Les Chauds Lapins sing about drunk couples emerging disheveled from the bushes, expats missing Paris during the Nazi occupation, and sex. Lots of that. “You told me yes, you told me yes, you told me yes,” frontwoman Meg Reichardt sang in insistently cheery, carefully enunciated and pretty damn good French at the band’s most recent show at Barbes last month.
The material they cover – old French swing and chanson, mostly from the 30s and 40s, emphasis on the Charles Trenet catalog – is pretty radical compared to American pop from that era. Even today, these songs are racy. And as funny and clever as the wordplay is, the band’s sound is lush and swoony. if you’re looking for a place to take your boo this Friday night, April 14, there’s no better place than Barbes at 8 PM where Les Chauds Lapins (“The Hot Rabbits,” as in “hot to trot”) will be picking up where they left off.
The music matched the lyrics, full of chipper, strutting, swinging tunes, glimmering strings from cellist Garo Yellin and violist Karen Waltuch and a wry basketball-courtside “let’s go” riff from clarinetist/frontman Kurt Hoffman at one point. And yet, there’s an underlying cynicism, and frequent yearning, in the lyrics, that often rears its head, just as the music isn’t all just soft edges either. Hearing the occasional austere minor-key blues phrase from either Waltuch or Yellin was a treat. Reichardt fired off a couple of stinging blues guitar solos when she wasn’t holding down rhythm on her hundred-year-old banjo uke and adding to the oldtimey atmosphere.
As the show went on, shivery strings paired off with a plaintive clarinet intro, there was an unexpected detour into quasi-funk fueled by a cello bassline, and eventually a long interlude straight out of Mood Indigo with a lustrous, moonlit clarinet solo from Hoffman. For those who don’t speak French, the show is best enjoyed as a long, sweet suite. As date-night music in New York in 2017, it’s unsurpassed. Without crossing the line into TMI, let’s say that after the show, the person you bring might be more likely to tell you, “Je t’adore,” instead of just a plain old “Je t’aime” See,“Je t’aime” doesn’t amount to much more than a peck on the cheek. “Je t’adore” is where the tongue gets involved. Just saying. Bonne chance à tout le monde demain soir.
“”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.
Since Svetlana & the Delancey Five have made their home at the Lower East Side backyard-tenement hideaway the Back Room on Norfolk Street for the the past four years, you might expect their leader to play the role of mob moll in front of a band playing gangster favorites from the Lucky Luciano era. Instead, watching her is more akin to being at the Deux Magots in Paris ten years down the line, when Sartre and Beauvoir were hanging out til closing time. Svetlana has devastating wit, cosmopolitan sophistication and an amazing band behind her who are every bit as important to the music as she is. This isn’t just a bunch of guys chilling behind a charismatic singer: Svetlana will jump on a trumpet or sax or piano phrase, or a drum riff and go sailing through the stars, rising from misty bittersweetness to uninhibited exhilaration, just as the band will do when she throws a phrase their way. Yet as wild as these cats can get, they’re more subtle than most of the other oldtimey swing acts out there. They’re bringing that act to the Blue Note this Sunday, Nov 27 for brunch, with sets at 11:30 AM and also 2 PM for all you normal, i.e. night people. New Orleans powerhouse trumpeter/crooner James Williams is Svetlana’s special guest, meaning that they’ll probably be minding the Satchmo-and-Ella songbook that the band explores on their most recent album.
It takes awhile to get a handle on what she does. The first time this blog caught her act, the band was cooking and so was she. The second time out, a rainy night at the Back Room, was much more melancholy and misterioso: she didn’t allow a hint of vibrato into her vocals until the closing cadenza of the last song of the set. Most recently, she charmed an all-Manhattanite audience, fronting the Seth Weaver Big Band at Zinc Bar earlier this week. Svetlana polled the crowd to see where everybody was from, and was reassured that there are still diehard jazz people on this island. And as vividly as she channeled the deadpan vindictiveness of Ellington’s Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me, and balanced that with an exuberant take of It Had to Be You, it was her original, It’s All Good, that made for the best song of the night. It’s an update on classic 30s swing for the here and now. As she hit the chorus, she suddenly rose from a warmly enveloping calm to an eye-opening leap: “When you hear the BIG NOISE, it’s not thunder or storm.” Then she took the audience groundward again: “It’s just the sound of my heart breaking.” The song ended on a characteristically enigmatic note, a little defeated, a little defiant.
Fun fact: Svetlana is a frequent Wycliffe Gordon collaborator, and makes extensive use of his playful, wit-infused charts for jazz standards. She’ll be his special guest this Friday night, Nov 25 at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center for his 7:30 PM set with his energetic quintet.
Fun fact #2: Svetlana & the Delancey Five often open with the Gerry Mulligan classic Bernie’s Tune. To be fair, they were doing this long before the 2016 Democratic primaries. But it’s still cool.
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!
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.
Pat Irwin and Daria Grace Bring Their Brilliantly Eclectic Sounds to an Laid-Back Outdoor Show in Queens
The theory that Sunday or Monday are the new Saturday cuts both ways. On one hand, the transformation of hallowed downtown New York and Brooklyn neighborhoods into Jersey tourist trashpits on the weekend has driven some of the best New York talent to gigs and venues that might seen off the beaten path. On the other hand, for the permanent-tourist class whose parent guarantors have driven rents in Bushwick and elsewhere sky-high, every day is Saturday because nobody works for a living. OK, some of them are interns. But that’s a story for another time. For an afternoon that perfectly reflects the state of the city, 2016 and also features some of the city’s most eclectic talent, brilliant singer Daria Grace has put together a triplebill starting at around 4 PM on July 31 in the backyard at LIC Bar, with ex-B-52’s guitarist Pat Irwin playing his often hauntingly cinematic instrumentals, then a set by Norah Jones collaborator Sasha Dobson and finally a set by Grace’s charming uke swing band the Pre-War Ponies at around 6.. The venue is about a three-minute walk from the 21st St. station on the 7 train.
Last month’s installment of this same lineup was a treat. Grace did triple duty, first joining Irwin on keys (who knew that she was a more than competent organist?), then adding her signature counterintuitive, swinging, slinky basslines to a set by Dobson, then switching to uke and leading her own band. Irwin opened the afternoon with a set that touched on Bill Frisell pastoral jazz, Brian Eno ambience and most significantly, Angelo Badalamenti noir. He mixed slowly crescendoing, shifting instrumentals from his film work across the years with a couple of new numbers, one more minimalist and atmospheric, the other far darker and distantly menacing. By the time his roughly forty-five minutes onstage was over, he’d gone from solo to having a whole band behind him. Dobson followed with a set that drew on roughhewn 80s indie rock, switching from harmonium to Strat as she led her trio – Grace on a gorgeous vintage 1966 hollowbody Vox bass – through a mix of her solo material and a couple of jaunty Americana-flavored numbers from her Puss & Boots album with Norah Jones and bassist Catherine Popper.
It’s hard to find a window of time for sets by three bands; the last time this blog caught Grace leading the Pre-War Ponies was on a twisted but actually fantastic twinbill back in May at Barbes, opening for psychedelic Middle Eastern metal band Greek Judas (who are back at Barbes tomorrow night, the 28th, at 10). Grace’s not-so-secret weapon, J. Walter Hawkes is an incorrigible extrovert and a charismatic showman, but he really was on his game this time out, whether firing off lickety-split cascades on his uke or on his trombone, which he typically employs for both low-register amusement and purist oldschool swing and blues. A real force of nature up there, he spent the set blasting out droll vaudevillian licks, foghorn riffs and serioso latin lines.
Lately Grace has been doing a lot of gigs with iconic latin jazz drummer Willie Martinez, but this time out she had Russ Meissner behind the kit, who had a ball adding counterintuitive hits and accents to cha-cha jazz numbers like Amapola, from the band’s latest album Get Out Under the Moon. As expected, the big audience hit was Moon Over Brooklyn, which Grace delivered with so much genuine, unselfconscious affection for her adopted hometown that it was easy to forget that you could change the lyrics just a smidge and it would make a romantic anthem for any city, anywhere. Romantic songs are usually cheesy and rote and this was anything but. You can get some romance and some sun on the 31st in Long Island City.
Svetlana and the Delancey Five Salute Ella and Satchmo and Put Their Own Sophisticated Stamp on Classic Swing
It figures that drummer Rob Garcia would grab the opportunity to kick off Svetlana & the Delancey Five‘s show at Lucille’s Friday night with a counterintuitive series of offbeats into a hi-de-ho intro, Mike Sailors’ spiraling trumpet solo rising to carnivalesque heights and foreshadowing a darkly lustrous, unselfconsciously erudite show. Why has swing jazz become so enormously popular again? Sure, you can dance to it, and many couples – as well as an exuberant, octogenarian tapdancer – were cutting a rug at this show. But swing is also escapist, and frontwoman Svetlana Shmulyian makes no secret that this is her her vehicle for finding solace and transcendence, and that everybody is welcome to get onboard. But what differentiates this band from the hundreds of others working territory that’s often been done to death over the years is that this group isn’t just a vehicle for vocals. In over four years together, this semi-revolving cast has built a cohesiveness, a camaraderie and a distinctively sophisticated sound largely unrivalled in their thriving demimonde.
For example, Blue Skies is a swing staple, but Shmulyian didn’t sing it as straight-up exuberance – and essentially warned the crowd that she wasn’t going to. And then made good on that, with an uncluttered, balmy optimism grounded in the sense that there definitely had been a storm before the calm. The rest of the program was thematic, a characteristically ambitious celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the mid-50s Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald collaborations. A potential minefield, but Shmulyian and special guest trombonist/singer Wycliffe Gordon rose to that challenge, indomitably and with a deeply bluesy edge echoed throughout the band.
Pianist Ben Paterson spiced his purist riffs with the occasional gracefully adrenalizing neoromantic cascade, while Garcia delivered grooves that roamed far south of the border, as well as from Buddy Rich splash, to a more chill, vintage Harlem pulse. And his arrangement of the Beatles’ Because brought out every bit of angst in Paul McCartney’s moody ballad, reinvented as a darkly bristling tango. Bassist Scott Ritchie kept his changes purposeful and low-key, and was having more fun than simply walking the changes. Saxophonist Michael Hashin alternated between sailing soprano and dynamic yet terse leaps and bounds on tenor.
But it was the chemistry between Shmulyian and Gordon that hit the highest points of the night, whether his masterful and deceptively subtle plunger work, or his droll, tongue-in-cheek vocals and effortless shifts into falsetto, or the night’s most hilarious moment, at the end of a solo toward the end of the show. As obvious and vaudevillian as that was, Gordon waited patiently to make that moment as ridiculously amusing as it was. And the reliably dynamic, eclectic Shmulyian was pretty much jumping out of her shoes from the git-go, rising to the very top of her register, vibrato going full blast. Yet it was a simmering take of the midtempo ballad Under a Blanket of Blue that arguably carried the most impact.
Likewise, the best song of the night might well have been a brand-new Shmulyian original, a bittersweetly swaying, guardedly optimistic New York-centric ballad allowing for a flicker of hope in the face of omnipresent bad news. Although she also grinningly acknowledged the results of the Brexit referendum, drawing some pretty wild applause from throughout the club. Grounded in the here and now, Shmulyian and her band played a show to get lost in: not bad for somebody who grew up in Moscow spinning Ella Fitzgerald vinyl on her family’s turntable and arrived in New York without knowing a soul here. The band’s next New York gig is a free show on July 23 at 8 PM at the auditorium at Kingsborough Community College, 2001 Oriental Blvd. in Manhattan Beach; the closest train is the Q to Brighton Beach.
The party at Saturday’s slate of hot jazz bands at Central Park Summerstage was out back, on the lawn behind the arena. The picknickers and snuggling couples who’d made that spot their destination were on to something. There are no sightlines back there, unless you sit on somebody’s shoulders, maybe, but the grass has grown in since the hurricane, making a comfortable return to a time that for awhile seemed gone for good.
Inside, a mostly white, monied, youngish crowd slowly grew, milling around aimlessly, lethargic as the sun beat down oppressively on the astroturf. The bleachers to the left and right were packed, especially in the shade of the trees. The tented spaces directly behind the sound booth – which these days is situated at the back of a wide, fenced-off path to the stage – are paid seats reserved for ticketholders who fork over thousands of dollars to sit there, according to one of the many, many ushers working the show. But those seats remained empty for the duration of a concert that went on for over four hours. Then again, hedge funders are not known for their fondness for dancing, or their taste in music, or for any kind of fun in general. What would have been fun would have been to organize a posse to occupy those seats since all that space was going to waste. Needless to say, plenty of people would have jumped at a chance to do that in, say, 1988, when the arena was funded by taxpayer money rather than hedge funders trying to dodge the IRS. Then again, that was also before antidepressants and post-9/11 security paranoia.
On one hand, this concert was a bunch of familiar faces playing familiar material. Then again, that’s a spoiled New Yorker’s view. Many of the creme de la creme of the New York oldtimey swing jazz scene made their way up to the bandstand as the sun made its way slowly across the sky. Trumpter Bria Skonberg served as emcee for the New York Hot Jazz All-Stars, an aptly named pickup band featuring – in no particular order – Anat Cohen on clarinet, Wycliffe Gordon (who’d just played a raptly fun set with Svetlana and the Delancey Five the previous night) on trombone and vocals, Jerron “Blnd Boy” Paxton on banjo, Dalton Ridenhour on piano, Vince Giordano on bass, vocals and bass sax and Joe Saylor on drums. With dixieland flair and expertly bluesy chops, they made their way through a New Orleans-heavy set, Gordon channeling Louis Jordan with similar erudite, unselfconscious verve.
Hot Sardines frontwoman Elizabeth Bougerol, decked out in a dazzling orange pantssuit, sang the most apt song of the afternoon. The wistfully swinging title track to the band’s new album French Fries and Champagne may speak to those on a beer budget with a taste for bubbly, but it’s as much of a guardedly hopeful anthem for those who’ve weathered the past several years’ blitzkrieg of gentrification. Bougerol didn’t mention the UK’s secession from the European Union – Svetlana did that the previous night, with relish – but that’s the first domino. The real estate bubble can’t last much longer. Meanwhile, the band – musical director Evan Palazzo on piano, Jason Prover on trombone, Mike Sailor on trumpet, plus sax, rhythm section and a full string quartet – partied like it was 1929. Bougerol toyed with the beat in a brassy, sometimes languid, sometimes come-hither mezzo-soprano, through a set composed mostly of original, period-perfect continental 1930s style swing numbers. The best of the standards was Bougerol’s insightful bilingual rendition of an old chestnut, titled Comes Love in English, but whose French chorus translates loosely as “Love Is Fucked Up.” They also took a rather farfetched stab at horn-driven countrypolitan along with a misguided remake of a wretched 1980s cheeseball pop hit. Then again, that song was huge in France, and that’s where Bougerol hails from.
Butler, Bernstein & the Hot 9 headlined. By then, the turf had really soaked up the heat and was throwing it back up, and the band onstage reflected that. This is basically trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s return to his roots playing the lively New Orleans-centric swing and pre-swing repertoire he cut his teeth on in Berkeley and then New York before making his own indelible mark as an avatar of noir, and film music, and Jewish jazz. So it was no surprise to hear him leap and snort and fire off one explosive burst after another as pianist Henry Butler boogied and rumbled and barrelhoused, guitarist Matt Munisteri jangling and clanging through every hip voicing in the book as the horns and strings wove an endlessly joyous lattice of southern-fried revelry. Inside, the crowd’s energy level had picked up to the point where it was hard to find a space out of the sun that wasn’t forbidden. Out back on the lawn, there was plenty of space, and relaxation, a good place for starting over when the time comes. And it will. Bring it on.
For the past couple of months, jazz singer Brianna Thomas has had a series of engagements at Ginny’s Supper Club uptown. Her next gig there is this Saturday night, June 18 with sets at 7:30 and 9 PM; cover is $20. The secret to this place is to grab a space at the bar; otherwise, there’s a minimum if you want to sit, and it’s not cheap. During the week, the place draws a loud afterwork crowd: if it’s the same here on the weekend, Thomas is one of the few acts who could actually work an audience to the point where they’d listen, or at least holler back at her.
None other than Will Friedwald – the guy who wrote the book on jazz singing – anointed her as the best of the current crop of up-and-coming voices in jazz. Her formidable arsenal – a strong, expressive delivery, expert command of phrasing and a love for swing and the classics – is unquestionable. This blog caught her onstage most recently a couple years back at Tompkins Square Park, where she opened the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, leading a quintet featuring similarly soulful guitarist Russell Malone.
Thomas and the rhythm section gave a joyous, cha-cha-influenced groove to All of Me to open the concert, wasting no time to launch into a jaunty stairstepping scat solo, the piano following her leaps and bounds, sax rising from low-key contrast to a bustling exuberance. That set a tone for the rest of the show, purist and packed with gospel fervor and blues grit, as in the swinging next number’s sax/bass/vocal intro, foreshadowing a coolly slipsliding bass solo midway through. “Say ‘Joy!’ Thomas entreated the crowd, and got the response she wanted. It capsulizes her appeal.
The band hit an Afro-Cuban shuffle from there, bringing a nocturne out into the daylight, Thomas leaping in on the offbeat and leaping even further from soulful melismatics to towering heights through an all-too-brief vocal solo. From there she explored airy, vampy balladry, to a hard-hitting detour into the blues, then funky soul and finally back to classic swing as the band rose and fell behind her, with alternately ebullient and pensive solos all around. The highlight of the set – and the afternoon, as it turned out – was a haunted, dynamically charged minor-key duet with Malone, an original song akin to a 21st century update on Nature Boy.
Despite her gifts as a singer, Thomas is hardly a diva, just a down-to-earth midwestern musician establishing an individual voice, finding new places to go where so many icons have gone before. From a concertgoer’s perspective, this show didn’t involve daydrinking – a hallowed Charlie Parker Festival tradition – but it did involve an awful lot of moving around, partly to stay out of the blistering sun, partly to dodge gaggles of chatty people in order to get something approximating a decent field recording. Exercise in futility: you’d do better to catch Thomas Saturday night or at a similar venue with a good sound system to fully appreciate everything she brings to the table.
Nobody in New York sings I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with more subtly resigned, haunting resonance than Heather Holloway. And she does it with a gentle, wistful smile. With her serene, almost ghostly presence in front of her eclectic, simmering swing combo the Heebie Jeebies, she doesn’t fit the stereotype of your typical torch singer. She’s like a messenger from a lost era of smoky hotel bars and black-and-white film sets, quietly intimating that you should join her in a return to a more pleasant time when after work meant cocktail hour rather than trudging to the night job just to pay a share of the rent. She and the band have a Wednesday night 7 PM residency at the lobby bar at the Hotel Chantelle at 92 Ludlow St; they’re also at Radegast Hall, a regular haunt, on June 6 at around 8. If Lynchian sounds are your thing and you can handle the Ludlow Street strip – or, for that matter, if it breaks your heart to see how the area’s been devastated and turned into a playground for the entitled and pampered – her show might provide some solace.
She played at Radegast on a misty weeknight last month, the perfect ambience for her calmly bittersweet reinterpretations of a bunch of well-worn standards. Holloway’s delivery is disarmingly direct: she doesn’t use much vibrato, and then only at the end of a phrase, and there’s none of the over-the-top vampiness that so many other chanteuses work. Julie London comes to mind; so does Bliss Blood, although Holloway doesn’t have either singer’s sharp edges. What she does is more nebulous, and enveloping – and completely inscrutable. The band behind her provides the bite, particularly accordionist Albert Behar, whose terse spirals and fluttering lead lines added to the solitary Les Deux Magots atmosphere, matched by guitarist Adam Moezinia’s precise, distantly Django-influenced clusters and cadenzas. Meanwhile, bassist Joanna Sternberg showed off the same irrepressible sense of humor on bass that she does when she plays guitar and sings her front-porch folk songs, swooping up and down the scale and taking a couple of cheerily balletesque solos.
Maybe because the little front stage at the entrance to the big beerhall didn’t have room for everybody, Holloway placed herself out in front of them on the floor, almost motionless, but with the grace of a wirewalker or a mime. Even the upbeat material – Sunny Side of the Street and Blues Skies, for example – had an opaque quality and a distant unease. By contrast, she found deep-sky longing in When You Wish Upon a Star. St. James Infirmary was somewhere in the middle, part bitter blues lament, part confident self-penned requiem. With an understated confidence, Holloway has slipped into a niche just past the edge of the shadows before you hit girl-down-the-well Julee Cruise territory, and if you’re here in town you have plenty of chances to see her.