Kimberly Hawkey is best known as the irrepressible, erudite frontwoman of the deviously entertaining Swingaroos, who reinvent old jazz tunes from the 20s and 30s. But back in 2016, she made an equally irreverent and captivating album of her own with a considerably larger cast including a string quartet. That record, Elvanelle & the Escape Act, is still streaming at Bandcamp, and it has an interesting backstory.
Hawkey crowdsourced the record, and one of the perks she was giving out to supporters was a collection of old sheet music she’d picked up on Ebay. Going through the scores, she noticed that she’d just acquired the personal archive of a woman named Elvanell Ellison, who was born in New Mexico in 1917. Not much is known about her other than her passion for jazz. She married a guy named John Horton, moved to California and eventually died there in the 1990s. Clearly, she and Hawkey are kindred spirits.
Hawkey opens the record with the lush, playfuly orchestrated, Gershwinesque Music That Makes the Wind Blow, the first of a couple of co-writes with Swingaroos pianist Assaf Gleizner. She and the band give a cosmopolitan 30s feel to the first of the standards, It’s You or No One, with a triumphant trumpet solo from Björn Ingelstam.
Hawkey recasts Johnny Mercer’s Dream as latin noir, driven by the snaky rhythm of bassist Ray Cetta and drummer Mark McLean, saxophonist Morgan Price’s smoky spirals completing the picture. She gets brassy in an unexpectedly carnivalesque take of Crazy Rhythm and then makes an elegantly artsy piano ballad out of the first of a couple of old folk tunes, Shall We Gather at the River. Gleizner channels McCoy Tyner at his tersest and darkest in a Coltrane-esque remake of the other, Shady Grove.
Hawkey and the band make a diptych out of How Little We Know and I’ll See You Again, shifting from a strikingly poignant waltz to a crooner cameo by Ingelstam and then a little duet. Hawkey’s lyrics to the album’s second original, I Love a Ballad are hilarious, matched by the music: without giving away too much, tempos are part of the joke.
She veers even closer to Spike Jones territory, picking up her tenor banjo as Ingelstam switches to trombone for a goofy version of I’m in the Mood for Love. Then she gets sly and lowdown in a New Orleans-flavored reinvention of Ev’rything I’ve Got. Hawkey closes the album with a wistful, fond version of I’ll Be Seeing You. A triumph of outside-the-box ideas from a cast that also includes violinists Brendan Speltz and Lavinia Pavlish, violist Milena Pajaro van der Stadt, cellist Andrew Janss and trombonist Christopher Bill.