Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Svetlana & the Delancey Five: New York’s Most Deliciously Unpredictably Vocal Jazz Band

There were some delicious ironies at Svetlana & the Delancey Five’s Birdland show last week. With most vocal jazz acts these days, the situation is frontperson – more often than not a woman – plus backing unit. Although they got their start as a swing dance band, this crew share much more interplay and push-and-pull than most bands in the field. Which makes them vastly more unpredictable: you literally never know what they’re going to throw at you.

Their most recent Blue Note show was all about jaunty improvisation, a game of street ball with everybody throwing elbows and getting dirty. So this Birdland gig was something of an anomaly – because it was the song set. Watching this band, it’s never completely clear how much of what they’re doing is actually composed, and how much improvisation is going on. Frontwoman Svetlana Shmulyian is a connoisseur of clever charts – Wycliffe Gordon is a favorite source – and obviously revels in keeping the audience guessing.

Which might explain why, in between songs, she was in rare form as snarky comedienne: sticking more closely to the page might not have been everything she needed to really blow off steam. There were many levels of meta: she never came right out and said, “You people are just a bunch of tourists from the sticks,” but for the hometown contingent, she was redemptive.

To paraphrase Mae West, this time out the quintet were a band what takes its time, parsing the arrangements’ innumerable twists and turns. They made bossa nova out of the Ella Fitzgerald version of A Tisket, a Tasket, with a fleeting, surreallistically triumphant klezmer interlude when least expected. By contrast, their take of I’m Just a Lucky So and So had a slow, lustrous sway lowlit by the harmonies of trumpeter Charlie Caranicas and tenor saxophonist Christopher McBride, pianist Willerm Delisfort ramping up the starry ambience. It was the ”Midnight in a tropical forest,“ that Shmulyian had promised to deliver.

Dynamics and subtle tempo shifts were front and center throughout Cheek to Cheek and then What a Little Moonlight Can Do, ramping down In the Wee Small Hours over the tersely tuneful pulse of bassist Endea Owens in tandem with similarly purposeful drummer Rob Garcia and his counterintuitive snare work. Then the group took it up again with a soaring, practically vengeful take of a Shmulyian original, You Turned the Tables on Me.

Much of this material is slated for release on the group’s forthcoming 2019 album A Night at the Movies, including a mamboish reinvention of an 80s ballad dating “From when hair like mine was popular,” as Shmulyian put it (she’s got one of the most seriously leonine manes in jazz).

The upbeat, bouncy Baby I’m Back, a triumphant return-from-the-tour tableau, contrasted with Garcia’s glimmering, harrowing, New Orleans funeral remake of the Beatles’ Because. They took it out with what has become Shmulyian’s signature closer lately, Blue Skies, just Delisfort and the bandleader slowly pushing the clouds away before the whole band brought the big light up. Shmulyian’s next show is this Jan 12 at 8 PM with the NY Swing Collective at the Cell Theatre in Chelsea; cover is $15.

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October 3, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Svetlana & the Delancey Five: New York’s Most Unpredictably Fun Swing Band

Since swing jazz is dance music, most swing bands have limitations on how far out on limb they can go. After all, you’ve got to keep everybody on their feet, right? Svetlana & the Delancey Five are the rare swing band who don’t recognize any limits: they’re just as fun to siit and listen to as they are for the dancers.

There weren’t a lot of people on their feet at the band’s sold-out show earlier this month at the Blue Note, but the band charmed the crowd for the duration of the set…with new arrangements of material that’s been done to death by a whole lot of other folks. The premise of this gig was to revisit and reinvent the great Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald collaborations, a favorite Svetlana theme.

Frontwoman Svetlana Shmulyian and guest Charles Turner took those roles to plenty of new places, neither singer trying to ape any of the original Ella/Satchmo takes. A lot of singers try to replicate horn lines; Shmulyian doesn’t do that, nor does she scat a lot, but she never sings anything remotely the same way twice and this show was no exception. She’s protean to the point that it takes awhile to get to figure her out, to the extent that she can be figured out. That’s part of the fun. There was a show last year where she didn’t break out the vibrato until the last song of the night; this time, she was using every device in her arsenal from the first few notes of Just A-Sitting and A-Rocking.Then later she bubbled and chirped her way through the rapidfire travelogue of her own bittersweetly charming romp, Baby I’m Back.

Turner has a wide-angle vibrato, like a classic old Packard or Mercedes with a loose clutch. How he modulates it sounds easy but is actually the opposite: it takes masterful control and nuance to stay in the game. He played it on the sly side against the bandleaders’ coy ingenue in Cheek to Cheek, then the two playfully flipped the script for a cheerily sardonic take of I Won’t Dance.

The freshness of drummer Rob Garcia’s charts is another drawing card. Much of the time, it seems like the band is jamming away, but they’re actually not: That high-voltage interplay makes even more sense in the context that this is the rare band that’s stayed together more or less for the better part of five years: Garcia knows everybody’s steez and vice versa. Case in point: the band’s take of A Tisket, a Tasket, Ella’s version of a jump-rope rhyme that’s pretty much a throwaway. But this band’s version started out as a cha-cha and took a sudden departure toward a shadowy, almost klezmer groove midway through. His Afrobeat allusions in What a Little Moonlight Can Do were just as unexpectedly kinetic and spot-on.

The high point of the set, at least in terms of getting a roar out of the crowd, was a long duel between Garcia and tap dancer Dewitt Fleming Jr.  Rather than taking the easy road, going all cheesy and cliched, Garcia engaged Fleming as a musician…and Fleming pushed back, hard! Was Garcia going to keep up with Fleming’s relentless hailstorm of beats? As it turned out, yes, with every texture and flourish and part of his hardware, but it wasn’t easy. Bassist Endea Owens jumpstarted a more low-key, elegant duel earlier on, which was just about as fun if a lot quieter and slinkier.

Multi-reedman Michael Hashin (also a member of the Microscopic Septet, whose latest blues album is a purist treat) opened jauntily on soprano in an instrumental take of Cottontail (in keeping with the theme of the show) and then switched to tenor for more smoke and congeniality for most of the rest of the set. Trumpeter Charles Caranicas also switched back and forth with his flugelhorn in the set’s more pensive, resonant numbers, while pianist John Chin drove the more upbeat material with an erudite yet almost feral, purist, blue-infused attack.

If your taste in swing runs toward good listening as well as cutting a rug, Svetlana & the Delancey Five are playing a special Make Music NY set outside Joe’s Pub on June 21 at 3 (three) PM. And unlike most Make Music NY slots, where bands snag permits for outdoor performances and then don’t show up til the eleventh hour, if at all, this show is definitely happening as scheduled. Then they’re at the carousel at the south end of Battery Park on June 23 at 7.

June 19, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trumpeter James Williams with Svetlana & the Delancey Five: Midnight at Noon at the Blue Note

“”They let you in here?” the leader of Svetlana & the Delancey Five asked the writer, scrunching up her face.

“No, they didn’t,” the writer answered truthfully. “Your trumpet player did.”

“It’s always midnight at the Blue Note,” the irrepressible swing chanteuse grinned as she took the stage yesterday, and the crowd agreed. This time out, she’d brought a big slice of New Orleans in the person of trumpeter/crooner James Williams. There are thousands of oldtimey swing bands with women out front, but what makes this band different is that they aren’t just a backing unit. And they have the advantage of the kind of chemistry that comes from playing together week after week for the better part of four years. Their latest album Night at the Speakeasy explores some of the territory that Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald worked with so much fun, and the addition of Williams gave them the chance to wake everybody up with a little taste of Mardi Gas.

With the summery neoromantic glimmer of Billy Test’s piano, drummer Rob Garcia hit the first of several devious stumbling-caveman riffs and they were off into a scampering take of I’ve Got Rhythm, with rapidfire solos from Test and saxophonist Michael Hashin, Test trading eights with Garcia. When bassist Daniel Foose soloed, he did it with horn voicings, bubbling and sliding upwards: if you absolutely must indulge yourself and solo on the bass, you want to keep the crowd entertained, right?

First joining forces with a swinging take of Someone Just Like You, the singers took a coy formula perfected by Louis and Ella to the next level. Svetlana played the ingenue, teasing Williams, and he responded by pushing further and further and kept the audience in stitches. His bursts and burbles on trumpet matched the sly soul in his growly bass voice: he played as if he had a mute even though he didn’t . It seemed that he was making up half the lyrics on the spot – he’s got the prewar vernacular and the ginmill seduction honed to a fine shine.

To his credit, both Williams and the band managed for the most part to skirt cheesiness on their take of Hello Dolly, the one number closest to the Louis Armstrong catalog, propelled by Garcia’s second-line inspired shuffle. Svetlana and the band reinvented the Beatles’ Because as stern, stark, hauntingly austere, gospel-infused late 1800s rusticity, Garcia’s chart finding new plaintiveness and poignancy in the moody McCartney melody. They followed with a briskly shuffling Lady Be Good, Williams just a little behind the beat for extra sass. Cheek to Cheek was the most ribald number on the bill, and the whole band got into the act, instrumentally at least, leaving the dancefloor pickup scene for the couple at the mic to work out. Likewise, the band eased their way into Baby It’s Cold Outside, drawing plenty of chuckles with a series of riffs from a whole slew of cheesy Xmas hits.

They wound up the set with a piano-and-vocal intro into a slowly swinging Blue Skies – Svetlana took an equally charming and challenging, stairstepping prowl through the first verse, then the group took it swinging doublespeed with lickety-split solos from Hashin and Test to send the crowd out breathless. Svetlana saved her lone swoop up to the towering peak of her register for the last line of the last chorus. She and the group are off to Israel for a little tour, then they return to New York on Dec 5 at 9 PM at their regular backyard-tenement haunt, the Back Room on Norfolk just north of Delancey. Look for the unlocked gate on the east side of the street about eighty feet up the block.

November 28, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment