Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Blue Vipers of Brooklyn: Permanent Magic

 My son Tom was in town last week, visiting from his home in Brooklyn.

Tom's a professional jazz musician. He makes a living playing with various groups, including the Drunkard's Wife, Lapis Luna, his own Big Bang Big Band, his wife's Kelsey Jillette Quintet, The Dreamland Orchestra (featured twice recently in the New Yorker) and The Blue Vipers -- check them all out in the internet.

Tom brought me the latest CD by The Blue Vipers of Brooklyn, a New Orleans-flavored group he has played with for several years -- in fact, when he drove from Utah to NYC a decade ago he made his rent money by busking in the subway, where he met Billy Nemec. Their recording, rough and early, called the "Henry Jones Swing Trio," is still one of my favorites.

After winning a street-musicians competition, what were now The Blue Vipers of Brooklyn used the prize to record a fine CD called "Forty Days and Forty Nights," the name from a Billy Nemec tune. Check it out at their website.

And now they've released (well, they'll release it in the next weeks -- the NY snowstorm kept the original release party from happening) Permanent Magic, a new album that carries on the band's eclectic and sometimes uneven but always gritty and creative and jazzy and lowdown tradition.

The album begins with a clarinet trill that announces a slow, easy, and haunting rendition of J. Myrow's Blue Drag. Nemec's New Orleans' flat, slack, and still forceful singing sets the tune off from other versions, including this one from the New Orleans Jazz Vipers [click here], which is a fine rendition, and this wonderful version by the Wiyos [click here], and the early version by the immortal Django [click here]. But the Brooklyn Vipers, for me at least, create a version of the tune beyond the others. It's partly because of Nemec's voice -- which I find off-putting and extremely attractive -- and partly because of the way the group works the tune, with voice and then a trademark double, entwined solo featuring Tom's lyrical clarinet and Sam Hoyt's intelligent and fanciful trumpet. Again and again on this and the earlier album, those two voices create a single/double voice I haven't heard anywhere else. The word "entwined" is an attempt to think the simultaneous solos that embrace each other sinuously, respectfully, delightfully. And then Nemec sings the slow drag, the blue drag, and I'm depressed in ways only the blues can accomplish, depressed and delighted at the same time.

Tom's composition, Viperation, is the ninth cut on the CD, a fast moving, intricate instrumental piece that makes good use of Tom's clarinet, Sam Hoyt's trumpet, David Langlois' washboard percussion, Chris Pistornino's bass, and Matt Musselman's guest trombone. In a clarinet solo, Tom effortlessly reaches notes higher than any I've heard on a clarinet, the highest of which he claims is still a note short of Benny Goodman's "B" on a recording of "Sing, Sing, Sing."

There are additional delights here, eclectic (as I've already noted) enough to reach from Willie Nelson's "Nightlife" to a crisp version of Hank Williams' "Hey Good Lookin'" (Tom's invocation of Boots Randolph here is enough to make me laugh out loud).

When the Vipers release the album, buy it.

You'll love it. And that's not just a proud papa speaking.

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