An appreciation and notes
By Philip Elwood, San Francisco Examiner
The New Deal Rhythm Band, in various configurations, has been performing its way through the San Francisco area for many years. The nine-piece ensemble represented on this, the New Deal’s third, LP played for a number of weeks high atop the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.
In its early days, the NDRB was a considerably less distinctive band than the 1982 version. Typical of such “revivalist” groups, it gained its modest fame by re-creating sounds of the past; sounds taken, for the most part, from vintage 78 rpm recordings. What makes the current NDRB a quite different, and unique, group is their tendency to play original materials scored along older, traditional lines, but not in any way copied from shellac discs.
This is not as easy a task as some might think. It is one thing to take an older pop tune or a memorable recording, and use that as the basis of an arrangement; it is quite another to create one’s own library of selections which may sound like the New Deal era of the 1930s but are actually designed to spotlight the various (an many) attributes of the NDRB.
In fact, this recent direction by the New Dealers has economic hazards, too, since the accurate recreating of old numbers will always bring out a certain kind of audience (or one of a certain age) but the playing of mostly original stuff assumes that the band, itself, can draw a crowd made up of many generations who want to hear their distinctive renditions.
The New Deal Rhythm Band functioned as a musical anachronism for a number of years – young, bright musicians playing shimmering old arrangements for audiences whose pop music memories extended from the late 1920s up to the World War II era. But talented and ambitious musicians get restless and, indeed, frustrated when their own creativity is squelched by leaden arrangements and few opportunities to solo, or at least solo in free fashion.
And so, we have this third NDRB LP – of the eleven selections many are originals, all are arranged by NDRB members, some are obscure swing-era jump tunes and only one (“There’s a Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon”) could be called a “standard,” and it is hardly among the Gershwin’s’ most famous numbers.
The New Deal Rhythm Band sports three saxes – one of them is Jerry A. Ranger, the group’s leader and principal arranger-composer. The brass “section” contains but one trombonist and one trumpet-flugelhornist. This sort of complement, of course, requires expert musicians, and those with strong chops and good wind. You’ll note, time and again, on the LP the finesse of the brasses and the careful attention in the orchestrations to the balance between reed and brass lines.
“Hot Tonight,” written by Ranger and vocalist Linda Asher, leads off the LP and is an excellent showpiece which demonstrates the band’s current direction. Drummer Mark Clark kicks the beat, pianist Kevin Chalk romps through the boogie-based theme, Asher has a ball with the “Beat Me Daddy” –styled lyrics, and saxist Steve Yamasaki reminds us that even the unwieldy baritone can swing mightily.
On “He’s My Lover,” Asher gets a fuller backup vocal support and both trumpeter Jim Kerl and trombonist Chris Cannard squeeze solos into the tight, swinging, complex arrangement.
“Uncle in Harlem” begins like a Cab Calloway number ca. 1933, but expands into a marvelously entertaining vocal and instrumental arrangement. This is the NDRB at its best and is quite a tribute to Ranger, who did the whole score, sings the vocal and takes the soprano sax solo.
Shuffle-rhythm is what we used to call the up-beat tempo of “Chicken Feathers,” Louis Jordan used it a lot with his “Tympani Five” and later on Jerry Lee Lewis converted into a rockabilly form. The NDRB doesn’t stick with it too long, however, and alters the tune’s middle section into a stop-time backup for Cannard’s trombone and Yamasaki’s baritone. There’s a bit of a Woody Herman sound to Ranger’s arrangement of this instrumental.
Asher, down in her mellowest contralto range, opens up the lavish treatment of “There’s a Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon.” The tenor sax that explodes regularly through this one is played by Dave Cowdin. This is a particularly effective treatment of a very difficult tune.
Side II begins with the disc’s second, and last, strictly instrumental rendition. It’s hard to realize how small the NDRB is, compared to the four trumpets, four trombones, four sax monoliths that once represented the “big band” era. “Ranger Rides Again,” which must be some sort of inside band joke, features not Ranger but Yamasaki – who plays the alto solo and composed and arranged the piece.
Arranger Kevin Chalk handles the Tex Beneke-style vocal on “Teardrops from My Eyes,” with Asher joining in on both some solo vocals and in the backup ensemble. This has a country tinge to it, but it’s a blended sound with a fine instrumental arrangement. This band’s writing is something else.
“The Bottom Line is Love” is a splendid original by Ranger and Asher, written and performed in classic 1939 style. Muted trumpeter Kerl solos over a nice bass line (by Tom Anastasio) while trombone and baritone sax noodle in the background. Had it been written 40 years ago, this could have become a Hit Parade contender – good number.
The 1950 tune, “Bloodshot Eyes” had the distinction of being both a country music hit (recorded by its composer, Hank Penny) and a rhythm-and-blues hit, recorded on King by Wynonie Harris. Here, singing above his own arrangement, Ranger has backup vocal help and a socking baritone sax solo by Yamasaki.
The funkiest blues on this LP isn’t out of the traditional blues background at all – it’s James Taylor’s “Steamroller,” and the NDRB, assisted powerfully by Norton Buffalo’s harmonica, does it up to a fare-thee-well, with Ranger’s arrangement sounding a bit like Blood, Sweat & Tears might have done it.
And, what better way to end a show, I mean a record, than with a boogie jump-blues? Trumpeter Kerl joins Asher on the vocals, bassist Anastasio pumps along unmercifully, there are four backup singers and Cannard’s trombone bounces in and out of the lead for most of the rendition. The brass “section” makes like a Stan Kenton ending, and the show ends.
The New Deal Rhythm Band is, in fact, fully as visual as they are audio – if their success is considerable (as I have thought for some time) perhaps they’ll be putting out videodiscs. They have all the big-band tricks down pat and even feature some fancy steppin’ by Kerl, Asher and others.
For now, however, you’ll have to just listen.