Miss Maybell (AKA Lauren Sansaricq) has pursued an old timey musical bug for years but matched with virtuoso pianist Charlie Judkins she has found something truly special. His playing paired with her startling voice and studied articulation of the pre 1920 material they uncover together is truly unique. They are friendly with others in the small cohort of young but very serious researcher/musicians exploring the compositions of the ragtime era, but no one else performs the material with such natural ease or authenticity. Neal Siegal profiled the pair last February, and I encourage you to read that article to explore their backgrounds.
I first heard them on a small release of duo recordings with Miss Maybell accompanying Judkins’ piano with light rhythm on washboard. That piano plus rhythm pairing is perhaps my favorite instrumental combo and the album itself had me excitedly emailing ragtime festivals on their behalf. They held numerous enjoyable YouTube performances during the lockdown season, sometimes more recently adding another musician or two. While I am enamored of the pair as a simple duo they are more likely to appear in public with an accompanying band, in the format you will hear on this album. That fuller jazz band sound is more appropriate for the New York night spots they play where the crowd needs to be overcome and drawn into the performance.
Their new album opens hot with “Nobody’s Sweetheart Now”, a crowd pleaser that’s possibly the most well known of 15 titles, the arrangement gives reedist Ricky Alexander an early solo announcing that this is a full band affair, his excellent solos on both sax and clarinet appear intermittently throughout an album where instrumentation varies considerably and nothing is formulaic. Brian Nalepka filling in the bassline so fully, sometimes on tuba, frees things up more eclectic rhythms from Sansaricq’s washboard and an instrument you don’t hear very often, the bones, played by Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton. Paxton also plays banjo and another seldom heard instrument, at least on the albums TST covers, the harmonica.
That instrument appears on “Let’s Get Loose” a timeless driving blues number sung with a forcefulness I’m not used to from Miss Maybell. They return to that hot roadhouse feel on “Warm It Up To Me”, so obviously a Blind Willie McTell number I barely needed to confirm it in the notes. Speaking of unusual instruments, Miss Maybell plays a mean kazoo, and a tipple, an instrument in the guitar family, in addition to the plain old guitar. A fiddle is also heard, played by Jackson Lynch.
Nalepka’s use of the tuba on the instrumental “Chicken Charlie” inexplicably gets very close to what I enjoy about their duo records. Perhaps it is again that “piano plus” combo that does it for me. The tuba open, chorus accompaniment, and feature solo on “Cover me up with the Sunshine of Virginia” is also a nice touch because it feels like an unusual choice for the lyric but creates a nice back and forth.
“Talking to the Gypsy” is the bread and butter of their duo sets. A storytelling blues focused in on voice and lyric, it keeps a slower pace, and the accompanists get it just right, pushing her vocal to the top and even cutting out for emphasis. “Ain’t That a Shame” also feels like their duo work but with a lot of fancy banjo from Blind Boy Paxton to top it off.
Among a surprising number of instrumental “Chimes” features lots of hot rhythm on bones and other odd sounds. The return of the bones on the following track, “Mariar”, makes for a segue with the feel of those cylinder record medleys. As always, they’ve been doing their research. Another good choice was closing with “Just The Blues”. Focused on Judkins piano, it has the feel of exit music.
Their version of “When I March in April with May” makes it clear why it has earned its place as a standard, I was surprised to learn in the notes that it was from the late 20s and not much earlier. Those notes come as part of an attractive carboard case that folds out to four frames and includes a paragraph or two on the history of each title.
This all around excellent record was recorded over two sessions at The Jalopy Theater in Brooklyn, a likely place to catch any of these musicians live. Analog recording equipment and techniques were used under the guidance of Jon Atkinson whose Bigtone Records out in Bristol Virginia is a draw for artists of several genres seeking authenticity. Any fan of early American popular music owes it to themselves to follow these jazz age artists closely.