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!