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Tag: swing music

A Rare, Distinctive Male Jazz Vocal Record From Michael Stephenson

Michael Stephenson is a rarity: an individualist male jazz singer. In a world that’s probably about 95 percent women at this point, he distinguishes himself with his no-nonsense baritone and devious sense of humor. You would think that more dudes with his talents would have gone into the field, but at the moment Stephenson pretty much has the floor to himself. And he’s a competent tenor saxophonist as well. His latest album Michael Stephenson Meets the Alexander Claffy Trio is streaming at Bandcamp.

This is jazz as entertainment. He and the group – Claffy on bass, Julius Rodriguez on piano and Itay Morchi on drums, with special guest Benny Benack III on trumpet – are often a party in a box. They open the record with a mostly bass-and-vocal duo version of Sweet Lorraine: Stephenson shows off that he can cut loose on the mic in a split second, and that’s about it. Then things get really amusing with a slyly swinging take of Ray Charles’ Greenbacks, which as Stephenson sings it, are coated in chlorophyll…or maybe something else. No spoilers. Stephenson and Benack’s solos give it a muscular midsection.

Rodriguez and Morchi spiral around, building symphonic intensity to introduce a tightly pulsing version of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Happening Brother?, giving voice to indomitability in the face of unrest. How times change, huh?

The group reinvent When a Man Loves a Woman as a straightforward midtempo swing tune: Rodriguez adds judicious gospel touches, with an exuberant solo from Benack. Stephenson and Claffy build intensity with a rubato-ish intro to On the Street Where You Live. then they swing it with a low-key simmer, Rodriguez’s hard-hitting solo giving way to Claffy’s balletesque break.

Stephenson resists reaching for the rafters in a slowly crescendoing take of the Tennessee Waltz, Rodriguez reinventing it with a neoromantic gleam. Stephenson’s smoky, purposeful tenor solo gives Benack a springboard to go for broke with his mute in Ain’t That Love, then he moves to the mic for an emphatic last chorus.

Polka Dots and Moonbeams is probably the last number you would expect a guy to sing: the band give it a lush nocturnal atmosphere, but this is a tough sell, and it’s out of place on what’s otherwise a good party record. On the other hand, the group’s cascading cover of Dionne Warwick’s Can’t Hide Love is a smashing success, Rodriguez fueling the inferno.

The group have fun with Ben Webster’s Did You Call Her Today?, keeping it stealthy until Benack’s trumpet pierces the surface like a missile from a submarine. Stephenson saves his most emotive vocal for his closing duo take of For All We Know with Rodriguez. It’s anybody’s guess where Stephenson is playing next – he’s quite the mystery man on the web – but Benack is leading a quintet at Smalls at 10:30 PM and then hosting the midnight jam session afterward on April 27. Cover is $25 cash at the door.

Singles, Amusement and Inspiration for Mid-March

Today’s self-guided playlist is about a half hour of great songs, some snarky comedy and useful information. Click on artist names for their webpages, click on song titles or descriptions for audio/video.

Top of the list today is Austrian group the Mona Lisa Twins I Bought Myself a Politician, a venomously funny oldtimey-flavored swing parable of the plandemic. The video is great too. “Who would have thought I’d bring the whole world to its knees?” Thanks to Mark Crispin Miller – the other New York Music Daily – for passing this on.

Here’s a succinct, blockbuster two-minute clip by former BlackRock hedge fund manager Edward Dowd, whose analysis of insurance industry all-cause mortality data reveals how the Covid shot killed more young people in the second half of 2021 than were killed in ten years in the Vietnam War. Data like this is what’s going to crash Moderna’s stock value down to zero.

It would have been nice to be able to save this next video for the annual Halloween month celebration of all things creepy, but it can’t wait. This is the World Economic Forum‘s three-minute promo for their planned facial recognition tech-based Known Traveler Digital ID, scheduled to be rolled out in Canada and the Netherlands in 2023. It’s a platform for a Chinese communist-style social credit scheme. Forewarned is forearmed! Thanks to Unacceptable Dr. Jessica Rose, astute analyst of VAERS data, for passing this along

Here’s a beautiful off-the-cuff nine-minute video of the reliably poetic Dr. Paul Alexander – the Linton Kwesi Johnson of the freedom movement – with fearless native New Yorker Dr. Pierre Kory chatting with Laura Lynn at the Freedom Convoy encampment in Maryland after a productive and peaceful day.

Soul songstress Dee Ponder‘s latest single Poor Man has sparkly, expansive retro reverb guitar over a trip-hop beat, up to a surprising late-Beatles outro. “Who’s gonna listen to a poor man’s pain?” The final mantra is Freedom! Fun fact: she’s a former public defender from Rochester.

Paper Citizen‘s Heart on Fire juxtaposes quirky techy verse, catchy swirly chorus and an unselfconscious sense of humor from frontwoman/multi-instrumentalist Claire Gohst

Julia Gaeta‘s Weight of You is dense late 80s/early 90s goth as Siouxsie would have done it: uncluttered and merciless.

Dance Back in Time to a Happier Place with the Gabriel Evan Orchestra

One of the funnest albums to come over the transom here over the past several months is the Gabriel Evan Orchestra‘s latest release, Global Entry, streaming at Bandcamp. The inside of the album booklet shows the bandleader lounging in the shade of a ramshackle backyard in South Williamsburg, where this blog’s predecessor was born in 2007. Aldo’s, and the Southside Lounge, and Rock Star Bar, and innumerable neighborhood fixtures from that time are long gone. But this hot jazz group capture not only the excitement of that era, but of another tropically influenced moment in this city about ninety years ago.

They model themselves after the John Kirby Sextet, the popular 1930s group whose specialty was wry jazz arrangements of classical pieces. Fans of the Ghost Train Orchestra will love this stuff. Trumpeter John Zarsky wafts and buzzes amid the bright harmonies of the bandleader’s alto sax and Joe Goldberg’s clarinet over the sotto-voce pulse of pianist Joe Kennedy. bassist Ben Fox and drummer Michael Voelker. All that’s missing is a comedic Spike Jones rap.

Rumba Azul. the first of two 1930s hits by the Lecuona Cuban Boys, has a dixeland flair balanced by a beat that’s practically reggae. The other is the closing number, Rumba Tambah, following a similar trajectory from a lively bounce to more wary tonalities and back: the group really nail that style’s primitive, minimalistically trebly sound.

For Arabian Nightmare, Evan takes a Charlie Shavers arrangement of a famous Rimsky-Korsakov theme which completely changes the beat and adds a cheery midsection: that piano rhythm, veering from quasi-reggae to mambo, is hilarious. South 5th Street. one of a couple of Evan originals. has a brisk, brassy swing along with carefree clarinet and piano solos before Zarsky romps in with his mute. Evan’s other tune here is Negotiations of South Williamsburg, a slinky hi-de-ho mashup of the Ravel Bolero and a nifty. scampering klezmer tune.

The band go into stripped-down calypso jazz for Diane (Tropical Moon), a vehicle for Zarsky’s soulful trumpet. They make fond midtempo swing out of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s Singin’ the Blues and play Ellington’s Jubilee Stomp with an apt, hokum blues-influenced jubilation in their brief solos.

The band use the same jaunty template for Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes. Then they bring the lights down for an undulating, coyly ornamented take of Henry Mancini’s Lujon. From there, Shavers’ Effervescent Blues, done with a strut and choo-choo riffs, makes a good segue..

Sizzling Noir Swing in the Black Hills on the First of the Month

Back in 2018, Minneapolis band Miss Myra & the Moonshiners put out one of the most darkly electrifying oldtime swing albums of the century. The band’s lineup has shifted a bit since then, but they’re still ripping up stages across the northern United States. That record, Sunday Sinning, is still streaming at their music page, and the band have a gig on Oct 1 at 7 PM at the Monument, 444 Mt Rushmore Rd. in Rapid City, South Dakota. Cover is $27.50, but students get in for ten bucks less.

If the creepy, hi-de-ho side of swing is your thing, don’t blink on this record like this blog did the first time around. The group have the chutzpah to start it with their own theme song, Miss Myra leading the sinister romp with her voice and Django-inspired, briskly percussive guitar attack, lead guitarist Zane Fitzgerald Palmer and clarinetist Sam Skavnak spicing the the doomy ambience from trumpeter Bobby J Marks and trombonist Nathan Berry. Tuba player Isaac Heath provides a fat pulse with nimble color from drummer Angie Frisk.

They play Sheik of Araby with a hint of noir bolero on the intro, then they go scrambling with a hearty jump blues-style call-and-response between Myra and the guys. The Kaiser, an ominously steady klezmer swing tune, has bowed bass and a sinister bass clarinet solo from Skavnak before Palmer goes spiraling up into the clouds.

Likewise, Miss Myra’s creepy downward chromatics in Egyptian Ella, Skavnak’s clarinet front and center. Everybody Loves My Baby is brassier – five songs in, and we’re still in a minor key. Sunday Sinning (Palmer’s Bar) features a sizzling tradeoff from the clarinet to Palmer’s guitar solo. They close the record with the stomping, brisk Red Hot & Blue Rhythm – the only major-key song on the record – the ending screams out for audience participation. South Dakotans are obviously in for a treat on the first of the month.

A Familiar Favorite on the Oldtime Swing Scene Return For an East Village Dance Party

Until the lockdown last year, Baby Soda were one of the busiest bands on the New York oldtimey swing circuit. They’re also one of the most original. Where Svetlana & the Delancey Five began to bring in repertoire from the 40s on forward, along with more outside-the-box arrangements, Baby Soda distinguished themselves as improvisers. What made their shows so much fun is that they didn’t just try to replicate those old 78s: they’d keep the dancers going, with all kinds of wild interplay and solos, for minutes on end. They’re back to their old tricks, with an outdoor show this Sept 24 at about 7 PM to kick off this year’s LUNGS Festival in the East Village at La Plaza Cultural de Armando Perez, Ave C and 9th St.

They recorded their live album – streaming at Bandcamp – at their main haunt, Radegast Hall, back in 2011 (sadly, the venue doesn’t have music anymore). There’s been a rotating cast of players filtering through the band over the years. The record has the original core unit of Emily Asher on trombone and vocals, Adrian Cunningham on clarinet and tenor sax, Jared Engel on banjo and Kevin Dorn on drums. Peter Ford plays box bass and Kevin V Louis plays cornet; both sing.

The sound quality is vastly better than you would expect from an outdoor show on a Saturday at a crowded Williamsburg beer garden. The opening number, a boisterous take of the old hokum blues revenge tune You Rascal You, is a red herring: don’t be fooled by the relative brevity of this song because the other numbers here go on for much longer. Ford sings it; guest clarinetist William Reardon Anderson bubbles within a cheery web of dixieland counterpoint.

The rest of the album is more solo-centric. The instrumental Weary Blues is anything but tired: Louis’ moment where he spirals out of the sky draws a roar from the drinkers. The band follow with a New Orleans mardi gras shuffle, a dixieland remake of a hymn, then When You Wore a Tulip with its energetic guy/girl vocals.

Cunningham’s modulated clarinet solo on the midtempo drag Whinnin Boy is another highlight. A deliciously klezmerized take of Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho is the best song of the afternoon, with an ecstatic cornet/drums duel.

After a booty-shaking Palm Court Strut, Asher moves to the mic for an undulating take of Sugar and then shows off her signature, devious sense of humor with her horn. Ford must like the mean songs because he takes over on vocals again on Nobody’s Sweetheart Now. They go out in a blaze of Glory Glory. A good choice to open the festival on the 24th.

Party Like It’s 1929, or 2019, With Megg Farrell and Ricky Alexander

For the last few years before the lockdown, Sweet Megg & the Wayfarers were one of New York’s top hot 20s-style swing dance bands. They held down a regular Radegast Hall residency and if memory serves right were also one of the main attractions at the now-discontinued Porchstomp festival on Governors Island. Radegast Hall may no longer have music, and these days Governors Island visitors are subject to a clusterfuck of the World Economic Forum’s New Abnormal restrictions. But the core of the band, frontwoman Megg Farrell and multi-reedman Ricky Alexander are still partying like it’s 2019 and have a high-voltage new album, I’m in Love Again, streaming at Spotify. It’s a lot of fun figuring out which are the originals and which are the covers here. Sometimes it’s hard to tell: the band really know their hot jazz inside out.

The opening track, My Honey’s Lovin’ Arms has a jaunty, brassy dixieland interweave contrasting with Farrell’s mentholated purr. We get a red-flame forward drive from Mike Davis’ trumpet and Rob Edwards’ trombone, plus a bouncy solo from Alexander’s clarinet over Dalton Ridenhour’s saloon jazz piano and the steady bass and drums of Rob Adkins and Kevin Dorn. It sets the stage for the rest of the party.

Alexander switches to balmy tenor sax for the shuffling ballad Foolin’ Myself, Farrell calm and cool overhead. That’s none other than the great Jerron Paxton on the acoustic blues guitar.

Edwards and Davis square off for a playful duel in Right or Wrong, setting up a slyly amusing clarinet break, Farrell unexpectedly dropping the composed facade and reaching for the rafters. She gets even more diversely seductive after that in Squeeze Me, as the band keep a tightly matching beat going, Davis and Alexander trading solos.

Farrell and Paxton (on banjo here) duet on the coyly innuendo-fueled Last Night on the Back Porch. The horns duel and then make way for a wry Paxton banjo break in Angry, then the group slow everything down for I Got It Bad, with a lusciously lustrous, Ellingtonian arrangement and Alexander’s most affecting sax solo here.

Ragged But Right has a rustic hokum blues vibe and a deviously perfect early 30s vernacular. The band take the vibe about twenty years further into the future on album’s title track, with its western swing tinges and Ridenhour’s scrambling piano.

I’d Love to Take Orders From You – yikes, that’s a scary title for 2021 – has the album’s most sophisticated rhythms. The band close it out with A Blues Serenade, awash in lush nocturnal sonics behind Farrell’s expressive, dynamic vocals. Won’t it be fun when we get rid of Cuomo and all the restrictions and bands like this can get the party started at any venue that will have them.

Fifth Element Breathe New Life into a Bunch of Familiar Standards

The tracklist for swing band Fifth Element’s new album – streaming at Soundcloud- is pretty generic. A gazillion lounge acts have mined these escapist standards, mostly from the 40s and 50s, for decades. What sets Fifth Element apart from the legions of torchy hotel bar happy hour groups is singer Nina Richmond’s dynamic, subtly electrifying, insightful interpretations and tenor sax player Dave Coules’ outside-the-box, economical arrangements. Moldy oldies have seldom been reinvented with this kind of flair and zest.

The group set the stage for the rest of the record with the opening number, I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me. Richmond’s delivery has vintage 60s soul-infused edge and bite; pianist Dale Scaife’s terse solo sets up Coules’ balmy solo, bassist Ron Johnston and drummer Glenn Anderson maintaining a similarly purposeful shuffle groove.

Johnston’s coyly swooping bass solo kicks off A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square; again, Richmond’s mezzo-soprano channels an undercurrent of unease. The band do It Might As Well Be Spring as a lively cha-cha – and vivid portrait of cabin fever. I Love Being Here With You has some good jokes – let’s say that Johnston seems to be the cutup in the band.

Anderson has fun introducing a passing shower in The Gentle Rain, reinvented it as a bossa tune. The band romp through There Will Never Be Another You, then completely flip the script with the brooding first verse of More Than You Know, anchored by Scaife’s plaintive chords before shifting to a slow, simmering 12/8 swing,

They follow a subtly Monk-inflected September in the Rain with a blue-flame take of The Look of Love: sticking with a backbeat on the turnaround in lieu of Burt Bacharach’s flurrying syncopation really seals the deal. Richmond isn’t out on the ledge again in Days of Wine and Roses, but she does give it a silky poignancy.

The quintet slow down again for a bit but pick up with tropical cheer in My Romance, Richmond cutting loose with her vibrato. They close the album with My Shining Hour, shifting from gospel-inflected rapture to a briskly triumphant pulse. If you’re outside the free world right now and you have a speakeasy nearby – as everybody seems to these days – this makes a good soundtrack. Just don’t play it too loud: you don’t want snitches!

Revisiting Kimberly Hawkey’s Swing Jazz Reinventions

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.

The 8-Bit Big Band Can’t Stop Playing Mighty, Orchestral Versions of Video Game Themes

The 8-Bit Big Band are one of the most improbably successful brands in music. They own the franchise on lavishly orchestrated, jazz-oriented arrangements of video game themes. They have more of a following in the video game world than in jazz circles, maybe because much of what they play is closer to action film scores than, say, Miles Davis. But it sure is a lot of fun. Their frequently hilarious latest album Backwards Compatible is streaming at Bandcamp.

Between the horns, and reeds, and string orchestra, and singers, there are so many people among the group’s rotating cast of characters that they would take up more space than there is on this page. After a bit of a lush intro, they launch into the album with the main theme from Chrono Trigger, pianist Steven Feifke scrambling over a fusiony backdrop that descends to a dreamy string interlude. Take out those piano breaks and this could be an early 80s Earth Wind and Fire number.

The Gourmet Race from Kirby Super Star is basically a beefed-up hot 20s tune, tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon soloing lickety-split over a racewalking pulse as the strings swell behind him. They do Hydrocity Zone, a Sonic the Hedgehog 3 theme, as beefed-up funk with Grace Kelly adding a gritty alto solo.

Benny Benack III croons a silly lyric, Rat Pack style, then raises his trumpet in a blustery 50s-style orchestral pop reinvention of Want You Gone, from the Portal 2 soundtrack. Metaknights Revenge, a Kirby Super Star theme has a clever interweave of horns in place of motorik synth and a trio of wry synth solos from the mysterious “Buttonmasher.”

The first Mario theme here is the killer, irresistibly amusing, quote-laden tarantella Super Mario Land Underground, from Super Mario 64, with Balkan-tinged baritone sax from another mystery soloist,  “Leo P.”  It’s the best track on the album. Dire Dire Docks, also from that soundtrack, features bassist and bandleader Charlie Rosen burbling around way up the fretboard over a pillowy ballad backdrop.

It’s hard to resist singing “That’s the way of the world, yeow,” as Birdman, from Pilot Wings 64, gets underway. Zac Zinger emulates a woozy synth through his EWI while the music edges closer toward Alan Parsons Project territory. Choral group Accent’s contribution to the floating Lost in Thoughts All Alone, from Fire Emblem Fates, will have you reaching for fast forward to get away from the autotune, ruining an otherwise clever Rosen chart.

Bassist Adam Neely goes up the scale and noodles in Saria’s Song, a cheerily symphonic remake from the Zelda: Ocarina of Time score. Tiffany Mann sings on a sweeping 70s soul version of Snake Eater, found on the Metal Gear Solid 3 soundtrack.

The group close with a couple of additional Mario themes. Kelly returns, this time on the mic, for a ridiculously amusing, vaudevillian reinvention of Jump Up Super Star, from Super Mario Odyssey. The orchestra close appropriately enough with a brassy take of the Super Mario World End Theme, complete with shivery strings and a ragtime piano solo. This is a great party record and obviously a labor of love. The amount of work Rosen spent reworking all these tunes is staggering, and the huge crew here seem to be having just as much fun with it.

Charming, Cheery Swing Tunes For a New Era of Speakeasies

When Fleur Seule put out their album Standards and Sweet Things – streaming at Spotify – in 2019, little did they know how radical their music would be less than two years later. Obviously, in 2019, nobody regarded this group’s perennially cheery, dancefloor-friendly swing tunes as dangerous. Sure, back in the 1940s, the sound they emulate was considered scandalous in redneck parts of the world, but that was then and this is now. Right?

Wrong. Who knew that dictator Andrew Cuomo would illegalize dancing to jazz in clubs…never mind criminalizing music venues themselves? Until the underground speakeasy circuit which has come to replace the scores of shuttered venues around town becomes more integrated into this city’s nightlife, we have Fleur Seule’s sassy, urbane record to remind us of the fun we had…and the fun we will have. But we’re going to have to work for it. Recent court rulings have overturned Cuomo’s ridiculous lockdown edicts against gyms and houses of worship, but we have to do our part and keep fighting to get back to normal. Let’s not forget that if the lockdowners get their way, indoor concerts in this city will always have to be clandestine.

The album opens with a low-key, scampering take of Taking a Chance on Love, frontwoman Allyson Briggs’ understated optimism over Jason Yeager’a tightly clustering piano, Michael O’Brien’s woody bass and Paul Francis’ shuffling drums, Andy Warren’s muted trumpet raising the temperature here and there. That sets the stage for the rest of the record: most of this is party music, and this is a long album, sixteen tracks.

One of Fleur Seule’s distinguishing features is that they have more of a latin flair than most of the energetic, female-fronted swing acts to come out of this town since the big swing revival a quarter century ago. Their version of Piel Canela has a lowlit simmer, coy overdubbed vocalese and Spanish guitar from Richard Miller. Trumpet and guitar elevate Sabor a Mi above a muted wistfulness, while Briggs plays up the innuendo in Manuelo (even as she mispronounces this hombre’s name). She turns her brittle vibrato up all the way for an aptly summery version of Con Los Ayos Que Me Quedan. And the take of Sweet Happy Life, with its precise, carnavalesque piano, is one of the album’s most individualistic tracks.

Briggs toys with the melody of Almost Like Being In Love, Anita O’Day style. The band plunder the Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald songbook for brisk romps through Them There Eyes and S’Wonderful. Shoo Fly Pie has a wry muted trumpet solo and all the guys joining in on the chorus; the group opt for doing Zou Bisou Bisou as a light-fingered bossa

There are some ballads here too. The most lushly nocturnal track here is Embraceable You. Tenderly is a showcase for glittering piano over a slow triplet shuffle, a lyrical bowed bass solo at the center. Briggs saves one of her most vivid vocals for Misty, then a little later she gets especially tender in an expansive take of La Vie En Rose.