I have the pleasure to review this month three albums from a remarkable talent known to many readers of The Syncopated Times; trumpeter and vocalist Bria Skonberg. Her 2012 album, So is the Day, I include simply because it is my favorite but it can also help mark her development since signing with Sony Masterworks on their revived Okeh imprint. With the assistance a big label can provide, she released a very slick self-titled album, Bria, in 2016 and followed it with another, With a Twist, last year.
Skonberg plays a stellar trumpet—crisp, expressive—and she adapts it well to a variety of styles. I’ve heard her play effortlessly sitting in with mixed groups in a trad jazz setting. Her 2012 album comes closest to that sound. But on that album, you can also hear her flirting with the South American influences she favors on her two recent releases.
The albums, perhaps understandably, become more lyrically-oriented under Sony. They recognize her potential to break out as a jazz personality. She has a terrific voice over which she shows increasingly effective control, album to album. Even more noticeably so between the two recent ones, only a year apart.
The downside for the serious fan is we hear less of her playing. So is the Day placed longer cuts front and center, with room for the featured musicians, especially Bria, to demonstrate their talent. The new albums do have longer and more instrumentally-orientated tracks, but they are pushed to the end. The result is that a casual listener (to a jazz radio station lets say) might not realize the great trumpet solos were coming from the same person as the beautiful voice. I recognize the sexism that would be involved in such a mistake, as singing trumpet players aren’t exactly rare, but that’s the world we live in.
Both albums on the Okeh imprint are fantastic. I was initially going to tip my hat towards the self-titled first effort but after another listen to With a Twist I can’t fairly choose. They differ primarily in song selection. Both have a Latin feel but With a Twist is more fun and upbeat, Bria more coyly collected. If you can track down her earlier, So is the Day, it’s worth a listen to. briaskonberg.com
Ghost Train Orchestra
Book of Rhapsodies, Vol. II (Accurate Records, 2017)
Lovers of the weird will beam from the first notes of Book of Rhapsodies Vol. II, the fourth album from the critically acclaimed Ghost Train Orchestra. The visionary Brian Carpenter recaptures the sound of five ensembles from the late thirties who were early explorers of what modern music could be. His fresh arrangements of works by The Raymond Scott Quintette, The John Kirby Sextet, The Alec Wilder Octet, The Hal Harzon Septet, and Reginald Foresythe and his New Music will delight listeners with a sense of humor and a broad enough palate. Mixed by Grammy-award winner Danny Blume the band is at times joined by choir singing, voice-overs, and other surprising sounds. The feel of that specific moment of possibility in musical history is uncanny. If these composers had had access to the tools of today they might have created something very similar.
This isn’t cartoon music but it has that cartoon cool. The album gave me the same feeling as stumbling upon something delightfully unexpected in a thrift store record bin, which, not coincidentally, is how I acquired a fondness for Raymond Scott years ago. Obviously not the thing for classic jazz purists, the playing is nonetheless impressive, entertaining, and full of spunk. The full band includes violin, alto sax, clarinet, sax, trombone, tuba, guitar, bass, drums, and accordion. I’m glad this worthwhile music is being revisited.
L.A. Swing Barons
Kansas City Stride
The L.A. Swing Barons are all dancers as well as musicians, and it shows in the driving sound they capture in their first album, Kansas City Stride. The band joined forces in 2015 with a mission to bring an authentic KC style to the Los Angeles swing scene. The director and arranger of the outfit, Adam Lee, keeps the album heavy on rhythm with an overlay of proud solos. He is one of the diligent young musicians of the moment who take the time to research and hone specific vintage sounds. This is the crisp and modern style that stormed the country at the dawn of the swing era; the Count Basie presence is strongly felt.
Plenty of solid soloing will keep wallflowers engaged but this is dance music first—not too fast, not too slow, and hard swinging. Twelve Instrumental tunes include “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” “One O’Clock Jump,” and “Hollywood Jump,” with Shuffles, Strides, Stomps, and Bounces thrown in for good measure. I look forward to more from this young band.
The Dirty River Dixie Band
Swing That Music
The Dirty River Dixie Band was founded in 2014 after two music students at Texas Lutheran University were wowed by a live show of the San Antonio-based Jim Cullum Jazz band and decided to pursue something similar themselves. Jim Cullum has since served as a mentor for the band, helping them hone their authentic early jazz sound. The current members are all now music educators and their enthusiasm shows on this fresh-off-the-presses release, Swing That Music, recorded in January 2018.
Founding members Chris Alvarado, (drums, management, and bookings) and Kris Vargas (cornet, vocals) have assembled a great band. On this album new member, Sarah Ulloa, adds excitement to her tracks and another new member Edwin Brown brings it on tuba.
Album cuts are hot but familiar crowd-pleasers that must go off big at their many engagements in the Austin and San Antonio markets. This is a fun, upbeat record with spicy cornet and a Go Big attitude. I’d welcome a chance to catch these guys live. Tracks include “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” “Milenberg Joys,” “West End Blues,” and “Some of these Days.”
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