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Extended Analysis

Kit McClure Band: The Sweethearts Project

By Published: August 12, 2004
The Kit McClure Band
The Sweethearts Project
Redhot Records

The subtitle of this new album by the New York-based Kit McClure Band is "A Tribute to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm." For those of you who weren't around in the '40s, that may require a few words of explanation. At a time when women in jazz were confined largely to singing, playing piano or simply looking good on the arm of a well-heeled leader or sideman, the Sweethearts of Rhythm came roaring out of little Piney Woods, Mississippi (where they'd been weaving dreams at the town's Life School for poor children of color) and soon earned a place among the most popular big bands of the World War II era.

The Sweethearts were years ahead of their time in almost every respect—including talent. Not only was the band all-female, it was, for much of its existence, all-black as well. The odds against that happening in the '40s were mind-blowing, but the Sweethearts of Rhythm rolled the dice and won, holding their ground against the flood of well-known all-male ensembles led by Ellington, Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Lionel Hampton, Fletcher Henderson, Andy Kirk, Jimmy Mundy, Benny Carter, Erskine Hawkins, Lucky Millinder, Claude Hopkins, Earl "Fatha" Hines and their mostly white counterparts—Glenn Miller, Harry James, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet, Artie Shaw, the Dorsey brothers and so on.

When the big band era ran out of steam, so did the Sweethearts, fading slowly into the mists of time, their remarkable saga seemingly lost forever until rediscovered some years ago by feminist scholars who were bowled over by their achievements and eager to share their remarkable story with a new generation of music lovers. Among those who heard about and drew inspiration from the Sweethearts of Rhythm was Kit McClure, who decided to honor her trail-blazing predecessors by using her big band to recreate some of their music. Thus was born the Sweethearts Project, Part 1 of which is presented on this album with a second part, consisting largely of music the Sweethearts presumably would be playing if they were together today, to follow.

To ensure authenticity, original charts were carefully transcribed from recordings and in some cases updated by McClure, alto saxophonist Lisa Parrott, trombonists Deborah Weisz and Britta Langsjoen, pianist Cathy Harley and other members of McClure's band. McClure then found Carline Ray, who had sung and played guitar with the Sweethearts in the late '40s, and asked her to take part in the enterprise. Ray agreed, and is heard on two songs by Maurice King, "Jump Children" and "I Never Get Tired." King wrote five more numbers, which, like the others represented here, were performed at various times by the Sweethearts. Among the album's better-known compositions are Basie's "One O'Clock Jump," Fats Waller/Andy Razaf's "Honeysuckle Rose" and Ervin Drake/Juan Tizol's "Perdido."

Having heard the Sweethearts of Rhythm on a three-disc set, The Jubilee Sessions (Hindsight 504), I'd say McClure's band conveys admirably the radiance and enthusiasm of that phenomenal group of pioneers. The ensemble is sharp and swinging, the soloists bright and earnest. Besides McClure — sitting in for the Sweethearts' leading lady, tenor saxophonist Vi Burnside — they include Harley, Parrott, Langsjoen, trumpeters Tanya Darby and Laurie Frink, alto Tia Fuller and drummer Bernice Brooks (impressive on a rapid-fire version of "Honeysuckle Rose," as is lead trumpeter Liesl Whitaker throughout). Thumbs up for concept and performance, thumbs down for the meager 34:27 playing time. If that doesn't bother you, insert the disc, crank up the volume and enjoy a syncopated blast from the past.

Tracks: Vi Vigor; Jump Children; Just the Thing; Diggin' Dirt; Don't Get It Twisted; She's Crazy with the Heat; Slightly Frantic; I Never Get Tired; One O'Clock Jump; Honeysuckle Rose; Perdido (34:27).

Personnel: Kit McClure, leader, alto, tenor sax; Liesl Whitaker, Tanya Darby, Barbara Laronga, Laurie Frink, trumpet; Erica Von Kliest, Lisa Parrott, Tia Fuller, alto sax; Kristy Norter, tenor sax; Claire Daly, baritone sax; Jennifer Krupa, Britta Langsjoen, trombone; Cathy Harley, piano; Nikki Parrott, Kim A. Clarke, bass; LaFrae Olivia Sci, Bernice Brooks, drums; Sue Hadjopoulos, percussion. Special guest — Carline Ray (2, 8), vocals.

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