I’ve had an alarm clock / clock radio at the side of my bed for decades now, and its message is unvarying and irritating. Time to go to school! Time to go to work! Time to move the car to avoid a ticket!
But playing the new CD by The Vitality Five, its title noted above, I thought if I could rig up a musical machine that would, at first softly, play one of their glorious lively evocations of a vanished time, I would be much more willing to get out of bed and face the world.
The Vitality 5 is inherently not the same as many other bands performing Twenties hot repertoire. For one thing, the 5’s reach is informed and deep: of the seventeen songs on this disc, perhaps four will be well-known to people who “like older jazz.” Be assured that even the most “obscure” tunes are melodic and memorable. More important to me is the 5’s perhaps unstated philosophy in action. Many bands so worship the originals that they strive to create reverent copies of the original discs, and in performance this can be stunning. But the 5 realizes something in their performances and arrangements that, to me, is immensely valuable: the people who made the original records were animated by joyous exuberance.
The players we venerate were “making it up as they went along,” as if their lives depended on it. Theirs did, and perhaps ours do as well.
So these performances are splendidly animated by vivacious personality: they leap off the disc. I don’t mean that the 5 is louder or faster, but they are energized. You can’t help but hear and feel it.
Facts. The band has been together since 2015, and it is that rare and wonderful entity — a working band. Two of its members should be intimate pals to JAZZ LIVES readers: David Horniblow, reeds, and Andrew Oliver, piano — they are the one and only Complete Morton Project. The other three members who complete the arithmetic are special heroes of mine, people I’ve admired at the Whitley Bay / Mike Durham jazz parties: Michael McQuaid, reeds and cornet; Martin Wheatley, banjo; Nicholas D. Ball, drums.
And they are superb players — not only star soloists, but wonderful in ensemble, making the 5 seem much more a flexible orchestra than the single digit would suggest. They are, as Louis would say, Top Men On Their Instruments. Each performance has its own rhythmic surge, the arrangements are varied without being “clever,” and the band is wise enough to choose material that has a deep melodic center — memorable lines that range in performance from sweetly lyrical to incendiary. The back cover proclaims that there are “17 CERTAIN DANCE HITS!” and it’s true.
A final word about repertoire — a subject whose narrowing I find upsetting, as some “Twenties” groups play and replay the same dozen songs: this disc offers songs I’d either never heard before (JI-JI BOO) or not in decades (THE SPHINX) as well as classics that aren’t simply transcriptions from the OKeh (FIREWORKS, EVERY EVENING, COPENHAGEN) — across the spectrum from Nichols-Mole to Clarence Williams to McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and more.
I know it’s heresy to some, but the Vitality 5 performs at a level that is not only equal to the great recordings, but superior to them. A substantial claim, but the disc supports it.
Visit here to hear their hot rendition of COPENHAGEN — also, here you can buy an actual disc or download their music. Convinced? I hope so.
And to the Gentlemen of the Ensemble: if you perfect the Vitality Five Rise-and-Shine machine, suitable for all electric currents, do let me know. I’ll be your first purchaser. Failing that, please prosper, have many gigs, and make many CDs!
May your happiness increase!