New York Music Daily

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Tag: tom beckham vibraphone

Steel Player Mike Neer Darkly Reinvents Thelonious Monk Classics

Any fan of western swing knows how cool a steel guitar can sound playing jazz. The great C&W pedal steel player Buddy Emmons knew something about that: back in the 70s, he recorded steel versions of famous Charlie Parker tunes. In that same vein, steel guitarist Mike Neer has just put out an even more deliciously warped, downright creepy, dare we say paradigm-shifting album of Thelonious Monk covers for lapsteel, wryly titled Steelonious and streaming at the band’s webpage. Neer’s playing the album release show on Jan 25 at 8 PM at Barbes. If you like Monk, steel, and/or darkly cinematic sounds in general, you’d be crazy to miss this.

The album opens with a tongue-in-cheek slide down the frets into a surf stomp, and the band is off into their tight version of Epistrophy, a devious mix of western swing, honkytonk and the Ventures. Neer is amped up with plenty of reverb and just a tad of natural distortion for extra bite. By contrast, he plays Bemsha Swing through a watery chorus effect against the low-key pulse of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Diego Voglino as pianist Matt King stays in the background.

The rest of the album is a mix of iconic material and deeper cuts. In deference to the composer’s purist taste, King’s piano keeps things purposeful and bluesy, with the occasional hint of New Orleans. Neer’s take of Round Midnight echoes the Hawaiian sounds he played for so long, first with the Haoles and then the Moonlighters. In its own twisted way, this simmering quasi-bolero is closer to the spirit of the original than most straight-up jazz versions. It’s easy to imagine Beninghove’s Hangmen doing something as noir as this with it.

Likewise, In Walked Bud gets reinvented with all sorts of slinky bossa nova tinges, Tom Beckham’s echoey, bluesy vibraphone over lingering organ. If Neer’s version is historically accurate, Bud Powell wasn’t just crazy – this cat was scary!

Bye-Ya has more of a western swing feel, partially due to Neer’s droll, warpy tones. I Mean You positions Neer as bad cop against purist, good cop King. Putting organ on Off Minor was a genius move – what a creepy song! Voglino’s surf drums provide an almost gleeful contrast. In the same vein, the band does Ugly Beauty as a waltzing, noir organ theme, Neer’s menacing solo echoing Charlie Rouse’s sax on the original before veering back toward Bill Monroe territory.

It’s amazing how good a country ballad Ask Me Now makes; same deal with how well Blue Monk translates to proto-honkytonk. Straight No Chaser is so distinctive that there’s not a lot that can be done with it other than playing it pretty much as written, and the band keep their cards pretty close to the vest. But their starlit waltz version of Reflections is anything but trad: it’s sort of their Theme From a Summer Place. It’s awfully early in the year, and much as it might be cheating to pick a cover album, this is the frontrunner for best release of 2017 so far.

Charming, Erudite Swing Sophistication from Daria Grace & the Pre-War Ponies

Daria Grace and the Pre-War Ponies distinguish themselves from the rest of the hot jazz pack by hanging out on the pillowy side of the street. Their sophisticatedly charming new album, Get Out Under the Moon is snuggle music. It’s best experienced with someone near and dear to you, or thoughts of someone near and dear to you. It can be danced to; much of it was written for that. Speaking from experience, let’s say that if you are a single person in New York, you will be missing out if you don’t own this album. While there’s no guarantee that you’ll meet someone with something similar in mind at the release show on January 17 at 7 PM at the Slipper Room, that’s not out of the question either. Cover is $12.

Grace is one of New York’s most distinctive and elegant singers. Her voice is plush, clear and unadorned; often she’ll add just the subtlest hint of vibrato at the end of a phrase. She sings in character, but with warmth and restraint: even the most over-the-top personas from both the rare and well-known swing numbers in her repertoire get the benefit of her sophistication and wit. The new album opens with a bit of a red herring, an opiated take of a noir cha-cha, Amapola, a shout-out to a pretty little poppy, spiced gingerly with solos from irrepressible multi-instrumentalist J. Walter Hawkes’ trombone and Tom Beckham’s simmering vibraphone.

Grace lends a wary, understatedly brooding edge to Say It Isn’t So, Hawkes matching the vocals with his foghorn resonance. She takes a more cajoling approach on the album’s swinging title track, infused with aptly wry, early-evening roller-rink organ from Hawkes. Cole Porter’s Find Me a Primitive Man digs deeper into the song’s cabana-jazz roots than its composer probably ever dreamed, anchored with a muted oomph by Tom Pietrycha’s bass and Russ Meissner’s drums, with latin jazz great Willie Martinez on percussion and Hawkes having the time of his caveman life with the mute on his trombone.

Grace picks up the coy charm, but just a little, with the gentle innuendos of the boudoir swing tune What Do We Do on a Dew Dew Dewy Day, Hawkes switching to uke for a good-natured solo. Then Grace puts a little brittle, wounded brass into her voice for a plaintive take of Irving Berlin’s heartbroken waltz, You Forgot to Remember, M Shanghai String Band’s Philippa Thompson adding sad, sepulchral ambience with her singing saw behind Hawkes’ twinkling glockenspiel. I Only Want a Buddy, Not a Sweetheart, popularized by Bing Crosby, makes an apt segue.

Grace’s gracefully defiant understatement in Fats Waller’s How Can You Face Me Now underscores the lyrics’ bitterness, set to a purposeful stroll punctuated by vibes and trombone. Then she moves to a sweetly lilting cajolement in the risqe 1934 hit Pettin’ in the Park and keeps the balmy, upbeat trajectory climbing through the Johnny Mercer novelty swing tune Pardon My Southern Accent, guitarist Mike Neer contributing a spiky Wes Montgomery-flavored solo.The album’s most disarming moment – arguably the most upbeat suicide song ever written – is Jimmie Noone’s 1920s hit Ready for the River, Thompson serving as rustic one-woman string section.

The only place on the album where Grace reaches toward vaudevillian territory is So Is Your Old Lady, which, by contrast, makes the longing of Take My Heart all the more poignant, lowlit by Beckham’s lingering vibes. The album winds up on a lively Hawaiian-flavored note with I Love a Ukulele, harking back to Grace’s days as a founding member of pioneering New York oldtimey band the Moonlighters. The album’s not officially out yet and therefore not at the usual spots, but there are a couple of tracks up at the band’s music page and also Hawkes’ youtube channel.