I’ve been reading about John Gill’s National Saloon Band all summer, and tonight the Beloved and I decided to pay them a visit at the National Underground (159 East Houston Street, near Allen Street).
We weren’t disappointed: it’s a truly multi-tasking band.
John Gill is steeped in American pop from Bing to Elvis, from Turk Murphy to Fats Domino. He is a virtuoso banjoist and guitarist, a compelling singer, a hot trombonist. Next to him is Bruce McNichols of the Smith Street Society Jazz Band. Bruce triples on banjo, soprano saxophone, and ensemble vocals. Terry Waldo offers solid ensemble piano, ragtime and stride solos, and vocals. The rhythm section is completed by Brian Nalepka on tuba, bass, and vocals and Kevin Dorn on drums. Kevin doesn’t sing, but watching him in motion is more than enough reward. McNichols, Gill, and Nalepka switch from one instrument to another in the course of a song, singing solo or offering propulsive harmony parts.
We could only stay for the opening set, but this band showed its wide range in less than an hour, offering Twenties pop hits (“When You’re Smiling,” “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone”) and New Orleans standards (“Down By The Riverside,” “Bourbon Street Parade”). John has recently completed the first volume of a tribute to Bing Crosby, and he favored us with a soulful “Out of Nowhere,” complete with verse, showing off his beautiful baritone. He also got to shine on a rocking “Ain’t That A Shame,” associated with Fats Domino. And he displayed his gutty plunger trombone on “Wabash Blues.”
At the end of the set, another jazz multi-tasker came in to join the fun: Jim Fryer, who also sings, plays cornet, trombone, and euphonium.
Smaller than the massive Whole Foods down the street, the National Underground is intimate and thus easy to miss, but the drinks were honest and people were devouring their char-grilled burgers. Duggins King, the club’s manager, told me about the weekly bluegrass night. Another esteemed banjoist-singer, Eddy Davis, has an enthusiastic small group on Wednesdays. Given the paucity of New York jazz spots, this one is surely worth investigating.