1930s Style Swing, 80 Years Too Late

“Jimbo” Mathus (vocal and guitar), Katharine Whalen (vocals, banjo, ukulele) , Chris Phillips (drums) and Don Raleigh (bass) are the brilliant musicians that make up one of my favorite bands, The Squirrel Nut Zippers. A modern day group that evokes thoughts of Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, and at times Tom Waits, The Squirrel Nut Zippers mix jazz, swing, bluegrass, ska, and blues with a little bit of theatrics to create music that can relax or enliven you at any moment.

The first time I heard a song by The Squirrel Nut Zippers, my dad had just purchased their CD and had put it on before dinner. I distinctly remember hearing the opening brass of “The Suits are Picking Up the Bill” from 1998’s Perennial Favorites and thinking that this was the type of band I wanted to play in. It was like they put all of my favorite parts of jazz songs I had heard and mixed and matched them into an album just for me. From track one to track twelve, Perennial Favorites is still one of my favorite albums of all time.

The Squirrel Nut Zippers’ song that I am always down to rock out to is entitled “The Ghost of Stephen Foster” and is on Perennial Favorites. Don’t get me wrong, the other eight studio albums they have are full of great songs, I just have a soft spot for this album, and this song sticks in particular. The video is an old school silent cartoon interpretation of the song and the song, oh the song. The song is 3:32 of big band magic, with eery violin provided by Andrew Bird, and the rest of the Squirrel Nut Zippers shining through in their own way. The driving beat of the drums, accompanied by the bounce of the deep brass, are seamlessly complimented by the crazed vocals of “Jimbo” Mathis and hellish backup vocals of the other members of the band. This creates a frenzied pace that lasts the whole song.

Get ready to jump out of your seat and dance, but make sure you watch the video too, you won’t regret it. Here is the video for “Ghost of Stephen Foster” by The Squirrel Nut Zippers.

The Boss Hog of Bossanova

Musically, Brazil and bossanova go hand in hand. And the man that embodied the two in a public setting was Antonio Carlos Jobim. Jobim (1927-1994) wrote, composed, sang, and played the bossanova style on a larger stage than any other Brazilian musician, working with artists like Frank Sinatra, Stan Getz, and Ella Fitzgerald. His soft vocals and intricate, Brazilian influenced guitar picking style made bossanova a craze in the United States in the late ’60s. His use of Latin beats and  the electric keyboard influenced artists like Herbie Hancock, and helped lead the way for more electric instruments in jazz.

Jobim’s music was well received around the world, but it was his separate collaborations with Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald brought him the most fame. He won several Grammy’s for his bossanova style, and he helped expand jazz with his Brazilian influence on the genre.

The song that most casual jazz listeners have heard from Jobim is entitled “Girl from Ipanema.” You may recognize the tune from every movie ever.  That being said, here is a link to him performing the song with Frank Sinatra (“Girl From Ipanema”.) The song I go to when I’m feeling like some Jobim in my life is “Brazil” from his 1970 album Stone Flower. The electric keyboard backed by that driving maraca and the shuffle of the jazzy Brazilian beat makes this song a perfect example of the bossanova style. Jobim’s voice is smoother than a double malt whiskey, crooning as only he could croon, in his native tongue.

I suggest Jobim on a day like today, when it’s so hot out that you just want to sit and relax with a cold drink. Even if it’s just on a deck in in the city like me, let Jobim take you away to the beaches of his native country with “Brazil” from 1970’s Stone Flower. 

Beauty Cut Short

“Once in a lifetime talent” is not a phrase I utter very often. Eva Cassidy was a once in a lifetime talent in a lifetime that was cut short at age 33. Cassidy (1963-1996) had a powerful clarity to her voice that is the rarest of rare. Few people can support their full range, but Eva never seemed to lose her breath. From the top of her range to her soulful bottom notes, she never seemed to falter. As a singer I marvel at the ease with which Cassidy hit each note in her repertoire.

Relatively unheard of when she was living, it was not until after her death from melanoma that Cassidy’s voice was heard around the world. The Cassidy album that I am most familiar with, Live at Blues Alley, is only available to the public thanks to a live recording of her performance in 1996. This 14-track album was recorded over two days and in my opinion is one of the most impressive displays of vocal prowess ever recorded. Each song is sung with such passion and emotion that even if Cassidy wasn’t as talented as she was, the songs would still evoke something deep from her listeners. The power and soulful tone of her voice is only made more beautifully tragic by the fact that she would pass away just four months after the recording was made.

On Live at Blues Alley listeners are introduced to Cassidy’s unparalleled ability to take jazz, pop, and blues standards and make them truly her own. No melody was safe from the range and improvisational skills of Eva Cassidy. Whether she decided to power through Al Green’s “Take Me to the River”  or somehow bring out more emotion than Simon and Garfunkel could find in “Bridge Over Troubled Water”Cassidy made her unique voice evident in every song she sang.

Eva’s voice was a gift to the world, and it is tragic that we only had her for the short time we did.I suggest listening to Live at Blues Alley all the way through (the whole show is on Youtube,) but for now here is a video of Cassidy performing Irving Berlin’s  “Cheek to Cheek.”

Wes is More

When a conversation breaks out discussing legends of the guitar, it is rockers like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Paige who garner the most respect. For some personally unfathomable reason, jazz guitarists are not held in the same esteem. However, I would immediately mention the name Wes Montgomery in any discussion of legendary six-string slingers.

Montgomery (1923-1968) embodies every meaning of the word “smooth.” He played with a swift confidence, his natural talent only bolstered by his love of practicing and performing. Wes, along with his contemporary jazz guitar greats Django Reinhardt (“Brazil”) and Charlie Christian (“Seven Come Elven”), brought what we think of as modern jazz guitar into existence. The smooth, clean sound that Wes got from his guitar came from his refusal to use a pick, instead using his thumb to up or down-stroke. His unique fingering technique and his exploratory way of playing are just two of the reasons Wes is widely considered one of the most influential guitarists of all time.

The video I found is of Montgomery in Belgium in 1965. The song is entitled “There’s That Rainy Day,” and showcases Wes’s thumb stroke technique as well as his tendency to favor sliding bar chords. His supporting cast of Arthur Harper (Bass), Harold Mabern (Piano), and Jimmy Lovelace (Drums) keep the tune constantly moving as Montgomery rips solos in his own smooth jazz style. This video also gives us a look at Wes’s preferred way to perform and record, in a classic four person jazz set up. “There’s That Rainy Day” is a great example of the Wes Montgomery style, smooth, yet always building and bringing the listener towards a climax.

I suggest sitting down the next time you have some writing to do and giving Wes Montgomery a listen. I wrote most of my finals listening to his album Far Wes.

**A little editing here, I wrote in an early post entitled “A Man and His Bass” that Monk Montgomery sounded like the love child of Thelonious Monk and Wes Montgomery. Well that would be an even stranger child than I previously imagined, as Monk is in fact Wes’s older brother. The two played together on several recordings early in Wes’s career.