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.
Chanteuse Roberta Donnay’s album A Little Sugar Music, a salute to some of her favorite Prohibition-era singers, is just out from Motema. Donnay is one of Dan Hicks’ Lickettes, and it shows on this album – her affinity and aptitude for oldtime blues and swing matches the verve and sassiness of the originals, while she puts her own stamp on them. Behind her, the Prohibition Mob Band – pianist John R. Burr, bassist Sam Bevan, trumpeter Rich Armstrong, multi-reedman Sheldon Brown, drummer Michael Barsimanto and tuba player Ed Ivey – rise to the occasion.
Donnay is a sophisticated singer. Her nuanced, uncluttered vocals remind a lot of Chris Connor or Bliss Blood. Unlike much of the current crop of moldy fig swing sisters, Donnay gets inside the lyrics and draws them out: she’s interpreting rather than just trying to be brassy. Every song is different; every line resonates. To kick off the album, Oh Papa reaches all the way back to Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Donnay really digging in when she hits the line “you’ll regret the day you ever quit me” as Burr goes for terse James P. Johnson inflections. A late 30s Ida Cox jump blues, Swing and Sway, provides a blithe contrast.
Fats Waller’s I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling benefits from understatement everywhere: Burr’s moody piano, Wayne Wallace’s trombone and some wry vaudevillian flourishes from the drums. You Go to My Head is even more intense and pensive, from Burr’s brooding introduction through Donnay’s resigned, practically clenched-teeth interpretation. And Donnay outdoes Sippie Wallace at coyly nuanced signification with Mama’s Gone Goodbye, making it equal parts escape anthem and kiss-off ballad.
While the slyly theatrical One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show has the feel of a Mae West tune, it’s actually from the 50s; Donnay channels her inner flapper up to a nimble handoff from Armstrong’s trumpet to Brown’s tenor sax. The most sophisticated yet most terse number here is Irving Berlin’s Say It Isn’t So, Donnay’s low-key melismatics over allusive piano and a similarly minimalist but impactful bass solo.
Donnay’s jaunty, horn-fueled cover of Sugar Blues draws on Ella Fitzgerald, while the take of Tropical Heatwave here owes more to Ethel Waters than the infamous Marilyn Monroe version. Rocking Chair, which Donnay picked up from Hicks, gets an unexpectedly whispery, absolutely chilling arrangement, a vivid portrait of dissolution and despair. Her take on Sugar in My Bowl is more sultry come-on than risque party anthem, the balminess of Brown’s tenor matching the vocals. Of all the songs, the most interesting one here is You’ve Been a Gold Ol’ Wagon, an innunedo-packed, proto hokum blues song from the 1890s that brings to mind the Moonlighters. Donnay covers a lot of ground here and never once lapses into cliche, a feat more impressive than it sounds considering how many people have sung these songs over the decades. Fans of jazz, blues and steampunk sounds have a lot to enjoy here.
When you think of downtown New York music, one of the first names that probably comes to mind is Elliott Sharp. The iconic guitarist and eclectic-to-the-extreme composer graciously took some time out of getting ready for his gig with his mind-warping Terraplane blues project tomorrow night at Joe’s Pub to shed some light on what he’s been up to recently, and less recently.
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: You’re playing Joe’s Pub at 9:30 this Sunday the 11th. Are you going to break out the sax or is this strictly a guitar gig this time? Any special guests we should know about?
Elliott Sharp: Though I played alto sax and bass clarinet on the new cd Sky Road Songs, I won’t be playing them on the gig, just for logistical reasons. Our producer Joe Mardin will appear with us playing keyboard, guitar, percussion, and on vocals.
LCC: You’ve written rock, and film music, and jazz, and synphonic works. At this point in your career, what else is there left for you to do? Is there a new passion that you’re looking to explore further in the coming years?
ES: Though I’ve written a number of operas already, it’s what I’m most interested now. My oepra “Port bou,” about the last day in the life of Walter Benjamin is in the works for 2014 through Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, and through a couple of presenters in Germany
LCC: As chameleonic as you’ve been, composition-wise, your music has a consistent edge. Do you find that edge missing in New York these days?
ES: Certainly it’s missing in Manhattan, though I do find a lot of younger musicians are hungry for that feeling and one finds an audience in some of the Brooklyn venues such as Zebulon, Death By Audio, Freedom Garden…
LCC: You came up as no wave was peaking, and have been a pillar of the avant garde since the 80s. And now there’s a new documentary about you. Can you tell us a little about that?
ES: The doc is by filmmaker Bert Shapiro and was made a few years ago – he covered aspects of my composing, performing, and conducting with my ensemble Orchestra Carbon and had crews in Venice at the Biennale in 2007 and during my tour in China in 2006 shoot footage. It also delves into my personal life – my wife Janene Higgins has all the best lines. Our twins make an appearance as well – they were two years old then.
LCC: When I hear you play, sometimes I hear a little Sonny Sharrock, or James Blood Ulmer…or Eddie Van Halen. Yet as I understand it one of your biggest influences is Hubert Sumlin, someone you’ve collaborated with – and studied with. You’re probably aware that he was also Jimi Hendrix’ favorite player. What did you gain most from working and studying with him?
ES: I loved Sonny Sharrock’s playing when I first heard him back in 1969 – we got to be friends and collaborators later. Jimi was also a huge influence and Hubert of course from before I even knew his name, just hearing him on Howlin’ Wolf records when I was seventeen in 1968 and just starting to play guitar. The country blues players as well. Van Halen not so much – I was doing finger-tapping starting from when I first began playing, influenced by John Cage, Harry Partch, Stockhausen, Xenakis. I learned a lot from Hubert – from listening to his recordings, about phrasing, vocalizing on the guitar, making noises. Then after meeting him, watching how he kept his right hand so loose!
LCC: Your publicist says you can come up with a list of your five favorite moments onstage. I’m impressed: half the time I get offstage and I can’t remember a thing I just did. Can you give us a quick rundown of those moments?
ES: I’m cursed with an excellent memory. Can’t say “favorite”, but key moments include:
1. The first time really entering the void while improvising onstage at a rock festival in Ithaca, NY in 1971with my band St. Elmo’s Fire
2. Performing “samizdat” forbidden concerts in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1983 – this also extends to performing Hungary in 1985 and in the Soviet Union in 1989 the incredible intensity of the listeners! This was like life-and-death for them!
3. Performing my piece Crowds And Power for 21 musicians in 1982 at the Kitchen – my first chance to manifest some of my sonic ideas for large ensemble for a big audience at a historic NY venue
4. Performing for 15000 people outdoors at Pori Festival in Finland with a wild ensemble including Sonny Sharrock, Joseph Jarman, Andrew Cyrille, Edward Vesala, Bobby Previte, Connie Bauer, Tomas Stanko, and more
5. The first performance with Hubert Sumlin in 1994 backing him up with Terraplane at the Knitting Factory – we had met in Chicago in 1983 but this was different – an incredible honor and thrill.
6. The premiere of my orchestra piece Racing Hearts in 1998 by the RadioSinfonie Frankfurt conducted by Peter Rundel. An unmatched experience to hear my sonic ideas come to life in this way.
LCC: You’ve collaborated with the Kronos Quartet, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Deborah Harry…lots of people. Do you have a favorite among them? Is that even a fair question?
ES: Not really – every collaboration is different and to be savored for what it is. Ideally, you are each putting in equally and I usually find this to be the case. To improvise with Nusrat and his ensemble in a tiny radio studio was overwhelming. I enjoy a fantastic ongoing collaboration with the JACK string quartet – always challenging and stimulating. Improvising in duo with such old friends as Nels Cline, Frances-Marie Uitti, Bobby Previte, Reinhold Friedl, is like the continuation of a ongoing and wide-ranging conversation
LCC: You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want, but I’m always curious how composers manage to keep a roof over their heads, and I know that royalties have dried up for lots of folks in recent years. What is your money gig these days? I know you do a lot of film and tv work…
ES: I still tour relentlessly – with two young children it’s difficult to say “no” to anything.
LCC: I always think of you as pushing the envelope and exploring new turf. To what extent is Elliott Sharp’s Terraplane at Joe’s Pub an oxymoron? Or is this a natural progression?
ES: Absolutely natural. Terraplane has played there before to good response. There’s not too many decent places to play in Manhattan plus Terraplane is an odd fit – we’re too weird for the blues clubs, too raucous for the jazz clubs, too unclassifiable for the rock clubs.
Tickets to the Joe’s Pub gig tomorrow night are $20 and are still available; the show starts at 9:30 sharp.
From their name, you’d think that Ted Hefko and the Thousandaires’ ambitions would be modest, and in a sense you’d be right: they’re there to serenade you casually rather than indulge in anything decadent. Frontman/tenor saxophonist Hefko sings with a deadpan, laconic, sometimes hangdog drawl over a generally laid-back, soulful backdrop provided by trumpeter Satoru Ohashi, guitarist Luca Benedetti, bassist Scott Ritchie and drummer Moses Patrou. Stylistically, they walk the line between blues, vintage 60s soul, country and jazz, often all at once, Hefko working the same kind of wryly clever, subtext-fueled lyrical vibe as Dan Hicks, or the Squirrel Nut Zippers in a mellow moment. Their album If I Walked on Water makes a welcome break from the legions of hot jazz combos blasting their way through one upbeat number after another: it draws you in rather than hitting you over the head.
They open as jaunty as they get, but with a wary minor-key cha-cha groove lit up by a stinging Benedetti guitar solo and a similarly apprehensive clarinet solo from Hefko. The second track, It’s Cold In Here is a jump blues, but a midtempo one, slinking along on Patron’s warmly tuneful piano. “The idea of lonely is getting lost in the crowd,” Hefko intones on the oldschool soul/funk number You’ve Gotta Take Steps. An electrified country blues done early 50s style with a clanging, period-perfect Benedetti solo, Color Me Blue has Hefko punning his way through; “Purple heart for bravery, red badge of courage makes you green with envy.”
The standout track here is Greyhound Coach, a gorgeously bittersweet countrypolitan swing tune, Hefko adding an absolutely morose solo over guest Neil Thomas’ accordion. But it ends well: “Picking up the pieces when this winter ceases,” Hefko insists, going out with a flourish from the sax. Likewise, Trust My Gut – a long life-on-the-road narrative – blends vintage soul with a sophisticated Willie Nelson-ish country vibe. This Song Won’t Sound the Same shuffles along with a downcast matter-of-factness, picking up with a soulful muted solo from Ohashi and then Hefko taking it out with a crescendo. The last song here, Get on the Train and Ride is typical of the songs here in that Hefko chooses his spots and makes them count: there’s the LIRR, and the Harlem line, and the Path…and the dreaded 3 AM trash train crawling through the subway. “You wanna get on and ride,” Hefko adds: no snarl, no sneer, just the basic facts, and he lets them speak for themselves. The album winds up with a pensive instrumental, You Took Away the Best Part, featuring some clever allusions to a couple of standards and a memorably misty Hefko tenor solo. Ted Hefko and the Thousandaires play a lot of gigs around town: this Sunday the 19th they play the jazz brunch at half past noon at the Antique Garage at 41 Mercer St.; on the 29th they’re at LIC Bar at 10.
Blues pianist/chanteuse Dianne Nola has a gorgeously purist album out titled Queen Bee, after the Slim Harpo song, which she imaginatively covers. Nola is oldschool: her playing is judicious. It’s clear that she knows Otis Spann and James P. Johnson, and she’s got a jackhammer left hand – we’re talking McCoy Tyner power here – and a sense of melody that likes the occasional wry flourish to drive a phrase home, but stays within the song. You won’t hear any endless volleys of Professor Longhair licks here, or for that matter, any cliches. Nola has a message to get out and that message is soul. Vocally, she’s a jazz singer at heart, but she doesn’t clutter the songs: her approach to the lyrics mirrors how she plays the piano, tersely and purposefully, as informed by gospel as it is the blues.
Most of the songs here are solo piano and vocals; multi-reedman Ralph Carney serves as a one-man dixieland band on the slow, torchy opening track, Down in the Dumps, and the closing cut, a tongue-in-cheek original, Garbage Man, which adds bluesy double meaning to the exasperated story of a woman trying to get some rest during the usual morning rattle and clatter. And blues harpist Jimmy Sweetwater adds some thoughtfully crescendoing work, notably on the sultry, swinging Do Your Duty, which hitches a restrained gospel joy to a New Orleans groove.
The covers here get an imaginative reworking: See See Rider is reinvented as languid boudoir ragtime, while a hard-hitting version of Leadbelly’s Grasshoppers in My Pillow plays up the lyric’s bizarrely surreal angst. Sippie Wallace’s Mighty Tight Woman is the most straight-up, matter-of-fact number, punctuated by a washboard solo. The title track hits with a resolute force, while Gershwin’s Someone to Watch Over Me gets a twinkling, suspenseful approach, appropriate for a blueswoman who refuses to settle. But the originals here are the best. Free showcases Nola’s soaring upper register: this carpe diem anthem wouldn’t be out of place in the Rachelle Garniez songbook. By contrast, Pocketful of Blue comes together slowly, like Nina Simone would do in concert, and then works a dangerous, darkly sensual soul groove. It’s the most overtly jazzy track here and a quietly moody showcase for Nola’s ability to mine a subtly brooding phrase.
At her New York gig last week with the reliably charismatic LJ Murphy, Nola proved to be every bit the match for the noir bluesman, scatting her way cleverly through an a-cappella number and then joining him for a memorably careening duet. Watch this space for future shows.