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Category: swing music

A Gorgeously Bittersweet Farewell to Manhattan from Art-Rock Maven Spottiswoode

The Manhattan that Jonathan Spottiswoode came up in back in the 1990s was far from perfect. The seeds of the city’s death by real estate speculation had already been sown. But there were a lot more places where an often witheringly lyrical, lavishly orchestrated rock band could play then than there are now. Spottiswoode & His Enemies may have sold out the release show for their latest magnum opus, Lost in the City, at Joe’s Pub on the 30th, but twenty-one years ago they could have done the same at a much bigger venue. So it’s fitting that the album – streaming at Bandcamp – is an elegaic salute to a vanished, urbane metropolis, and that Spottiswoode has since relocated to his London birthplace. At least we’ll always have the memories – and this epic.

While Spottiswoode is no stranger to largescale creations, this is arguably his most lavish release. He’s always had a knack for latin sounds, and he dives more deeply into the Spanish Caribbean here than ever before. The opening track is Hoboken. It’s dead ringer for a brooding Pink Floyd ballad: Spottiswoode’s voice has weathered to resemble Roger Waters more and more over the yearas, and Tony Lauria’s gospel-tinged piano completes the picture. The migthy Springsteenian bridge is spot-on, right down to Laura’s Roy Bittan impersonation. “I tried it like all the rest, not what I dreamed I guess, but I did ok,” Spottiswoode muses.

With its bluesy minor-key swing spiced with horn harmonies from saxophonist Candace DeBartolo and trumpeter Kevin Cordt, the title track could also be peak-era Springsteen. With Lauria’s erudite, Fever-ish solo at the center, it’s a long-lost cousin to 10th Avenue Freeze-Out. The nimble pulse of bassist John Young and drummer Tim Vaill propel the funny, filthy, syncopated latin soul anthem Love Saxophone, a look back to a period ten years further back, and several Manhattan blocks north and east. 

Antoine Silverman’s acerbic, Romany-flavored violin kicks off The Walk of Shame, a hauntingly orchestrated vignette of the dark side of the bright lights: “The night was so delicoius/Now a puddle is a mirror for Narcissus.” Then Cordt and trombonist Sara Jacovino work a punchy conversation in Because I Made You, a return to swinging oldschool soul.

The way Spottiswoode sets up the narrative in the distantly ominous, wistful clave-soul elegy Goodbye Jim McBride is too good to give away. The starkly bluesy, doomed, reverberating ambience of It’s on Me wouldn’t be out of place on Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album. Next, the band hit a slow, Lynchian swing groove with Batman & Robin, a disconsolate picture of a divorced dad out with his kids on the weekend.

Riley McMahon’s hailstone reverb guitar mingles with Lauria’s stern salsa piano and organ in Now Didn’t I? McMahon and the bandleader bulid spaghetti western menace over a 5/4 beat in Tears of Joy: as Lauria’s electric piano twinkles eerily overhead, it could be Botanica. Then the band hit a blazing soul-blues sway with Dirty Spoon.

A mashup of late 60s folk-rock Kinks and Springsteen E Street shuffle, Still Small Voice Inside could be the album’s most poignant, relevant number:

Hello, good evening
Did you accomplish what you planned?
Don’t you know the feeling
Too much supply no demand
Yeah it’s a drag, at least you tried
Now listen to the still small voice inside

Young’s big bass bends anchor McMahon’s lingering guitar and blues harp in Cry Baby. Wistful strings and Lauria’s elegant piano mingle in Sunset, a vivid, Ray Davies-esque vignette, followed by the wryly Waitsian swing blues Going Home for Christmas.

The album’s musical high point could be the swaying 6/8 noir soul instrumental East Village Melody, Cordt and then DeBartolo channeling wee-hours melancholy over the band’s glistening, distantly ominous backdrop. Spottiswoode’s gritty vocals soar in You’ll See, an unexpectedly optimistic Weimar waltz. The album winds up with I Don’t Regret, its lush strings and Leonard Cohen inflections: it’s an old rake’s colorful, defiant defense of a “sordid life.” The sounds on this album are old but timeless: it will age well, just like the guy who wrote it.

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Avalon Jazz Band Fuel the Revelry at Symphony Space

On one hand, it was mystifying to see a sold-out crowd sitting sedately through the first three songs of the Avalon Jazz Band’s sold-out show at Symphony Space Thursday night. On the other, it was validating to see the group earning appreciation as a first-class jazz act. Too few swing bands get props for their chops.

This show was the second in a weekly series here called Revelry. Musically speaking, it’s the most exciting thing to happen to the Upper West Side in a long, long time. There were never many venues in the neighborhood to begin with and there are even fewer now. So Symphony Space is really filling a need by booking all sorts of artists who’ve probably never played this far north.

This Thursday, Oct 25 at 8 PM the venue has Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, a polymath on oldtime blues guitar, banjo and piano who may be the single most talented musician in all of New York. Ticket buyers 30 and under get in for $20, which is ten bucks off the regular cover charge. The downstairs bar stays open during the show and afterward; last week, ushers were grinningly handing out wristbands which entitled concertgoers to 20% off at the bar. All this is a different kind of return to the venue’s glory days in the late zeros and earlier in this decade when they were booking a ton of global talent in addition to the usual classical and jazz acts.

Last week, it was a four-piece version of Avalon Jazz Band. They opened with a charming, chirpy, playfully conversational take of the old French standard Coquette, frontwoman Tatiana Eva-Marie shimmying and teasing cartoonish riffs – and an irresistibly droll bass solo – from her bandmates. By the night’s third number, people of all ages were beginning to leave their seats and heading down in front of the stage to cut a rug. The snazziest dance moves of the night came from a couple who looked to be in their seventies, clearly old pros at swing dancing.

After starting in Paris, the singer led her quartet to Romany territory – Tatiana is half French and half Romanian – then to New Orleans and finally brought the music full circle. Guitarist Vinny Raniolo aired out his vast bag of riffs, from punchy Django Reinhardt swing, to warily resonant Chicago blues, fleet postbop and some eerie, tremoloing Lynchian resonance capped off with tremolo-picking that was sometimes fluttery and sometimes an icepick attack.

Violinist Gabe Terracciano showed off similar chops, from jaunty Bob Wills-style western swing, to airy Stephane Grappelli-esque phrasing, lots of sabretoothed Romany riffs and stark blues as well. Bassist Wallace Stelzer was amped pleasantly high in the mix, serving as the band’s Secretary of Entertainment with his wry sense of humor, the occasional tongue-in-cheek quote and solos that echoed the guitar.

The songs in the set were just as diverse. They’d played this year’s New Orleans Jazz Festival, so that was still on their minds. The highlight of the set was a brooding, saturnine take of Hoagy Carmichael’s New Orleans, with new English lyrics by a Crescent City friend of Tatiana’s. Her original, There’s Always a Moon Over New Orleans made a brisk contrast, inspired by the fact that when the band were down there, they never got up until after the sun went down. They mined the repertoire of Charles Trenet and Charles Aznavour for wistfulness, then went scampering up Menilmontant toward the end of the set. Afterward the crowd filed out to the bar, just as Tatiana – who by the end of the set had drained most of a sizeable glass of whiskey – had been encouraging all night. 

Withering Arabic Political Anthems and Swinging Noir Sounds at Youssra El Hawary’s US Debut at Lincoln Center

“We want our programming to be reflective of this city,” Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh said succinctly, introducing firebrand Egyptian singer/accordionist Youssra El Hawary this past evening for her North American debut. “She had an amazing song that went viral, part of the Arab Spring movement.” El Hawary has come a long way since her scathingly antiauthoritarian youtube hit The Wall six years ago.

She channels an angst and a noir psychedelic sensibility very similar to the French band Juniore. Yet she hasn’t lost any of the witheringly cynical political edge that brought her worldwide acclaim. ‘I can’t describe how emotional I am today,” she told the crowd, confiding that after her first show in Egypt, she thought she’d resign herself to going home and giving up on her dream. Sometimes good things happen to people who deserve them.

The blend of El Hawary’s chromatic accordion, Shadi El Hosseiny’s stalker electric piano and Sedky Sakhr’s wood flute in the night’s opening number, Kollo Yehoun, blended for an absolutely lurid mashup of late 60s French psychedelic pop and Egyptian classical songcraft. Tareq Abdelkawi’s buzuq added uneasily rippling intensity beneath El Hawary’s unselfconscious, airy Arabic-language vocals. She draws you in, whether understatedly moody or cool and collected.

Sakhr switched to harmonica for the second tune of the night, La Tesma Kalami, an anthemically strutting, shadowy Pigalle pop tune driven by Yamen El Gamal’s punchy bass and Loai (Luka) Gamal’s understaged drums. The anthemic, cabaret-tinged Kashkouli, as El Hawary described it, tackled issues of overthinking and fearlessness, Abdelkawi doubling the bandleader’s plaintive lead lines.

El Hawary rose gently out of El Hosseiny’s creepy, twinkling music box-like intro to a swaying, minor-key midtempo number, Mana Washi, Sakhr’s flute wafting and then bouncing as the band took the song further into straight-up rock territory. The title track to her album – which she translated as “We all go to sleep at night, wake up and forget” – swung through unexpected tempo shifts, torchy cabaret infused with Levantine energy. “That’s what we’ve been doing the last six, seven years,” she deadpanned.

Sakhr cynically went to great lengths to describe the noxiousness of Cairo bus exhaust in the city’s notoriously tangled rush hour traffic. Songs about things that literally smell like shit seldom have such a carefree bounce as Autobees, the jubilantly sarcastic number the band followed with. El Hawary didn’t hesitate to make the connection between the Cairo wall in her big hit and Trump’s proposed version on the Mexican border, which drew roars of applause as the band vamped and swung behind her: cosmopolitan elegance, pure punk rock energy.

Abdelkawi’s spirals and flickers lowlit the romantic angst of Baheb Aghib; then El Hawary brought the lights down with the bittersweetly lilting vocal-and-piano lament Bil Mazboot. The band went deep into swaying, crescendoing Cairo cafe land with the instrumental Sallem Zal Beit, a showcase for El Hawary’s accordion chops.

They reinvented the new wave-era French pop hit Maron Glacee with a droll calypso feel, then flipped the script with Jessica, a vindictively swinging kiss-off singalong directed at the ditzy French girl who stole her boyfriend. Despite differences in the band about how to translate Reehet El Fora, everybody agreed it was about the kind of sinking feeling that comes with having a Jessica around. With its neoromantic swirl, it was one of the night’s most stinging moments.

The band built a brooding fog behind her and then leapt into Hatoo Kteer, El Hawary skewering the Egyptian habit of stockpiling in case of crisis. She closed with Akbar Men El Gouda, the night’s most rock-oriented tune, then encored with a moodily catchy film theme that she credited as being a pivotal post-Wall moment in her career. 

You’ll see this show on the best concerts of 2018 page here at the end of the year. Lincoln Center’s mostly-weekly series of free concerts at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues next Thurs, Oct 11 at 7:30 PM with a rare New York performance of South African jazz featuring reedman McCoy Mrubata and pianist Paul Hanmer. Get there early if you want a seat. 

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.

Irresistibly Quirky Ukulele Fun at the Jalopy

Ukulele bands are supposed to be funny. Saturday night at the Jalopy, the twinbill of Ukulele Scramble and the Ukuladies kept everybody chuckling and frequently laughing out loud for the better part of two hours. Name a comedian who can pull that off.

True to their name, Ukulele Scramble play a lot of mashups. When they’re not twisting styles from across the decades – and centuries – into knots, they’re playing ridiculous segues, and repertoire that was definitely never meant to be played on the uke. When’s the last time you heard ukulele versions of classical compositions by Charles Ives or Amy Beach? Ukulele Scramble did both, and well!

Six years ago, Robin Hoffman described herself as an aspiring uke player. Her main gig was visual art: her two coffee table books feature the illustrations she drew as a regular in the audience at the Jalopy. Last night, on the same stage where she captured a generation of New York Americana music talent in all sorts of revealing, kinetic poses, she played Bach. That was midway through a spiky, sparkling cover of Pink Floyd’s uneasy psychedelic pop classic See Emily Play.

Her sparring partner in this duo project, Richard Perlmutter sparred back and forth with the audience in an endless “name that tune” game when he wasn’t spinning precise spirals and nimbly plucking out complex classical chords. At least as complex as you can play on a uke, anyway

Hoffman sang the night’s funniest song, a version of the Brahms lullaby with new lyrics about being kept awake by a fly in the bedroom – the joke is too good to give away. They did Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue, which more than one uke player in the crowd agreed was the first tune that pretty much everybody learns to play on it. Throughout the set, Perlmutter’s flinty vocals contrasted with Hoffman’s cool torch-singer delivery throughout all sorts of clever syncopation and intricate harmony. The most dizzyingly impressive number was a tonguetwisting can-can remake of piece by Offenbach.

The Ukuladies used to be much more ubiquitous than they are now: ten years ago, you’d find them at Rodeo Bar one day, then at Barbes or Joe’s Pub the next. So it’s no surprise that their irrepressible, theatrical shtick was more about breaking the fourth wall this time out – and maybe especially fresh because of it. Tapdancer Heather Warfel a.k.a. Cousin Bunnie flashed a series of charmingly lo-fi props while uke players Katie Down and Mary Myers a.k.a. Genevieve and her Aunt Mary harmonized together through a mix of Andrews Sisters girl-group jazz numbers and sardonic originals.

Their funniest of those was Put Another Nickel in the Nickelodeon, interspersed with innumerable snippets of cheesy pop songs. They also treated the crowd to Asshole in a SUV – a classic Brooklyn song if there ever was one – and a tongue-in-cheek one about getting gaymarried that managed to poke fun at both those who do and those who object to it. Singing saw player Philippa Thompson a.k.a.  Jimmy Lu – who’d just played a set with another excellent Jalopy act, M Shanghai String Band at the Brooklyn Americana Festival earlier in the day – led the quartet through a witheringly cynical bossa nova parody. Warfel got a turn on lead vocals in a number where it was revealed that the Ukuladies aren’t really a family band: they’re her backing unit.

Ukulele Scramble, based in Massachusetts, are playing Sept 27 at 6:30 PM at the Merriam-Gilbert Public Library, 3 W Main St in West Brookfield, MA.

Svetlana & the Delancey Five Reinvent Classic Swing at the Blue Note

The difference between Svetlana & the Delancey Five and virtually every other female-fronted vocal jazz act out there is that they’re not just a singer and a backing band. There’s more interplay and musical conversation in this group than there is in practically any other similar lineup. Case in point: the take of Lady Be Good at their Blue Note show on Saturday. “Here’s one from when we used to be a dance band,” frontwoman Svetlana Shmulyian told the crowd as the ensemble launched into a lickety-split version peppered with counterpoint and call-and-response between both singer and instrumentalists, along with a striking handful of sudden syncopated shifts.

Of the original band’s original lineup, only the bandleader, and trumpeter Charlie Caranicas remain  – if you buy the argument that there was an original one. Like another New York institution, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, this band have always had a semi-rotating cast: Shmulyian’s address book is as deep as her collection of edgy original charts.

Throughout the rest of the set, the animated jousting between bandmates was nonstop. Tenor saxophonist Christopher McBride exchanged clusters and bursts with Caranicas, whose effortlessly rapidfire descent through a biting series of chromatics during an epically shapeshifting Nothing But Blue Skies was one of the show’s high points.

Bassist Endea Owens – most recently witnessed propelling the mighty all-female Sisterhood of Swing big band at Lincoln Center – voiced terse piano lines and horn lines, and then went into some lowdown funk in a radical remake of Remember Me, from the animated film Coco. Pianist Willerm Delisfort, who’d switched to a resonant, organlike Fender Rhodes setting for that one, tossed off an especially smoochy boudoir soul riff that drew an eye-rolling “I can’t believe you just did that” from the bassist. From the side seats, it wasn’t possible to see Delisfort’s reaction, but it was probably, “There’s more where that came from.”

Drummer Henry Conerway III turned his predecessor Rob Garcia’s arrangement of the Beatles’ Because into a New Orleans funeral theme – in 6/8 time, most of the way through. Likewise, he and the bandleader pounced through more than one jaunty drum-and-vocal duet.

Shmulyian – whose interpretations depend on whatever exchanges are going on with the group – was characteristically dynamic on the mic. Her signature delivery is as clear as a bell, but this time she added an unexpectedly welcome grit to A Tisket, a Tasket, her opening number. It may have been a throwaway for Ella Fitzgerald, but Shmulyian took a carefree playground rhyme and made a fierce double-dutch anthem out of it. Contrastingly, she turned the ballad Sooner or Later – from the Madonna film Dick Tracy – into swoony wee-hours saloon blues.

For upstate fans, they’re at the Falcon,1348 Rt. 9 W in Marlboro, NY on July 29 at 8 PM. They also have a new album, Night at the Movies, in the can, whose reinvented songs from films across the ages are reputedly as eclectic as the setlist as this gig.

Lincoln Center’s 2018 Midsummer Night Swing Series Opens With Potent Relevance and Breathtaking Musicianship

At the risk of getting into serious trouble saying this, there hasn’t been such a stunning display of jazz talent on any New York stage this year as there was last night at the kickoff of Lincoln Center’s annual Midsummer Night Swing festival. The inspiration for the mighty big band, the Sisterhood of Swing, was the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-female swing group, who debuted eighty-one years ago. As bandleader, trumpeter and singer Bria Skonberg took care to remind the audience who packed Damrosch Park, those women risked their lives playing music together.

The members of this group weren’t risking their lives, but arguably the majority of them were out of their element. And few among this allstar cast play regularly with large ensembles, fewer still with a group the size of this one. The majority are bandleaders who play their own material rather than bouncy 1930s swing. Yet everybody seemed to be pretty much jumping out of their shoes to be involved in this project.

In two lengthy, hard-swinging sets that spanned from standards to cult favorites and an obscure gem or two, the fourteen-piece ensemble offered tantalizing glimpses of pretty much each member’s personality, yet in a completely different context considering where they’re usually found.

The audience responded most explosively to tenor saxophonist and singer Camille Thurman’s serpentine climb to the vocal stratosphere in one of the night’s few ballads, quite a contrast with her rapidfire scatting in a Benny Goodman diptych during the first set. Another big hit was tapdancer Michela Lerman’s nimble solo over Savannah Harris’ irrepressibly boisterous, tropically-tinged tom-tom syncopation, mirroring the drummer’s rambunctious drive in the second set’s opening number, Lady Be Good.

At the piano, Champian Fulton delivered purist, masterfully spacious, blues-drenched lines that fit the material perfectly, especially when the band threw her what could have been the night’s longest solo. In her first turn on the mic, she projected with a surprisingly steely intensity, then a second time around worked knowingly triumphant, bluesy, Dinah Washington-inspired melismas.

Lead trumpeter Jami Dauber joined with her brassy bandmate Linda Briceño and Skonberg as well in a wildly crescendoing, tightly spinning exchange in the wryly titled Battle of the Bugles, one of a handful of numbers from the catalog of Sweethearts of Swing creators Kat Sherrell and Natalie Wilson. Bassist Endea Owens benefited from excellent amplification, giving her a forceful presence. Chloe Feoranzo stood out most noticeably with her gritty baritone sax work; trombonist and singer Emily Asher also got time in the spotlight to channel some goodnaturedly wry humor. Lead alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin played punchy soul alongside her fellow reedwomen Thurman and Sharel Cassity.

On clarinet, Anat Cohen spun silky arpeggios on the less breathlessly pulsing numbers and delivered joyously dancing dixieland when the pace picked up, notably alongside violinist Regina Carter in A Woman’s Place Is in the Groove, a deliriously frantic obscurity by 1930s vioinist Ginger Smock. The two worked more calmly and majestically in a new instrumental arrangement of My Baby Just Cares for Me. The group closed with a joyously edgy take of the klezmer-tinged romp Doin’ the Uptown Lowdown, made famous by Mildred Bailey with the Tommy Dorsey band. The crowd didn’t want to let the band go after discovering this new sensation.

This year’s Midsummer Night Swing series continues through July 14 with a more eclectic series of dance bands than ever. Tomorrow at 7:30 PM it’s salsa pioneer and “El Rey de la Pachanga” Joe Quijano y Su Conjunto Cachana. It’ll cost you $17 to get out on the dance floor, something an awful lot of people last night were doing.

A Rare Reunion from New York’s Best Underground Swing Jazz Supergroup

The Tickled Pinks almost played Club Cumming. Ostensibly, lack of a liquor license derailed one of the few events that could have transcended any issue concerning tourist hordes in the East Village on a Saturday night. But the irrepressible underground swing jazz supergroup did get to play two iconic Brooklyn venues, Hank’s and Pete’s last month, in one of the funnest reunions of any New York band in recent years.

Among other harmony vocal acts, only John Zorn’s Mycale chorale have the kind of individualistic power and interplay that the Pinks showed off during what was a pretty good run. They made it as far as Joe’s Pub – and got the key to the city of Olympia, Washington on their most recent tour. Whether the key works or not is unknown.

It would be overly reductionistic to say that with her spectacular range, Karla Rose Moheno handles the highs, the more misty Stephanie Layton handles the mids and Kate Sland handles the lows – all three women can span the octaves enough to take their original inspiration, the Andrews Sisters, to the next level. Although that basic formula seemed to be the strategy for night one of a reunion weekend stand that began with an Elvis cover night at Hank’s.

The idea of three women harmonizing Elvis tunes is a typical Pinks move, although one they never did before. And they weren’t the only ones who sang. Guitarist Dylan Charles took a break in between elegant expanses of jazz chords, snazzy rockabilly and some machete tremolo-picking to narrate a tongue-in-cheek version of Are You Lonesome Tonight. There were also a handful of cameos from friends of the band invited up to do their versions of the hits.

Moheno switched out her trusty Telecaster for an acoustic guitar; Sland played snappy bass and Layton held down the groove behind the drumkit. John Rogers’ ornate electric piano and organ lit up several of the songs; trumpeter Mike Maher gave a mariachi flair to several numbers as well.

The set wasn’t just familiar favorites, either. As much fun as it was hearing what this crew could do with Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock and Suspicious Minds, the best song of the night was an obscure, ominous noir number, Black Star. On one hand, it’s hard to imagine that Elvis knew what kind of an end he’d come to when he sang this in the mid-60s…but this group’s stalking, low-key version left that question hanging. From this point of view, it would have been even more fun to be able to catch the whole set, but it was impossible to walk out of Moroccan saxophonist Yacine Boulares’ absolutely haunting Lincoln Center set earlier that night.

The Pinks wound up their weekend with a serpentine set of swing at Pete’s. Since they started in the late zeros, they’ve expanded their songbook far beyond 30s girl-group material to jump blues and beyond. Case in point: an absolutely accusatory version of Straighten Out and Fly Right. They went deep inside to find the bittersweetness in the Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon, then pulled out all the smoke and sultriness in Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby. And the old 20s hot swing standard Why Don’t You Do Right outdid both the Moonlighters and Rasputina’s versions in terms of both energy and righteous rage.

The Pinks are back on hiatus now while everybody in the group is busy with their own projects. Layton and Charles continue with their torch jazz band Eden Lane, with a gig on June 3 at 7 PM at Caffe Vivaldi, one of the Pinks’ old haunts. Sland continues to do unselfconsciously heroic work in hospice medicine in California. And Moheno continues with recording her next noir rock album, under the name Karla Rose – if the track listing remains as originally planned, that record would top the list of best albums of 2018 if she released it now.

A Rare Christmas Album That’s Not Cloying and Annoying

Christmas music rots your brain. It’s true! Scientific studies have confirmed what most of us have known all along. No wonder, considering how repetitive, unsophisticated and utterly lacking in dynamics most Christmas songs are.

Into this musical wasteland swings Champian Fulton, one of the great wits in jazz, with her irresistible and stunningly dynamic new album Christmas With Champian, streaming at Spotify. There hasn’t been a Christmas record this fun or this subtly irreverent since dub reggae band Super Hi-Fi’s two woozy instrumental albums of “holiday favorites.”

Fulton is the best singing pianist in jazz. There isn’t another instrumentalist out there with her mic skills, nor a singer with her fearsome chops at the keys. More than anything else, this is a great jazz record in a Santa hat. Fulton never ceases to find both poignancy and exuberant fun in the least expected places. For the latter, check out how she Sarah Vaughans White Christmas, the album’s opening track. Better watch out if you don’t want that snow, because Fulton sounds like she might smack you upside the head! It’s a good guess that Irving Berlin, who cut his teeth in ragtime, would approve of this jaunty, bluesy arrangement.

Fulton’s take of Pretty Paper, recast as a brisk jazz waltz, has to be the saddest version of the song ever recorded. That vendor girl, out there in the cold with all that merch she has to unload before the 25th of the month or she loses all her money! Likewise, the solo piano-and-vocal version of I’ll Be Home for Christmas is balmy and plaintive: when Fulton hits the end of the chorus, “if only in my dreams” packs a wallop.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland gets reinvented as wry viper swing, with some coyly emphatic trumpet from her dad, Stephen Fulton, who also lights up a carefully articulated version of Gracias a Dios. She sings that one in Spanish, hardly a stretch considering her Mexican heritage – and the point where she follows her dad’s solo with a deadpan jinglebell solo of her own is subtly priceless. Drummer Fukushi Tainaka’s elegant brushwork and David Williams’ terse bass add subtle bolero hints.

The Christmas Song – better known as Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire – is one of only a couple of tracks here with a genuine jazz pedigree, but Fulton goes for devious, tongue-in-cheek humor rather than trying to follow in Nat Cole’s footsteps.  She reinvents Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas as midtempo swing, with hints of Dinah Washington and an unexpectedly dark intro that edges toward barrelhouse.

Daughter and father team up to remake Christmas Time Is Here as a bittersweet, lustrous, languidly tropical instrumental ballad. Likewise, she transforms A Child Is Born into a bluesy waltz, with a melismatic, insistent bass solo. Her piano solo in a wee-hours take of The Christmas Waltz goes in the opposite direction, with enough droll ornamentation for a fifty-foot tree.

Her version of Sleigh Ride pairs a boisterous trumpet solo with an unexpectedly seductive vocal and teasingly allusive piano, an approach she revisits in Let It Snow. The Dinah-inspired piano-and-vocal final number, Merry Merry Christmas, is the only Fulton original here, but could easily date from sixty years ago – and might make it to your local supermarket someday.

A Small Subset of the Great Microscopic Septet Plays the Lower East Side Saturday Afternoon

There are few more definitively New York outfits than the Microscopic Septet – notwithstanding that a co-founder of this “surrealistic swing” crew is Australian. They predated the swing jazz revival here, but they’re not the least bit retro. They come out of the late 70s/early 80s punk jazz scene, but they’re not the least bit skronky. And pianist Joel Forrester foreshadowed this year’s avalanche of protest jazz by writing the theme for NPR’s Fresh Air as a brooding broadside against Bush I’s Gulf War. Beyond their substantial back catalog, they reputedly have a couple hundred more compositions they’ve played live over the decades but have never recorded. Their latest album, Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues is streaming at Cuneiform Records.

The Micros typically reunite for an annual Manhattan show or two. They haven’t done that this year, but their two lowest-register members, baritone saxophonist Dave Sewelson and bassist Dave Hofstra are playing a real 80s throwback kind of gig, a duo improvisation on Sept 9 in the community garden at Stanton and Norfolk at around 3. Avant garde cult favorite multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore – a big influence on Mara Rosenbloom – duets with bassist William Parker to start the afternoon at 2; afterward at 4, trombone wizard Steve Swell joins with Parker and TA Thompson.

The Micros’ album is a about as serious as they get – which isn’t totally dead serious, considering how much of their catalog is sort of the Spinal Tap of classic jazz – in that sense, they predated Mostly Other People Do the Killing by a couple of decades. The album opens with Cat Toys, a slinky horror film theme theme with the occasional wry piano flourish, a smoky Don Davis alto solo and Hofstra’s coy strut over drummer Richard Dworkin’s sotto-voce rimshots. Blues Cubistico is full of tongue-in-cheek stop-and-starts and gives Sewelson a vehicle for his genial wit. Likewise, the slowly swaying Dark Blue, with plenty of droll echo tradeoffs with the rest of the band and a similarly sardonic outro where the four-horn frontline finally coalesces.

Don’t Mind If I Do is a rare departure into straight-ahead, blithe, New Orleans-tinged territory with a slithery solo from tenor saxophonist Mike Hashin (who’s also the not-so-secret weapon in Svetlana & the Delancey Five). Similarly, another of soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston’s tunes here, Migraine Blues has a comfortable wee-hours strut, but with contrasting, shivery solos from Davis and Sewelson.

PJ in the 60s, a catchy, triumphant swing shuffle, is Forrester’s shout-out to his bandmate Johnston, building out of a surprisingly messy sax cauldron and featuring a balmy Johnston trading off with the rest of the horns. When It’s Getting Dark is basically variations on the Peter Gunne theme, Forrester’s sardonic piano up against Dworkin’s emphatic drumming and some cartoonish chartwork from the horns. Simple-Minded Blues, dedicated to Spectrum impresario Glenn Cornett, is anything but simple, a cheery exercise in dressing up the blues in all kinds of strange voicings, but with a purist Forrester solo as a sweet caramel center.

After You, Joel, dedicated by Forrester to painter Joel Goldstein, brings back the shuffle groove and Looney Tunes exchanges of voices. 12 Angry Birds, a low-key, marching Ellington homage by Johnston, reaches for Mood Indigo lustre, with a brooding soprano sax solo that’s arguably the album’s most riveting moment.

Quizzical, Johnston’s salute to his bandmate and Micros co-founder Forrester, threatens to get satirical early on but straightens out with a purposeful Monk influence and plenty of room for the pianist to channel that. The album winds up with a blues version of a xmas carol – which should have been left at the curb for the trash truck beside that moldy Simon & Garfunkel album  – and a hefty cover of Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers’ 1950 R&B hit I’ve Got a Right to Cry, sung with gritty passion by Sewelson. It’s unlikely that he and Hofstra will do much of anything this composed at the Saturday show in the garden…but you never know with any of these guys.