New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: dennis lichtman

Maverick, Poignant Cross-Generational Reinventions of Swing Jazz Classics

What a refreshing change to hear an album of Billie Holiday classics sung by a frontwoman with her own distinctive style, who isn’t trying to rip off Lady Day! Samoa Wilson was a pioneer of the New York oldtime Americana scene back in the zeros, but she also has a thing for jazz. Jim Kweskin is the best-known of the 60s jugband blues revivalists, but he’s just as much of a jazz guy. The two have a long history of collaborations and a new album, I Just Want To Be Horizontal streaming at Spotify. It’s a joyously dynamic mix of both well-known and obscure swing tunes reinvented from a string band perspective, more or less.

The lineup Kweskin pulled together is fearsome. After all these years, his guitar fingerpicking is still nimble, and Wilson, with a larger voice and wider-angle vibrato than Holiday, varies her delivery stunningly from song to song. Western swing maven Dennis Lichtman plays clarinet, violin and mandolin, alongside pianist/accordionist Sonny Barbato, lead guitarist Titus Vollmer, alto sax player Paloma Ohm and trumpeter Mike Davis, with Matthew Berlin on bass and Jeff Brown on drums.

The group take the majority of the tunes on this lavish seventeen-track record from Holiday’s early days with the Teddy Wilson Orchestra – in many cases, Wilson has restored the complete original lyrics. They open with the very familiar: in After You’ve Gone, Kweskin signals the point where he takes over the mic and they take it doublespeed, Lichtman puts down his clarinet for his violin and Barbato throws in a tantalizingly brief accordion solo. That sets the stage for the rest of the record: short solos, emphasis on going to the source of what these songs are all about

The album’s title track is a slow, hazy take of an obscure Bunty Pendleton tune with an aptly pillowy vocal from Wilson, downplaying hokum blues connotations for dreamy ambience. She pulls out the big vibrato for an achingly hopeful take of the midtempo number Trust In Me, then sticks with the gravitas while the band pick up the pace for the western swing-tinged  I Cried For You.

Rosetta Howard’s druggy anthem The Candy Man has a luscious interweave of strings and reeds, with a balmy sax solo at the center. The group remake Inch Worm, a children’s song from the Danny Kaye film Hans Christian Andersen, as trippy, velvety, vamping pastoral swing.

Wilson’s cynical delivery contrasts with the jaunty shuffle of That’s Life I Guess. The album’s most epic number is Until the Real Thing Comes Along, with expressive, wee-hours solos from sax, piano and Lichtman’s clarinet.

The bluegrass-flavored take of Me, Myself & I is less schizophrenic than just plain fun, echoed by the group’s update on Bessie Smith’s innuendo-fueled hokum blues classic Kitchen Man and At Ebb Tide, an old Hawaiian swing tune.

A low-key, pretty straight-up swing version of Our Love Is Here to Stay is a showcase for Wilson’s low register. She gets a little brittle and misty in Lover Come Back to Me, then lends her sultriest delivery on the record to a ahuffle version of Easy to Love.

Kweskin turns an Irving Berlin chestnut inside out with He Ain’t Got Rhythm. The last of the Lady Day numbers, I Wished on the Moon gets simmering intensity from Wilson and shimmery dixieland flavor from the band. They close the record with a plaintive interpretation of a rare Tony Bennett b-side, Someone Turned the Moon Upside Down.

Saluting One of New York’s Most Consistently Entertaining Weekly Residencies

Just about every Monday starting at around 7 PM, Brain Cloud play Barbes. While they take their name from a Bob Wills song, western swing is just one of the styles they play, along with jump blues, hot 20s swing and dixieland. The core of the band got their start in the busker scene in the mid-zeros as the Cangelosi Cards, and then at Banjo Jim’s began one of New York’s longest-running residencies. When that venue closed, they moved their weekly Monday night gig to Barbes and haven’t looked back. They’ll be back there on Nov 12 at 7, playing two sets and followed at around 10 by the NYC Gaita Club – a Bulla en el Barrio spinoff – who do rustically pounding Afro-Colombian trance-dance jams with a rotating cast of reed flute players.

In addition to his work with Brain Cloud, multi-instrumentalist Dennis Lichtman can often be found with other jazz acts. His most recent album under his own name is Just Cross the River, a joyously conversational tribute to the jazz roots of Queens, streaming at Bandcamp. Much as almost all the tracks are originals, everything here fits a late 20s/early 30s swing milieu.

The group here call themselves the Queensboro Six, opening the record with a boisterously shuffling shout-out to the 7 train that follows all sorts of clever modulations. With Brain Cloud, Lichtman plays clarinet, violin and mandolin; here, he sticks to the licorice, with a plaintively melismatic solo to kick off For Bix, a tribute to the jazz great who died in his Queens apartment in 1931. Trumpeter Gordon Au and trombonist J. Walter Hawkes harmonize with their mutes over a sotto-voce strut from bassist Nathan Peck.

Midnight at the Piers is not a seedy Chelsea tableau but a celebration of Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City, portrayed here as latin noir with Arabic allusions and a slinky bolero groove from drummer Rob Garcia that shifts into contented wee-hours swing.

Mazz Swift’s jaunty violin livens Road Street Court Place Avenue Drive, a jump blues wryly referencing the borough’s crazy street address system – if you can call it a system. Swift also plays and contributes a low-key, knowing vocal on Someday You’ll Be Sorry.

Pianist Dalton Ridenhour gives Waltz for Camila a lowlit pulse and a saturnine lyricism as Lichtman gets balmy and Peck takes a moody stroll. The horns triangulate dixieland-style in LIC Strut, Lichtman taking one of his most expansively spiraling solos as the music darkens momentarily.

Guest Jerron Paxton sings and plays guitar on the album’s title track, a sunny, shuffling duet with Lichtman. Terry Wilson gets torchy on the mic for the aphoristic Fats Waller hit Blue Turning Grey Over You and returns a bit later for a sultry version of another of the Queens resident’s iconic tunes, Squeeze Me.

23rd Between 23rd and 23rd – an address that could mean several different Queens blocks – is immortalized as a jump blues with a coyly tiptoeing piano solo and flurrying guitar from guest Nick Russo.

The album’s most lickety-split and most sort-of-modern-sounding – i.e. 1940 – number is The Power of Not Then, with Russo on guitar again. Likewise, the steady, strolling, somewhat bittersweet I’d Remember Having Met You is a period-perfect, bittersweet late 30s/early 40s ballad. They close with a scampering take of Cake Walking Babies From Home, an early number by another Queens guy, Louis Armstrong, with Paxton on vocals.

The Ghost Train Orchestra Steam Back to Upbeat, Playful Terrain

Back in January, this blog asserted that “It’s impossible to think of a better way to start the year than watching Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra slink and swing their way through the darkly surreal album release show for their new one, Book of Rhapsodies Vol. 2 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.” The album is actually far more lighthearted and frequently cartoonish, with ambitious charts that strongly evoke 50s lounge jazz oddball innovator Juan Garcia Esquivel. Once again, the ensemble have created a setlist of strangely compelling obscurities from the 30s and 40s.

In an era when nobody buys albums anymore, the Ghost Train Orchestra have sold an amazing number of them, topping the jazz charts as a hot 20s revival act. Yet for the last five years or so, frontman/trumpeter Carpenter has been revisiting his noir roots from back in the 90s, with lavishly rewarding results. This release – streaming at Bandcamp – is characteristically cinematic, but seldom very dark. It opens with cartoon music maven Raymond Scott’s Confusion Among a Fleet of Taxi Cabs. a romp with horn and siren effects that comes together with a jubilantly brassy, New Orleans-tinged pulse, bringing to mind the Microscopic Septet at their most boisterous.

Likewise, Mazz Swift’s violin and Dennis Lichtman’s clarinet spiral and burst over the scampering pulse of bassist Michael Bates and drummer Rob Garcia in Hal Herzon’s Hare and Hounds – meanwhile, some goof in the band is boinging away on a jawharp. Reginald Forsythe’s Deep Forest, which Carpenter wryly introduces as “A hymn to darkness, part one,” is closer to Esquivel taking a stab at covering Black and Tan Fantasy, guitarist Avi Bortnick adding spikily ominous contrast beneath the band’s ragtimey stroll.

The strutting miniature Pedigree on a Pomander Walk, the second Herzon tune, is just plain silly. Carpenter’s tongue-in-cheek muted lines mingle with Ben Kono’s tenor sax and the rest of the horns in Alec Wilder’s Walking Home in Spring, Ron Caswell’s tuba bubbling underneath. The latin-tinged Deserted Ballroom, a final Herzon number, has a balmy bounce over a creepy chromatic vamp, a choir of voices supplying campy vocalese over lush strings and a Chicago blues solo from Bortnick. A neat trick ending takes it into far darker, Beninghove’s Hangmen-ish territory.

The disquiet is more distant but ever-present in A Little Girl Grows Up, a Wilder tune, despite the childlike vocals and coyly buoyant, dixieland-flavored horns. The band make Esquivellian Romany swing out of Chopin with Fantasy Impromptu: Swift’s classical cadenza toward the end is devilishly fun. They follow that with another Wilder number, Kindergarten Flower Pageant, which would be tongue-in-cheek fun save for that annoying kiddie chorus. Sometimes children really should be seen and not heard.

A playful minor-key cha-cha, Lament for Congo – another Forsythe tune – has bristling guitar, lush strings, faux-shamanic drums, Tarzan vocals and a lively dixieland interlude. The strings in Wilder’s The House Detective Registers look back to Django Reinhardt as much as the winds take the music back a decade further. The final tune, by Forsythe, is Garden of Weed, which doesn’t seem to be about what you probably think it is. It’s a somber, early Ellingtonian-flavored ragtime stroll, Garcia’s hardware enhancing the primitive, lo-fi ambience, up to a livelier exchange of voices.

The Ghost Train Orchestra Bring the Roaring 20s and the Not-So-Roaring 20s to the Jalopy

The Ghost Train Orchestra differentiate themselves from most of the oldtime swing bands out there in that they don’t play standards. They specialize in rescuing lost treasures from the 20s and 30s, songs that were typically unknown outside of small, regional scenes. Part living archive, part tight, explosive dance band, it’s no wonder that their albums routinely top the jazz charts. They’re playing the cd release show for their latest one Hot Town this May 22 at 10 PM at the Jalopy. Because the venue is expecting a sellout, they’re selling advance tix for $10. Opening the show at 9, GTO clarinetist Dennis Lichtman does double duty and switches to his fiddle and maybe his mandolin out in front of his western swing band Brain Cloud.

The new album is a mix of songs that didn’t make it onto the orchestra’s 2011 breakthrough album Hothouse Stomp, along some even more obscure rediscoveries and a couple that might be slightly better known – go figure! The title track is actually a reinvention rather than a straight-up cover -and it was actually a big hit for Harlem’s Fess Williams and his orchestra in 1929 as a vamping novelty tune. This version has guest bass saxophonist Colin Stetson providing eerie diesel-train overtones before the clickety-clack groove gets underway. A second track originally done by Williams, You Can’t Go Wrong has more of a 19th century plantation-folk feel than the rest of the material here.

This album marks the debut release of Mo’Lasses, the second track, recorded by Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra, also in 1929, but never released. As rapidfire doom blues (is that a genre?) go, it’s got a striking early Ellingtonian sophistication; bandleader Brian Carpenter’s trumpet, Petr Cancura’s clarinet and Curtis Hasselbring’s trombone all get brisk solos.

Hot jazz cult bandleader Charlie Johnson is represented by You Ain’t the One, with its jaunty, staccato brass and low-key but determined Mazz Swift vocals – and Charleston Is the Best Dance After All, which winds up the album. Benny Waters’ Harlem Drag strongly suggests that the Rolling Stones nicked it, hook and all, for Spider & the Fly. There are two numbers from the catalog of late 20s Harlem composer/bandleader Cecil Scott & His Bright Boys: Bright Boy Blues, with its slowly swaying, luminously morose chart, and the more upbeat but similarly indigo-toned Springfield Stomp.

Fats Waller’s Alligator Crawl alternates droll mmm-hmmm backing vocals with spritely dixieland clarinet and vaudevillian muted trombone. Chicago bandleader Tiny Parham – celebrated along with Williams on Hothouse Stomp -has three numbers here. Skag-a-Lag sets a rapidfire series of cameos against an oldtimey levee camp hook; Down Yonder features a call-and-response chart and sudden, klezmer-tinged minor-key detours; the lickety-split stroll Friction calls on Hasselbring’s trombone, Swift’s violin and the rest of the band to be on tiptoe all the way through, and they are.

This one will get both the Gatsby wannabes and the rest of us out on the floor – or at least wishing we could afford to be there. This may be dance music, but it’s also rooted, sometimes front and center, sometimes less distinctly, in the blues, and the blues isn’t exactly happy-go-lucky stuff. Times weren’t easy, before or after the Crash of 1929 and the persistent undercurrent that runs throughout much of this material reflects that. The album’s not out yet, therefore no streaming link, but you can get a sense of the kind of fun this band generates at their Soundcloud page. And they always bring merch to shows.

Brilliant, Sometimes Haunting Lapsteel Player Brings His Genre-Smashing Instrumentals to Freddy’s

To New York audiences, lapsteel virtuoso Raphael McGregor might be best known as a key ingredient in Brain Cloud, Dennis Lichtman’s western swing band. Before that, McGregor served as the source of the vintage country flavor in Nation Beat‘s driving mashup of Brazilian maracatu and Americana sounds. But he’s also a first-rate, eclectic composer and bandleader in his own right. In addiiton to his more-or-less weekly Monday 7 PM Barbes residency with Brain Cloud, he has a monthly residency at Freddy’s, where he’ll be on Nov 20 at 8 PM.

His most recent show at Barbes leading a band was a quartet gig with with Larry Eagle on drums, Jim Whitney on bass and Rob Hecht on violin. They opened with a moody oldschool noir soul vamp and quickly built it into a brooding rainy-day theme over Eagle’s tense shuffle beat. Hecht took his time and then went spiraling and sailing upwards. Why is it that blues riffs inevitably sound so cool when played by strings? McGregor had a hard act to follow so he walked the line between Lynchian atmosphere and an express-track scurry, then handed off to Whitney who picked up his bow and took the song all the way into the shadows.

McGregor began the night’s second number with a mournful solo lapsteel intro that moved slowly toward C&W and then shifted uneasily into moody swing. It was like a more animated take on the Friends of Dean Martinez doing oldtime string band music. After that, they put a swinging southwestern gothic spin on a Django Reinhardt tune.

They also did a couple of straight-up western swing numbers, a brisk trainwhistle romp and a fetching version of Waltz Across Texas With You: much as they were a lot of fun, McGregor was pleasantly surprised to find that the crowd was more interested in hearing his originals. They opened their second set with a piece that began as an Indian-inflected one-chord jam that morphed into a bluesy duel between violin and bass, followed by a Frisellian pastoral interlude and then back to trip-hop Indian funk – all that in under ten minutes. All this is just a small sampling of what McGregor could pull off at Freddy’s.