Tag Archives: Keenan McKenzie


To paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas, “To one who feels the groove, no explanation is necessary. To one who doesn’t feel it, no explanation is possible.”

This new CD is just wonderful.  Listen to a sample here while you read.  And  that link is the easiest way to purchase a download or a disc.


I don’t write “irresistibly catchy” often, but I mean it here.  The lyrics are clever without being forced, sometimes deeply tender.  “Don’t send me names / Of potential flames,” is one tiny example of the Mercer-Hart world he visits. I emphasize that Mister McKenzie not only wrote music and lyrics, but arranged these originals AND performs beautifully on a variety of reeds.  He is indeed someone to watch, and admire.  He’s also a generous wise leader who gives his colleagues ample space, thus the CD is truly varied, each performance its own pleasing world.

The “tunes” themselves stick in the mind.  Some are contrafacts — new melodies built over sturdy lovable harmonic sequences (SUGAR BLUES, ST. JAMES INFIRMARY, INDIAN SUMMER, and BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA if my ears do not deceive me).  These hybrids work delightfully: it’s as if you’ve met beloved friends who have decided to cross-dress for the evening or for life: you recognize the dear person and the garb simultaneously, admiring both the substance and the wrappings.

The delicious band, sounding so much larger than a septet, is Keenan McKenzie, reeds; Gordon Au, trumpet; Lucian Cobb, trombone; Jonathan Stout, guitar; Chris Dawson, piano; Seth Ford-Young, string bass; Josh Collazo, drums; Laura Windley, vocals*.  You might not recognize all the names here, but you are in for compact explosions of joy when the music starts.

The soloists are playing superbly — and that includes players Gordon and Chris, whom I’ve been stalking for what seems like a decade now (my math is wrong but my emotions are correct) as well as the newer members of the Blessed Swing Flock.  Although they don’t work together regularly as a unit, they speak the same language effortlessly and listen contentedly to each other: Soloist Three starts his solo with a variation on the phrase that Soloist Two has just played.  That’s the way the Elders did it, a tradition beautifully carried forward here.

The rhythm section has perfected the Forties magic of seeming to lean forward into the beat while keeping the time steady.  Harry Lim and Milt Gabler smile at these sounds.  This band knows all that anyone needs to know about ensemble playing — they offer so much more than one brilliant solo after another.  Yes, Virginia, there are riffs, send-offs, and all those touches of delightful architecture that made the recordings we hold dear so memorable.  Without a vibraphone, this group takes some spiritual inspiration from the Lionel Hampton Victors, and you know (or should) just how fine they are.  “Are,” not “were.”

And there is the invaluable Laura Windley, who’s never sounded more like herself: if Joan Blondell took up singing, she’d sound like Laura.  And Joan would be thrilled at the transformation.

The lovely sound is thanks to Miles Senzaki (engineer at Grandma’s Dojo in Los Angeles, California; Jason Richmond, who mixed the music; Steve Turnidge, who mastered the disc).  The nifty artwork and typography — evoking both David Stone Martin and Al Hirschfeld — is by artist-clarinetist Ryan Calloway.

The disc is also available through CDBaby and shortly on Amazon and iTunes: check here for updates on such matters.  And here you can find out more about Keenan’s many selves, all of them musical.

I end on a personal note.  I first began to enjoy this disc at the end of the semester for me (I teach English at a community college) — days that are difficult for me.  I had graded enough student essays to feel despondent; I had sat at the computer for so long so that my neck hurt and my eyes ached.  But this disc had come in the mail, and I’d heard TRANSCONTINENTAL and MY WELL-READ BABY already, so, feeling depleted and sulky, I slipped it into the player.  Optimism replaced gloom, and I played the whole disc several times in a row, because it made me tremendously happy.  It can do the same spiritual alchemy for you, if you only allow it in.

May your happiness increase!



MINT JULEP in action

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.

Here is the band’s website — where you can purchase BATTLE AXE, digitally or tangibly.  And their Facebook page.

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!


I haven’t had a librarian say “Shhhhhh!” to me since junior high school, so I know that stereotype might be long gone. But it’s lovely to see a library expand into sweet, swinging music, as it does here.

The wonderful musicians are the warm, easy singer Laura Windley and the Mint Julep Jazz Band: Lucian Cobb, trombone; Paul Rogers, trumpet; Aaron Hill, alto sax and clarinet; Keenan McKenzie, tenor sax and clarinet; Ben Lassiter, guitar; Aaron Tucker, drums; Jason Foureman, string bass. They perform the magical time-travel of bringing a 1938 Cotton Club show with an Ellington small group to the library in Greensboro, North Carolina (videos shot by Our State magazine). I’m very happy to see and hear this, and I am sure you will like it / them, too.



and a rollicking instrumental invention (I think of the John Kirby Sextet in its 1943-44 guise plus gallons of coffee) called MIAMI BOULEVARD:

And here is the band’s website. If they come to the library, what could prevent them from coming to you?  Or the reverse.

May your happiness increase!



A new CD, DURHAM ON SATURDAY NIGHT, by the Mint Julep Jazz Band, featuring the excellent singer Laura Windley, is a honey.

The MJJB is a small hot group — well-versed in playing for dancers, so they set swinging tempos and stick to them.  Their ensemble work is beautifully precise without being stiff, and they really understand the subtle mysteries of swing rhythm.  And the solos are just fine: not only can these young folks energetically pretend that 1941 isn’t really gone, but they can launch their own inventive solos time after time.

One of their main inspirations is youthful Ella Fitzgerald and the small group out of Chick Webb’s band — The Savoy Eight — and they evoke that sound perfectly without turning out pale note-for-note copies of the records.  I heard evocations of Sandy Williams and Sidney Bechet, but also Al Grey and Howard McGhee.

The repertory also looks with affection at the Ellington small groups and Victor band, the Kirby Sextet, the Ink Spots, the Basie band of the same period (I really welcome hearing JIVE AT FIVE, and the MJJB swings it the best way.)

They also find rather obscure pop tunes — which work!: GET IT SOUTHERN STYLE, ONE GIRL AND TWO BOYS, and there’s a nifty original, MIAMI BOULEVARD.

The excellent young musicians on this disc are Lucian Cobb, trombone; Laura Windley, vocals and glockenspiel; Aaron Hill, alto saxophone / clarinet; Keenan McKenzie, tenor saxophone / clarinet; Jared Worford, guitar; Jim Ketch, trumpet; Jason Foureman, string bass; Aaron Tucker, drums.  They aren’t restricted to the world of 1937, but there are no excursions into Sonny Rollins on a Swing chart, if you know what I mean.

Those boys rock,” the folks at the Savoy would have said.

Laura Windley is a special pleasure.  Many youthful singers in the “swing dance” scene have memorized the gestures of their idols — listening to the records so many times that they can mimic those Vocalions — and they, women and men, dress beautifully.  But as singers they lack their own personalities.  All gown, no voice.

Laura’s got her own sweet style with a serious rhythmic underpinning: if she were handed a song she’d never heard before, she could do it convincingly without echoing anyone else.  Her rich voice reminded me of young Ella — that hopeful, wistful, asking-for-love quality — but she can turn corners at a fast tempo, as she proves on the CD’s closer, the band’s romping version of Lil Armstrong’s HARLEM ON SATURDAY NIGHT.

Here’s a small sample from a band-within-a-band:

Laura Windley (vocals), Lucian Cobb (trombone), Aaron Hill (tenor sax), Keenan McKenzie (sitting in on soprano sax), Aaron Tucker (drums), J.C. Martin (guitar), Peter Kimosh (bass).

What you will hear on the CD will convince you that — like Swing itself — the Mint Julep Jazz Band is here to stay.  And that is very reassuring news.

Visit them, hear more from their CD (it’s also available on iTunes and CD Baby), and follow them here.

May your happiness increase!