On my infrequent visits to the U.K., I have always tried to take in a jazz festival or two, and each time tried to hear “new” (to me) bands, as well as some old favorites. Such was the case in 2015 when I heard the Black Cat Jazz band at the Bude, Cornwall, festival in that September.
In this instance the band actually was new, having been founded only the year before, but one would never have known it by the quality of the playing. Of all the players, only one, banjoist Sarah Thatcher, was familiar to me as I had heard her in bands on previous visits. She, along with bassist Spike Kennedy, founded the Black Cat Jazz band, which played only a single set at Bude in 2015, but it was enough to persuade me it was a “righteous” band.
So when this CD, the band’s first, quite unexpectedly arrived in the mail for review, I was eager to hear its contents and was not disappointed. The musicians on this disc are the same as those I heard at Bude.
All are jazz veterans in the U.K., having played with other bands—some no longer extant, such as the Panama Jazz Kings, and others still on the scene, such as A Breeze from New Orleans band and Sunset Café Stompers. They frequently fill in with other bands when a sub is needed. Their credentials, therefore, are impeccable.
The band subscribes to the uptown New Orleans style, and as Spike Kennedy says in the insert, the tunes are selected from the repertoires of “Bunk Johnson, Punch Miller, George Lewis, Emmanuel Paul, the Humphrey brothers, Kids: Ory, Howard, Clayton, Thomas” et al. Except for, perhaps, “Road of Sunshine” and “When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful,” the tune list of this CD contains few surprises, the majority being familiar although they are hardly warhorses.
There is no attempt to merely reproduce the renditions given by these New Orleans icons—the Black Cat Jazz band follows its own muse and gives a fresh treatment to each tune. Ensemble is, of course, to the fore, but some solo space is allowed to each musician.
Mercifully no one pattern or order of solos is followed from tune to tune, as is the case with so many bands, but variety is striven for, and every musician does not find it necessary to take a solo on every number.
While it is tempting to look at every track, in the interests of space perhaps some highlights will suffice.
Riffing behind the soloist is common and supportive, as for instance, on “Collegiate” where backing is given the second chorus of John Scantlebury’s clarinet solo. Or there is variety of texture, such as that in “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour” where the tune opens with the ensemble taking it once through, followed by one time through with a duet of trombone (by Tom Whittingham) and clarinet; then the whole group drops out except for Steve Graham’s very soft trumpet lead backed by string bass only.
These two play with diminishing volume to the point that one could hear that proverbial pin drop; then they are succeeded by the complete ensemble joining in at the opening volume (the band never does play blaringly). Of all the selections on this disc, I would choose this and perhaps the beautiful rendition of another hymn “Does Jesus Care?” as perhaps my favorites.
Tempos are all very sensible, geared as they deliberately are to dancing.
The Black Cat Jazz band has it right—the New Orleans bands cited above all had, as their objective, playing music for a dance, not a concert, and the Black Cat Jazz band follows suit, aiming to “perform music in an authentic New Orleans ‘Dance Hall’ style,” as the liner notes inform us. And these tempos are adhered to—there is never a rush to the finish line, thanks to a very steady rhythm section and a front line that doesn’t push the tempo.
So to cite just the two closing numbers, “Beer Barrel Polka” and “Climax Rag,” the first is taken at a somewhat sedate—but jaunty—march tempo (or at a slow polka tempo, if you like), and the second starts—and finishes—at a tempo that allows dancers to avoid tangled feet coupled with breathlessness, and musicians to execute without straining to keep up or, as is the case in so many renditions of this tune, staying abreast of a rapid acceleration.
The Black Cat Jazz band’s performances at Bude, at jazz clubs, and on this CD confirm that it is among the premier British New Orleans style bands.
Here in the U.S. (certainly the western part) the traditional jazz scene seems to be a shrinking one, witness the disappearance of so many jazz festivals as well as clubs and societies over the past few years, and in the dwindling number of bands there is a dearth of those embracing the New Orleans style of jazz; whereas Britain seems blessed with an abundance of them, most very good. This relatively new band, Black Cat Jazz, is one of that genre and ranks among the best in the U.K. Two thumbs up for this CD.
Road of Sunshine!
Black Cat Jazz Band
Black Cat BCAT001
Tracklist: Ting-a-Ling; Collegiate; Pass Me Not O’ [sic] Gentle Saviour; Ole Miss Rag; My Gal Sal; Just a Little While to Stay Here; Road of Sunshine; Does Jesus Care?; St. Philip Street Breakdown; When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful; Beer Barrel Polka; Climax Rag.
Personnel: Steve Graham, trumpet; Tom Whittingham, trombone and euphonium; John Scantlebury, clarinet and alto sax; Peter Winterhart, drums; Sarah Thatcher, banjo and guitar; Spike Kennedy, string bass.
Recorded live at the Warmley Jazz Club, Bristol, U.K. on Dec. 2, 2015.