Paul Cosentino grew up in a musical New Jersey family with relatives playing society events and the big band station playing on the radio unless of course, someone was performing live at the living room piano.
I learned about this background in what was one of the most engaging radio-style interviews I’ve ever listened to. In 2017 Cosentino sat down with swing DJ Ryan Swift for his The Track Podcast. I’ve listened to the full hour and forty-five minutes twice now, about a year ago and again as I prepared this review. They explore first his early years and then his over 30 years as a professional bandleader; tracing the trajectory of the Boilermaker Jazz Band from regular appearances at Dixieland festivals in the 90s to playing their first Lindy Exchange in 2001 and quickly becoming stars of a still burgeoning dance scene.
Cosentino, who began learning clarinet as a young child, had already made himself a bandleader by high school- booking his Dixieland band for local shows. He extended what he learned from that with a business major and music minor in college, a combination that has helped him navigate a successful career in an industry where many excellent musicians find themselves underwater. In the 80s he played clarinet for George Gee’s Make Believe Ballroom Orchestra.
The podcast dives deep into a variety of topics. I enjoyed the discussion about switching instruments and the few, like Clint Baker, who are true multi-instrumentalists. Among the take-a-ways is the difficulty faced by reed players who are trained first on saxophone trying to expand to clarinet, he says “a real clarinet player hears a saxophone doubler coming a mile away”, and encourages instruction to proceed as it did when he was young, with clarinet first.
They go into detail about the development of the Lindy Hop scene over the last two decades and the ramifications for musicians.
While he was playing traditional jazz festivals in the 90s Consentino, with 30 closing in, remembers looking around at an audience that was getting up in age and thinking “this isn’t going to last much longer, I’m not going to have a career in five years!” But then, “five years later I’m playing for Lindy Hoppers and in my thirties and I’m the oldest guy.”
The transition musically speaking was not large, he describes what he was playing at West Coast festivals as Louis Armstrong All-Stars style, “the classics but swinging it.” As he’s hired for his band over the years he’s noticed a change as musicians his age, in their 50s, who started with modern jazz are following the work and playing swing events for the first time. Those musicians are often shocked by the depth of knowledge the dancers have compared to the general audience they’ve played for at public concerts. There is also a younger class of musicians who began with swing music, some starting as dancers before picking up an instrument. As swing events compete to offer more and better bands, the booking of all-star groupings has led to an increasing amount of work for him and other recognizable names as sidemen.
With his Boilermaker Jazz Band, and as a sideman elsewhere, Cosentino has gotten used to the energy fed back from dancers and thinks it can inspire you to play better than you will for a sitting audience. After close to 20 years of playing for dancers, he says that in concert settings it can feel “strange to be putting out all this energy and they are just sitting there.” That said Cosentino says he has never learned to dance.
At the tail end of the podcast, which I encourage everyone to listen to, they briefly discuss the two albums I’ll review here.
The first album celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Boilermaker Jazz Band which Cosentino founded in 1988 while attending Carnegie Melon in Pittsburg, the city that has become his home base. Tony DePoalis is on bass, Thomas Wendt on drums, Jeff Bush on Trombone, and special guest Gordon Webster is at the piano. Female vocals are by Jennifer McNulty in crisp classic style, male vocals are shared.
I Love the Rhythm in a Riff: Love Songs and Riff Tunes is the Boilermakers 12th release (by my count), and it will not leave the dancers disappointed. As the title suggests the focus is on great riff tunes from Basie, Hawkins, Eckstine, and others, with some vocal love songs from the likes of Helen Forrest, Jo Stafford and Rudy Vallee to mix things up.
McNulty and Cosentino’s duet on “Oh! Look at me Now” is timeless and crisp, they both have a grasp of both period sound and how the vocal settles into the music. Other songs include “Any Old Time”, “They Say It’s Wonderful” and “You Oughta Be In Pictures”. Johnny Hodges’ “Squatty Roo” sets the tone for the instrumentals. I also enjoyed “Neal’s Deal”. 16 tracks hover around the four-minute mark, which seems slightly extended on the riff tunes. But that is my own preference. The harmony achieved by the ordering of the album and Cosentino’s arrangements make for a dynamic whole that is easy to listen through, and individual tracks that wear well under repeated listening.
The second album isn’t intended for dancers. On Songs I like: Quartet Instrumentals from 1916-1944, Tony DePaolis, and Thomas Wendt are back joined by Daniel May on Piano. The collection honors American songbook composers- Kern, Berlin, Porter, Gershwin, Rogers & Hart, but also Artie Shaw, Jimmy Van Huesen and others. The arrangements are robust and stirring. These musicians speak confidently with their instruments and know what they are trying to say. “Poor Butterfly”, a lament from 1916, is truly moving and everyone shines, but the bass solo transition to bass with clarinet is just fantastic. The bass also stands out on “How Deep is the Ocean” and played with a bow to brassy effect on “Louisiana Fairytale.”
Inspiration for the album came from the final recordings of Artie Shaw with Hank Jones on piano. Shaw considered them among his most creative work and was disappointed by the slim audience they found in the mid-50s. Further inspiration came from Buddy Defranco and Sonny Clarke’s pairing. The piano clarinet setup creates a depth to each track and the album never feels sparse. The soft drums on “I Should Care” lift Consentino’s clarinet. The joint bass/clarinet lead on “My Heart Stood Still” propels you. Some small groups lose their swing in attempts to be clever. This group of gentlemen play swing forward jazz. I’d be delighted to find them on stage, but until then I have this great CD, which would impress a wide variety of jazz fans.
The CDs are well packaged with a short statement about each track and a couple of paragraphs from the band. As always, I recommend tracking down the physical item.