Jake Hanna would often say, “Start swinging from the beginning!” He would have loved the Mint Julep Jazz Band and their new CD, BATTLE AXE. Jake isn’t around to embrace them, but I will and do.
Hear and see for yourself: OLD KING DOOJI, live, from June 2015:
ROCK IT FOR ME, from the previous year:
The musicians on this CD are Paul Rogers, trumpet; Keenan McKenzie, tenor saxophone/clarinet/soprano saxophone; Aaron Hill, alto saxophone/clarinet; Aaron Tucker, drums; Jason Foureman, string bass; Ben Lassiter, guitar; Lucian Cobb, trombone; Laura Windley, vocal.
Why I love the Mint Julep Jazz Band (unlike a Letterman list, there are not ten items, and they are presented here without hierarchical value):
One. Expert, accurate, relaxed swinging playing in solo and ensemble. No matter how authentic their vintage costumes; no matter how gorgeous they are personally, for me a band must sound good. I can’t hear cute.
The MJJB has a wonderful ensemble sound: often fuller than their four-horn, three rhythm congregation would lead you to expect. Their intonation is on target, their unison passages are elegantly done but never stiff.
And they swing. They sound like a working band that would have had a good time making the dancers sweat and glow at the Savoy or the Renny.
They are well-rehearsed but not bored by it all. They have individualistic soloists — the front line is happily improvising in their own swinging style always. And a word about “style.” I’ve heard “swing bands” where the soloists sound constricted: Taft Jordan wouldn’t have played that substitute chord, so I won’t / can’t either — OR — let me do my favorite 1974 Miles licks on this Chick Webb-inspired chart. And let me do them for four choruses. Neither approach works for me, although I am admittedly a tough audience. Beautiful playing, folks. And a rhythm section that catches every nuance and propels the band forward without pushing or straining. I never feel the absence of a piano.
Two. Nifty arrangements. See One. Intriguing voicings, original but always idiomatic approaches to music that is so strongly identified with its original arrangements. I played some of this disc for very erudite friends, who said, “Wow, a soprano lead on that chorus!” and other such appreciative exclamations. Sweet, inevitable surprises throughout — but always in the service of the song, the mood, the idiom.
Three. Variety in tempos, approaches, effect. When I listen to BATTLE AXE, I’m always startled when it’s over. Other CDs . . . I sometimes get up, see how many tracks are left, sigh, and go back to my listening.
Four. They honor the old records but they do not copy them. They do not offer transcriptions of solos, although a listener can hear the wonderful results of their loving close listening.
Five. Unhackneyed repertoire: YOU CAN’T LIVE IN HARLEM / DUCKY WUCKY / SIX JERKS IN A JEEP / SWINGTIME IN HONOLULU / OLD KING DOOJI / EXACTLY LIKE YOU / THAT’S THE BLUES, OLD MAN / NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN / TWO SLEEPY PEOPLE / WHEN I GET LOW I GET HIGH / EVERYTHING’S JUMPIN’ / SAY IT ISN’T SO / BETCHA NICKEL / BATTLE AXE — affectionate nods to Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, Noble Sissle, the Andrews Sisters, small-band Ellington (yes!), Artie Shaw, Lunceford, young Ella, and more. But obviously chosen with discernment. And the originals by Keenan McKenzie are splendid — idiomatic without being pastiche, real compositions by someone who knows how to write singable melodies and graceful evocative lyrics: TREBUCHET and THE DWINDLING LIGHT BY THE SEA.
Six. Laura Windley. There are so many beautiful (male and female) earnest almost-singers in the world. Audiences admire them while they are visually accessible. I listen with my eyes closed at first. Laura is THE REAL THING — she swings, she has a splendid but conversational approach to the lyrics; her second choruses don’t mimic her first. And her voice is in itself a pleasure — a tart affectionate mixture of early Ella, Ivie, Jerry Kruger, Sally Gooding. I think of her as the Joan Blondell of swing singing: sweet, tender, and lemony all at once. And once you’ve heard her, you won’t mistake her for anyone else.
And I proudly wear their dark-green MINT JULEP JAZZ BAND t-shirt (purchased with my allowance) but you’d have to see me in person to absorb the splendor. Of the shirt.
Here‘s what I wrote about the MJJB in 2013. I still believe it, and even more so. BATTLE AXE — never mind the forbidding title — is a great consistent pleasure.
May your happiness increase!