Off The Beaten Tracks April 20186 minute read

Image result for Drew Nugent Alice blue gownDrew Nugent and The Midnight Society: Alice Blue Gown (2013)
Drew Nugent: I’ll Never Be The Same (2017) Double Ohs Music 1004
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Drew Nugent is well established in the Philadelphia traditional jazz scene where he has performed with his band, The Midnight Society, since co-founding it in 2009. The band has ventured to jazz events around the northeast and appeared on A Prairie Home Companion. In 2013 they released a CD, Alice Blue Gown, and more recently Nugent has created a solo album, I’ll Never Be The Same. The difference in the two records shows a profound and welcome growth in Nugent’s approach to performance.

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Both albums are unassailable musically, bright, ambitious playing in raggy vaudevillian style. Alice Blue Gown will quickly convince you that The Midnight Society must be a joy to see live. The instrumental numbers, focusing on Nugent’s fine piano playing, are worthy of a toe-tapping sit-and-listen, the more lively numbers will pull many up from their chairs.

Image result for Drew Nugent Alice be the sameAs a whole, his work with The Midnight Society is what you’d expect from crowd-pleasing young trad jazz players with a heavy ragtime and novelty influence. My only complaint about Alice Blue Gown is that Nugent hams it up just a bit too much on his period vocals. They fall at times into caricature territory. This works better live. Had I only the 2013 record to listen to I’d have given the unsolicited advice to tone it down in the recording booth.

I’d have been wrong. By the 2017 solo album he has found his own unique vocal personality and while some may not be happy unless they are guessing at lyrics through a grainy cylinder transcription I’m delighted to hear an artist refreshing old gems and even making authentic new contributions to the vaudevillian tradition.

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Irving Kaufman, and all the prolific songsters of the early years maintained a persona. Nugent now sings in a character that is truly part of him and reflects his passion for a broader spectrum of early music than we typically hear. The highlight of this album are his original songs, especially the sweet and clever “Same Again.” Making credible additions to old genres is no simple trick. He could safely creep onto a vaudeville or music hall stage—or into Edison’s recording studio—and no one would be the wiser. Traditional jazz will always have a future but I’m delighted to discover that other popular early recording styles have life in them yet.

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High Sierra Jazz Band
40 Years and Counting!

Off The Beaten Tracks April 2018

Champions of the West Coast revival scene, the High Sierra Jazz Band has traveled the world playing countless festivals and concerts while holding together the same rhythm section since their first show in 1976. They also host the JAZZAFFAIR festival each April in their home base of Three Rivers California. Check it out this month.
On 40 Years and Counting! They celebrate that milestone with another: their 25th album together. No slackers these, the playing is youthful and fresh as they burn through cuts from Sidney Bechet, King Oliver, Lil Hardin, and other greats. Vocal responsibilities throughout the album are divided between four of seven bandmates who sing joyfully but without unnecessary showiness. I appreciated trombonist Howard Miyata’s lead on “You Meet the Nicest People in Your Dreams”.

The “High Sierra” sound is fully at home in California. Crisp rhythms and smart playing with a hint of flavors from south of the border. They bring a pleasing groove to the instrumental tracks, most notably on “Kansas City Man Blues” and some of the four Sidney Bechet numbers. Old fans of the High Sierra Jazz Band will not be disappointed and new fans will want to go digging for California gold in their archive, available at www.highsierrajazzband.com.

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Off The Beaten Tracks April 2018
Cover from the Original 1968 LP, now a hot commodity.

Ralph Grugel
The Bums at Fagan’s:
Ralph Grugel’s First Band Recorded in 1968
& The Eagle Jazz Band Recorded in 1993
deannorman01@gmail.com

The Bums at Fagan’s has been released in tribute to the namesake of Toledo’s annual GrugelFest, Ralph Grugel, who is credited with bringing the Dixieland flame to Cleveland and in the process helping to establish the nightclub district known as the Cleveland Flats. Now taken over by rock venues in its heyday it was a stronghold of traditional jazz.

The album consists of two parts. The First section was recorded at Fagan’s in Cleveland where Ralph Grugel had a standing gig from 1962 into the 70’s with a band dubbed The Bourbon Street Bums. It was released as an LP on a small label in 1970. The second section is a live 1993 recording of the well known Eagle Jazz Band with whom Grugel played for decades while also organizing the EARLY JAS society, assisting its Cleveland festival and becoming an elder statesman of traditional jazz in Ohio. The Cleveland festival closed up in 2011 but was quickly replaced by the annual GrugelFest in Toledo named in Grugel’s honor.

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After reading the entertaining and endearing liner notes that came with this great album I was surprised by the music itself. I had expected fully suspendered and boater-hatted Dixieland. I was looking forward to the “in the field” version of the music I hoard on LP’s with corny Americana covers. Maybe that’s what I just heard. The Fagan’s section is Dixieland unleashed, a jamming recording, with blisteringly fast playing to scare away anyone daring enough to sit in, and overtones nuanced and charming enough to tempt passersby inside. These guys had heart. It’s no wonder a whole nightlife district developed around them. Besides a nice cover of the Beatles “When I’m 64” all the titles are predictable, but with playing this hot who cares. They even end “Saints” with a drum solo that would impress any rock band.

The 1993 concert with The Eagle Jazz band was recorded on a Radio Shack cassette deck with the band playing the Gazebo at a county fair. The sound quality is pretty good anyway and the show itself worth making available. The music fits the setting just as well as the 1968 recording was at home in a saloon. The playing is still fast, but more experienced and artful for the intervening decades. The familiar give and take from the band stand will bring back memories for those lucky enough to have seen The Eagle Jazz Band live. Those who enjoy the feel of being there that bootlegs of jazz revival bands can bring (count me as one of them) will find The Bums at Fagan’s a welcome addition to their collection.


Keenan McKenzie
Forged in Rhythm (2017)

Keenan McKenzie is a rising star in North Carolina’s eclectic music scene. He has experience playing with symphonies, in musicals, old time, Celtic, soul, and other styles. He also plays saxophone and clarinet for numerous jazz ensembles and has traveled as far as Budapest to perform. He has composed original songs and arrangements for numerous organizations and for groups as large as 18 pieces. He refers to Forged in Rhythm, his first album of original jazz material under his own name, as “a love letter to the swing dance scene.” The letter is well received. This is the high flying sound of the period and dancers could easily use this CD as they rehearsed their moves.

McKenzie composed and arranged 15 new titles for this album. He sticks to reeds; for vocals the album is graced with the charming voice of Laura Windley. The clever lyrics fit the ’30s and ’40s period he is trying to capture. He is joined in the band by some recognizable names including Gordon Au of the Au Brothers on trumpet and guitarist Jonathan Stout who brings a wealth of experience playing for dancers.

Entertaining throughout, this is a top-notch production with a little for everyone and a mass appeal. Still early in what promises to be a prolific career, Keenan McKenzie should soon be hearing the major record labels knocking on his door for work as a personality, a behind the scenes man, or both.

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The Glenn Crytzer Orchestra-  Ain’t it Grand? (Double CD)


The first album in 8 years for the full Glenn Crytzer orchestra, the release of Ain’t it Grand, a double CD of original and classic swing material is a milestone achievement in the resurgent popularity of prewar jazz. Crytzer, who leads many smaller jazz outfits and is a star of the New York jazz world, effectively leveraged his reputation to produce this first-class album.

A Kickstarter campaign launched in September had fully funded the album’s production by November while also explaining to the buying public the significance of what they hoped the album would achieve. Crytzer spared no expense of time, foresight, or energy. The recording studio was rented for practice time so that the band could review what they had recorded and reposition microphones for maximum effect.

The orchestra is a collection of experienced pros who display their familiarity with each other’s playing styles throughout the instrumental give and take of these recordings. Crytzer also has some ringers on vocals—the superb Hannah Gill and the stylishly effective Dandy Wellington. As often as the song is covered it is a rare singer who can deliver “When I Get Low I Get High”  without stumbling over the lyric, but Gill is flawless. The effect is one of transportation. On this album we have jazz and swing that would be top tier in any era but with the added benefit of modern recording techniques.

The plan for the album was originally to have a disc for Glenn Crytzer’s original compositions and a second for classic material. In the end, the tracks were shuffled together for a comfortable album progression. It was a very good choice. The new material fits in seamlessly and separating it would have been to the detriment of anyone favoring one disc over the other. Crytzer is credited for 13 of the 30 compositions but his skill as a leader and arranger should be credited everywhere.

Off The Beaten Tracks April 2018

Ain’t it Grand is scheduled for release on May 9th, but preorders will be able to download five tracks now to tide them over and will also receive a discount on the album price.

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