New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Jon-Erik Kellso

A Radical Change of Pace and a Park Slope Gig From a Future Vocal Jazz Icon

Svetlana & the Delancey 5 have had a memorable run as one of New York’s most colorful swing bands. But their charismatic Moscow-born frontwoman is much more eclectic than most of the other oldtimey hot jazz chicks in town – and you can hear it in her voice. Her latest album Night at the Movies – streaming at her music page – is a total change of pace for her, yet in a way it’s a logical step forward for someone who was always too sophisticated to be fenced in by just one style. It’s a collection of movie music. Peggy Lee and Mel Torme – iconic voices, but worthy comparisons – made lavishly escapist records like this, although neither of them had to escape Soviet ugliness as so many other Russians did before the Chernobyl disaster bankrupted the regime. You can get a sense of that at her quartet gig Nov 21, with sets at 7 and 9 PM at the newly opened, ambitious Made in New York Jazz Cafe & Bar at 155 5th Ave off Degraw in Park Slope. You can get in for free; it’s ten bucks for a table. Take the R to Union St., walk uphill and back toward Atlantic.

Svetlana is at her balmiest throughout the album’s opening track, a lushly orchestrated bossa-nova take of In the Moonlight, from the 1995 flick Sabrina – it’s a good showcase for her impeccable nuance and remarkably vigorous low register, considering that the song is essentially a simple two-chord vamp. Sullivan Fornter’s terse piano cuts through the orchestration in the torch song Sooner or Later – not the Skatalites classic but a Sondheim track sung by Madonna in the 1990 Dick Tracy film.

Svetlana pairs off with her bud, trombonist/crooner Wycliffe Gordon – whose deviously entertaining charts she’s used for years – in the swing standard Cheek to Cheek, a throwback to the classic Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong duets. Their remake of Pharrell Williams’ Happy, from 2010’s Despicable Me, is even more of a revelation: who knew what a great blues tune this could be?

Svetlana makes an elegant ballad out of Pure Imagination, a devious stoner theme from the Willy Wonka movie, with a sly take of a lyric that works as well for experienced older people as well as for the kids. Her disarmingly intimate duet intro with guitarist Chico Pinheiro on Moon River is the coolest interpretation of that song since the days when REM used to surprise audiences with a janglerock version.

Fortner’s celestial gravitas matches the bandleader’s knowing, wistful take of the standard When You Wish Upon a Star. Michel Legrand’s Watch What Happens, from the 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is an unexpected match of jaunty, New Orleans-tinged swing and bruised hope against hope, with a jaunty Jon-Erik Kellso trumpet solo.

John Chin’s crushingly crescendoing piano in a sambafied take of Remember Me, from the 2017 film Coco, contrasts with Svetlana’s lushly bittersweet delivery. She sings Boris Pasternak’s ominous lyric from No One’s In This House – from the 1975 Russian drama Irony of Fate – as latin noir, spiced with Sam Sadigursky’s moody clarinet. The band reinvent the Charlie Chaplin classic Smile as a gentle latin swing tune, then make a chugging New Orleans romp out of Randy Newman’s Almost There, from the 2009 Princess & the Frog film. Has anybody ever done so many unexpected things with so many movie songs?

The epic cast of characters here also includes but is not limited to Rob Garcia and Matt Wilson on drums, Elias Bailey on bass, Rogerio Boccatto on percussion, Michael Davis on trombone, Antoine Silverman and Entcho Todorov on violin and Emily Brausa on cello.

Catherine Russell Brings Her Edgy Retro Swing and Blues Reinventions to Birdland

Catherine Russell has made a career out of bringing edge and freshness to old swing jazz tunes both popular and obscure. Much as she’s often mined the so-called “great American songbook” for much of it, she and her band steer clear of cliches. Other than the present, the time period they most closely evoke is the early 30s, before swing got watered down for segregated white audiences. And where so many other jazz singers mimic icons from decades past, Russell long ago developed a resolute, purposefully individualistic style, with a deep if not always immediately present blues influence – something you might expect from someone whose pianist father Luis was Louis Armstrong’s musical director. Her new album Alone Together – which hasn’t hit her Spotify channel yet – is just out. She and her similarly purist group are celebrating the release with a stand at Birdland this Feb 12-16, with sets at 9 and 11 PM. You can get in for thirty bucks.

They open the new record with the title track: ultimately, it’s an optimistic ballad, but both Russell and the band anchor it with a steady, gritty swing, pianist Mark Shane and trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso ramping up an underlying, steely bluesiness. Likewise, Russell and Shane max out the irony in You Turned the Tables on Me, over bassist Tal Ronen and drummer Mark McLean’s steady stroll.

When Did You Leave Heaven has a plush string section, a subtle 12/8 rhythm and a spare, spacious soul solo from musical director/guitarist Matt Munisteri. They reinvent Early in the Morning as a barrelhouse piano cha-cha, punctuated with Mark Lopeman’s tenor sax and Munisteri’s wry Chicago blues solo. Then they turn Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby into a wary New Orleans stroll with a terse, edgy horn chart, probably the last thing Louis Jordan ever imagined for this song – at least until Kellso cuts loose with his mute.

Russell matches sass to knowing sarcasm while the band romp through You Can’t Pull the Wool Over My Eyes, Lopeman and Kellso trading off with trombonist John Allred with some lively dixieland. Her angst is more distant in Shake Down the Stars, Shane’s emphatic solo giving way to Kellso’s airier, more wistful lines. Then the group take their time with a gorgeously bittersweet, take of the blues ballad I Wonder, lowlit by Munisteri’s tremoloing guitar and resonant washes of brass.

The real gem here is the innuendo-packed hokum blues He May Be Your Dog But He’s Wearing My Collar, a 1923 hit for singer Rosa Henderson, who would no doubt approve of Russell’s defiance over Shane’s stride piano and Munisteri’s shivery slide work. The band romp through the sudden tempo shifts of Errand Girl for Rhythm and then flip the script with a steady, darkly ambered take of How Deep Is the Ocean. Likewise, they keep a purposeful slink going through their take of I Only Have Eyes for You.

They wind up the album with a tasty version of You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew, with a nod over the shoulder at those great 1920s Bessie Smith/James P. Johnson collaborations. Russell has made a bunch of good records over the years but this might be the best of them all.

Three of the World’s Great Jazz Voices Sing the Blues

One of the year’s funnest concerts was back at the end of July at Metrotech Park in downtown Brooklyn, where three of New York’s most distinctive jazz vocalists – Catherine Russell, Brianna Thomas and Charenee Wade – sang a lascivious and occasionally heartwrenching mix of blues and early swing tunes. Daycamp kids, retirees, office workers on their lunchbreaks and others playing hooky from work (guess who) hung around and grinned in unison when Russell sang the story of what happened when Miss Liza Johnson’s ex finds out that she’s changed the lock on her front door. “He pushed it in and turned it round,” she paused, “And took it out,” she explained. “They just don’t write ’em like that anymore,” she grinned afterward.

Wade made her entrance with a pulsing take of Lil Johnson’s My Stove’s in Good Condition and its litany of Freudian metaphors, which got the crowd going just like it was 1929. Matt Munisteri, playing banjo, took a rustic, coyly otherworldly solo, dancing and then frenetically buzzing, pinning the needle in the red as he would do often despite the day’s early hour. Thomas did a similar tune, working its innuendos for all they were worth. And the split second Wade launched into “I hate to see that evening sun go down,”a siren echoed down Jay Street. Not much has changed in that way since 1929 either. That was the point of the show, that the blues is no less relevant or amusing now than it was almost a hundred years ago when most of the songs in the setwere written.

The band – Munisteri, Mark Shane on piano, Tal Ronen on bass, Mark McLean drums, Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, John Allred on trombone and Mark Lopeman on tenor and soprano sax – opened counterintuitively with a slow, moody blues number that sounded like the prototype for Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy, Munisteri’s beehive of a tremolo-picked banjo solo at the center. They went to the repertoire of Russell’s pianist dad Luis for an ebullient take of Going to Town, a jaunty early swing tune from 1930 with brief dixieland-flavored solos all around. The rest of the set mined the catalog of perennial favorites like Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith, with a bouncy take of bouncy take of Fats Waller’s Crazy ‘Bout My Baby to shake things up.

The show’s most riveting number was a hushed piano-and-vocal duo take of Ethel Waters’ Supper Time. Thomas took care to emphasize that it was the grim account of a woman explaining to her kids that their dad wasn’t coming home anymore since he’d been lynched. Shane’s piano matched Thomas’ understated anguish through austere gospel-flavored passages, occasionally reaching into the macabre. Then she picked up the pace just a little with a pensive take of the Bessie Smith classic I Ain’t Got Nobody, fueled by Shane’s striding lefthand and Kellso’s energetically shivery, melismatic lines.

Russell let her vibrato linger throughout maybe the night’s most innuendo-fueled number, Margaret Johnson’s Who’ll Chop Your Suey When I’m Gone (sample lyric: “Who’ll clam your chowder?”), the horns as exuberantly droll as the vocals. The three women didn’t do much in the way of harmonies until the end of the set, which would have been fun to see: Wade with her no-nonsense alto, Russell with her purist mezzo-soprano and Thomas’s alternately airy and fiery higher register. How does all this relate to what’s happening in New York right now, a couple of months after this apparently one-off collaboration was over? Russell has a new album out – which hasn’t made it over the transom here yet. Stay tuned!

Catherine Russell Brings Back the Blues and Jazz Roots of Classic Soul

The first time anybody at this blog saw Catherine Russell, it was about three in the morning and she was belting her heart out over a tight funk band called the Pleasure Unit, who would later become somewhat better known as TV on the Radio. In the fourteen years since then, she’s become one of the biggest names in oldtime swing jazz. Her previous album, Strictly Romancin’, was a Louis Armstrong tribute (Russell’s multi-instrumentalist dad Luis played in Armstrong’s band: the apple didn’t fall far). Her latest album, Bring It Back, goes deeper into the blues, in a Duke Ellington way. Harmonia Mundi gets credit for releasing the album, which is up at Spotify.

The band lineup is pretty much the same as the previous album: musical director Matt Munisteri on guitar and other fretted instruments; Mark Shane on piano; Lee Hudson on bass; Mark McClean on drums; Glenn Patscha on organ; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; Mark Lopeman on baritone sax; John Allred on trombone; and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds. Other than just the pure chops they bring to the songs, the way the both Russell and the band shift direction depending on the underlying emotional content is what distinguishes them from the legions of shi-shi restaurant bands and cruise ship combos who try to make a go of this oldtime stuff. The arrangements may be refined to the nth degree, but the group’s approach to the songs’ heartbreak and intensity (and sometimes just plain good fun) is disarmingly direct.

The album opens with the catchy midtempo title track, Russell’s urbane sophistication balanced way out on a limb by Munisteri’s unexpectedly feral, wildly string-bending guitar, confronting the angst that the vocals refuse to give in to. “High” is the operative word in Shooting High, with its elegant handoffs from one instrument to the next. The steady, shady I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart matches muted trumpet and somewhat furtive sax to the wistfulness and resignation in Russell’s understatedly torchy delivery. Then they pick up the pace with the jaunty, dixieland-flavored You Got to Swing and Sway.

The band does Aged and Mellow as an oldschool soul ballad in the same vein as Willie Nelson’s Night Life – Russell doesn’t let on how the story’s actually being told by a gold-digger. They keep the high spirits going with the nonchalantly triumphant, shuffling Darktown Strutters’ Ball and then hit a peak with a big, brassy arrangement of Lucille (not the B.B. King song but a previously unreleased, exuberant number by Russell’s dad).

Russell’s most pillowy vocal here is You’ve Got Me Under Your Thumb, set to a ragtime-tinged piano-and-guitar backdrop. After the Lights Go Down, a gorgeous blend of oldschool soul and blues, sets Russell’s confidently conspiratorial vocals against wickedly shivery guitar and organ. I’m Sticking With You Baby, a litany of prewar aphorisms, has more invigorating, bluesy organ, Russell trading bars with the band as they take it all the way up at the end.

The minor-key, irony-drenched, ragtime-inflected Strange As It Seems makes a stark contrast. The jump blues Public Melody Number One picks up the pace again, with an absolutely surreal lyric:

Frankenstein, a bundle of joy
Jesse James is a teacher’s pet
A gatling gun compared to
Shots from a hot corvette

The album ends with an absolutely riveting, unexpectedly energetic version of the old Billie Holiday standard I Cover the Waterfront, rising and falling with an angst that dignifies the neighborhood hooker and her ache for the guy who’s gone away across the ocean, no doubt for good. On one level, this is a trip back in time; on another, a lot of the playing here is more eclectic than what your typical studio band would try to pull off in, say, 1934.