The neo-swing movement came and went in a dizzying swirl of Brylcreem, zoot suits, and wildly jitterbugging dancers who defected to the next hip craze all too soon. The Rhythm Rockets were formed during that era; they played their first gig at the close of 1996. Yet unlike the lion’s share of their now defunct peers, they continue to thrive on the competitive Chicago circuit, sounding better and swinging harder than ever.
Maybe that’s because their leader, guitarist Dave Downer, viewed his combo as more than a fad from the very beginning and took steps to position it for the long haul. Dave genuinely loves postwar jump blues, and it shows in the Rhythm Rockets’ crisp musical attack, from their immaculate arrangements to their classy onstage presentation. Nicole Kestler is an exceptional singer who handles steamy torch numbers and happy houserockers with equal aplomb.
Plenty of energetic dancing ensues at a typical Rhythm Rockets gig, but many fans come out on a regular basis to dig Chicago’s top jump blues outfit strictly from the comfort of their seats. That’s especially true at Katerina’s, the classy nightclub on Chicago’s North Side where the band has held down a regular gig on the first Saturday of every month for three glorious years. People dress up and dine and drink and have a great time at those shows, whether they bring their dancing shoes or not.
“A lot of folks think of rhythm and blues or blues music as gutbucket, when in fact there are a lot of cool, smooth sounds like Dinah Washington and Ella Johnson that they probably would never be exposed to,” says Dave. “I’m kind of keeping the music as pure as possible, and not watering it down.” To that end, Downer enlists arranger Jon Novi to ensure the Rhythm Rockets’ interpretations of vintage material stay true to the originals. “I like the songs the way they were recorded in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s,” he says. “I wanted to have my charts reflect that.”
Yet this band doesn’t sound like it belongs in a museum. They’re fresh and vibrant throughout The Joint Is Jumpin’, the Rhythm Rockets’ fifth CD release. It’s an up-tempo romp from beginning to end, the aggregation roaring through a cross-section of the hottest numbers in its vast repertoire. There’s also a second disc already set for imminent release entitled After Hours that’ll concentrate exclusively on the late night side of the aggregation’s songbook. Both albums will be marketed under the connecting handle of She Swings Blue (“she,” of course, being Nicole). Like the rest of the Rhythm Rockets, Dave’s excited about their emergence.
“I believe that this is the best recording we’ve done since we started,” he says. “I also believe this is the best the band has ever sounded, with the personnel. And I hope that the songs reflect the personality of our band, rather than being a novelty act.”
A sizable number of talented musicians have rolled through the Rhythm Rockets ranks since that debut New Year’s Eve gig 17 years ago at Frankie’s Blue Room in northwest suburban Naperville. “There were no charts, just a bunch of scribbles,” remembers Dave of that first evening. “We did the best we could. We didn’t know nothing!” That would soon change. “Once I tried out a guy in the band who had things charted out, and it sounded like the record. I said, ‘Oh, this is great!’ And then that’s when I started realizing that there needed to be charts if there’s going to be more than one horn.
“When I put the band together, I didn’t realize that everybody was swing dancing,” insists Dave. “I didn’t even give it much thought. I just liked the music. I love shuffle blues, and to me that was the ultimate, with the saxophones, the upright bass.
“In reality, what we were doing was just the old rhythm and blues.”
Although his initial influences on guitar included seminal Elvis fretsman Scotty Moore, Downer now incorporates the deliciously phrased licks of jump blues pioneers T-Bone Walker, Pee Wee Crayton, and Tiny Grimes into his arsenal. He’s an expert sideman, backing Nicole’s alluring vocals with understated style until it’s time to let rip with a slashing solo.
Kestler’s entrance represented a major turning point for the Rockets. “I would say since Nicole started with the band 13 years ago is when I started really getting serious about what we do,” says Dave. The current first-call Rockets consist of tenor saxists Mike “Bucko” Bielecki (his animated stage persona is as entertaining as his wide-toned wails) and Sam Burckhardt (who developed his authoritative sound over many years as blues piano patriarch Sunnyland Slim’s loyal sideman), baritone saxman Justin Keirans, acoustic bassist Lou Marini, and veteran drummer Mark Fornek, whose lengthy resume lists stints with blues guitar royalty Jimmy Rogers, Floyd McDaniel, and Dave Specter.
Other talented players contributed to the album as well, notably pianists Tony Kidonakis and Brian O’Hern. “We recorded this in four sessions, over the course of two years,” notes Dave. “The first two sessions, we had a different horn section.” Marini came in after those first two dates as well. The end result, no matter the precise configuration of players on any given track, is an album that captures the Rhythm Rockets at their swingingest.
The set kicks off with the jumping “In The Mood For You,” introduced by sultry Annie Laurie in 1954. Nicole delivers the number with charming ease, the Rockets kicking like a locomotive and Downer’s solo channeling guitar wizard Mickey Baker, who cut loose on Annie’s rendition. A relaxed “Evil Gal Blues,” originated by the one and only Dinah Washington at the close of ‘43 with Lionel Hampton’s small unit behind her, showcases the Rockets’ formidable horn section prior to Kestler’s entrance. She proceeds to strut through the tune’s sassy storyline with delightful impudence.
“‘Til My Baby Comes Back,” the original province of pianist/orchestra leader Buddy and his singing sister Ella Johnson, casts Nicole in a far more virtuous role lyrically than “Evil Gal,” the horns punching hard and Tony’s rippling 88s providing attractive decoration. The formidable Big Maybelle waxed “I’ve Got A Feelin’” in 1954; it provides a zesty change-of-pace as Lou’s unusual bowed bass leads into an effervescent Latin tempo that was right in tune with the mambo craze sweeping the East Coast when Maybelle first wrapped her vocal cords around the theme.
“Baby, Baby Every Night” was a ‘57 vehicle for a teenaged Etta James that Nicole does absolutely right, the rest of the Rockets pitching in on the responsorial band vocal and Bucko wailing on his sax. The blistering “Rock Me All Night Long” was the Ravens’ last national hit in 1952; no one’s about to mistake Kestler’s captivating pipes on this blazing revival for those of Ravens bass singer Jimmy Ricks (pop chanteuse Ella Mae Morse cut a nice version during the same era; the Treniers wowed many a packed house with it). Once again, Bielecki’s horn is also to the fore.
O’Hern’s two-fisted ivories and the muscular horn section blast through the first 12 bars of the self-explanatory “Jumpin’ The Blues” before Nicole enters to deliver its happy-go-lucky storyline. This Rhythm Rockets original fits seamlessly with the otherwise vintage set list, Downer and Burckhardt stepping up to solo in sterling fashion midway through.
Dinah Washington teamed with then-labelmate Brook Benton to flirt shamelessly with one another on the 1960 R&B chart-topping duet “A Rockin’ Good Way (To Mess Around And Fall In Love).” For this welcome remake, Nicole trades lovey-dovey lines with drummer Fornek, making room for Justin’s baritone sax and Dave’s axe midway through. Little Esther brought us “T’aint Whatcha Say, It’s Whatcha Do” in 1956; Downer’s slicing Mickey Baker-style fretwork opens the swinger, Nicole sailing over the highly infectious backing (Justin and Dave again prove a formidable solo tandem at the halfway point). Dinah’s massive catalog was also the source for “I Just Couldn’t Stand It No More,” another horn-leavened swinger perfectly suited to Kestler’s appealing vocal delivery.
“Ain’t Nobody’s Business But My Own” isn’t Billie Holiday’s blues cornerstone (or Jimmy Witherspoon’s blockbuster either), but a playful duet served up in 1950 by the extremely groovy coupling of Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald (Tennessee Ernie Ford and Kay Starr handled it simultaneously for the pop demographic). Nice company for Nicole and Mark to travel in all these years later, and the duo does it in style.
Nicole invites us to take a ride on “The Cannonball Express,” a 1951 Peggy Lee gem that drives along like crazy with band members chanting the title line and Sam leaping into the fray halfway through. A teenaged Etta James brought us “Good Rockin’ Daddy” in 1955 and the ditty still holds up beautifully today, its distinctive horn lines as indelible as Kestler’s effervescent reading here. She’s dynamite on Ruth Brown’s ’53 R&B chart-topper “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” as well, counted off at a torrid tempo with Justin blowing up a storm on his big baritone horn and Tony pounding the ivories with similar authority.
Remember, this is but the first of two volumes of She Swings Blue. Get ready for more good times on CD from the Rhythm Rockets, and check ‘em out the next time they’re playing nearby!
--Bill Dahl, Journalist/Music Historian