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Joe Smith & The Spicy Pickles: Gin & Moonlight

James Nadal By

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Long before jazz became a spectator event, it was dance music. The big bands that played swing made their reputations on being able to flood the floor with dancers. Joe Smith & The Spicy Pickles are on a mission to bring back those days, and Gin & Moonlight has them on the right track. Formed in Denver in 2013, and led by trumpeter Joe Smith, the band has been focusing on dance oriented swing since their 2015 release High Fidelity. Now expanded into an octet plus a vocalist, they hope to revive the music that got America swinging.

With the addition of Jessy Carolina as featured vocalist, the repertoire has broadened to include songs that jog the memory with familiar lyrics. The party starts with a remake of "St. Louis Blues," the horns heightened by Andrew Vogt on baritone sax, and James Isaac on tenor, with energetic backing by the others. In one of several original compositions, the instrumental "Where's Gary," is propelled by the tom tom action of drummer Braxton Kahn, heading into a Count Basie formulation. Carolina returns on the Irving Mills classic "Moonglow," her voice reminiscent of listening to vintage 78's.

The humorous "They Raided The Joint," though associated with Helen Humes, was actually written and first recorded by Hot Lips Page. They stick with the accustomed arrangement, Carolina's phrasing and conveyance making it a notable track. "Home Stretch," is another instrumental where pianist Jeff Barnhart, and guitarist Greg Ruby display the subtle sense of rhythmic playing that makes this style so intriguing. Smith is featured vocalist on his own blues "Pourin' My Heart Out," which spotlights guest guitarist Luke Smith, and trombonist Decker Babcock.

The exotic air on the intro of "Mirage," and its sliding into a cool walking blues, brings to mind the heyday of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Wild nights of the frenetic Lindy Hop are conjured up with the Claude Hopkins number "Anything For You," Carolina's vocal resting assuredly upon the driving momentum of the band. Smith again displays his compositional skills with "A Moonless Night," which has Andrew Vogt switching over to clarinet for that realistic Artie Shaw effect.

Digging deep into the Basie songbook, "Blue And Sentimental," is a return to yesteryear, when romance and dance were inseparable, and a special nod to those memorable Basie/Humes collaborations. Going way back to Conee Boswell, the endearing jazz standard, "Lullabye Of the Leaves," is performed with clear diction and confidence by guest vocalist Cara Griffith, who appears exclusively on this track. Emotional nostalgia oozes into the heart wrenching "I'll Be Seeing You," a favorite song during World War II, that has become an anthem for departed souls. Carolina sings this song with the respect and class it deserves, and ends the repertoire on a sad, but beautiful note.

Joe Smith & The Spicy Pickles are intent on bringing swing back to a new generation, and are doing a magnificent job of replicating not only the music, but the general atmosphere of the era as well. This is music that takes skill and dedication to perform correctly, as the high standard was set by the originators. The Spicy Pickles are recognized for their sensational live performances, and that essential energy carried over onto this record.

Track Listing: St. Louis Blues; Where’s Gary; Moonglow; They Raided The Joint; Home Stretch; Pourin’ My Heart Out; Mirage; Anything For You; A Moonless Night; Blues And Sentimental; Lullaby Of The Leaves; I’ll Be Seeing You.

Personnel: Joe Smith: trumpet, vocals, bandleader; Decker Babcock: trombone; Andrew Vogt: tenor, baritone sax, clarinet; James Isaac: tenor, baritone sax; Greg Ruby: guitar; Luke Smith: guitar (4, 6); Braxton Kahn: drums; Gary Sloan: upright bass; Jeff Barnhart: piano; Jessy Carolina: vocals; Cara Griffith: vocals (11).

Title: Gin & Moonlight | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Cuttin' Records

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