We’re back in the States this month looking at five traditional jazz and swing bands led by women. When I noticed an “X and her” pattern while finding picks I decided to round it out. In some future month I’ll do a “Seven Guys in Bolo Ties” column for balance.
Cait and the Critters: Cat’n Around
After agreeing to bring her band to a gig, Cait Jones suddenly found herself needing a band. A few calls to friends, and a successful show later and Cait and the Critters were born. More than three years later the band can be regularly heard at New York’s classiest venues for live music and dining, including The Flatiron Room and Radegast Hall Biergarten, as well as unique Swing and vintage events around the Northeast.
They’ve also paused to record two EPs. Their first self-titled studio album, Cait and the Critters, captures them in a small band-big vocals late ’40s vein sure to please at those restaurant gigs. Space is given for the band. Tyler Kaneshiro on trumpet stands out for his contributions accenting Cait’s vocal line. “You and the Night and the Music” is played with appropriately romantic backing on guitar and drums. It is the highlight of the disc. Other tracks include, “The Dummy Song,” “Sentimental Journey,” and “Honeysuckle Rose.”
Cat’n Around, released in April, taps into a current of Western Swing running through the Bohemian revivalists in New York and elsewhere. Cait’s take is blusier than the Bob Wills version and absorbs an American Songbook approach to vocal delivery. The only real twang on these tracks is the addition of Ellie Goodman on fiddle. I have a mountain of ’40s and ’50s 78 RPM records by nearly forgotten (but worthy) artists with a similarly tempered approach.
“Bill Bailey” is the most Western Swing of the tracks. It also highlights Cait’s vocal dexterity adding a slight and convincing country accent. Alec Spiegelman, who plays reeds on both EPs, also arranges a slowed down “Cow Cow Boogie” which while hitting that same cowboy vein is closer to a standard blues. He is the only band member back for the second album, Gordon Au notably replaces Kaneshiro on trumpet. “Dragging My Heart Around” swings in a comfortably timeless style. Both albums are light to the touch and it is no wonder the band appeals to restaurant bookers.
The two most successful cuts on Cat’n Around are both originals written by Jones herself. Both arranged by Spiegelman, “Queer” swings like hell and stands its musical ground along with the deft lyrics; and “Hoi An,” a charmingly romantic song named for a destination city in Vietnam, is so stunning, so timeless, I had a hard time convincing myself it wasn’t a recovered gem of American songwriting. Picture Kay Starr singing “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” If nothing else seek out this track. Cait Jones is to be encouraged to write more in whatever genre.
Miss Myra and The Moonshiners: Sunday Sinning EP
Miss Myra leads with guitar and vocals in this busy Twin Cities trad band. They have 16 appearances scheduled in September, three on one day. She also sometimes appears on piano, though not on this piano-less EP. The band is an increasingly vital part of building the local scene.
And they have chops. Beth Varela, the drummer is a music educator who studied at Berklee School of Music. Bassist Michael Carvale, has toured with both Gunhild Carling and Pokey LaFarge. Their reedman, Sam Skavnak, is a welcome addition to several local bands, and their flexible man on brass, Nathan Berry, also jams with an Afro-Cuban band. For this seven-track debut they fill out the sound with a second guitar and trumpet while Berry plays trombone. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of these names appear elsewhere someday.
They start with their theme song “Moonshine,” a call and response number that sets the scene for their very fast sound. That speed defines the album. Especially on “Egyptian Ella” which has a nice building energy worthy of the song. “Everybody Loves My Baby” also has a deeper bounce than you’re used to, with an aggressive female vocal to make it a unique interpretation. “The Sheik of Araby,” after a deceptively slow intro, takes on a fiesta feeling.
Two songs which seem to be signatures of the band, slow the beat down while the other instruments build heat. “The Kaiser” is a great little tune lyrically, as well as a vehicle for the band to strut. “Sunday Sinning (Palmer’s Bar)” feels like a reprise to their opener “Moonshine” but it is better arranged and more interesting on every level.
Chelsea Reed and the Fair Weather Five: Spreadin’ Rhythm Around
Coming off an extensive tour in June and July of Lindy events all over the Northeast, Chelsea Reed and the Fair Weather Five have settled in as stars in the dance world. Together since 2012, they decided to make an album that was originally titled Spreadin’ Rhythm Around: The Dialogue of Music and Dance. They explained it as “An album of our favorite standards and originals to celebrate the conversation between the bandstand and the dance floor.” They tapped expectant dancers for $10K on Kickstarter in under a month leveraging rewards from signed LPs to T-shirts.
That approach gave them the freedom, indeed the mandate, to produce a top notch swing album when they got to the studio. They didn’t disappoint. Chelsea Reed formed the band because she wanted “the chance to sing her favorite songs for an audience that loved early jazz as much as she did.” She gets that on the bandstand, I’m sure, but that is also a good reason to share her powerful voice in the studio.
The album is squarely focused on lyrics and their packaging within the music. The full band fades into a support role moving the dancers. Beyond her normal five, Wycliffe Gordon joins the band on trombone for two tracks, backup vocalists join on two more, and a super full brass section fills out the sound on yet two others. In live appearances, they do sometimes appear as The Fair Weather Nine.
Most of the source tracks are from the ’30s without being predictable or over-worn. Two interesting exceptions being “Illinois Jacquet Flies Again” from 1966, and “Too Close For Comfort” a 1956 hit for Eddie Gorme. The titles all suggest an investigative mining for swing gold and a wish to surprise and engage the audience.
Two of the tracks are originals. “Pastrami on Rye” is exactly what it sounds like, written by background vocalist Kat Siciliano, it could easily be from the period. Reed submits “Mind Your Business” as a bluesy closer to the album.
Megan and her Goody Goodies: Come & Get It Honey (Live at The Studio)
Live at The Studio was recorded at a popular venue for Swing events in Nashville called, you guessed it, The Studio. Lots of planning went into the recording process. Megan Lange wanted “to record an album like Artie Shaw Live at Cafe Rouge or Sinatra at the Sands.” Local studio veterans were tapped to guide the process and correctly position ribbon microphones. The tone of those early live albums is the first thing you notice.
Based in Nashville and playing Lindy and Blues exchanges throughout the Southeast, Megan and her Goody Goodies have a sound built for dancing but just as invigorating for seat dwellers. With a bluesy, edgy vibe there is something tangible to listen to as well as keep you in time.
Her band has passed through various lineups, and for this event she arranged for five of the eight musicians to be women. The talent pool runs deep in Nashville and it shows. The lineup is Danielle Knight on clarinet, Jason Knight on trombone, Charles Kay on saxophone, Annie Erbsen on guitar, Stacey Glasgow on drums, Gideon Klein on double bass, and Libby Pascoe on piano.
The ensemble playing provides a smooth and melodious supplement to her vocal line, the jams are captivating and the solos meaningful, particularly the sax and occasional piano. Megan’s own vocalese contortions on “Somebody Loves Me” arrive with a splash early in the album, commanding your attention. She returns to them in a track near the end, catching your ear again. For me, they were the highlight.
A lot of attention seems to have gone into balancing the long 16 track set list. “Too Much Mustard” is the perfect launching pad. Subtle tempo changes flow naturally thereafter keeping the listener involved from start to finish. Going from “Moonglow” to “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” to “It Had To Be You” doesn’t seem like the most natural transition, but it works here. They slow it down to close with a rich “Georgia on my Mind” before encoring out with a simple bright jam on “Nick’s Tune.” Grab your jackets: it’s been a heck of a show.
Aurora Nealand & The Royal Roses: Comeback Children
Aurora Nealand is an artist, with a creative sensibility that she duly brings to her music. Her parents exposed her to the music of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, though she didn’t turn her focus to traditional jazz until serendipity set her down in New Orleans. There the city, and traditional jazz, took hold. She had studied electronic and classical composition at the Oberlin Conservatory before training for physical theater at the Jacques Lecoq school in Paris. She assumed her future would hold a Master’s degree in composition, but the experience of being in New Orleans shifted her focus to playing music.
She can now be found with The Royal Roses at both a weekly night in New Orleans, and increasingly at events around the country, playing remarkable traditional jazz. She’s also fulfilled a longtime ambition to create a performance and music act called The Monocle, played in a spoofy Rockabilly band, done a number of other performance art musical projects, excepted residencies, and taught at the Welbourne Traditional Jazz Camp.
As a name that is starting to be noticed in the art world, she still finds time most weeks to duet with Tom McDermott complimenting his piano with her Sidney Bechet-inspired reed work and expressive vocals. I’d recommend finding videos of these duets. The sparsity and demands of these intimate performances keep her voice in top shape and give her space to develop her playing.
This is the third release from the Aurora Nealand and the Royal Roses, after a live tribute To Sidney Bechet recorded at Preservation Hall in 2010 and The LookBack Transmission in 2014. The second album was a creative and engaging slide through the sounds of New Orleans. Their third album takes it to a new level.
From the opening cacophony of “Jump for Joy,” it’s clear that Comeback Children is a work of art. Its creators, led by Aurora Nealand are artists committed to making a statement within the genre of traditional jazz. That opening lets you know you’re in for something special; the jam on the second track, a six minute “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” lets you know it will also be a put-on-your-seat- belts experience. A treatment of Duke Ellington’s “Old Man Blues” then sets the bar for the remainder of 17 tracks.
The album has Chamber Jazz moments, the sparse “Indian Summer” falls into that category, but there is nothing stuffy going on here. Their treatments of “Minor Drag” and “Limehouse Blues” have real building heat.
You can find video of them performing “Toploulou” live. It is a West Indian song, and Nealand sings it in French; on her previous album, she also sang several songs in French. It’s a useful second language in the Crescent City. Four tracks also feature male lead vocals, each from a different band member. All those voice changes add a theatrical feeling.
Matt Perrine, sousaphone and Matt Bell, guitar, provided some arrangements for the band. Those make for the most creative tracks, and most impressive. “Flee as a Bird,” arranged by Perrine, mirrors the traditional New Orleans dirge-to-romp structure but with much more interchange, fluidity, and drums. “Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down,” also arranged by Perrine, kicks in with a New Orleans street beat, then packs a string of joyful surprises.
The lineup switches up track to track as recording took place across several days. Nothing but worthy collaborators were found. Bass is sometimes Nathan Lambertson and on other tracks Joshua Gouzy; Benji Bohannon is sometimes on drums, at other times Paul Thibodeaux. Matt Dillon has played vibes for all genres of national musical acts, as indeed has Perrine been on call wherever a sousaphone was needed. James Evans supplements Nealand herself on reeds. Charlie Halloran, trombone, guests on one track. David Boswell, trumpet, and Jon Rahm, trombone, play throughout. Google any of these names and you will be suitably impressed. Nealand deserves all the attention she’s getting. At 76 minutes, Comeback Children clocks in as an event.
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