New York Music Daily

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Category: swing music

The Buck and a Quarter Quartet: A Party in a Box in an Unexpected Spot

It’s been estimated that a quarter of this city’s 2019 population left in the months following the 2020 lockdown. Whatever the actual percentage is, it stands to reason that those who could afford to get out, did.

Beyond the Cuomo regime’s throttling of music venues when the disgraced former governor criminalized indoor live performances, the resulting brain drain has no doubt exacerbated the closure of so many former hotspots, both from the demand and the supply side. It also helps explain why an unorthodox 20s hot jazz band like the Buck and a Quarter Quartet would be playing a pseudo-honkytonk like Skinny Dennis, where they’ll be at 9 PM on Feb 6.

Prior to March of 2020, they were a familiar presence in what was left of the Americana scene here, at places which have since fallen victim to the “you comply, you die” trap. Ultimately, it may be a blessing in disguise for this irrepressibly upbeat crew to find a new following off their old turf, because they’re a lot of fun: there’s more room for dancing where they’ll be next week than there was where they used to play.

This band – who seem to be a rotating cast of devoted oldtimey swing players – make 78 RPM records and keep a pretty low profile online. Although their greatest love seems to be obscure and odd treasures from the 20s and 30s, the live clips up at their youtube channel are mostly well-known tunes. But it gives you a good idea of what they’re about.

The quartet expand to a sextet on their take of When I Take My Sugar to Tea, which they do as a pretty straight-up string band shuffle until they leap into doublespeed. Violinist John Landry provides a stark intro and then sings It’s Mating Time, an innuendo-fueled tune undulating along on the beat of John Bianchi’s tenor banjo, Angus Lauten’s baritone uke, Carl Luckert’s National Steel guitar, Ben Mealer’s uke and Brian Nalpeka’s bass.

They strut nonchalantly through a ramshackle version of If I Had You, then Lauten switches to glockenspiel and Nalepka bows his bass to mimic a tuba on a wry, steady take of Deed I Do. Bianchi switches to clarinet for an expansive, upbeat but unexpectedly lush swing through The Very Thought of You, the last of the youtube clips. These guys don’t let you forget for one second that a hundred years ago, jazz was the default party music throughout much of the world, some Williamsburg bars included.


Sweet Megg Brings Her Imaginative, Dynamic Take on Western Swing to a Familiar Williamsburg Haunt

Where Bob Wills started with country and blues and added jazz to the mix to create western swing, singer Megg Farrell starts with swing jazz as a starting point for her latest album, My Window Faces the South, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a party album, but it’s also an innovative mix of vintage styles. She’s keeping her cowboy hat on for her next gig on Nov 26 at 9 PM at Skinny Dennis. For those who might dread Williamsburg on a weekend night, consider that a lot of the contingent who make that neighborhood such a miserable place will probably still be out of town for Thanksgiving.

Sweet Megg, as she’s known, switches effortlessly between the many types of oldtime Americana she’s explored from the start of her career about ten years ago. She reaches down for a low-key, mistier take on Patsy Cline in the opening number, Faded Love. Fiddler Billy Contreras fires off a deliciously slinky solo midway through, trumpeter Mike Davis and saxophonist Ricky Alexander punching in with bright harmonies over the groove of bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Chris Gelb.

The band blend dixieland flair and a little jump blues over an oldtime swing beat in the next track, Hesitation Blues. There’s an accordion along with Chris Scruggs’ steel guitar on a balmy version of I Can’t Stop Loving You; then the band pick up the pace with There’ll Be Some Changes Made, with Contreras’ fiddle, Alexander’s clarinet and Scruggs’ scrambling steel front and center.

The album’s title track gets a sly cha-cha intro and some spiraling ragtime piano from Dalton Ridenhour before the horns and the steel pair off. The tricky intro to Sentimental Gentleman from Georgia is there to fake you out: Farrell and the band make hi-de-ho country out of it, if you can imagine that.

They really nail a hazy, wistfully nocturnal atmosphere in their lush, enveloping version of Stardust, fueled by Ridenhour’s steady C&W piano. Farrell and Alexander harmonize in an oldtime swing-infused take of I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling as Contreras flickers in the background. And they have fun reinventing the Tennessee Waltz, first with just Farrell’s vocals over animated slip-key piano, then Scruggs comes in sailing overhead.

Likewise, Ridenhour and Gelb give an incisive, imaginative drive to Those Memories of You. They close with Trouble in Mind, Farrell and the group stretching further out into the jazz that brought them here. On one hand, almost all of the songs here have been done to death: credit this inspired cast for breathing new life into them.

Back at Mona’s For a Hot, Moody Evening of Swing Jazz

Last night Mona’s was pretty crowded by the time the rotating cast from the house band gathered in the corner at the end of the bar. Which from an audience perspective was actually a good thing. Drinks at Mona’s are expensive: invisibility in a crowd has its advantages.

It wasn’t always that pricy fifteen years ago when Mona’s Hot Four played their first gig here. Little did they know that after a break for a plandemic, they and the bar would still be here keeping a well-loved New York oldtimey swing tradition alive.

This time out they were a quintet. An interesting opening number that shifted between minor and major proved to be a great launching pad for solos from bandleader and clarinetist Dennis Lichtman, pianist Jon Thomas and bassist Jen Hodge, who mined that uneasy terrain for all the edgy passing tones they could find. Sax player Jay Rattman bolstered the phantasmagorical hi-de-ho harmonies as they wound it out.

Rattman switched to clarinet for a dusky, Ellingtonian frontline on the moodily shuffling second number of the night, I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues, Thomas supplying starry curlicues in the upper registers: his sense of irony and counterintuitive phrasing were rich throughout the evening’s first set. An unidentified guitarist who is still stuck in 2020 hygiene theatre played spiky Django riffs and clustering minor-sixth chords, and took a turn on the mic to sing a couple of verses through a thick black muzzle. You’d think that members of an ostensibly sophisticated New York artistic community would be awake by now…but, pseudoscience.

Ultimately, what this group does is dance music. Early in the evening, people typically dance in their chairs, although it gets a lot wilder as the night goes on, both musically and audience-wise. Admittedly, that perception dates from a previous decade before fear had been fully weaponized in this city.

They did I Ain’t Got Nobody as a brisk, staccato shuffle next and went back toward moody terrain with the next number: having the two clarinets out front enhanced that vibe. Lichtman’s signature, liquid-crystal arpeggios and cascades were as distinctive and spine-tingling as always.

The group expanded to a sextet with the addition of Mike Davis on trumpet for the last couple of tunes. The first, High Society, had a martial, W.C. Handy flair, which Rattman brought down to earth with a silky sax solo. Davis put his mute in for the final, coyly shuffling number.

Mona’s Hot Four, or Five, or Six – as they were a week ago – play the Avenue B bar just south of 14th St. every Tuesday night starting at nine sharp.

Picturesque Americana Singer Hope DeBates Brings Her Songs Back to a Familiar Williamsburg Haunt

Singer Hope DeBates has been a fixture of the New York Americana scene since the zeros, when it was arguably as popular here as hip-hop or reggaeton. She calls her music “high plains country,” drawing on her childhood in the Black Hills of South Dakota. These days, C&W is harder than ever to find on a New York stage, but DeBates didn’t let the lockdown stop her and has picked up where she left off when the World Economic Forum and BlackRock turned this city into a fascist prison camp in March of 2020. Her next gig with her band North 40, a rotating cast of characters, is on August 28 at 4 PM at Skinny Dennis.

DeBates’ album Moody Country is streaming at her music page. On one hand, it’s a throwback to brooding, often haunting countrypolitan artists like Skeeter Davis. On the other, DeBates can be hilarious. She sings in a nuanced, carefully modulated delivery, beginning with the death-fixated opening track, Leaves Bright Yellow. It’s a grimly vivid, aphoristic midtempo shuffle about somebody who couldn’t pull their act together until it was too late.

The first of the two covers on the record is a wafting, atmospheric cover of Willie Nelson’s Satisfied Mind. Then DeBates reinvents Tom Petty’s Breakdown as a lurid Peggy Lee-style slow drag.

Perfectly Imperfect is a funny, oldtimey-flavored swing tune with a glockenspiel: “You’re not that nice a fella, what makes you think you deserve Snow White and Cinderella?” DeBates wants to know. The last song on the record, Pink and Mean is a Dusty Springfield-style Memphis soul song and is even funnier, a meticulously detailed dis aimed at a first-class bitch.

She also has a video for the slow, thoughtful ballad Champagne and Cowboys: it’s an old story, how wide open spaces and Hollywood hills don’t mix, and DeBates tells it poignantly. She recorded it at a darkened bar, so it’s hard to tell for sure, but it might have been at Bar Chord in Ditmas Park where she held down a monthly residency for awhile. That was where this blog last caught up with her, on a noisy evening in 2015, where she was tucked into the front window with her band and taking everybody back in time to a heartbreak saloon of the mind circa fifty years earlier. With DeBates, there’s no arguing that she owns her retro style.

A Well-Loved New York Oldtimey Swing Tradition Resumes in the East Village

Last night at their Avenue B home base, Mona’s Hot Six delivered a typically animated evening of hot 20s swing and dixieland as part of their ongoing weekly Tuesday night residency there, which they’d begun as a quartet in the late zeros and had continued until they were interrupted by the global totalitarian takeover in March of 2020. Their lineup of usual suspects from the traditionalist party animal contingent in the New York jazz scene fluctuates depending on who’s in town and who’s not. Clarinetist and ringleader Dennis Lichtman was gone last week but he was back this time around alongside Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, Dalton Ridenhour on piano, Jerron Paxton on banjo, plus guest trombonist Charlie Halloran and an unidentified bass player tucked into the corner.

They opened with a romp through a midtempo take of what sounded like Sweet Sue, kicking off with a little jaunty trumpet/trombone conversation and a spiraling Lichtman solo. Ridenhour’s ragtime-flavored piano solo (in what might be charitably be called saloon tuning) gave way to some feathery tremolo-picking from Paxton, and eventually a couple of modulations to a lively dixieland interweave. That set the stage for the rest of the night’s first set.

Lichtman, who until the lockdown led a fantastic and almost as long-running western swing outfit, the Brain Cloud, has been a good clarinetist for a long time but obviously spent the dead months of 2020 and 2021 practicing. There were some moments where his liquid-crystal spirals were nothing short of breathtaking. Halloran was in town from New Orleans and got a lot of time in the spotlight (as well as a turn on the mic in an upbeat take of Dreaming the Hours Away). For him, sometimes that meant balmy and soulful; other times that meant chewing the scenery, as music like this eventually makes you do if you’re a trombonist.

Ridenhour anchored the songs with a steady, imperturbable stride and a few devious excursions to the upper registers while Paxton drew on the deep well of antique guitar voicings that inform his status as one of the world’s great acoustic blues guitarists. The bar wasn’t very full when the band first assembled in the back, but by the end of their opening set a crowd had grown around them and the vibe was contagious. Mona’s Hot Four (or whatever the weekly number is) play there every Tuesday night starting pretty much at the stroke of 9.

Legendary Oldtimey Band the Squirrel Nut Zippers Play a Rare Outdoor New York Show this Friday

The world’s best-loved and arguably most influential oldtimey band, the Squirrel Nut Zippers are playing Friday night, July 15 at 7 PM at Bryant Park. Much as there’s been a lot of furnover in the group over the years, this is a bucket-list show for people who were too young to see them during their heyday back in the 90s. So if you want to get close to the stage, you might want to show up early.

The crew on their most recent album The Lost Songs Of Doc Souchon – streaming at Bandcamp – is not the one that busted out of Chapel Hill in the mid-80s. But founding member Jimbo Mathus – who became part of New York music history for his turn onstage on closing night at legendary East Village institution Lakeside Lounge – still fronts the band. And much as they spearheaded the oldtime swing revival, that was hardly the only style they played: their first big hit, Hell, was a calypso song.

The opening track on the album is a cover of Jelly Roll Morton’s Animule Ball that starts out like a Cab Calloway hi-de-ho tune, then the band go straight into New Orleans, Mathus goes into sarcastic crooner mode as the band reinvent the odious Frankie Valli hit Can’t Take My Eyes Off You as a noir bolero, complete with Boulevard of Broken Dreams strings and creepy tinkling piano.

Cella Blue takes over the mic on the blues She’s Ballin’ as Mathus’ guitar scrambles and slashes, saxophonist Henry Westmoreland’s solo followed by some snazzy Jerry Lee playing from pianist Leslie Martin over the brassy backdrop from trumpeter Dave Boswell and trombonist Eddie Lehwald.

Mathus switches to banjo, joining forces with Dr. Sick’s mysterious fiddle and Martin’s funeral organ for the Appalachian gothic tune Train on Fire. Sarcasm reaches a slow burn as Mathus sings a deadpan version of the piano ballad Mr. Wonderful.

The band follow the twisted Louis Jordan-style narrative of I Talk To My Haircut with the album’s longest song, Purim Nigrum, a strutting klezmer jam with a blistering dixieland brass raveup. It’s the best song on the record.

Drummer Neilson Bernard and bassist John Kveen give a fat swinging bottom to Cookie, a sly hokum blues where Mathus can’t resist cracking a smile. The band’s ska-flavored cover of Happy Days Are Here Again comes across as the most sarcastic song on the record – although it seems they recorded it before the 2020 totalitarian takeover. They close the with Cella Blue taking over vocals on the elegant string band tune Summer Longings.

Remnants of a Well-Loved Western Swing Group Onstage Outdoors This Month

From 2012 through March of 2020, the Brain Cloud played a rambunctious take on western swing that was just as outside-the-box as what Bob Wills did when he mashed up swing jazz with 1930s hillbilly music and blues. The group got their start as subway buskers and took the name the Cangelosi Cards when they launched their first residency at the old Banjo Jim’s in the East Village back in the late zeros. They rebranded themselves as the Brain Cloud – after a Wills lyric – when they took over another Monday night residency at a popular Park Slope venue which at the time was open to all New Yorkers. While their band members would disperse to other jazz and Americana-adjacent groups during the week, from Red Hook to Williamsburg, they built a devoted following at the 9th Street residency.

Like so many other New York bands, they didn’t survive the 2020 lockdown, although several of their members have emerged with their own projects in recent months. Co-founder Dennis Lichtman, who played clarinet, violin and mandolin, is leading his latest group tomorrow evening, July 7 at 6 PM under the Dumbo archway. Take the F to York Street, go downhill a couple of blocks, hang a left to the bridge underpass and follow the sound. And the group’s deviously charming, tapdancing frontwoman Tamar Korn is leading her band at a free outdoor lunchtime show at noon on July 27 at the pedestrian mall at Willoughby and Pearl in downtown Brooklyn.

The Brain Cloud put out three albums: the last one was a charming and often sizzling 2017 Park Slope live set, and it’s still up at Bandcamp. If you were there, it will bring back a lot of memories. They open with a frenetically fun western swing version of the Carter Family’s Jealous Hearted Me and wind up with a similarly rambunctious take of Patsy Cline’s Love, Love, Love Me Honey Do.

In between, Lichtman’s clarinet trades off with Korn’s playful and sometimes irresistibly droll vocalese. Guitarist Skip Krevens channels a cosmopolitan Nashville pre-rockabilly vibe, circa 1953, while lapsteel player Raphael McGregor sails and plays thorny jazz clusters, and impersonates a trombone when Korn isn’t doing that.

Andrew Hall’s punchy bass looms large in their hi-de-ho version of Comes Love, the klezmer-swing hit which Korn would always hit out of the park. The little shivery echo that she throws to Lichtman is priceless, as is Korn’s solo later on – is she a clarinet or a theremin, or both? McGregor’s theremin-like steel solo keeps the entertainment going all the way through to drummer Kevin Dorn’s final emphatic thud.

Lichtman also plays seamless fiddle and takes a rare turn on electric mandolin for uncharacteristically chilling, incisive ambience in a couple of tunes. There’s a couple of instrumentals, a subdued swing version of Jimmie Rodgers’ Any Old Time and a couple of moments where you might wish this was a video since it’s impossible to tell whether that’s the clarinet or the steel, or Korn making fun of them.. What a great time this band had, and they brought the audience along with them.

The last time anyone from this blog was in the house at a Brain Cloud gig, it was July of 2019 and they were jousting and messing with each other pretty much like they do on this record, with Korn deserting the stage for the outer bar while McGregor and Krevens took extended solos. If there’s a band you really like playing somewhere in this city this summer, you might want to catch them now because you may never get another chance.

Dance Back in Time to a Happier Place with the Gabriel Evan Orchestra

One of the funnest albums to come over the transom here over the past several months is the Gabriel Evan Orchestra‘s latest release, Global Entry, streaming at Bandcamp. The inside of the album booklet shows the bandleader lounging in the shade of a ramshackle backyard in South Williamsburg, where this blog’s predecessor was born in 2007. Aldo’s, and the Southside Lounge, and Rock Star Bar, and innumerable neighborhood fixtures from that time are long gone. But this hot jazz group capture not only the excitement of that era, but of another tropically influenced moment in this city about ninety years ago.

They model themselves after the John Kirby Sextet, the popular 1930s group whose specialty was wry jazz arrangements of classical pieces. Fans of the Ghost Train Orchestra will love this stuff. Trumpeter John Zarsky wafts and buzzes amid the bright harmonies of the bandleader’s alto sax and Joe Goldberg’s clarinet over the sotto-voce pulse of pianist Joe Kennedy. bassist Ben Fox and drummer Michael Voelker. All that’s missing is a comedic Spike Jones rap.

Rumba Azul. the first of two 1930s hits by the Lecuona Cuban Boys, has a dixeland flair balanced by a beat that’s practically reggae. The other is the closing number, Rumba Tambah, following a similar trajectory from a lively bounce to more wary tonalities and back: the group really nail that style’s primitive, minimalistically trebly sound.

For Arabian Nightmare, Evan takes a Charlie Shavers arrangement of a famous Rimsky-Korsakov theme which completely changes the beat and adds a cheery midsection: that piano rhythm, veering from quasi-reggae to mambo, is hilarious. South 5th Street. one of a couple of Evan originals. has a brisk, brassy swing along with carefree clarinet and piano solos before Zarsky romps in with his mute. Evan’s other tune here is Negotiations of South Williamsburg, a slinky hi-de-ho mashup of the Ravel Bolero and a nifty. scampering klezmer tune.

The band go into stripped-down calypso jazz for Diane (Tropical Moon), a vehicle for Zarsky’s soulful trumpet. They make fond midtempo swing out of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s Singin’ the Blues and play Ellington’s Jubilee Stomp with an apt, hokum blues-influenced jubilation in their brief solos.

The band use the same jaunty template for Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes. Then they bring the lights down for an undulating, coyly ornamented take of Henry Mancini’s Lujon. From there, Shavers’ Effervescent Blues, done with a strut and choo-choo riffs, makes a good segue..

Retro Swing Charm and Surprises From Singer Sarah King

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.

Sizzling Noir Swing in the Black Hills on the First of the Month

Back in 2018, Minneapolis band Miss Myra & the Moonshiners put out one of the most darkly electrifying oldtime swing albums of the century. The band’s lineup has shifted a bit since then, but they’re still ripping up stages across the northern United States. That record, Sunday Sinning, is still streaming at their music page, and the band have a gig on Oct 1 at 7 PM at the Monument, 444 Mt Rushmore Rd. in Rapid City, South Dakota. Cover is $27.50, but students get in for ten bucks less.

If the creepy, hi-de-ho side of swing is your thing, don’t blink on this record like this blog did the first time around. The group have the chutzpah to start it with their own theme song, Miss Myra leading the sinister romp with her voice and Django-inspired, briskly percussive guitar attack, lead guitarist Zane Fitzgerald Palmer and clarinetist Sam Skavnak spicing the the doomy ambience from trumpeter Bobby J Marks and trombonist Nathan Berry. Tuba player Isaac Heath provides a fat pulse with nimble color from drummer Angie Frisk.

They play Sheik of Araby with a hint of noir bolero on the intro, then they go scrambling with a hearty jump blues-style call-and-response between Myra and the guys. The Kaiser, an ominously steady klezmer swing tune, has bowed bass and a sinister bass clarinet solo from Skavnak before Palmer goes spiraling up into the clouds.

Likewise, Miss Myra’s creepy downward chromatics in Egyptian Ella, Skavnak’s clarinet front and center. Everybody Loves My Baby is brassier – five songs in, and we’re still in a minor key. Sunday Sinning (Palmer’s Bar) features a sizzling tradeoff from the clarinet to Palmer’s guitar solo. They close the record with the stomping, brisk Red Hot & Blue Rhythm – the only major-key song on the record – the ending screams out for audience participation. South Dakotans are obviously in for a treat on the first of the month.