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Category: swing music

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.

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.

Charming, Deceptively Sophisticated New York Songs From Rachelle Garniez and Erik Della Penna

To what degree does being born and raised in a metropolis empower the ability to demystify it? Are native New Yorkers better able to cut through centuries of myth and romance to see the grit and blood underneath? Or does an immigrant, whether from outside the country or simply another state, have a broader perspective? Rachelle Garniez and Erik Della Penna assess those questions, and much more, on their debut collaboration, An Evening in New York, streaming at Spotify.

Both artists were born and raised here. Each songwriter’s own catalog has a rich historical sensibility: Della Penna with Americana-tinged superduo Kill Henry Sugar, Garniez mostly as a solo artist but occasionally with bands ranging from alt-country pioneers Mumbo Gumbo to ecstatic delta blues/New Orleans jamband Hazmat Modine. Each artist tends to favor subtlety and detail over fullscale drama: they make a good team. The two don’t have any shows together coming up.  Garniez was scheduled play the release show for her first all-covers album, a salute to recently deceased artists including Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin and others, on March 15 at 7 PM at Dixon Place, but the show was cancelled due to the coronavirus scare.

On the duo record, Della Penna plays the stringed instruments and Garniez handles the keyboards. There’s a retro charm but also devilish levels of detail in the songs, a mix of mostly oldtimey-flavored originals and a handful of well-known New York-themed numbers from across the decades. On the surface, the title track is a charmingly waltzing turn-of-the-20th-century guitar-and-accordion duet, but there’s a wistful subtext.

Della Penna switches to banjo for his cynically empathetic lounge-lizard ballad, Neighbors, Manhattan Island, a Garniez concert favorite, languidly reflects on how cheaply the land that would become the “Empire City” was purchased from its original inhabitants (who didn’t understand they’d have to leave). Then the two pick up the pace with Talking Picture, wryly prefiguring the kind of tender reassurance an Instagram video can offer.

They follow a brisk instrumental version of the old 19th century vaudeville hit 42nd Street with a starkly resonant, anciently bluesy cover of Hazmat Modine’s surreal Viking Burial. Garniez’s Black Irish Boy is a pretty hilarious recollection of a childhood crush, as well as its aftermath. Then Della Penna takes over the mic for the Appalachian-tinged Zeppelin Song, singing from the point of view of a WWI German soldier hoping to escape the perils of combat by catching a ride on the rich baron’s contraption.

Garniez moves to the piano for a glistening ragtime-infused take of Am I Blue. Della Penna offers a fond Coney Island reminiscence with Wonder Wheel, followed by the slyly cajun-tinged High Rise. The duo put a kazoo in Coffee – as in “Let’s have another cup of coffee, and let’s have another piece of pie.” They wind up the album with their funniest song, We’ll Take Manhattan: you kind of have to live here to get the jokes, but they’re pretty priceless.

The album also includes an elegant take of Bye Bye Blackbird; a coyly spare Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen with a tastily bristling Della Penna guitar solo; and an irresistibly funny version of Irving Berlin’s hokum blues Walking Stick.

Three Edgy Songwriters Provide Respite From the Cold at City Vineyard

Last night a crowd braved the cold for the comfortable confines of City Vineyard off the West Side Highway downtown to listen raptly to three first-class, veteran tunesmiths. Mary Lee Kortes, frontwoman of Mary Lee’s Corvette, set the bar impossibly high for the rest of evening, opening the night with a rare trio version of the band alongside Rod Hohl on lead guitar and Jeremy Chatzky on upright bass.

Their set drew from throughout an astonishingly eclectic twenty-year career. They started with Out From Under It, a grittily swaying Laurel Canyon psych-pop tune. “What an amazing sight to sail the longest night and make it home somehow,” Kortes sang in a delivery that was part silk and part spun steel, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, Chatzky nailing the slithery downward riff as the song peaked out on the final chorus.

Hohl played phantasmagorical swing beneath Kortes’ jaunty phrasing in The Music Got Me Here, from the band’s Songs of Beulah Rowley record, a concept album about a fictitious polymath songwriter from the early part of the past century. Then the trio shifted elegantly from straight-up jazz to moody blues in the slowly swaying ballad Will Anyone Know That I Was Here.

“Actually, songwriters do write songs not about themselves – it is shocking to some people,” Kortes mused, then led the group through a chilling, impassioned take of Why Don’t You Leave Him, a grim minor-key abused woman’s narrative that’s every bit as relevant in the age of Metoo as it was when the band released it in 1999 on the True Lovers of Adventure album.

Midway through the set, Kortes took a pause to read a couple of surreal excerpts from her new book Dreaming of Dylan: 115 Dreams About Bob, a frequently hilarious collection crowdsourced from around the world. She reprised that theme at the end of the set with a deviously funny new song, Dreaming of Him, referencing some of those dreams without ever naming who they’re about. She challenged the crowd to sing along with the impossibly high, arioso hook on the chorus: unsurprisingly, she was the only one who could hit those notes.

The rest of the set was just as entertaining. The towering anthem Someplace We Can’t See seemed to be more triumphant than the uneasy, practically elegaic album version. Kortes brought up guitarist Steven Butler to play Byrdsy jangle and jagged Beatlisms on a couple of tunes they’d written together: the gorgeous End of the Road and a long, psychedelic take of One More Sun, which turned out to be closer to Yo La Tengo than the Indian music the album version alludes to.

Butler validated his unimpeachable taste in co-writers, following with a set of mostly new material from his latest project with crooner and vintage Britrock crooner Ed Rogers, with Don Piper playing acoustic rhythm guitar. A fixture in the East Village for years, Rogers’ songs have often savagely chronicled the destruction of New York neighborhoods in an endless blitzkrieg of gentrification. Many of the numbers last night were his most withering and spot-on yet.

The best was Old Storefronts, a bitter, chilling account of what happens when people stop supporting independent businesses and get all their stuff online. Possibilities (as in, “No possibilities”) had a Stonesy cynicism. Joined by drummer and #1 Kinks fan Frank Lima on percussion and backing vocals, their closing number, Seven Hour Man, caustically asssessed how the gig economy has made the forty hour work week a pipe dream from the past.

The rest of the material was as eclectic as expected. The trio jangled through Diana Dors, a wistful shout-out to a legendary British actress who died young after a failed attempt to make it in Hollywood. Love Lock Bridge, a catchy, rainswept ballad set in Dublin, had a similar bittersweetness.

There’s another potentially amazing lineup at City Vineyard on Nov 19 at 7:30 PM with two great champions of oldtime acoustic blues, Jontavious Willis and Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton. Cover is $20.

Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks Get the Party Started at This Year’s Lincoln Center Midsummer Night Swing Festival

Smoky grey clouds trailed across the river from New Jersey amid spots of sun, a blanket of crushing humidity over Damrosch Park out back of Lincoln Center last night. Hardly optimum conditions for the opening of this year’s Midsummer Night Swing festival – but people came anyway. Who goes to these things? Millennials. And old people – Gen X and most of Gen Y seemed to be missing. Which in a way is strange, because it was Gen X who suppported the first wave of the oldtimey swing revival in New York back in the 90s.

Appropriately, New York’s kings of retro swing, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, were chosen to play opening night. The multi-instrumentalist bandleader recalled how his orchestra had played the festival thirty years ago, at a time when their main haunt was a lively (and long since vanished) cajun boite in Chelsea. In the years since, Giordano has become Hollywood’s go-to guy for all swing-related things: the Boardwalk Empire soundtrack is just one of many recent achievements.

The band didn’t seem the least phased by the heat. For Giordano,“We’re going to slow things down now” means midtempo; this was a dance party after all. On the other hand, the group’s vividness and attention to detail is astronishing, especially when you consider that a lot of the material in their first set was standards they’ve played over and over again. Maybe the change of venue, from the cozier confines of the Iguana, where they’ve held down a Monday-Tuesday residency for several years now, was a factor.

And Giordano is as much if not more committed to lost treasures as he is to standards. The set was a mix of both. With its tricky syncopation and klezmer echoes, Puttin’ On the Ritz was a big hit with the crowd. Moving from Detroit, to Kansas City, to Harlem and the south, the group painted a vast and eclectic panorama of the music that rose from the shadiest parts of town to become America’s default party soundtrack for decades.

They opened with Fletcher Henderson’s boisterous 1920s hit Stampede – which actually didn’t hit quite that velocity – and closed with the caffeinated dixieland of Rhythm Is Our Business, from about five years later. In between, they went into the Ellington catalog for a brisk early 30s obscurity as well as The Mooche, which Giordano called “highly seductive.” With its luscious, hazily lustrous chromatics, it was the high point of the set.

Throughout the orchestra, solos were incisive and tantalizingly brief – which they have to be if a band is limited to a single side of a 78 RPM record. Trumpeter Jon Kellso kicked off a relatively austere yet triumphant take of King Oliver’s West End Blues with a restraint that foreshadowed the song’s unexpected suspenseful quality: this was a night full of unexpected dynamics. On the more buoyant tip, Maurice Chavalier’s Isn’t It Romantic gave the group a chance to go full-steam symphonic. A simmering version of Moonlight Serenade later on also reached toward those mighty proportions.

Giordano’s residency at the Iguana continues next week; Midsummer Night Swing returns on June 29 at 7:30 PM with the fiery horn and electric tres textures of salsa group Los Hacheros. It’s free to get into the park, $18 in advance for the dancefloor.

Quatre Vingt Neuf Reinvent Little Rascals Soundtracks, Hot 20s Jazz and Dixieland at Barbes

When Quatre Vingt Neuf launched into their most recent show last month at Barbes, it was a jazz power play. Bryan Beninghove came up with that term: it means more people onstage than there are in the audience. But by the time the irrepressible quasi oldtimey swing band wrapped up their show around midnight, the room was packed. Quatre Vingt Neuf are last-minute like that.

They played their first gig last year when the venue had a cancellation. Owner Olivier Conan emailed Wade Ripka, who would end up playing tenor banjo in the group, to see if he could pull a pickup band together. Sure, said Ripka, who’s in a bunch of other bands (rembetiko metalheads Greek Judas and retro Russian psych-pop crew the Eastern Blokhedz to name a couple) and has a deep address book. Since Conan lives in France now, all this was done over email.

And unlike most venues, Barbes actually promotes the artists who play there. So when Conan hadn’t heard back from Ripka by around midnight, European time, he sent a final reminder to make sure that the bar would have some kind of live entertainment that night.

Apparently the show was a success. When Ripka asked for another gig for this ensemble, Conan agreed – but insisted on naming the band. He came up with Quatre Vingt Neuf (French for Eighty-nine – a revolutionary year). Since then, they’ve featured as many as seventeen players onstage. Last month’s show featured a relatively small septet.

Quatre Vingt Neuf’s shtick is that they play hot 20s jazz and dixieland with a rock rhythm section, a rarity since when those styles first originated, technology hadn’t been developed to the point where bass or drums could be recorded in a full-band situation. Realistically speaking, Quatre Vingt Neuf hardly qualify as a rock band. At the May gig, drummer Chris Stromquist (who also plays in Greek Judas and Balkan brass band Slavic Soul Party) broke out his bundles and brushes and swung with an unexpectedly subtle flair – it’s a side of him not that many people get to see. The same with bassist Nick Cudahy – who also plays in Greek Judas and the Blokhedz – walking the changes and using horn voicings in a couple of wry solos.

Interestingly, bandleader Ripka stuck to rhythm and didn’t take any solos. But the band played several of his arrangements of Little Rascals theme music, from scampering Keystone Kops miniatures to longer, more coyly crescendoing, cinematic pieces. Even the ballads were upbeat. Soprano saxophonist Jason Candler sang a handful of them, when he wasn’t sending wildfire spirals upward. Trumpeter John Carlson played terse, centered good cop to trombonist Tim Vaughn’s boisterous honks and snorts and extended technique. They’re back at Barbes on June 13 at 10 PM, headlining a great swing twinbill that begins at 8 with plush singer/baritone uke player Daria Grace & the Pre-War Ponies, who excel at oldschool mambos and can also be a lot more boisterous than most retro swing bands.

Revelry with Glenn Crytzer’s Savoy 7 at Symphony Space

This past evening. even though Symphony Space seemed to be sold out, it was a little strange not to to see the usual Thursday night crowd of dancers who pack the floor in front of the stage.

That’s right: dancing at Symphony Space. It’s a thing.

Serenaded by the period-prefect early 40s-style originals of guitarist Glenn Crytzer’s Savoy 7, a lone young woman in a red dress twirled, schooling everybody in the house: she really knew her  moves. A middle-aged guy, who obviously didn’t, joined her, but he was game, and he hung in there and got a personal swing dance lesson for nothing. A few other couples went out onto the floor, but it was clear that nobody was going to be able to keep up with the vermilion vixen.

And the music was just as good. Beyond being a rare jazz guitarist who doesn’t waste notes, Crytzer is very funny. Throughout over an hour and a half onstage, the band romped through one trick ending after another, along with innumerable, coy, vaudevillian exchanges that only once in awhile went completely over the top.

Crytzer explained that the model for this band was Benny Goodman’s 1940-41 Septet with Charlie Christian on guitar. True to form, Crytzer was especially chill throughout the show, limiting his solos to maybe a couple of bars at the most. Likewise, the horns followed a dixieland-inspired pattern, with brisk handoffs where everybody was practically stepping on the next guy, like the dialogue in an early MGM talkie. Echoes of Cab Calloway, John Kirby and Louis Jordan also bounced through the songs from time to time.

Guest singer Barbara Rosene brought an understated brassiness to the vocal numbers, which were the night’s funniest songs. The best of these was a midtempo tune with a chorus of “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” With its droll stoner call-and-response, When I Get Low I Get High – sung by Crytzer – was pretty self-explanatory. There was also a number about a melody that bedeviled him so much that he ended turning it into a meta-song, pondering that if he could have come up with a lyric as catchy as the hook, he’d be more famous than Rodgers and Hart.

Who Needs Spring, Crytzer explained, was a tune with a very short shelf life; he breaks it out right about now, then retires it until winter comes around again. The instrumentals had plenty of humor as well, from the wry, folksy travelogue Not Far to Fargo, to a sleepy Florida-Georgia highway tune, Road to Tallahassee. Crytzer explained that he wasn’t thrilled with the title of the jaunty Live to Swing until the German superfan who came up with the idea threw big bucks into the crowdsourcing campaign for the guitarist’s most recent, lavish big band double album…money changes everything, doesn’t it?

The best song of the night was I Get Ideas, an uncharacteristically brooding mashup of hi-de-ho swing and distant hints of the music’s klezmer roots, featuring the most biting solos of the night, around the horn from Rich Alexander’s tenor sax to Mike Davis’ muted trumpet, Matt Koza’s clarinet and finally the bandleader himself. The rest of the band – Bob Reich on piano, Ian Hutchison on bass and Andrew Millar on drums – chose their spots for clever cameos throughout the set

Next week’s installment of Symphony Space’s Thursday night Revelry series, as they call it, is on Feb 28 at 7:30 PM with a special intimate duo set from the core of edgy Israeli dance band Yemen Blues; you can get in for $20 if you’re thirty and under, and there are drink specials from the bar all night. Crytzer plays with his quartet at 7 PM on Feb 24 at Peppi’s Cellar at 406 Broome St. in SoHo.

Barbes: Home Base For NYC’s Best Bands

The problem with Barbes – and if you run a music blog, this can be a problem – is that the hang is as good as the bands. If you’re trying to make your way into the music room and run into friends, always a hazard here, you might not make it past the bar. Which speaks to a couple of reasons why this well-loved Park Slope boite has won this blog’s Best Brooklyn Venue award three times in the past ten years or so.

A Monday night before Thanksgiving week last year was classic. The scheduled act had cancelled, but there was still a good crowd in the house. What to do? Somebody called somebody, and by eleven there was a pickup band – guitar, keys, bass and drums – onstage, playing better-than-serviceable covers of Peruvian psychedelic cumbia hits form the 60s and 70s. The best was a slinky, offhandedly sinister take of Sonido Amazonico, the chromatic classic which has become the national anthem of chicha, as psychedelic cumbia is called in Peru. Where else in New York could you possibly hear something like this…on a Monday night?

On Thanksgiving night, the two Guinean expat guitarists who lead the Mandingo Ambassadors played a rapturously intertwining set that drew a more-or-less straight line back to the spiky acoustic kora music that preceded the state-sponsored negritude movement of the 1960s. Without the horns that sometimes play with the band, the delicious starriness of the music resonated more than ever.

The night after that, there was a solid klezmer pickup band in the house. The night after that – yeah, it was a Barbes weekend – started with pianist Anthony Coleman going as far out into free jazz as he ever does, followed by a psychedelic take on nostalgic 60s and 70s Soviet pop by the Eastern Blokhedz and then an even more psychedelic set by Bombay Rickey, who switched from spaghetti western to sick jamband versions of Yma Symac cumbias to surf rock, Bollywood and finally an ominous shout-out to a prehistoric leviathan that’s been dead for twenty thousand years.

Sets in late November and January left no doubt that Slavic Soul Party are still this city’s #1 Balkan brass party band, whether they’re playing twisted Ellington covers, percolating Serbian Romany hits or their own hip-hop influenced tunes. A pit stop here early before opening night of Golden Fest to catch the Crooked Trio playing postbop jazz standards was a potent reminder that bandleader Oscar Noriega is just as brilliant a drummer as he is playing his many reed instruments.

Who knew that trumpeter Ben Holmes’ plaintive, bittersweet, sometimes klezmer, sometimes Balkan tinged themes would blend so well with Kyle Sanna’s lingering guitar jangle, as they did in their debut duo performance in December? Who expected this era’s darkest jamband, Big Lazy, to take their sultry noir cinematic themes and crime jazz tableaux further into the dub they were exploring twenty years ago, like they did right before the new year? Who would have guessed that the best song of the show by trombonist Bryan Drye’s Love Call Trio would be exactly that, a mutedly lurid come-on?

Where else can you hear a western swing band, with an allstar lineup to match Brain Cloud’s personnel, swaying their way through a knowingly ominous take of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Look Down that Lonesome Road? Notwithstanding this embarrassment of riches, the best show of all here over the past few months might have been by Turkish ensemble Alhambra, featuring most of haunting singer Jenny Luna’s band Dolunay. Back in mid-December, they spun moody, serpentine themes of lost love, abandonment and desolation over Adam Good’s incisive, brooding oud and Ramy El Asser’s hypnotic, pointillistic percussion. Whether singing ancient Andalucian laments in Ladino, or similar fare in Turkish, Luna’s wounded nuance transcended any linguistic limitations.

There’s good music just about every night at Barbes, something no other venue in New York, or maybe the world, can boast.  Tomorrrow’s show, Feb 18 at Barbes is Brain Cloud at 7 followed at 9:30ish by ex-Chicha Libre keyboard sorcerer Josh Camp’s wryly psychedelic cumbia/tropicalia/dub band Locobeach. Slavic Soul Party are here the day after, Feb 19 at 9; Noriega and the Crooked Trio play most Fridays starting at 5:30. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Catherine Russell Brings Her Edgy Retro Swing and Blues Reinventions to Birdland

Catherine Russell has made a career out of bringing edge and freshness to old swing jazz tunes both popular and obscure. Much as she’s often mined the so-called “great American songbook” for much of it, she and her band steer clear of cliches. Other than the present, the time period they most closely evoke is the early 30s, before swing got watered down for segregated white audiences. And where so many other jazz singers mimic icons from decades past, Russell long ago developed a resolute, purposefully individualistic style, with a deep if not always immediately present blues influence – something you might expect from someone whose pianist father Luis was Louis Armstrong’s musical director. Her new album Alone Together – which hasn’t hit her Spotify channel yet – is just out. She and her similarly purist group are celebrating the release with a stand at Birdland this Feb 12-16, with sets at 9 and 11 PM. You can get in for thirty bucks.

They open the new record with the title track: ultimately, it’s an optimistic ballad, but both Russell and the band anchor it with a steady, gritty swing, pianist Mark Shane and trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso ramping up an underlying, steely bluesiness. Likewise, Russell and Shane max out the irony in You Turned the Tables on Me, over bassist Tal Ronen and drummer Mark McLean’s steady stroll.

When Did You Leave Heaven has a plush string section, a subtle 12/8 rhythm and a spare, spacious soul solo from musical director/guitarist Matt Munisteri. They reinvent Early in the Morning as a barrelhouse piano cha-cha, punctuated with Mark Lopeman’s tenor sax and Munisteri’s wry Chicago blues solo. Then they turn Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby into a wary New Orleans stroll with a terse, edgy horn chart, probably the last thing Louis Jordan ever imagined for this song – at least until Kellso cuts loose with his mute.

Russell matches sass to knowing sarcasm while the band romp through You Can’t Pull the Wool Over My Eyes, Lopeman and Kellso trading off with trombonist John Allred with some lively dixieland. Her angst is more distant in Shake Down the Stars, Shane’s emphatic solo giving way to Kellso’s airier, more wistful lines. Then the group take their time with a gorgeously bittersweet, take of the blues ballad I Wonder, lowlit by Munisteri’s tremoloing guitar and resonant washes of brass.

The real gem here is the innuendo-packed hokum blues He May Be Your Dog But He’s Wearing My Collar, a 1923 hit for singer Rosa Henderson, who would no doubt approve of Russell’s defiance over Shane’s stride piano and Munisteri’s shivery slide work. The band romp through the sudden tempo shifts of Errand Girl for Rhythm and then flip the script with a steady, darkly ambered take of How Deep Is the Ocean. Likewise, they keep a purposeful slink going through their take of I Only Have Eyes for You.

They wind up the album with a tasty version of You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew, with a nod over the shoulder at those great 1920s Bessie Smith/James P. Johnson collaborations. Russell has made a bunch of good records over the years but this might be the best of them all.

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.