New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: swing music

Mike Neer’s Brilliant, Imaginative New Album Reinvents Jazz Classics for Lapsteel

Lapsteel player Mike Neer‘s previous album was a reinvention of Thelonious Monk classics. His latest album Keepin’ It Real – streaming at Bandcamp – is an absolutely brilliant, occasionally unsettling mix of material imaginatively arranged for what Neer calls a “faux Hawaiian trio” of steel, bass and ukulele, all of which he plays himself. Recorded during the lockdown, it also features cameos from an allstar cast.

It wouldn’t be overhype to compare the opening number, Duke Ellington’s African Flower, to Big Lazy. Neer’s steady ukulele in the beginning is a red herring: his ominously chromatic steel lead follows a  swinging quasi-bolero beat. It brings to mind a certain Brooklyn psychedelic cumbia band’s take on Erik Satie.

Nica’s Dream, a Horace Silver tune, shifts from hints of bossa nova to a jaunty swing, then clouds pass through the sonic picture, guest vibraphonist Tom Beckham adding a steady, latin-tinged solo over Neer’s uke flurries before he hits a deviously Monk-inflected steel solo.

Neer’s take of McCoy Tyner’s Passion Dance – has a jaunty, bubbling, riff-driven cheer and a series of dazzling, rapidfire Beckham solos. Melodica player Matt King adds a layer floating over Neer’s steel in their amiably pulsing bossa take of Pensativa.

An aptly furtive, stalking take of Stolen Moments features Anton Denner taking tensely bluesy flight on alto flute. West Coast Blues comes across as what could have been a Bob Wills demo, Neer contributing both a terse bass solo and a romping, irrepressible bop steel solo.

Will Bernard guests sparely, incisively, and subtly ferociously on guitar in the allusively modal, vamping Witch Hunt. Accordionist Ron Oswanski kicks off Peace with a lush intro, Neer adding warmly, sparely pastoral melody over a slow, trip-hop-like sway

Fun fact: before Neer became New York’s foremost jazz lapsteel player, he did some time as lead instrumentalist with Hawaiian swing stars the Moonlighters, an influence that obviously stuck.

Party Like It’s 1929, or 2019, With Megg Farrell and Ricky Alexander

For the last few years before the lockdown, Sweet Megg & the Wayfarers were one of New York’s top hot 20s-style swing dance bands. They held down a regular Radegast Hall residency and if memory serves right were also one of the main attractions at the now-discontinued Porchstomp festival on Governors Island. Radegast Hall may no longer have music, and these days Governors Island visitors are subject to a clusterfuck of the World Economic Forum’s New Abnormal restrictions. But the core of the band, frontwoman Megg Farrell and multi-reedman Ricky Alexander are still partying like it’s 2019 and have a high-voltage new album, I’m in Love Again, streaming at Spotify. It’s a lot of fun figuring out which are the originals and which are the covers here. Sometimes it’s hard to tell: the band really know their hot jazz inside out.

The opening track, My Honey’s Lovin’ Arms has a jaunty, brassy dixieland interweave contrasting with Farrell’s mentholated purr. We get a red-flame forward drive from Mike Davis’ trumpet and Rob Edwards’ trombone, plus a bouncy solo from Alexander’s clarinet over Dalton Ridenhour’s saloon jazz piano and the steady bass and drums of Rob Adkins and Kevin Dorn. It sets the stage for the rest of the party.

Alexander switches to balmy tenor sax for the shuffling ballad Foolin’ Myself, Farrell calm and cool overhead. That’s none other than the great Jerron Paxton on the acoustic blues guitar.

Edwards and Davis square off for a playful duel in Right or Wrong, setting up a slyly amusing clarinet break, Farrell unexpectedly dropping the composed facade and reaching for the rafters. She gets even more diversely seductive after that in Squeeze Me, as the band keep a tightly matching beat going, Davis and Alexander trading solos.

Farrell and Paxton (on banjo here) duet on the coyly innuendo-fueled Last Night on the Back Porch. The horns duel and then make way for a wry Paxton banjo break in Angry, then the group slow everything down for I Got It Bad, with a lusciously lustrous, Ellingtonian arrangement and Alexander’s most affecting sax solo here.

Ragged But Right has a rustic hokum blues vibe and a deviously perfect early 30s vernacular. The band take the vibe about twenty years further into the future on album’s title track, with its western swing tinges and Ridenhour’s scrambling piano.

I’d Love to Take Orders From You – yikes, that’s a scary title for 2021 – has the album’s most sophisticated rhythms. The band close it out with A Blues Serenade, awash in lush nocturnal sonics behind Farrell’s expressive, dynamic vocals. Won’t it be fun when we get rid of Cuomo and all the restrictions and bands like this can get the party started at any venue that will have them.

Fifth Element Breathe New Life into a Bunch of Familiar Standards

The tracklist for swing band Fifth Element’s new album – streaming at Soundcloud- is pretty generic. A gazillion lounge acts have mined these escapist standards, mostly from the 40s and 50s, for decades. What sets Fifth Element apart from the legions of torchy hotel bar happy hour groups is singer Nina Richmond’s dynamic, subtly electrifying, insightful interpretations and tenor sax player Dave Coules’ outside-the-box, economical arrangements. Moldy oldies have seldom been reinvented with this kind of flair and zest.

The group set the stage for the rest of the record with the opening number, I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me. Richmond’s delivery has vintage 60s soul-infused edge and bite; pianist Dale Scaife’s terse solo sets up Coules’ balmy solo, bassist Ron Johnston and drummer Glenn Anderson maintaining a similarly purposeful shuffle groove.

Johnston’s coyly swooping bass solo kicks off A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square; again, Richmond’s mezzo-soprano channels an undercurrent of unease. The band do It Might As Well Be Spring as a lively cha-cha – and vivid portrait of cabin fever. I Love Being Here With You has some good jokes – let’s say that Johnston seems to be the cutup in the band.

Anderson has fun introducing a passing shower in The Gentle Rain, reinvented it as a bossa tune. The band romp through There Will Never Be Another You, then completely flip the script with the brooding first verse of More Than You Know, anchored by Scaife’s plaintive chords before shifting to a slow, simmering 12/8 swing,

They follow a subtly Monk-inflected September in the Rain with a blue-flame take of The Look of Love: sticking with a backbeat on the turnaround in lieu of Burt Bacharach’s flurrying syncopation really seals the deal. Richmond isn’t out on the ledge again in Days of Wine and Roses, but she does give it a silky poignancy.

The quintet slow down again for a bit but pick up with tropical cheer in My Romance, Richmond cutting loose with her vibrato. They close the album with My Shining Hour, shifting from gospel-inflected rapture to a briskly triumphant pulse. If you’re outside the free world right now and you have a speakeasy nearby – as everybody seems to these days – this makes a good soundtrack. Just don’t play it too loud: you don’t want snitches!

A Smart, Darkly Lyrical, Catchy New Album From Kristy Hinds

Kristy Hinds is not a pretender. She is the real deal. The New Mexico chanteuse has a voice that can be sassy one moment, pillowy the next, with a sophisticated command of jazz phrasing and an irrepressible sense of humor. Which you pretty much need to have, if your axe is the ukulele. But as a songwriter, Hinds’ mini-movies are more serious and substantial, and tinged with noir menace, than you usually hear plinked out on that little instrument. Alongside other members of the uke demimonde, Bliss Blood is the obvious comparison. Hinds has a new short album, Strange Religion streaming at Soundcloud.

The opening track, Miss Morocco is a catchy, slinky cha-cha with the kind of double entendres that Hinds has a knack for, i.e. this femme fatale and would-be starlet “killed him with a head shot.” Track two, She Told Someone, has a funky Rhodes piano bounce behind Hinds’ vengeful narrative about speaking truth to power after a grim Metoo moment: that’s Robert Muller at the keys, with Claudio Tolousse on guitar and Arnaldo Acosta on drums. Samantha Harris and Colin Deuble share bass duties on the record.

The closing diptych, Burn or Drown and Drive begins as a reggae tune: “A daily sacrifice is needed to keep the mice in bullets – my car outside is loaded,” Hinds relates.

While you’re at Hinds’ Soundcloud page, check out the live tracks: flying without a net, she’s arguably even more dynamic onstage than she is in the studio. Hinds’ next gig will be a weekly 9 PM Friday night residency at Old Town Farm Bike-in Coffee, 949 Montoya St NW in Albuquerque as soon as they reopen next month.

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.

The 8-Bit Big Band Can’t Stop Playing Mighty, Orchestral Versions of Video Game Themes

The 8-Bit Big Band are one of the most improbably successful brands in music. They own the franchise on lavishly orchestrated, jazz-oriented arrangements of video game themes. They have more of a following in the video game world than in jazz circles, maybe because much of what they play is closer to action film scores than, say, Miles Davis. But it sure is a lot of fun. Their frequently hilarious latest album Backwards Compatible is streaming at Bandcamp.

Between the horns, and reeds, and string orchestra, and singers, there are so many people among the group’s rotating cast of characters that they would take up more space than there is on this page. After a bit of a lush intro, they launch into the album with the main theme from Chrono Trigger, pianist Steven Feifke scrambling over a fusiony backdrop that descends to a dreamy string interlude. Take out those piano breaks and this could be an early 80s Earth Wind and Fire number.

The Gourmet Race from Kirby Super Star is basically a beefed-up hot 20s tune, tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon soloing lickety-split over a racewalking pulse as the strings swell behind him. They do Hydrocity Zone, a Sonic the Hedgehog 3 theme, as beefed-up funk with Grace Kelly adding a gritty alto solo.

Benny Benack III croons a silly lyric, Rat Pack style, then raises his trumpet in a blustery 50s-style orchestral pop reinvention of Want You Gone, from the Portal 2 soundtrack. Metaknights Revenge, a Kirby Super Star theme has a clever interweave of horns in place of motorik synth and a trio of wry synth solos from the mysterious “Buttonmasher.”

The first Mario theme here is the killer, irresistibly amusing, quote-laden tarantella Super Mario Land Underground, from Super Mario 64, with Balkan-tinged baritone sax from another mystery soloist,  “Leo P.”  It’s the best track on the album. Dire Dire Docks, also from that soundtrack, features bassist and bandleader Charlie Rosen burbling around way up the fretboard over a pillowy ballad backdrop.

It’s hard to resist singing “That’s the way of the world, yeow,” as Birdman, from Pilot Wings 64, gets underway. Zac Zinger emulates a woozy synth through his EWI while the music edges closer toward Alan Parsons Project territory. Choral group Accent’s contribution to the floating Lost in Thoughts All Alone, from Fire Emblem Fates, will have you reaching for fast forward to get away from the autotune, ruining an otherwise clever Rosen chart.

Bassist Adam Neely goes up the scale and noodles in Saria’s Song, a cheerily symphonic remake from the Zelda: Ocarina of Time score. Tiffany Mann sings on a sweeping 70s soul version of Snake Eater, found on the Metal Gear Solid 3 soundtrack.

The group close with a couple of additional Mario themes. Kelly returns, this time on the mic, for a ridiculously amusing, vaudevillian reinvention of Jump Up Super Star, from Super Mario Odyssey. The orchestra close appropriately enough with a brassy take of the Super Mario World End Theme, complete with shivery strings and a ragtime piano solo. This is a great party record and obviously a labor of love. The amount of work Rosen spent reworking all these tunes is staggering, and the huge crew here seem to be having just as much fun with it.

Purist, Upbeat, Dynamically Retro Swing Songs From Gemma Sherry

Singer Gemma Sherry escaped her native Australia before the lockdown. Considering how the lockdowners have turned the country into the Southern Hemisphere’s North Korea, she was lucky to get out when she did. On her sarcastically titled album Let’s Get Serious – streaming at Bandcamp – she shows off a purist retro 50s sensibility and an often devious sense of humor. Musicians love to play on records like this because it gives them a chance to cut loose and have fun, and Sherry is contagious when it comes to that.

Sometimes that humor is pretty broad, sometimes it’s more subtle. With her irrepressibly chirpy, cheery delivery, Sherry plays up the hokum and innuendo in the album’s opening number, Blossom’s Blues. So do pianist Rick Germanson and guitarist Paul Bollenback, the latter doing a little B.B. King flutter before nailing one of the punchlines.

Sherry approaches Give Me the Simple Life with a more pillowy delivery as the band strut behind her, propelled by bassist Eric Wheeler and drummer George Coleman Jr. The addition of Joseph Doubleday’s vibraphone in the spare, boleroesque take of Too Much in Love to Care gives it an unexpected, understatedly lurid Blue Velvet lounge feel.

Likewise, the delicate take of Try Your Wings, beginning as a wistful guitar-and-vocal duet, is a heartfelt change of pace. Sherry also does much of The Alley Cat Song as a jaunty duet with Wheeler, She plays up more wistful self-effacement than snideness in the Blossom Dearie classic The Gentleman Is a Dope (for a badass version that’s 180 degrees the opposite, check out Joanna Berkebile’s new recording).

There’s striking modal sternness in Why Don’t You Do Right, fueled by Germanson’s resonant, incisive chords and Bollenback’s biting solo: this Great Depression-era hit has special resonance in a year where forty percent of New Yorkers can no longer pay rent. Sherry drifts back into slinky latin noir in Whatever Lola Wants, Germanson relishing the role of creepy lounge lizard. It’s the best song on the album.

The group give a chipper early 50s feel to Straighten Up and Fly Right, complete with drum breaks and spare vibes. It’s hard to disassociate Sherry’s remake of Go Away Little Girl from a certain version that plagues mallstore radio mixes. She winds up the album with a tiptoeing, lighthearted take of The Doodlin Song, which will definitely drive the party poopers out of the room.

Charming, Cheery Swing Tunes For a New Era of Speakeasies

When Fleur Seule put out their album Standards and Sweet Things – streaming at Spotify – in 2019, little did they know how radical their music would be less than two years later. Obviously, in 2019, nobody regarded this group’s perennially cheery, dancefloor-friendly swing tunes as dangerous. Sure, back in the 1940s, the sound they emulate was considered scandalous in redneck parts of the world, but that was then and this is now. Right?

Wrong. Who knew that dictator Andrew Cuomo would illegalize dancing to jazz in clubs…never mind criminalizing music venues themselves? Until the underground speakeasy circuit which has come to replace the scores of shuttered venues around town becomes more integrated into this city’s nightlife, we have Fleur Seule’s sassy, urbane record to remind us of the fun we had…and the fun we will have. But we’re going to have to work for it. Recent court rulings have overturned Cuomo’s ridiculous lockdown edicts against gyms and houses of worship, but we have to do our part and keep fighting to get back to normal. Let’s not forget that if the lockdowners get their way, indoor concerts in this city will always have to be clandestine.

The album opens with a low-key, scampering take of Taking a Chance on Love, frontwoman Allyson Briggs’ understated optimism over Jason Yeager’a tightly clustering piano, Michael O’Brien’s woody bass and Paul Francis’ shuffling drums, Andy Warren’s muted trumpet raising the temperature here and there. That sets the stage for the rest of the record: most of this is party music, and this is a long album, sixteen tracks.

One of Fleur Seule’s distinguishing features is that they have more of a latin flair than most of the energetic, female-fronted swing acts to come out of this town since the big swing revival a quarter century ago. Their version of Piel Canela has a lowlit simmer, coy overdubbed vocalese and Spanish guitar from Richard Miller. Trumpet and guitar elevate Sabor a Mi above a muted wistfulness, while Briggs plays up the innuendo in Manuelo (even as she mispronounces this hombre’s name). She turns her brittle vibrato up all the way for an aptly summery version of Con Los Ayos Que Me Quedan. And the take of Sweet Happy Life, with its precise, carnavalesque piano, is one of the album’s most individualistic tracks.

Briggs toys with the melody of Almost Like Being In Love, Anita O’Day style. The band plunder the Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald songbook for brisk romps through Them There Eyes and S’Wonderful. Shoo Fly Pie has a wry muted trumpet solo and all the guys joining in on the chorus; the group opt for doing Zou Bisou Bisou as a light-fingered bossa

There are some ballads here too. The most lushly nocturnal track here is Embraceable You. Tenderly is a showcase for glittering piano over a slow triplet shuffle, a lyrical bowed bass solo at the center. Briggs saves one of her most vivid vocals for Misty, then a little later she gets especially tender in an expansive take of La Vie En Rose.

Cheeery, Retro New Orleans, Dixieland and Swing Sounds From the Doggy Cats

The Doggy Cats got their start at legendary Red Hook watering hole Sunny’s Bar, and play the kind of music that the regulars who frequented the place during its Prohibition days listened to. Tetsuro Hoshii leads the sextet from behind the piano. His merry bandmates include trumpeter Aaron Bahr, saxophonist Zac Zinger, trombonist Christopher Palmer, bassist Michael Bates and drummer Rob Garcia. Their cheery, catchy debut album Daikon Pizza is streaming at Bandcamp.

Garcia kicks off the album’s opening number, Happy Dog with a nifty New Orleans shuffle, and from there the band build a lively, joyous, dixieland-flavored theme. Bourgeoisie Breakfast With Dogs is a ragtime strut with more of a lowdown feel. Howdy Cats! also has New Orleans flair, fleetingly lustrous horns and wry surf allusions from Garcia.

Fatty Catty is mostly a one-chord jam anchored by Hoshii’s insistent, syncopated lefthand, with droll low-register trombone and a tumbling drum solo. A somewhat more serious trombone solo and bluesy piano brighten up Old Clock, a midtempo swing song without words, The band get a little funkier with Dacadindan and its punchy solos around the horn.

Brass Hymn is just the horns doing what sounds like a paraphrase of Auld Lang Syne. The aptly titled, jubilantly swaying Happiest Cat has a sagacious conversation between sax and trombone. Then it’s time for trumpet and bass to do some playful jousting in Samba – that’s the name of the tune – which actually has a lot more Louisiana then Brazil in it. Hoshii’s emphatic stairstepping and scampering solo afterward take the song into much more modern territory.

Palmer’s wry muted lines rise over Hoshii’s stately gospel piano in the slow, 6/8 Sunset. The album’s most expansive track, Qui Rock is a detour into edgier postbop sounds, Hoshii’s stern, bluesy bassline variations holding it down as Zinger reaches for the sky; the terse interweave between bass and piano is an unexpectedly dynamic touch. The band stroll home to a Bourbon Street of the mind circa 1935 to close the album with Baila Biala Jambalaya. Spin this at your next houseparty if you want to keep everybody there.

Maverick, Poignant Cross-Generational Reinventions of Swing Jazz Classics

What a refreshing change to hear an album of Billie Holiday classics sung by a frontwoman with her own distinctive style, who isn’t trying to rip off Lady Day! Samoa Wilson was a pioneer of the New York oldtime Americana scene back in the zeros, but she also has a thing for jazz. Jim Kweskin is the best-known of the 60s jugband blues revivalists, but he’s just as much of a jazz guy. The two have a long history of collaborations and a new album, I Just Want To Be Horizontal streaming at Spotify. It’s a joyously dynamic mix of both well-known and obscure swing tunes reinvented from a string band perspective, more or less.

The lineup Kweskin pulled together is fearsome. After all these years, his guitar fingerpicking is still nimble, and Wilson, with a larger voice and wider-angle vibrato than Holiday, varies her delivery stunningly from song to song. Western swing maven Dennis Lichtman plays clarinet, violin and mandolin, alongside pianist/accordionist Sonny Barbato, lead guitarist Titus Vollmer, alto sax player Paloma Ohm and trumpeter Mike Davis, with Matthew Berlin on bass and Jeff Brown on drums.

The group take the majority of the tunes on this lavish seventeen-track record from Holiday’s early days with the Teddy Wilson Orchestra – in many cases, Wilson has restored the complete original lyrics. They open with the very familiar: in After You’ve Gone, Kweskin signals the point where he takes over the mic and they take it doublespeed, Lichtman puts down his clarinet for his violin and Barbato throws in a tantalizingly brief accordion solo. That sets the stage for the rest of the record: short solos, emphasis on going to the source of what these songs are all about

The album’s title track is a slow, hazy take of an obscure Bunty Pendleton tune with an aptly pillowy vocal from Wilson, downplaying hokum blues connotations for dreamy ambience. She pulls out the big vibrato for an achingly hopeful take of the midtempo number Trust In Me, then sticks with the gravitas while the band pick up the pace for the western swing-tinged  I Cried For You.

Rosetta Howard’s druggy anthem The Candy Man has a luscious interweave of strings and reeds, with a balmy sax solo at the center. The group remake Inch Worm, a children’s song from the Danny Kaye film Hans Christian Andersen, as trippy, velvety, vamping pastoral swing.

Wilson’s cynical delivery contrasts with the jaunty shuffle of That’s Life I Guess. The album’s most epic number is Until the Real Thing Comes Along, with expressive, wee-hours solos from sax, piano and Lichtman’s clarinet.

The bluegrass-flavored take of Me, Myself & I is less schizophrenic than just plain fun, echoed by the group’s update on Bessie Smith’s innuendo-fueled hokum blues classic Kitchen Man and At Ebb Tide, an old Hawaiian swing tune.

A low-key, pretty straight-up swing version of Our Love Is Here to Stay is a showcase for Wilson’s low register. She gets a little brittle and misty in Lover Come Back to Me, then lends her sultriest delivery on the record to a ahuffle version of Easy to Love.

Kweskin turns an Irving Berlin chestnut inside out with He Ain’t Got Rhythm. The last of the Lady Day numbers, I Wished on the Moon gets simmering intensity from Wilson and shimmery dixieland flavor from the band. They close the record with a plaintive interpretation of a rare Tony Bennett b-side, Someone Turned the Moon Upside Down.