“”They let you in here?” the leader of Svetlana & the Delancey Five asked the writer, scrunching up her face.
“No, they didn’t,” the writer answered truthfully. “Your trumpet player did.”
“It’s always midnight at the Blue Note,” the irrepressible swing chanteuse grinned as she took the stage yesterday, and the crowd agreed. This time out, she’d brought a big slice of New Orleans in the person of trumpeter/crooner James Williams. There are thousands of oldtimey swing bands with women out front, but what makes this band different is that they aren’t just a backing unit. And they have the advantage of the kind of chemistry that comes from playing together week after week for the better part of four years. Their latest album Night at the Speakeasy explores some of the territory that Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald worked with so much fun, and the addition of Williams gave them the chance to wake everybody up with a little taste of Mardi Gas.
With the summery neoromantic glimmer of Billy Test’s piano, drummer Rob Garcia hit the first of several devious stumbling-caveman riffs and they were off into a scampering take of I’ve Got Rhythm, with rapidfire solos from Test and saxophonist Michael Hashin, Test trading eights with Garcia. When bassist Daniel Foose soloed, he did it with horn voicings, bubbling and sliding upwards: if you absolutely must indulge yourself and solo on the bass, you want to keep the crowd entertained, right?
First joining forces with a swinging take of Someone Just Like You, the singers took a coy formula perfected by Louis and Ella to the next level. Svetlana played the ingenue, teasing Williams, and he responded by pushing further and further and kept the audience in stitches. His bursts and burbles on trumpet matched the sly soul in his growly bass voice: he played as if he had a mute even though he didn’t . It seemed that he was making up half the lyrics on the spot – he’s got the prewar vernacular and the ginmill seduction honed to a fine shine.
To his credit, both Williams and the band managed for the most part to skirt cheesiness on their take of Hello Dolly, the one number closest to the Louis Armstrong catalog, propelled by Garcia’s second-line inspired shuffle. Svetlana and the band reinvented the Beatles’ Because as stern, stark, hauntingly austere, gospel-infused late 1800s rusticity, Garcia’s chart finding new plaintiveness and poignancy in the moody McCartney melody. They followed with a briskly shuffling Lady Be Good, Williams just a little behind the beat for extra sass. Cheek to Cheek was the most ribald number on the bill, and the whole band got into the act, instrumentally at least, leaving the dancefloor pickup scene for the couple at the mic to work out. Likewise, the band eased their way into Baby It’s Cold Outside, drawing plenty of chuckles with a series of riffs from a whole slew of cheesy Xmas hits.
They wound up the set with a piano-and-vocal intro into a slowly swinging Blue Skies – Svetlana took an equally charming and challenging, stairstepping prowl through the first verse, then the group took it swinging doublespeed with lickety-split solos from Hashin and Test to send the crowd out breathless. Svetlana saved her lone swoop up to the towering peak of her register for the last line of the last chorus. She and the group are off to Israel for a little tour, then they return to New York on Dec 5 at 9 PM at their regular backyard-tenement haunt, the Back Room on Norfolk just north of Delancey. Look for the unlocked gate on the east side of the street about eighty feet up the block.