Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Revisiting Kimberly Hawkey’s Swing Jazz Reinventions

Kimberly Hawkey is best known as the irrepressible, erudite frontwoman of the deviously entertaining Swingaroos, who reinvent old jazz tunes from the 20s and 30s. But back in 2016, she made an equally irreverent and captivating album of her own with a considerably larger cast including a string quartet. That record, Elvanelle & the Escape Act, is still streaming at Bandcamp, and it has an interesting backstory.

Hawkey crowdsourced the record, and one of the perks she was giving out to supporters was a collection of old sheet music she’d picked up on Ebay. Going through the scores, she noticed that she’d just acquired the personal archive of a woman named Elvanell Ellison, who was born in New Mexico in 1917. Not much is known about her other than her passion for jazz. She married a guy named John Horton, moved to California and eventually died there in the 1990s. Clearly, she and Hawkey are kindred spirits.

Hawkey opens the record with the lush, playfuly orchestrated, Gershwinesque Music That Makes the Wind Blow, the first of a couple of co-writes with Swingaroos pianist Assaf Gleizner. She and the band give a cosmopolitan 30s feel to the first of the standards, It’s You or No One, with a triumphant trumpet solo from Björn Ingelstam.

Hawkey recasts Johnny Mercer’s Dream as latin noir, driven by the snaky rhythm of bassist Ray Cetta and drummer Mark McLean, saxophonist Morgan Price’s smoky spirals completing the picture. She gets brassy in an unexpectedly carnivalesque take of Crazy Rhythm and then makes an elegantly artsy piano ballad out of the first of a couple of old folk tunes, Shall We Gather at the River. Gleizner channels McCoy Tyner at his tersest and darkest in a Coltrane-esque remake of the other, Shady Grove. 

Hawkey and the band make a diptych out of How Little We Know and I’ll See You Again, shifting from a strikingly poignant waltz to a crooner cameo by Ingelstam and then a little duet. Hawkey’s lyrics to the album’s second original, I Love a Ballad are hilarious, matched by the music: without giving away too much, tempos are part of the joke.

She veers even closer to Spike Jones territory, picking up her tenor banjo as Ingelstam switches to trombone for a goofy version of I’m in the Mood for Love. Then she gets sly and lowdown in a New Orleans-flavored reinvention of Ev’rything I’ve Got. Hawkey closes the album with a wistful, fond version of I’ll Be Seeing You. A triumph of outside-the-box ideas from a cast that also includes violinists Brendan Speltz and Lavinia Pavlish, violist Milena Pajaro van der Stadt, cellist Andrew Janss and trombonist Christopher Bill.

January 16, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Brilliant, Badass, Inventive Debut Album by Jazz Singer Joanna Berkebile

Every year, this blog receives scores of albums by jazz singers. Most of them are women, and most of those are in their fifties or older. These records, most of them available on cd, seem to be audio resumes, something a veteran of restaurant and bar gigs can use to get more of the same, or to sell there as souvenirs. Very few of them contain any originals. Fewer still hold up to repeated listening.

Once in awhile there’s a blast of fresh air from a younger singer like the Swingaroos’ Kimberly Hawkey, or polymath Champian Fulton, or the badass Brianna Thomas, who’s in a class by herself. So it’s refreshing to see Kansas City-based singer Joanna Berkebile come right out of the chute swinging with her debut album Love Me or Leave Me, streaming at Soundcloud. She’s firing on all cylinders. She has a badass sense of humor, she sings in character with a strong, mutable, vintage soul-infused soprano, she has great taste in songs and an equally inspired band behind her. Pianist Leslie Maclean gets credit for the inventive arrangements, with Tim Brewer on bass and Jerry Pollock on drums.

This is also a remarkably upbeat, energetic album. A couple of klezmer-inspired tunes are among the strongest. The first is the opening track, Blossom Dearie’s The Gentleman Is a Dope, done as straight-up swing with a devious bit of a tempo change and a purposeful bass solo, i.e. the good kind, plus a subtly glittering crescendo from Maclean before the last chorus. Berkebile starts out brassy but shifts toward poignancy as the song grows more complicated. This version should be required listening for any woman eating her heart out over some unattainable dude.

The other is Comes Love, which Berkebile and the band do as a spacious midtempo clave tune with a wry matter-of-factness that echoes the song’s roots. They reinvent Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby by ramping up the carnivalesque, Cab Calloway hi-de-ho factor, something she goes even deeper into in Temptation. The late Amy Winehouse couldn’t touch the noir smolder Berkebile channels here.

Likewise, Berkebile ramps up the revenge in Goody Goody, Maclean adding ragtime flair, bass and drums hinting at vindictive vaudeville. She pulls back, but just a little in the brisk, defiant title track, complete with soaring, triumphant scatting solo and some ridiculously funny moments from the rhythm section.

Although Berkebile’s take of Mean to Me has an undercurrent of exasperation, the band have just as much devious fun with it. Maclean’s glimmering, emphatic chords propel My Last Affair, Berkebile’s most dynamically bristling number here.

The album’s most expansive track is a stunningly moody, modally-tinged version of Peel Me a Grape, Berkebile relishing her insatiable narrator’s litany of demands. For those whose taste in vocal jazz runs to demure coquetry, this is not it. But for those who like their singers on the fearless and indominatible side, Berkebile is someone to keep your eye on.

December 21, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Oldtime Sound to Look Forward to From the Swingaroos

Once again, it’s worth raising the question of how an album of toe-tapping, old-fashioned swing dance music could possibly be subversive. Well, if you were in the Soviet Union under Stalin, you could have been killed for listening to it. And in June of 2020 in New York, it’s against the law to play it for an audience. Think about that.

If you miss the fun of, say, Midsummer Night Swing, you can still get down on your home turf with the Swingaroos‘ irrepressibly entertaining latest album Music of the Night, streaming at Bandcamp. What distinguishes them from the legions of other goodtimey swing jazz combos out there is their sense of humor. On one hand, you may well ask yourself if we really need another album of standards that everybody else has done to death. On the other, this band do them a lot differently.

Pianist Assaf Gleizner romps his way into a bit of gospel with his solo intro to the opening instrumental version of Tea For Two, bassist Philip Ambuel joining drummer Uri Zelig’s tiptoeing strut. Frontwoman Kimberly Hawkey makes her jaunty entrance in Manhattan, clarinetist Dan Glaude and trumpeter Stephen Morley joining the festivities. It’s not as raucously funny as the version recently released by Rachelle Garniez and Erik Della Penna, but it’s still amusing: pushcarts gliding by on Mott Street?

Hawkey gets brassier with Ain’t Misbehavin, Morley soloing over Zelig’s wry vaudevillian accents. Guest Matt Giroveanutakes over the mic for a balmy, Sinatra-inspired take of Without a Song, the Song Is You; then Hawkey takes it doublespeed. By contrast, their uke-swing version of Rodgers and Hart’s I Could Write a Book has a joke that’s too good to give away.

Ambuel frantically walks the changes to You’re the Top, Glaude adding an acerbic alto sax solo alongside Hawkey’s stagy delivery. They take Blue Skies further back in time toward the dixieland era, then swing their way into a logical segue, On a Clear Day. Then the group make a sassy, lightfooted bounce out of I Got Rhythm, Zelig contrasting with his jungly rumbles.

You probably wouldn’t expect this band to do the title theme to the musical Cabaret as a New Orleans shuffle. Or to play My Man as a hi-de-ho tune, but that’s what you get – that’s arguably the album’s best song. Likewise, Guys and Dolls might seem like a cheesy choice, but they swing it hard with a handful of funny quotes. After that, the seriousness of the mostly piano-and-vocal take of If I Loved You is bit of a shock.

The album’s title track is an epic balance of dixieland and lushness. The funniest song here is The 11 O’Clock Number, which is basically the medley from hell – no spoilers! They close with a benedictory, crescendoing take of Give My Regards to Broadway.

June 11, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Swingaroos Offer a Good Reason Not to Stay Home on the 17th

The good news about St. Patrick’s Day this year is that it’s on a Tuesday. Does that mean the amateurs won’t be celebrating it early this weekend, turning every bar from Hell’s Kitchen to Hell’s Gate into Hell itself? Probably not. But there will probably be fewer of them out this coming Tuesday the 17th, if you’re stir-crazy enough to go out that night. And if you end up at the big room at the Rockwood at around 10, you’ll get to see a really fun, original retro swing band, the Swingaroos. Does that mean the Rockwood folks expect lots of drunken dancing? Your guess is as good as anybody’s. More likely, it means the band is taking a gamble that they’ll be playing their irrepressibly cheery update on 30s and 40s sounds to a captive audience.

Their album All Aboard is streaming at Bandcamp. Pianist Assaf Gleizner’s stride stomp fuels the opening track, Steam Train, singer Kimberly Hawkey ably voicing a train whistle and then serving as emcee for jaunty solos by Dan Glaude on clarinet, Nat Ranson on trombone and then a scampering one from the piano.

Hawkey shows off her brassy and smoky sides on the high-spirited stroll A Walk in the Park, bassist Chris Conte adding a lively, tiptoeing solo. To the Beat! looks back to Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman. Then the band brings it down with Far Across the World, Hawkey’s expressive (and subtly droll) vocals anchored by Gleizner’s resonant chords and a balmy Glaude alto sax solo over drummer Mike Gordon’s misty brushwork

Grocery List is a funny Louis Jordan-style jump blues: “A ham, a clam, a leg of lamb, it’s just baloney,” Hawkey intones, having all kinds of fun with food innuendos – and a pretty fair impersonation of a kazoo solo. The band has just as much fun making a slowly strolling noir theme out of Brahms’ famous Hungarian Dance, with a tip of the hat to Duke Ellington. Nagasaki is the lone Roaring 20s cover here, done with a rapidfire, coy hokum blues flair.

The band follows that with the album’s best track, Shadow Man, with its Brecht-Weill style angst and Hawkey’s moody, world-weary, distantly Billie Holiday-inflected vocals. Gordon’s tapdancing drums take centerstage on the brisk I Can Take It. The album ends with a silly cover that’s infinitely better than the original, which will probably draw some chuckles from people in the crowd who were in grade school back in the 90s.

March 11, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment