There are two ways you can approach getting into a young band who, in the span of five years, has produced more than ten releases—roll the dice and pick one or go in chronological order. But with Kansas Smitty’s House Band (KSHB), based in London, England, either approach is worth your while.
You can try to start at the beginning with their now hard-to-find single “The Band Has Been Drinking” from 2014, or their self-titled album from 2015 with early tracks like “Get a Move On” or “Eight Ball Rag,” that feel like songs from the ’20s or ’30s songs you haven’t heard before. By the time you get to the end of that album, with “Backyard BBQ Blues” and “You’re Fantastic,” you’ve moved into the later realm of Duke Ellington or Glenn Miller.
But then, as you delve deeper into their catalogue, like their The Sound of Kansas Smitty’s (Basement Tapes), or any of their other albums or EPs, you get a sense that you are listening to an encyclopedic take on the history of jazz in its many forms.
Actually, almost everything about this band is a bit deceptive. It has seven members, but their recordings always feature a revolving cast of guests, including the likes of Kurtis Stigers. Each of their compositions can be tied to a certain period of jazz history, but all the compositions are original, and there is always some sort of a musical curveball thrown in, like the African music rhythms and variations of “The Valley” from their Autumn EP, and the traces of early Cecil Taylor explorations on “The Shed w. Joe Houston – Body Of Your Dreams,” from Sound of Kansas Smitty’s. Even when they tackle and record a theme more than once, like the Latin-tinged “Beijinhos,” there is always a shift, a twist, that makes one version differ from the other, making you take a closer listen.
Still, there’s always one constant you can count on with KSHB—the level of quality of the music and musicianship never drops below excellent, often going into the sphere of brilliant. One of the reasons for that might be that KSHB are actually what their name says—a house band at Kansas Smitty’s Bar, a place they own and run in London. That is probably a reason that they can reach such synergy with their musical guests, as potential guests abound at their place, but they’ve also received a rousing reception whenever they play elsewhere, including less intimate venues like The North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam.
As the band explained, “The key to the KSHB sound is the group dynamic. We write mostly all our music collectively and it always changes in rehearsals.” When asked about their wide array of inspiration, from, say, Swing, pre-war jazz, and New Orleans to post-war Ellington, Basie, Mingus, and beyond, they didn’t want to pinpoint anybody in particular. “Sure there are influences but everyone’s are different so when we all get together to work the sound that is generated is a composite. It’s really exciting to work that way.”
KSHB often come up with thematic recordings like their seasonal EP Series (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) or their two Mardi Gras EPs. When asked about it, they responded that the concept behind their releases in the past year and a half has been based on “broadening the investigation of moods that the band has touched on in the past. For instance, ‘Mardi Gras Vol. 1’ is an expansion on the same sounds as ‘Black Paddy,’ from our first record. Since the music we create is really eclectic in nature, we want to focus on themes in order to zero in on one mood at a time. In the future I think we’d like to get even more thematic.“
One thing you notice when you listen to KSHB recordings is that there is practically no difference between those done in the studio and those done live. When asked about the use of any modern post-production techniques they responded that they don’t do any post-production— “all of our studio albums are recorded live to tape.”
Asked about the great synergy between the musicians even when there are guests participating, and to what they attribute that, the band had a simple answer—“thousand of hours that we spent rehearsing and playing together.”
And that is how the advantage of owning your own bar where you can play and rehearse whenever you wish comes in handy. “Us having our own bar means that we can get together a lot, everyone knows where to go so the work gets done. Onstage, that is where you rely on that trust and instinct built up from hours in the basement…our rhythm section (Dave Archer, Will Cleasby, Ferg Ireland, Joe Webb) is super solid and it is a dream to play in front of, so any guest that joins us knows they have that behind them. They can pretty much go anywhere and know they’ve got their back.”
Talking about what is upcoming with KSHB, the band said, “We will be recording our next album in June, hopefully that will get out towards the end of summer then we’re heading off to the States for a two week stint. Before that, our EP Mardi Gras Vol. 2 is out” [April 19th].
Maybe those new recordings and shows will produce yet more musical curveballs from KSHB, or maybe they will simply continue to explore avenues of what somebody termed ‘original jazz,’ although it is a goog bet that they will do both. On the evidence of what they have come up with so far, one thing is certainly to be expected: excellent quality of music and musicianship.
Of course, there is always the possibility of the double joy of seeing the band live in their “natural environment”: Kansas Smitty’s (located in Broadway Market in the Hackney part of London), during their annual Mardi Gras events, or wherever else they are on their home turf. But if you’ve heard some of their music before, don’t expect to hear absolutely the same version again.
Find their albums and EPs at kansassmittys.bandcamp.com.