It was a freezing Monday night in the Meatpacking District in the winter of 2016. But at the penthouse bar in a brand-new, shi-shi new hotel, chanteuse Sarah King & the Smoke Rings were keeping the room warm with their elegant, low-key swing tunes. Not what you might expect from someone who was in the cast of Sleep No More (the gothic Macbeth), or fronted Hungry March Band when that group was still in its street-punk phase.
Fast forward to 2021: if the hotel bar still has jazz, no doubt there are all kinds of ugly restrictions. But King has soldiered on and has a characteristically urbane new album, Tulip or Turnip, streaming at youtube. If your goal is to turn your place into a cozy hotel bar ripe for romance, this is your jam.
This is a playlist of old songs, some well known and others considerably less so. Clarinetist Jon DeLucia and pianist Stefan Vasnier set the scene right off the bat with a coy intro to the album’s title track, King in chirpy Blossom Dearie mode over the steady, low-key swing of bassist Aidan O’Donnell and drummer Ben Cliness.
King takes her time, unleashing an occasional brittle vibrato, in a slow balmy take of Azaleas, lit up with a mellifluous clarinet solo. The band leave the Ellington catalog behind for an unexpectedly understated version of the Kern/Hammerstein vaudeville chestnut Life Upon the Wicked Stage.
Vasnier pushes I’m Gonna Lock My Heart (And Throw Away the Key) with a terse ragtime pulse: King’s cooing delivery brings to mind another once-ubiquitous New York presence, Tamar Korn. King’s wistful interpretation of Empty Pocket Waltz has new resonance in an era of mass firings and Nuremberg Convention violations.
She stays in pensive mode, through the wry contradictions in You Can’t Lose a Broken Heart over O’Donnell’s lithe pulse. Let’s Pretend That There’s a Moon is a platform for a much more pillowy approach. A suave take of the Gershwin tune There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York serves as a springboard for the band to tickle the audience, beginning with DeLucia’s deadpan opening quote.
King and O’Donnell do a spring-loaded, impressively energetic duo version of Everything’s Made for Love, then the band close the record with a fondly detailed, glisteningly chorded take of I Remember; King’s hazy final lines drive the punchline home hard. Purist fans of the 30s sounds King favors here will find plenty more detail than this to appreciate here.