The “hot” band touring the country these days is appropriately named The Hot Sardines. This eight-member group out of New York City has six musicians, a French-born vocalist who plays the washboard and serves as M.C., and a tap dancer. They have dug up many of the old classic tunes that for too long have been relegated to the music memory bank and are presenting them in a hip, high-energy style that is distinctively their own.
Among their lauditory reviews, we’re told: “It’s Trad jazz with an edge . . . as if the cops had just burst into a speakeasy waving their billy clubs. They’ve captured the spirit as well as the letter of the music, handling tunes that go back to the 1920s as living, breathing music, rather than forgotten museum artifacts.”
This is how The Sardines describe themselves: “Take a blustery brass lineup, layer it over a rhythm section led by a stride-piano virtuoso in the Fats Waller vein, and tie the whole thing together with a one-of-the-boys frontwoman with a voice from another era, and you have The Hot Sardines.”
They’ve figured out how to market themselves, and they have few peers in promoting their story as a great American success epic worthy of the cinema, citing how “a born-and-bred NYC actor meets a Parisian-born writer at an open jazz jam over a noodle shop in Manhattan, and from there the Hot Sardines were born to give voice to the history-defining jazz of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s while bridging generations and captivating 21st century audiences.
Making “Old” Sound “New”
Drawing heavily from their website bio; The Hot Sardines are the brainchild of bandleader Evan “Bibs” Palazzo and lead singer “Miz Elizabeth” Bougerol. The Sardine-sound fuses musical influences from New York, Paris and New Orleans that were nurtured from the Prohibition era through the Great Depression, World War II and beyond. Greats like Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Django Reinhardt, Mamie Smith, Billie Holiday, the Andrews Sisters and Ray Charles have influenced their style and song interpretation in transforming tunes from another era into pop music for this century.
According to Palazzo, “We don’t treat this music with kid gloves or place it on a pedestal to preserve and adore. We just play it as if these songs were written this morning for today’s generation.” The dramatically-diverse age range among The Hot Sardines’ fan base reflects their success at making the classics relevant to current audiences with a sound and style that is uniquely different.
The irony of The Hot Sardines’ success is rooted in its origins: it was started by two non-musicians who never set out to form a band. “Miz Elizabeth,” who grew up living in several countries including France, Canada, and the Ivory Coast, sports a Master’s degree in Media and Communications from the London School of Economics and spent her pre-Sardine life as a writer.
“Miz Eliz” never sang a note outside of her bathroom shower, aside from the requisite high school musical. However, throughout her tenure as an editor at a travel website, she grew increasingly dissatisfied with her career path choice and sought solace in nurturing her lifelong passion for music as a hobby.
She made the rounds on the jazz circuit in NYC, approaching bands after shows and asking for the chance to sing with them, even just at rehearsals, but was politely turned away. The constant rejection ultimately sent her straight to acehardware.com where she ordered a trusty Dubl-Handi washboard and drew upon her naturally percussive ear and inspiration from jug bands to become a legitimate musician, albeit self-taught, plus a little help from YouTube videos.
She then both placed and answered ads on Craigslist, hoping to connect with others who shared her love of early jazz and blues and wouldn’t scoff at her lack of experience.
Meanwhile, Evan Palazzo was heading toward the same destiny in a different way. He started playing piano by ear at age 3 and flirted with amateur musicianship his whole life. After majoring in theater and musical theater at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia., he returned to New York City and became a working actor along with doing commercials and film production work.
Like “Miz Eliz,” he never lost his passion for traditional jazz, band-leading, and his love of playing stride-jazz piano whenever he got the chance. Without his knowledge, his wife placed an ad on Craigslist, seeking others looking to start a traditional jazz band. Says Evan, “It was pretty hilarious, getting responses to an ad I never placed, but so exciting to start discovering people who wanted to get together and jam.”
Early on in the process, he met a jazz guitarist, and they occasionally got together to play just for the fun. Then came that fateful day in 2007 when Evan and Elizabeth both answered the same Craigslist ad for an open jazz jam at an ad hoc rehearsal space in midtown Manhattan, and it was an instant musical connection.
Evan knew the match was made in heaven when “Miz Eliz” asked him if he knew any Fats Waller, and he started playing “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Elizabeth joined in like they had been singing that duet together for decades.
With both of them still working at their day jobs, and neither one dreaming of ever becoming a professional musician, they started getting together every couple of months to play music for their own enjoyment or going to open-mic nights. But slowly the band was beginning to take shape. One day a tap dancer, Edwin Francisco stopped by Evan’s house on an errand and started tap dancing while Evan and “Miz Eliz” were rehearsing. “Fast Eddy” was soon joined by accomplished musicians from highly-respected institutions like Julliard, Berklee and NYU Jazz, and the core of the band was in place.
Their Big Break
In 2011, the band was playing mostly small venues and free gigs for friends when an unexpected break fell in their lap. As Evan recalls, “We got an anonymous email inquiry in late June from someone seeking a jazz band that can perform songs in French for a last-minute gig on Bastille Day. We sent song samples and whatever rag-tag video clips we had on hand. Little did we know that it was Midsummer Night’s Swing at Lincoln Center, and we got the gig.” After bringing the house down for the 6,000 jazz lovers in the audience that day, The Sardines had an instant fan base, and more high-profile gigs started rolling in.
The Hot Sardines sold out 15 straight shows during their residency at New York’s Joe’s Pub and have showcased their versatility by performing for audiences at venues as diverse as the ultra-swank Top of the Standard (Boom Boom Room), the internationally-known Montreal Jazz Festival, the underground speakeasy Shanghai Mermaid, and Boston’s Symphony Hall where they performed in collaboration with the famed Boston Pops. This coming July, they will be making their debut at the venerable Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. This is a band that you really have to see live to truly appreciate.