It’s taken me a few months to write anything about Emily Asher’s Garden Party’s first full-length CD, but it’s taken me that long to wrest the disc out of the CD players — car, home, and office. The cover artwork by Jocelyn Curry is a lovely evocative introduction to the music within — full of beautiful surprises that quickly seem friendly and welcoming.
I’ve admired Emily as a trombonist / singer / arranger / composer for some time. I first encountered her as an eager and skilled young player who came by for the second set at The Ear Inn to happily swell the ranks — and I first captured her on video at the very start of 2011 — a joyous jam session here. I wouldn’t call myself an early adopter of new technology, but I caught a young version of Emily’s band, the Garden Party, at Radegast Bierhalle in September 2011: the energetic experience comes through here. When the Party released a mini-CD Hoagy Carmichael tribute, CARNIVAL OF JOY, the disc was aptly titled.
More recently, I caught the band at a January 2014 San Francisco house party here and here. I know this barrage of hyperlinks may seem to some a prelude to Emily’s retirement dinner (which is far off in the future) but I simply want to suggest — as they say in certain urban areas, “We go ‘way back. We have history.”
History, however, is not always the only offering of the Garden Party. Yes, they can swing out on WHEN YOU WORE A TULIP in fine New Orleans style, and the band’s knowledge of traditional and swing genres includes not only the familiar (ROYAL GARDEN BLUES) but the by-now-slightly-exotic (EMPEROR NORTON’S HUNCH). The Garden Party, however, is more than a band of youngbloods playing old favorites. And their new disc does have TULIP, BIG BUTTER AND EGG MAN, I’VE GOT A FEELIN’ I’M FALLING, MEMPHIS IN JUNE, and the little-known WALK IT OFF (recorded by Carmichael in 1946) — but the remaining five titles are originals by Emily or by the band.
Ordinarily, “originals” make me slightly nervous, because some of the greatest improvisers do their improvising on frameworks written by others. But these originals have substance; they aren’t endless musings on existential dread, nor are they contrefacts, thin creations over someone else’s chord changes. In the first minutes of this disc (the opening track is called OPEN INVITATION TO A RAINSTORM, which should suggest something about Emily’s generous and quirky imagination): we hear Emily’s solo voice backed by a sympathetic rubato rhythm section; the song moves into time with a calypso exposition of the chorus, alternating with a rocking 4 / 4 time — then the band plays an instrumental chorus (beautifully arranged) punctuated with drum-break comments . . . a piano modulation takes us into a group vocal chorus alternating with Emily sweet exuberant / thoughtful voice, and the performance ends with a joyous “last eight bars.”
I won’t delineate the other nine tracks in this fashion, but MEET ME IN THE MORNING is a delightful tonic as well as a delightful corrective to some more tired (although “modern”) jazz conventions — the apparently endless string of solos over a rhythm section, the idea that modernity means turning one’s back on sentiment and swing. The music heard on this disc (or on live gigs) benefits from a deep study of what has come before, but it is not weighed down by pure intellectualism.
Rather, the Garden Party knows and embodies what it is like to have fun with music — to Play without being goofy, to entertain a crowd, real or imagined. They do not disdain their audience, and their pleasure at making melody and swing comes through the little plastic artifact. And they are not jazz snobs — there’s a country waltz on this disc, and Emily’s version of a Fifties soul hit (that starts with a scratchy-78 version of the verse) . . . amusing and convincing evocations of a wide range of fulfilling music — each track a small pleasing present to unwrap more than once.
Emily’s bands have always had first-rate players and singers who seemed to blossom because of the warmth and light she herself brings to the music, but this version of her Garden Party is special. I will leave the adjectives to you, but here are the facts: Emily, trombone, vocals, composition, arrangements; Mike Davis, trumpet, fluegelhorn, cornet, arrangements, vocals; Tom Abbott, clarinet, alto saxophone; Dalton Ridenhour, piano; Nick Russo, banjo, guitar; Sean Cronin, string bass, composition, arrangements; Rob Adkins, string bass, arrangements; Jay Lepley, drums, arrangements, vocals. Nice recorded sound and fine notes from the Dipper himself, Ricky Riccardi.
If you follow the Garden Party (on either coast and sometimes in the middle), you’ve already purchased a copy of this CD. If not, it’s an open invitation to joy. Details here.
May your happiness increase!