Joe Smith and The Spicy Pickles are out of Denver and are known for their take on vintage jazz and swing. The last album I reviewed ‘High fidelity’ featured strong 40s and 50s swing big band references and origin takes on both their own and old compositions. Trumpet player Joe Smith leads the band – he studied at Drake University and the University of Iowa.
The Spicy Pickles have re-introduced swing and big band sounds to a new and enthusiastic audience yet they add modern twists and recording effects which make the music more accessible to the present day listeners. Here, on ‘Blues a Mile High’ (a reference the fact Joe also leads ‘The Mile High Club’, the emphasis is on blues and all the tracks are covers – both of familiar and less known compositions. Joe told me, “We had been wanting to do something a little different and wanted to appeal to the blues dance community, as well as the larger blues listening audience. Our repertoire is pretty expansive right now, we have about 140 songs in our book, and about 1/4 of that is just blues music, yet we never get to record that much of the blues. We didn’t record any original music on this album. Most of our original blues material has already been recorded. Instead we opted for tunes that we love to play, that dancers love, or really wonderful features for our musicians. We also wanted to change up the recording style a little bit. While we liked the sound of “High-Fidelity”, we wanted something that bridges the gap a little bit more between vintage recordings of the 30′s and 40′s, and today. So we recorded the album in a dance hall, using only a few ribbon mics, and doing full takes of songs, no cutting and splicing at all.”
The opening track, Whiteman/Scott’s ‘Suicide Cliff’ is so laid back it’s almost horizontal. Nice and smooth, easy on the ears and cool to the point of liquid nitrogen. The blues live large in this number, with muted trumpet swelling over the solid rhythm section. Ellington’s ‘Haunted Nights’ is given reverential treatment with strong references to the original arrangement but a Spicy Pickles’ take on the theme. There is an exotic ‘jungle’ sound with the drums banging out the solid rhythm throughout the piece and some beautiful string and clarinet in the middle section.
‘Pagin’ the Devil’ originally by Lester Young and the Kansas City Six is beautifully and faithfully created again, in a slightly faster time and with some devilish solos from sax, trumpet and guitar and thrown in. The interpretation sounds like the devil answered his page – and makes some pretty cool, bluesy sounds to boot. La Mothe’s (Jelly Roll Morton) ‘New Orleans Bump’ is a lovely arrangement with an introduction, which blends into the theme and introduces technically delicious solos from the clarinet. The band make this very early swing sound but introduce some modern takes and tweaks all their own with trumpet adding cheeky motifs over the top of the ever so solid rhythm section.
A great interpretation. Jay McNeely’s ‘ Deacon’s Hop’ is slowed down, smoothed out and cooled so the gorgeous theme rolls around and every note is clear. What it loses in momentum it makes up for in authenticity to the original scoring. The theme is played over continual clapping and gentle cymbals and the sax develops the theme into a wonderful, fluid sound, which, with the slowed down gentleness, is emphasised. The guitar picks up the improvisational middle section adding some original interpretations before the trumpet, muted and far away, sounding adds essence and emphasis before returning the theme to the sax. A lovely interpretation whilst never straying too far from the original. Buck Clayton’s ‘The Hucklebuck ‘ is superb and played in fine 1950s format, building, dipping and rising again. The guitar solo is sumptuous and introduces some intriguing rhythm changes. Glissando and sliding sax provide change and texture over the rhythm in the final section.
Ellington’s ‘ Happy Go Lucky Local’ is a great choice, not only because of the tune, which is a terrific number in itself but because of the treatment and respect the band give it. A slight loss of clarity half way through is more than made up by way the band take the tune, play just a little with it and produce an interesting, very listenable version. It lacks the tinkle, trickling piano intrinsic with the original versions and also the train track references of the older versions – the final part was used as the basis for Forrests’ ‘Night Train’ (later a hit for James Brown) and the screaming tenor of maybe Hamilton in Ellington’s orchestra but there is no attempt to repeat the original. Rather, The Spicy Pickles’ give this their own treatment, resulting in a gentler sound, which, whilst still true to the original music, is very much from The Pickles’ own stable.
Ellington’s music suits The Spicy Pickles down to the ground because it contains within it enough playfulness, pitched over solid and trademark sounds whilst leaving enough space for a good band to develop their own style throughout the progressions and The Pickles surely feel and understand this.
Johnston/Coslow’s ‘Sweet Lotus Blossom’ is absolutely gorgeous. A lesser known or heard song, it is sleazy, bluesy and seemingly lazy in its presentation yet played with close attention to detail and accuracy which, without it, would change the tone completely (given that the track was originally called ‘Marijuana’, the relaxed vibes here are perfect). The vocals are interesting and so, so smooth. The guitar and drum lay down the introduction, over which the trumpet slides in and develops the sublime theme. The bass solo is well timed and having it bowed rather than plucked offers a more slow-burn feel, all very foggy, laid back and just gorgeous. The trumpet picks up the theme again with the clarinet interacting with lovely scale ascensions in the breathing spaces. A highlight of the CD.
Ben Webster’s ‘Woke Up Clipped’ is an unfamiliar tune yet sounds like you heard it before as it is such an easy, bluesey and here well-delivered number with a trombone, tenor sax and then guitar solo, each taking the theme, which stays in your head. The trumpet and solid rhythm section along with a dextrous sax solo delivered by Elijah Samuels make this piece. ‘ Tin Roof Blues’ , originally performed by The New Orleans Rhythm Kings is introduced by trumpet and then clarinet before the tune develops and again, the treatment of this standard is clever, clear and reverential. Ellington’s ‘Creole Love Call’ is soft, gentle and caressing – a great track to finish the album.
This album is incredibly listenable. The choice of tracks means there is a similarity and constant thread which links the music, yet enough difference to be discernible and the band treat each one with character and individual flourishes. The only frustrating thing on first or second listen is the distant feel of the muted trumpet on many of the tracks, often sounding as if it were being played in a distant corridor but otherwise, there is little that will jar, annoy or perturb. The band respect and evidently enjoy this music and so does the listener.
Joe says he set out to appeal to the blues audience – this will, it will also appeal to a large number of people who enjoy vintage sounding jazz and blues as well as people who simply want to put on something which sounds darn good.
Joe Smith – Trumpet/Bandleader
Prescott Blackler – Trombone
Elijah Samuels – Tenor Sax and Clarinet
Al Scholl – Guitar
BK Kahn – Drums
Gary Sloan – Upright Bass
Artwork by Kate Hazen
Recorded September 22nd, 2016 in Denver, Colorado
Release date: October 20th, 2016
Available at JoeSmithandTheSpicyPickles.bandcamp.com as well as all major retailers
Joe Smith (720) 737-4680
Images courtesy of: www.JoeSmithandTheSpicyPickles.com