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The Mad Jazz Hatters at Barbes in Brooklyn

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The Mad Jazz Hatters
Barbes
Brooklyn, New York
January 31, 2008

Barbe's, at 376 Ninth Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn, deserves to be more widely known. It is in this venue that the careers of Hazmat Modine and Slavic Soul Party (just to name a couple) have been launched. These bands have since gone on to bigger things (though Slavic Soul Party still performs there on occasion.) Indeed, the reason that the bands move on is entirely practical. There is no stage at Barbes. The band plays in a tiny back room that is separated from the main bar by a hastily-constructed wall. The music is pumped out into the main bar from inside this tiny room, but a place that has such wonderful acts really could do better by its guests.

On Thursday, January 31st, I was introduced to a new band at the club. I had gone for a couple of drinks with a friend and was surprised by what the music's program offered for me. First on stage that evening were River Alexander's Mad Jazz Hatters. Their style places them squarely within a sort of Americana revival that is currently underway in Brooklyn and on the Lower East Side. This band would not be uncomfortable playing alongside Jim Campolongo at the Living Room, or the Jug Addicts at Rodeo Bar. They mix jug band music with klezmer and swing but favor, above all else, radio-friendly and sing-songy renditions of classic pop standards.

When they played "All of Me" and "Sweet Lorraine," they sounded like the music that used to come out of those old wooden radios with the big dial—you know, the kind your grandparents listened to: from The Shadow to Dick Tracey. On this particular Thursday night, River Alexander, the guitarist and decided leader of the band, was joined by Jonathan Royce, a snare drummer who played with brushes, Ralph Hamperian, an upright bassist, and Jeff Hudgins, a saxophonist of particular note. Perhaps the saxophonist could never quite get the slide-whistle working right, but his warbling on alto affected the kind of old- fashioned crooning necessary to really get the most out of such old (and I mean old) warhorses as "The Sidewalks of New York." Really, Hudgins had mastered the sliding between notes and heavy vibrato necessary to render accurately these, admittedly, maudlin and sentimental songs.

Other instruments employed that night were the kazoo, jew's harp, and I think at some point I might have heard a penny- whistle. The band kept things cooking at mid-tempo for most of the evening, though they did heat things up for one furious reading of an old klezmer standard led by Alexander on chromatic harmonica. Overall, the band may have been more "kooky" than "mad" jazz hatters—but they are nonetheless highly recommended.

The night held one final surprise. After the Mad Jazz Hatters had completed their second set, the next band started setting up. It was John Tchicai, probably most famous for his alto playing on John Coltrane's Ascension, getting ready to perform with his band. Again, though it has its problems, the venue at Barbes and the bands it supports are sure to reward an evening's visit by fans of eccentric and extraordinary music.

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