getting My Love gets an oldtimey banjo swing treatment livened with Josh Holcomb’s wry, amiable trombone. Russo and Griffith do both In a Mellow Tone and Manha de Carnaval as a duo, the ancient paired against the brand-new.
Driven by Russo’s slide guitar, Jock-a-Mo looks back to the Grateful Dead, if with considerably more focus. Dirty 40 slowly builds from stark delta blues to a Stonesy ba-bump Beggars Banquet groove. Fueled by the banjos and Hershey’s sassy delivery, Sweet Georgia Brown mashes up 40s swing, bucolic string band ambience and an Aiko Aiko Crescent City bounce. They keep the Aiko Aiko thing going through the spirited Jam for Lenny.
Hershey’s nuanced sense of angst breathes new life into a slowly swinging, bristling, banjo-propelled take of Ain’t Misbehavin. By contrast, they do Got My Mojo Working as a loose Mississippi juke joint jam, Russo’s slide guitar front and center. The upbeat dance vibe continues through the oldtimey swing of When the Red Red Robin Goes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along, then the band mashes up gospel, gullah folk and bluegrass in This Little Light of Mine. There’s also a second take of Jock-a-Mo and a lively jam on the way out. The album hasn’t officially hit the street just yet, but copies are available at shows and the opening track is up at soundcloud.
Hard to believe that it’s been over a year since the Undigables played their old stomping ground, 55 Bar. Sly, irrepressible singer Ollie Boy Lester’s popular saloon jazz combo had a monthly residency at that venerable West Village watering hole for what seems like forever, for all we know since Jack Kerouac ruled the roost there. And it’s good to see them back: their next gig there is on August 13 at 7 PM for a couple of sets, and there’s no cover.
What did their gig there last time out sound like? Lester is a gregarious, perennially young guy, a character who’s impossible not to like, a proud throwback to a largely vanished New York. In an unvarnished Brooklyn accent, he regaled the crowd with tales of growing up as a cool kid in the late 50s and early 60s, smoking weed and listening to Symphony Sid play Stan Getz, Cal Tjader, Morgana King, Charles Mingus and King Pleasure on the radio. After a brief jump blues intro from the band – Stew Cutler on guitar, Jan Kjaer on piano, Roy Holland on bass and Nat Seeley on drums – Lester recalled walking to school in midtown, waving to Walter Winchell and Jack Dempsey, then launched into a shuffling, Mose Allison-inspired take of Broadway. The band gave it a characteristically droll outro as they segued into On Broadway for a second.
They did Horace Silver’s Sister Sadie as a swinging blues romp fueled by jaunty, spiraling triplets from the guitar. Then they went into the originals, which sound like classics from the 50s. Most of these were upbeat swing tunes and jump blues, spiced with Lester’s clever, torrential rhymes and hepcat puns. On You’re the One, Kjaer took a tumbling solo and then handed off to Cutler, who followed with an incisive, purist Chicago-style blues lead. Next was a a swinging take of another original, Later For Straighter, poking fun at killjoys who can’t bear to take a break from the nine to five: “Gimme a woman, some music, a little reefer, that’s all I need for my reliever,” Lester sang breezily. In a stroke of irony, Cutler shifted from surreal skronk to pretty straight-up blues
A pulsing, straight-ahead blues number, Mood You’re In kept the good-natured, altered vibe going, this one more of a drinking song with burning slide guitar at the center. One More Love Affair had an optimistic Rat Pack flair, with a purposeful Kjaer solo midway through. Then they took the energy even higher with the latin-tinged party anthem This Is Livin’, a shout-out to all the would-be Coney Island party animals in the crowd. They closed with the irrepressibly bouncy Better Days Ahead, then a hard-funk salute to the cowboy shows that Lester used to watch as a kid, and closed with the Symphony Sid theme song – and that was just the first set. So before 55 Bar turns into a Starbucks or a 7-11, go see this magical band and revisit a long-gone New York that won’t be coming back anytime soon, maybe ever.
Over the last few years, Tennessee songwriter Jennifer Niceley has distilled a distinctive blend of noir torch song, Americana, Nashville gothic, classic southern soul and blues. Her latest album, Birdlight, is streaming at Soundcloud. In recent years, the twang has dropped from Niceley’s voice, replaced by a smoky, artfully nuanced, jazzy delivery. The obvious comparison is Norah Jones, both vocally and songwise, although Niceley has more of an edge and a way with a lyrical turn of phrase. As with her previous releases, the new album features a first-class band: Jon Estes on guitars, keys and bass; Elizabeth Estes on violin; Evan Cobb on tenor sax; Steve Pardo on clarinet and Imer Santiago on trumpet, with Tommy Perkinsen and Dave Racine sharing the drum chair.
The album conjures a classy southern atmosphere: imagine yourself sipping a mint julep in the shade of a cottonwood, the sound of a muted trumpet wafting from across the creek, and you’re in the ballpark. The opening track, Nightbird, sets the stage, a nocturne with Niceley’s gently alluring delivery over a pillowy, hypnotic backdrop livened by samples of what sounds like somebody clumping around in the woods. The second number, Ghosts, is a balmy shuffle lit up by Estes’ deliciously slipsliding Memphis soul riffs, and picks up with a misty orchestral backdrop. .
Niceley sings New Orleans cult legend Bobby Charles’ Must Be in a Good Place Now with a hazy late-summer delivery over a nostalgic horn section and Estes’ keening steel guitar, and a little dixieland break over a verse. The Lynchian Julee Cruise atmospherics in Land I Love, from the swooshes and gentle booms from the drums and the lingering pedal steel, are absolutely gorgeous, Niceley brooding over her pastoral imagery and how that beauty “is never coming back.”
What Wild Is This switches gears for a lushly arranged, bossa-tinged groove; then Niceley switches up again with a gently swaying western swing cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ Hard Times. She keeps the jazzy-tinged atmosphere going with a restrained version of Tom Waits’ You Can Never Hold Back Spring.
But’s Niceley’s originals that are the real draw here, like Goodbye Kiss, a wistful lament that along with Land I Love is the most plaintive, affecting track here: “Unfinished visions keep hanging around like fog in the trees,” Niceley muses. The album’s title track is a brief inetrumental, Niceley’s elegant guitar fingerpicking against washes of violin and accordion. She winds it up with the hypnotic, surreal Strange Times, whose wary psychedelics wouldn’t be out of place on a Jenifer Jackson record. Lean back with a little bourbon and drift off to a place that time forgot with this one: what a great way to stay warm on a gloomy winter evening.
Jeanne Marie Boes first came to the attention of this blog back in the zeros. Back then, she’d play the occasional gig at places like Tavern on the Green or some bistro in Queens. Why was this singer with the wise, knowing, fortysomething voice and songs that blended cabaret, mischievous blues and big oldfashioned rock anthems not doing more shows? There was a reason: turns out, she wasn’t in her forties. She was a teenager then.
Which was something of a shock. Among her three albums and numerous singles, there’s one where a family member tells her that she’s an old soul – and is she ever. She’s got brass in her upper register, a pillowy, dreamy quality in the lows and a soaring range. She sings conversationally, intimately: you feel like she’s in the room with you. You have to go back a long ways to find a comparison: Shirley Bassey without the camp, maybe. It’s an urbane voice, one that’s seen a lot in a short time and internalized it. And much as she’ll confidently channel whatever emotion she wants, she seems to like the subtle ones. As nuanced as she is now, if she keeps growing, in five years she’ll be terrifying. She’s playing the release show for her new single, Strangers, at the small room at the Rockwood on Dec 10 at 6 (six) PM, as good a room as any for a voice like hers.
As a tunesmith, she also looks back to an earlier era, yet her mix of Rat Pack orchestral pop, torch song, blues, cabaret and occasional stadium rock bombast is uniquely her own. She likes a clever turn of phrase, yet she’s down to earth at the same time. Like Harold Arlen – someone she resembles thematically if not really stylistically – she’s created her own niche.
The new single, recorded live at the Metropolitan Room, is streaming at Bandcamp along with the rest of her catalog. It’s a big, angst-fueled piano anthem, with a gothic tinge in the same vein as Kristin Hoffmann‘s darker material. And it’s a showcase for Boes’ powerful flights to the top of her register, ending with an unexpectedly jaunty blues phrase. Her albums are also worth a spin. Some of those tracks sound like demos, with drum samples and various keyboard textures substituting for a full band. Others have a directness that matches her voice; she doesn’t waste notes. Even if this is a solo show, it’ll be interesting to see how far she’s come in the time since she put out her first album in 2009.
[republished, more or less, from Lucid Culture’s more rock-oriented sister blog New York Music Daily]
Catherine Russell is the kind of jazz luminary you might discover at three in the morning, belting her heart out with an obscure funk band who later change their name and style and become a huge draw on the indie rock circuit. In the fourteen years since that initial sighting – true story -she’s become one of the biggest names in oldtime swing jazz. Her previous album, Strictly Romancin’, was a Louis Armstrong tribute (Russell’s multi-instrumentalist dad Luis played in Armstrong’s band: the apple didn’t fall far). Her latest album, Bring It Back, goes deeper into the blues, in a Duke Ellington way.Harmonia Mundi gets credit for releasing the album, which is up at Spotify.
The band lineup is pretty much the same as the previous album: musical director Matt Munisteri on guitar and other fretted instruments; Mark Shane on piano; Lee Hudson on bass; Mark McClean on drums; Glenn Patscha on organ; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; Mark Lopeman on baritone sax; John Allred on trombone; and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds. Other than just the pure chops they bring to the songs, the way the both Russell and the band shift direction depending on the underlying emotional content is what distinguishes them from the legions of shi-shi restaurant bands and cruise ship combos who try to make a go of this oldtime stuff. The arrangements may be refined to the nth degree, but the group’s approach to the songs’ heartbreak and intensity (and sometimes just plain good fun) is disarmingly direct.
The album opens with the catchy midtempo title track, Russell’s urbane sophistication balanced way out on a limb by Munisteri’s unexpectedly feral, wildly string-bending guitar, confronting the angst that the vocals refuse to give in to. “High” is the operative word in Shooting High, with its elegant handoffs from one instrument to the next. The steady, shady I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart matches muted trumpet and somewhat furtive sax to the wistfulness and resignation in Russell’s understatedly torchy delivery. Then they pick up the pace with the jaunty, dixieland-flavored You Got to Swing and Sway.
The band does Aged and Mellow as an oldschool soul ballad in the same vein as Willie Nelson’s Night Life – Russell doesn’t let on how the story’s actually being told by a gold-digger. They keep the high spirits going with the nonchalantly triumphant, shuffling Darktown Strutters’ Ball and then hit a peak with a big, brassy arrangement of Lucille (not the B.B. King song but a previously unreleased, exuberant number by Russell’s dad).
Russell’s most pillowy vocal here is You’ve Got Me Under Your Thumb, set to a ragtime-tinged piano-and-guitar backdrop. After the Lights Go Down, a gorgeous blend of oldschool soul and blues, sets Russell’s confidently conspiratorial vocals against wickedly shivery guitar and organ. I’m Sticking With You Baby, a litany of prewar aphorisms, has more invigorating, bluesy organ, Russell trading bars with the band as they take it all the way up at the end.
The minor-key, irony-drenched, ragtime-inflected Strange As It Seems makes a stark contrast. The jump blues Public Melody Number One picks up the pace again, with an absolutely surreal lyric:
Frankenstein, a bundle of joy
Jesse James is a teacher’s pet
A gatling gun compared to
Shots from a hot corvette
The album ends with an absolutely riveting, unexpectedly energetic version of the old Billie Holiday standard I Cover the Waterfront, rising and falling with an angst that dignifies the neighborhood hooker and her ache for the guy who’s gone away across the ocean, no doubt for good. On one level, this is a trip back in time; on another, a lot of the playing here is more eclectic than what your typical studio band would try to pull off in, say, 1934.