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The Hot Sardines at Wildwood Park for the Arts

C. Michael Bailey By

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One of the best jazz bands in New York today. —Forbes Magazine
The Hot Sardines
Wildwood Park for the Arts
Little Rock, Arkansas
November 15, 2013

Is there a triple point where novelty, entertainment, and art meet? That was the question while watching New York City's period jazz band, the Hot Sardines, stroll through the '20s, '30s, and '40s like they knew Louis and Lil Hardin Armstrong personally. "One of the best jazz bands in New York..." Really? That statement needs qualification, and perhaps I am being too fussy and this fussiness clouds my daydream. The venue had much to do with my reverie. The Wildwood Park for the Arts is a superior performance space tucked out in the woods of what passes for "West Little Rock" ("West" being a relative term as "West Little Rock" has moved 15 miles since I was born in what is now "Midtown."

Some newfound friends sitting behind me were right, a club atmosphere with small tables surrounding the stage would have been more appropriate for the style of music we were treated to (and this would be true for most any flavor of jazz save for the Modern Jazz Quartet). But we were comfortable in the exceptional and intimate confines of a stage built as much for a choral performance as for the many operas I had seen performed there

The Hot Sardines are a bright and intelligent octet, capably led by vocalist/composer "Miz Elizabeth" Bourgerol, Parisian originally, late of Manhattan, and pianist and bandleader Evan "Bibs" Palazzo, whose Arkansas ties include parents who live in Little Rock and were in attendance. Bourgerol and Palazzo met at a jam session advertised on Craig's List and, in a room over a noodle shop on Manhattan's 49th Street, discovered their shared affinity for the dawn of jazz.

The band blurb states that the repertoire is made up of ..."songs no one really plays anymore...or if they play them, 'they handle with kid gloves, like pieces in a museum... This music isn't historical artifact. It is living, breathing, always-evolving music." That is a direct response to the past thirty years of Wynton Marsalis' enshrinement of the musics of Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, as well as Thelonious Monk, whose music falls beyond the present purview.

While Marsalis' attention has been both expert and educational, he has tended to "hug" the music too tightly, not allowing it to "breathe," as alluded to by Bourgerol and Palazzo. One approach is not any better than the other, and only advance in the same direction. So, strip away the novelty affectations and what one has is the honest depiction of jazz at its beginning, rendered with a vibrant clarity and charm that never, never bleeds into sentimentality or nostalgia. And, that is some trick.

The band blows through "Ain't Nobody's Business" (Porter Grainger, 1922), "Comes Love" (Sam H. Stept, with lyrics by Lew Brown and Charles Tobias, 1939), and "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" (Lil Hardin Armstrong and Louis Armstrong, 1927), expelling gin fumes and reefer like Leon Bismark Biederbeck got a snootful and decided to blow. The horn section is made up of the necessary trombone, trumpet and saxophone/clarinet. They play properly muted when necessary, as does Bourgerol, singing through the trombonist tenor mute on Shelton Brooks' 1910 composition, "Some of These Days," and mimicking what my grandparents would have heard through their American-Bosch console tube model.

Why is the Hot Sardines' music not simply novelty music played for an audience who would not know bebop from hard bop? Is cross-over phenom Robert Glasper correct in his contemporary criticism of jazz and his efforts to "stop jazz's slide into irrelevancy," odd as that is since his efforts are to re-warm 20 years of hip-hop/jazz intermingling. What the Hot Sardines bring to the table is sincerity and superior musicianship. Six-foot Bourgerol is a total musical package, visually and intellectually, and Palazzo commands a style of piano lost 80 years ago. They are serious about their music and aware that one must sell it to be successful... Rave on, Hot Sardines.

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