The difference between Svetlana & the Delancey Five and virtually every other female-fronted vocal jazz act out there is that they’re not just a singer and a backing band. There’s more interplay and musical conversation in this group than there is in practically any other similar lineup. Case in point: the take of Lady Be Good at their Blue Note show on Saturday. “Here’s one from when we used to be a dance band,” frontwoman Svetlana Shmulyian told the crowd as the ensemble launched into a lickety-split version peppered with counterpoint and call-and-response between both singer and instrumentalists, along with a striking handful of sudden syncopated shifts.
Of the original band’s original lineup, only the bandleader, and trumpeter Charlie Caranicas remain – if you buy the argument that there was an original one. Like another New York institution, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, this band have always had a semi-rotating cast: Shmulyian’s address book is as deep as her collection of edgy original charts.
Throughout the rest of the set, the animated jousting between bandmates was nonstop. Tenor saxophonist Christopher McBride exchanged clusters and bursts with Caranicas, whose effortlessly rapidfire descent through a biting series of chromatics during an epically shapeshifting Nothing But Blue Skies was one of the show’s high points.
Bassist Endea Owens – most recently witnessed propelling the mighty all-female Sisterhood of Swing big band at Lincoln Center – voiced terse piano lines and horn lines, and then went into some lowdown funk in a radical remake of Remember Me, from the animated film Coco. Pianist Willerm Delisfort, who’d switched to a resonant, organlike Fender Rhodes setting for that one, tossed off an especially smoochy boudoir soul riff that drew an eye-rolling “I can’t believe you just did that” from the bassist. From the side seats, it wasn’t possible to see Delisfort’s reaction, but it was probably, “There’s more where that came from.”
Drummer Henry Conerway III turned his predecessor Rob Garcia’s arrangement of the Beatles’ Because into a New Orleans funeral theme – in 6/8 time, most of the way through. Likewise, he and the bandleader pounced through more than one jaunty drum-and-vocal duet.
Shmulyian – whose interpretations depend on whatever exchanges are going on with the group – was characteristically dynamic on the mic. Her signature delivery is as clear as a bell, but this time she added an unexpectedly welcome grit to A Tisket, a Tasket, her opening number. It may have been a throwaway for Ella Fitzgerald, but Shmulyian took a carefree playground rhyme and made a fierce double-dutch anthem out of it. Contrastingly, she turned the ballad Sooner or Later – from the Madonna film Dick Tracy – into swoony wee-hours saloon blues.
For upstate fans, they’re at the Falcon,1348 Rt. 9 W in Marlboro, NY on July 29 at 8 PM. They also have a new album, Night at the Movies, in the can, whose reinvented songs from films across the ages are reputedly as eclectic as the setlist as this gig.