For some crazy reason this past couple of weeks has been all about singers. Maybe there’s some mysterious force at work that science doesn’t understand yet. Or maybe it’s just that this is New York and even the far less mysterious forces of gentrification can’t banish all the great voices from this town.
In case you ever wondered, a lot of the vocal jazz groups you see playing restaurant gigs in New York actually serve a purpose. They give A-list players a chance to moonlight for a little extra cash – or maybe just dinner – and a chance to hang with their friends, and keep up their chops, even if nobody’s listening. What makes Daria Grace and the Pre-War Ponies any different from those other bands? She can’t resist a bargain at a junk shop – if that bargain is an old chart for some obscure song from the 20s or 30s. Last night at Rodeo Bar, they threw a few standards into the mix – Heart and Soul, and All I Do Is Dream of You, and a really thoughtful, low-key but vividly anxious version of It’s the Talk of the Town. But the real treats were the rarities that hardly anybody else plays: Jimmie Noone’s 1920s hit Ready for the River (“The happiest song ever written about suicide,” said trombonist J. Walter Hawkes); Hoagy Carmichael’s Two Sleepy People, about a “foggy little fella and drowsy little dame” who can’t drag themselves away from each other; and Belle Baker’s quietly brooding waltz Underneath the Russian Moon, from 1929.
Grace played baritone ukulele and sang with a cool, pure, mountain-spring clarity that went misty as she went up the scale, dipping down low and then stretching to the top of her register and making it look effortless. Hawkes varied his attack from droll to snarky to whispery to full-on crystalline intensity: when he wasn’t playing trombone, he was playing snaky, thoughtful leads on ukulele. The bass player dove into what was obviously a bunch of unfamiliar material, playing half his solos with a bow and coming up triumphantly while drummer Russ Meissner kept a wry shuffle groove going, often using just his hands on the snare and a cymbal. On the bouncy 1928 Helen Kane tune Get Out, Get Under the Moon, Grace finally cut loose at the end – the effect was intense.
Guy Lombardo’s Moon Over Brooklyn, a big favorite of this band, was as amusing as always. What makes it so funny is that it’s really not about Brooklyn at all. Somewhere in a junk shop in Illinois there may be a moth-eaten chart for the same song, except that the Chicago version switches out Flatbush Avenue for North Huron Street – and a line that rhymes with it. On Johnny Mercer’s Pardon My Southern Accent, was the band singing “Shut up!” on the chorus? No. The phrase was “Sho ’nuff!” Hawkes added his own version of a Southern accent on Atlanta Blues a.k.a. Pallet on Your Floor. They also did a balmy version of Paul Robeson’s Got the South in My Soul, a torchy Say It Isn’t So and flipped the script with a bracing bolero tune that gave Meissner a chance to really turn up the heat.
What are such a superb singer and her band doing singing over – or into – the Monday night football crowd at Rodeo Bar? This is a side project for her. Grace is also the bass player in her husband Jack’s group, one of the East Coast’s most popular country bands, so she’s busy with that. In the meantime, you can catch her with the Pre-War Ponies the last Monday of the month here playing two sets, starting a little after 9.