You’re going to have to trust me on this — that Casey MacGill’s new five-song CD, pictured below, is excellent and beyond — because I can’t offer you sound samples or downloads. You’ll have to (gasps from the audience) buy the CD. It’s $15 and it’s splendidly worth it. Details here. The other necessary bit of candor is that it a an EP-CD . . . or whatever they call it nowadays, twenty minutes long. Take it as the best compliment I can offer that when I first got a copy, I began to audition it in the Mobile Audition Studio (my 2014 Camry) and I played it three times through without stopping, and thought, “That’s more pleasure than many standard-length CDs.”
“A swing band, yes, but what makes this special is the combination of great arrangements, vocals, and its irresistible rhythmic pulse. Flavor, tonal colors, musical storytelling; two brilliant originals and three classics that are must-hear,” is the description on Casey’s website, and it’s an accurate one. The band recorded on January 8, 2018 — in beautiful sound and no trickery.
Here are the players — and some of them you will not only recognize but greet as masters on their instruments. Casey plays piano, ukulele, sings lead, and does the arrangements. The reeds are Jacob Zimmerman, lead alto, clarinet, vocal; Saul Cline, tenor, clarinet; Hans Teuber, alto, clarinet; Jonathan Doyle, tenor, baritone, clarinet, bass sax. The brass: Charlie Porter, lead trumpet; Dan Barrett, trumpet; Trevor Whitridge, trombone; David Loomis, trombone; Christian Pincock, trombone. Rhythm: D’Vonne Lewis, drums; Matt Weiner, string bass; Josh Roberts, guitar.
And they rock.
About the music. Casey understands and embodies several truths in his music — in theory and performance. One is that if the music isn’t fun, why do it? (This doesn’t mean jokes, but a certain lively ebullience. Joy.) Two is that there is no artificial division between “jazz” and “swing,” that the former ought to get the dancers on the floor, but that the latter has to be ornamented with high-level inspiring improvisations. Three is that simplicity is commendable rather than a weakness, and that music can fall down under the weight of too much of anything, so that well-played riffs can be a great pleasure, even if we know them by heart.
The disc starts with SWING NATION (its refrain “People groovin’ together!” a philosophical foundation for everything Casey and friends do) with a duo vocal by Casey and Jacob Zimmerman — I thought I heard a little Trummy Young and Sy Oliver in there, and that’s a compliment. It’s a short performance, but a memorable one: I was humming it in the days that passed after my first listenings. I was rocking in my driver’s seat before the song was a minute old. Great solo segments by Doyle (on bass sax!), Barrett, Lewis, Loomis, Casey on piano, all deserved multiple hearings on their own. The arrangement is full of little surprises, but none of them seem obtrusive, and the rhythm section is superb: Casey, switching from piano to ukulele, is a splendid anchor and guide. His piano playing is Basie-like but without any of the half-dozen (by now tedious) Basie “trademarks.”
I NEVER KNEW is often taken too fast, but not here, and the arrangement looks to the 1933 Benny Carter recording, with a sweet discussion between Zimmerman and Cline at the start, before Barrett does what he does so superbly, the second sixteen over to Casey at the piano. Then — “What is that?” — a transcription of Lester’s 1943 solo for sax section, glossy and supple, again with a piano bridge by Casey leading into a muted brass rendering of the closing Carter chorus, Barrett backed by Lewis’ tom-toms for the bridge. So far (and I left a phone message with my primary care physician) I have been unable to listen to this track only once.
LA DAME EN BLUES, another MacGill original, is what they used to call a “mood piece.” Its groove reminds me a little of THE MOOCHE, with a much more harmonically sophisticated second half, that turns into a melancholy yet swinging clarinet solo. Again, the ensemble writing is compelling without grabbing the listener’s collar. Loomis summons up Joe Nanton, gruff but tender, before piano leads the band out.
The opening of NIGHT AND DAY — muted brass against and with reeds — makes me wish I had practiced more during those ballroom dancing lessons of 2007. I delight in the band’s lovely sound: everyone knows how to play as part of a section, which is a great thing. Casey’s vocal is hip but completely sincere: he doesn’t ooze, but he’s deeply in the pocket of Romance, with an easy conversational lilt to his phrasing. A gorgeous solo chorus by Teuber (who makes me think of Pete Brown and Rudy Williams, sweet-tart) follows, before Casey returns to woo the unknown hearer and us.
Finally, HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, which has been done so often that it might labor under the burden of familiarity, starts off with a bang — a short vocal introduction before the band says, “HERE we are!” in the opening chorus. Casey’s vocal, hip and hilarious, is so winning, before Teuber comes on, and that’s no idle 1946 cliche. Barrett, for the second sixteen, visits NOLA, before the band starts to rock what I think of as “the Henderson riff” or perhaps it’s the Hopkins one — buy the CD and argue among yourselves. Another riff is overlaid, which I love but cannot place, before Casey does a Johnny Guarneri for the bridge, and the band mixes unison scat — college cheerleaders? — while thinking of Christopher Columbus, before bringing on a Django-and Stephane riff.
Perfectly swinging music, ensemble, solos, vocal: it’s a delight. I thought, when I’d finished writing this overview, “Hey, the only thing wrong with this disc is that it’s not a two-CD set!” but perhaps that’s best. Maybe Casey has a firm hand on the tiller and is looking out for us all. Given two hours of this band, I might be so overwhelmed by pleasure that I couldn’t write.
Buy yours here. Bliss has rarely been so easy to come by.
May your happiness increase!
2019 update: song samples and digital copies are now available for this album: https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/caseymacgill5