Danny Jonokuchi features on both of the records I’ve reviewed this month—yes, it’s a Doyle’s Discs double-Danny discourse. He isn’t someone I was too familiar with before, but I’m very pleased to have finally become acquainted. The bandleader’s website describes him as “a multi-talented jazz artist based in New York City and Los Angeles”: a blurb which just oozes glamour. It says relatively little and promises so very much—before checking him out, I wasn’t sure whether to be very excited or very skeptical.
But before anyone can accuse Jonokuchi of excessive pride, the PR primer follows up with a one-two-three punch of impressive accolades: the brace of Grammys he shares with recording project collaborators, an inaugural Count Basie Great American Swing Contest gong and a 2020 ASCAP Foundation Louis Armstrong Award. The trumpeter, vocalist, composer, arranger, producer, and educator is a swinging force of nature, as evidenced by the tidal wave of talent he has brought to bear on latest release Voices.
Just like Jonokuchi’s PR, this whole record just drips with glitz—from its outstanding arrangements, via its awesome orchestration, and down to its jaw-dropping individual performances, both vocal and instrumental. And while some tracks lean heavily towards bebop—and thus might not be to every Times-reader’s taste—the swinging stylistic variety and raw talent in which they swim are enough to make this disc very appealing to all but the most hardened hot jazz disciple.
Beginning with the big picture, Voices offers just what I like to see in a track list: an exciting mix of familiar favorites and lesser-heard pieces (from a Lindy hopper’s point of view, at any rate). “All of Me,” “Summertime,” and “What a Difference a Day Made” stand next to “So Many Stars,” “Born to be Blue,” and “Social Call,” suggesting that Jonokuchi has no qualms about giving some best-beloved tunes his own Grammy-winning spin.
Sometimes he sticks fairly close to what one might expect from a song, other times he departs pretty radically from the versions you probably know. “All of Me” is an example of the former, being a pretty familiar, solidly swinging—albeit very capable and enjoyable—take on the Marks/Simons standard. “Summertime,” similarly, doesn’t stray far from the languid, blues-inflected treatment listeners would expect from that South Carolina lullaby. On the other hand, “What a Difference…” and “All or Nothing at All” both take Latin vacations, flying across the Gulf of Mexico, far from the famous Dinah Washington and Frank Sinatra versions respectively, on the wings of a samba or bossa nova beat.
Such reimaginings fall well within the remit of swing band leadership, of course—just think how many music hall hits of the vaudeville era were reborn as big band bangers between the 1940s and 1960s. It’s no wonder that Jonokuchi is winning high praise from the great and good of contemporary swing, when his work sits so neatly within the traditions of that noble profession. (It helps that he is incredibly talented, and attracts outstanding talent to work on his projects, obviously.)
Getting down to the nitty gritty, Voices features a wealth of superb solo performances from musicians and singers alike. “Summertime” boasts perhaps the most impressive vocal contribution of the entire album—Brianna Thomas’s octave-leaping contribution is worthy of a Bond movie theme, evoking Shirley Bassey with its graceful power. But she’s not head and shoulders above the project’s other vocalists, by any means. I’ve fallen under Lucy Yeghiazaryan’s breathy, seductive spell before, when reviewing her work on Harry Allen’s With Roses, and her contribution here on “Born to be Blue” is equally entrancing. Honestly, none of the 11 singers featured here does less than sterling work, but these two were my personal faves.
In terms of instrumental solos, it’s difficult to give individual credit for particular performances—there are so many sax, flute, clarinet, trumpets and trombones appearing alongside Jonokuchi, and the EPK makes no mention of which player appears where. But there’s some truly melon-twisting baritone sax work from Andrew Gutauskas on “What a Difference…” and a veritable hurricane of tenor on “All or Nothing at All.” I can also make special mentIon of pianist (I know: surprise, surprise) Jeb Patton, whose finger gymnastics on “Born to Be Blue” are particularly medal-worthy.
Voices is a superb showcase of 11 supremely talented singers, which may have been Jonokuchi’s intention, but it’s a heck of a lot more than that. It’s retro, it’s fresh and it’s incredibly cool, packed with great performances mixed particularly well. (Give that man a Grammy, I say…) Listen on Bandcamp, where you can pick up a CD for the criminally low price of just $15.
Danny Jonokuchi Big Band