When Quatre Vingt Neuf launched into their most recent show last month at Barbes, it was a jazz power play. Bryan Beninghove came up with that term: it means more people onstage than there are in the audience. But by the time the irrepressible quasi oldtimey swing band wrapped up their show around midnight, the room was packed. Quatre Vingt Neuf are last-minute like that.
They played their first gig last year when the venue had a cancellation. Owner Olivier Conan emailed Wade Ripka, who would end up playing tenor banjo in the group, to see if he could pull a pickup band together. Sure, said Ripka, who’s in a bunch of other bands (rembetiko metalheads Greek Judas and retro Russian psych-pop crew the Eastern Blokhedz to name a couple) and has a deep address book. Since Conan lives in France now, all this was done over email.
And unlike most venues, Barbes actually promotes the artists who play there. So when Conan hadn’t heard back from Ripka by around midnight, European time, he sent a final reminder to make sure that the bar would have some kind of live entertainment that night.
Apparently the show was a success. When Ripka asked for another gig for this ensemble, Conan agreed – but insisted on naming the band. He came up with Quatre Vingt Neuf (French for Eighty-nine – a revolutionary year). Since then, they’ve featured as many as seventeen players onstage. Last month’s show featured a relatively small septet.
Quatre Vingt Neuf’s shtick is that they play hot 20s jazz and dixieland with a rock rhythm section, a rarity since when those styles first originated, technology hadn’t been developed to the point where bass or drums could be recorded in a full-band situation. Realistically speaking, Quatre Vingt Neuf hardly qualify as a rock band. At the May gig, drummer Chris Stromquist (who also plays in Greek Judas and Balkan brass band Slavic Soul Party) broke out his bundles and brushes and swung with an unexpectedly subtle flair – it’s a side of him not that many people get to see. The same with bassist Nick Cudahy – who also plays in Greek Judas and the Blokhedz – walking the changes and using horn voicings in a couple of wry solos.
Interestingly, bandleader Ripka stuck to rhythm and didn’t take any solos. But the band played several of his arrangements of Little Rascals theme music, from scampering Keystone Kops miniatures to longer, more coyly crescendoing, cinematic pieces. Even the ballads were upbeat. Soprano saxophonist Jason Candler sang a handful of them, when he wasn’t sending wildfire spirals upward. Trumpeter John Carlson played terse, centered good cop to trombonist Tim Vaughn’s boisterous honks and snorts and extended technique. They’re back at Barbes on June 13 at 10 PM, headlining a great swing twinbill that begins at 8 with plush singer/baritone uke player Daria Grace & the Pre-War Ponies, who excel at oldschool mambos and can also be a lot more boisterous than most retro swing bands.