There were some delicious ironies at Svetlana & the Delancey Five’s Birdland show last week. With most vocal jazz acts these days, the situation is frontperson – more often than not a woman – plus backing unit. Although they got their start as a swing dance band, this crew share much more interplay and push-and-pull than most bands in the field. Which makes them vastly more unpredictable: you literally never know what they’re going to throw at you.
Their most recent Blue Note show was all about jaunty improvisation, a game of street ball with everybody throwing elbows and getting dirty. So this Birdland gig was something of an anomaly – because it was the song set. Watching this band, it’s never completely clear how much of what they’re doing is actually composed, and how much improvisation is going on. Frontwoman Svetlana Shmulyian is a connoisseur of clever charts – Wycliffe Gordon is a favorite source – and obviously revels in keeping the audience guessing.
Which might explain why, in between songs, she was in rare form as snarky comedienne: sticking more closely to the page might not have been everything she needed to really blow off steam. There were many levels of meta: she never came right out and said, “You people are just a bunch of tourists from the sticks,” but for the hometown contingent, she was redemptive.
To paraphrase Mae West, this time out the quintet were a band what takes its time, parsing the arrangements’ innumerable twists and turns. They made bossa nova out of the Ella Fitzgerald version of A Tisket, a Tasket, with a fleeting, surreallistically triumphant klezmer interlude when least expected. By contrast, their take of I’m Just a Lucky So and So had a slow, lustrous sway lowlit by the harmonies of trumpeter Charlie Caranicas and tenor saxophonist Christopher McBride, pianist Willerm Delisfort ramping up the starry ambience. It was the ”Midnight in a tropical forest,“ that Shmulyian had promised to deliver.
Dynamics and subtle tempo shifts were front and center throughout Cheek to Cheek and then What a Little Moonlight Can Do, ramping down In the Wee Small Hours over the tersely tuneful pulse of bassist Endea Owens in tandem with similarly purposeful drummer Rob Garcia and his counterintuitive snare work. Then the group took it up again with a soaring, practically vengeful take of a Shmulyian original, You Turned the Tables on Me.
Much of this material is slated for release on the group’s forthcoming 2019 album A Night at the Movies, including a mamboish reinvention of an 80s ballad dating “From when hair like mine was popular,” as Shmulyian put it (she’s got one of the most seriously leonine manes in jazz).
The upbeat, bouncy Baby I’m Back, a triumphant return-from-the-tour tableau, contrasted with Garcia’s glimmering, harrowing, New Orleans funeral remake of the Beatles’ Because. They took it out with what has become Shmulyian’s signature closer lately, Blue Skies, just Delisfort and the bandleader slowly pushing the clouds away before the whole band brought the big light up. Shmulyian’s next show is this Jan 12 at 8 PM with the NY Swing Collective at the Cell Theatre in Chelsea; cover is $15.