Even an optimist like me can wake up gloomy. When that happens, I reach for music. I have a long list of proven mood-enhancers. To that list, I gratefully add the new CD by the Mint Julep Jazz Band, WATCH THE BIRDIE.
Its generic name is “joy juice,” or perhaps “aural Welbutrin.” I’ve followed the band on disc for nearly a decade, and this CD satisfies all the way through. Certain passages make me laugh out loud (not that they are jokes or gimmicks, but that they are pure fun) and the variety of material, moods, and tempos is remarkable. The disc ends too soon every time I play it.
The band is expert in ensemble, joyous in their solo passages, and Laura Windley, once again, sings with great expressive fun: her laugh comes through at every turn.
Do your ears need evidence? Find it here.
I need to say a little more about this CD. It’s full of songs that aren’t overdone — several new to me — and each performance is brilliantly executed and loose. Those who know will recognize the ease and wisdom that comes from a working band, especially a band that plays for dancers. And at this writing, the players are not Official Big Names in the jazz press (which says so much about the clogged ears of that wheezing institution) but they are bright lights of improvisation, able to say so much in sixteen bars.
They are: Lucian Cobb, trombone; Laura Windley, vocals, glockenspiel; Aaron Hill, alto saxophone, clarinet; Keenan McKenzie, tenor saxophone, clarinet, soprano saxophone; Matt Fattal, trumpet; Ben Lassiter, guitar; William Ledbetter, string bass; Dan Faust, drums.
And a few lines about Ms. Windley. She not only sings, she is a SINGER — by which I mean that she has the ordinary virtues one hopes for: clear diction, swing, unerring pitch, an emotional awareness of the lyrics — and more. If her voice is new to you, you will hear young Ella and some of the Helens (Humes, Ward, O’Connell) but she’s got her own sound and her own approach. She’s no repeater pencil, and she figures out what a song’s message is and delivers it express to our doorstep. And she has an ebullient sense of fun that would put her in the movies if the movie-makers had any sense. Hear her sing, “Hey, you — get out of the way!” on the title track for instant conversion. She won’t drag us with LUSH LIFE or GOD BLESS THE CHILD: she’s realized that joy is sometimes in short supply and we need it. Pronto.
Laura also surprised me with her delightful liner notes!
Every time we record an album, Lucian says “We’re never doing this again,” but inevitably we do it again. It was special coming into this recording session having that level of comfort with regulars we’ve worked with for years. Lucian decided to forego headphones and sound baffling for the instrumentalists, so everyone except me was playing live in the room. It made a huge difference in everyone’s comfort level, being able to see, hear, and play naturally instead of having the interference of headphones and a mix. This setup carries some risk, of course, but the other approach can really get in the way of the music. We were feeling good, and we hope that comes through to you.
Lucian wants to be clear that we are not creating “art” or “an exquisite piece of music,” though I think some will disagree. We are here providing a service, we’re a dance band, this is an album that will be used at dance parties, and we have no qualms or shame about that. Dancing to music makes people feel joyous and free, and who could argue with that?
The title track (performed with the approval of the Audubon Society) is an obvious choice because of its ties to the movie Hellzapoppin’ and the “other” Lindy Hop scene that’s more social dancing, featuring Martha Raye dancing with SoCal great Dean Collins. I want to sing fun and funny tunes and I absolutely love this scene in the movie. Rather than go with a pop recording of this song, Lucian took his arranging notes directly from the film soundtrack, grabbing the intro from a scene where the Frenchman argues with a caterer about bread. Cameras, birds, telling people to get out of the way…
The second track, Cowbell Serenade, is one that Lucian found and fell in love with. There’s nothing like a cowbell to make people happy and this song has three separately pitched cowbells. We looked everywhere for such a thing and couldn’t find them, online, through friends, or at a drum specialty store. But Jonathan Stout said, “What about almglocken?” That did the trick and, with a little painter’s tape, Lucian got the sound he wanted. Our drummer Dan Faust is the best sport.
Long, Long Train… is one I fell in love with during the pandemic, so it’s one of our newest tunes. Sometimes a song just sits with you the right way and we are leaning into some transportation themes here, with a Jeep on the last album. I particularly love the lyrics and the guys got on board with first-class tickets from the start.
Milkman is one of those songs that’s been around on dance floors forever, but it’s never been played out, which is great. Another silly song with adorable slang in the lyrics, another “go away from me” song. (We can’t ever have enough of those.) I don’t consider myself a belter, but this song just opens everything up for me.
Split the Check is the second newest tune, as Keenan showed up with this chart at the first of our two album rehearsals. I’m always lamenting that we are missing slow/mid-tempo instrumentals and he just basically wrapped this up in a bow for me. It’s a contrafact, one you’ll recognize.
Old Man Mose, I mean, who wants to sing ballads? Nods to Betty Hutton and all the ghost stories I heard growing up in Beaufort. And our friend Michael Steinman thinks that every CD should have a nod to Louis Armstrong.
Stardust is our version of the Benny Goodman recording with the perfect slow Lindy Hop tempo, just the right mix of tenderness and energy. This is one of two charts we asked Dan Barrett to arrange for us. When the chart came in, Lucian noted, “He wrote you a real glockenspiel part,” and I had some moderate panic about that. I practiced this a lot, and I hope Jess Stacy isn’t glaring at me from the other world.
Besame Mucho has been in our book a long time, a crowd favorite. It was Lucian’s idea to add this to our repertoire and he did a wonderful original arrangement, peppered with our love for Oscar Aleman and my high school morning soundtrack that included Kitty Kallen with Jimmy Dorsey on a swing music compilation CD. We didn’t record it on earlier albums primarily because I was not comfortable singing in Spanish. I took Spanish in high school and college, but I could probably only get you through a menu and to the bathroom, if needed. Once, at a holiday gig, one of the Latinx servers came up to me, asked if I was fluent, and was delighted because she had never heard swing music performed in Spanish. I was honest with her, of course, but it gave me a boost of confidence and here we are.
Out of Nowhere is an arrangement Keenan wrote, inspired by a Sidney Bechet recording. This is another one that’s been in our book for a long time and we’re glad to put it out into the universe.
Take Another Guess (like all the Benny/Ella recordings) has been on my list for a while and seemed like another great fit for Dan Barrett to arrange. I didn’t realize there was a verse, but what a nice surprise it is!
The Gal from Joe’s came about during the pandemic as an obvious feature for Aaron, also filling a tempo need in our book, and just being a sassy, badass tune that I love to DJ, be it Ellington or Barnet. I think we achieve a respectable level of sass.
My! My! is one of my pre-pandemic DJ obsessions; this song is just darling with the Pied Pipers on vocals, even though they are overshadowed by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra on the original recording.
Caribbean Clipper is the newest tune, with Lucian finishing it after rehearsals and everyone reading it on the spot. I DJ it for Balboa competitions, and love that we have another ocean-themed tune in the mix.
I’m Gonna Sit… is another pandemic tune, inspired by the Boswell Sisters recording, which I got fixated on during the pandemic. It’s so nice to have Bozzies tunes that don’t change tempo so I can DJ them.
Darius Quarles did a fantastic job with the cover art. I gave him photos of a specific camera and of me posing with one and he did the rest. I was going to be happy with whatever he came up with.
It’s our 10th anniversary this year, and I’m excited that we have this music ready to share after the past 3 years. You survived, we survived, and the music will always prevail. Dance with us!
Laura Windley, Head Birdie
Maybe you never wake up gloomy, and maybe you have kitchen cabinets full of music that makes you grin and dance, even if it’s in your computer chair. But you really need to hear WATCH THE BIRDIE. I guarantee it. Latch on here.
May your happiness increase!