Relentless is the appetite among the youthful champions of faithful, authentic swing music today as evidenced by the daring Jan Marie & the Mean Reds fighting out of the northeast corner, including regular bouts around Boston, Massachusetts. It’s important to me that these projects are conducted with sincerity and a genuine affection and caring for the music and its roots. Jan Marie is fighting the good fight.
The Mean Reds were new to me until this summer, and it was with some irrational caution that I recently gave a listen to ‘Released’, their late 2014 all-vocal album.
What a delight. As an overview, the band have taken one original composition and some old (and some very old) tunes and given them a polished revival. I never thought, as a listener or a swing dancer, I’d care to hear an organ on my swing selections. If Fats Waller couldn’t sway me, who could?
Step forward, Rusty Scott. The early spiritual repertoire certainly lends itself favourably to an organist’s touch, but it still needs the right touch. On this, I bow to these fine musicians working primarily in our northeastern corner. Phil McGowan on drums, along with Justin Meyer on bass, keeps the beat on the tracks but never comes through as monotonous or as a guest over-staying his welcome, but more an amiable visitor keeping the party alive with conversational agility. Scott Aruda’s accomplished trumpet work is a real revelation and demands repeated listening as he lights up this release regularly with clean, sensitive, brilliant inventiveness and execution. Jan Marie shows impressively dexterous vocal phrasing, married with a rich, soulful delivery easily porting us to yesteryear on a wave of real, spiritual joy.
The band beat out a bona fide New Orleans sound on ‘Polly Wolly Doodle’, a tune from the 19th century serving as the album opener. Scott Aruda gives a gentle opening through which Jan Marie’s voice booms ‘HELLO!’. Not literally, of course, but as an introduction to her voice, this opening refrain reveals all we could hope for : swinging, soulful phrasing. She’s never over-reaching, always in empathy with the long, distant roots of her material. If you want more, you get more. ‘Swing Low’, ‘Wade In The Water’, ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘Everybody Loves My Baby’ are all given fresh life by the Jan Marie treatment. If pushed off the fence, the latter might be the pick of the bunch. Perhaps because of excessive familiarity with many recordings of the tune, it comes as an even greater surprise when we hear a version so deliciously and originally crafted that we enjoy its journey with wide-eyed wonder. This is a roller coaster ride, not a pleasure cruise up a lazy river. Aruda’s opening lead lays up close to the melody before improvising tenderly to Jan Marie’s vocal. The tempo is gentler than many modern versions, and Aruda makes the most of the room for his second solo through the register from low to a searing high before Jan Marie returns to call in the out-chorus.
Aruda’s fanfare calls ‘St James Infirmary’ in at a lively gait, thankfully retaining its original spirit, and he’s also heard to impressive effect on ‘Down By The Riverside’ and ‘Amazing Grace’, first popularized on record by the peerless Mahalia Jackson and given a most respectful outing here, played at a tempo and with a feeling its origins and subsequent 20th century interpretations command.
On the blues standard ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business’, Rusty Scott is given room here to show his range on piano both as a soloist and with ensemble playing ticking all the good boxes : relaxed, propulsive, rhythmic. Scott is prominent again on ‘I Been Workin On The Railroad’, dangling us a tempting carrot of what we may hear on future projects where he might be more heavily featured, either recorded or live. Scott takes an extended solo here and is clearly enjoying the room – so will you.
Jan Marie cut loose in 2013 when she decided to write her first swinging number, and this is the finished product : ‘Mama Goose Cut Loose’ is guided unerringly by Justin Meyer’s bass line, around which Scott’s playful organ work and McGowan’s relentless driving drums convey the leader’s loosy goosey vocal homeward. Based on this debut effort, there’s every reason to hope we see a follow-up album of all originals.
It’s one thing to hear an album when one already knows the artist and so has a pre-set level of expectation, it’s another to plunge in blind and unknowing. The reward here, therefore, is heightened; the surprising delight magnified. It feels like a discovery of treasure, which, let’s face it, it is.
The album plays for nearly 40 minutes, and swing dancers will note the lengthiest tune is under five minutes. The music represents the pre-recording era, including the late 19th century, yes. Jan Marie and the Mean Reds’ ‘Released’ is available to buy at http://ojanmarie.bandcamp.com/album/released