EARLIER THIS YEAR, A La Carte Brass & Percussion decided that its two previous CDs didn't do it justice. Something intangible was missing from them and they wanted to make a record that caught the spirit of the band live.
Live. That's when A La Carte shakes and sweats; when the blasts from the trumpets, trombones and saxophones bounce off club walls in a huge sonic gumbo the likes of which you just can't get out of your home stereo;when four percussionists make sure your body is grooving along more or less uncontrollably. This local band that sometimes has as many as 11 people on stage at once puts on one of the best live shows around, and that's what they wanted to let the world know when they decided to record a live CD.
"A La Carte had started playing once a month at State of the Union around November 1997," says saxophonist Gary Johnson who helped form the band nearly 10 years ago. "We'd been playing festivals and special events, but we'd always wanted this to be a kind of `downtown' band, if you know what I mean, and we always wanted to have one club where the music fit the room and the vibe was good. State of the Union became that club. We knew that's where we should record the next record."
In February, audio whizes Doug Derryberry and Jeff Juliano brought in their gear, set up a separate sound board in State of the Union's back room and captured A La Carte Brass & Percussion in its full glory one magical Thursday night. The results can be heard on the band's spankin' new CD "Live on U," released by one of Washington's coolest little labels, Union Records.
"Now we've got a record I can point to and say, `That's really us. This is what we sound like,' " says the band's co-founder and tuba player Pete Ostle. "The whole thing has been a dream come true. We're really happy with it." Ostle is eager to get the CD out into the world, but has the relaxed air of someone who's not trying to be the next big thing. "I'm convinced we're really in it for the long haul," he says. "I'm very much into the idea of creating a body of work to be proud of rather than just trying to get something on the radio."
Even if A La Carte doesn't find its way into the top 40, it should find its way onto your CD shelves. Such workouts as "I Love Lucy" and "Caravan" demonstrate A La Carte's masterly combination of the traditional brass band format with salsa, be-bop and hip-hop.
"I was definitely inspired by New Orleans brass bands," Ostle says. "We more or less patterned ourselves after the Dirty Dozen at first, but I didn't want to be a fake New Orleans band. We're not from New Orleans, and I had a vision of being something more than that." That vision included a distinctly Latin bent, and the first two CDs clearly reflect that. The vision also included more arranged jazz. "In our arrangements, we like to use the kinds of voicings Gil Evans brought to Miles Davis's records," Johnson says. "We'll do Ellington in that kind of arrangement, Yusef Lateef, all kinds of composers."
Like the music A La Carte makes, the band itself is an eclectic mix of races and ethnicities. "I feel that both black and white players rob themselves when they don't make an effort to play with musicians of other races," Ostle says. "What you get out of that is more than a PC statement; you get the benefit of the experience of their lives as they express it through music, lives that you have no direct knowledge of. It enriches you in so many ways."
Look for A La Carte Brass & Percussion Friday night on stage at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre in Rock Creek Park, as part of The Washington Post Weekend section's free summer concert series, "Weekend's Weekends." The band will be joined by two guest vocalists -- hip-hop freestyler Priest da Nomad and the sweetly jazzy Patrick de Santos -- in addition to its usual lineup: Cliff Brokington (trumpet), Brad Clements (trumpet), Vaughn Nark (high note trumpet), Lou Durham (organ), Myles Overton (bass and snare drums), Tim Huesgen (bass and snare drums), Rob White (congas) and Mark Marella (tymbales). Peter Fraize will be sitting in for Rick Parrell on baritone sax and Matt Neisse will be taking over trombone duties for Greg Boyer.
* To hear a free Sound Bite from "Live on U," call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8130. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
JAZZ & SWING NIGHT
Make sure to get to Carter Barron Amphitheatre early enough Friday night to catch the entire bill (start time is 7:30), because you don't want to miss opening act Shahin & Sepehr (featured in Nightwatch on Oct. 16, 1998) or the the J Street Jumpers, one of the snappiest of Washington's swing bands. "I guess we can thank the swing revival for our popularity," says co-founder and saxophonist Charlie Hubel, with some ambivalence in his voice. "It's nice that it's catching on, though I've got to say we were doing it long before the Gap ads, and we'll be doing it long after the fad passes. We just love the music."
In its seven-year existence, the J Street Jumpers have certainly played their fair share of swing tunes, but they're equally passionate about early R&B and jump blues. "I call that music `1940s rock 'n' roll,' " Hubel says. "It's the music we all love." He began the band after working several years in the Uptown Rhythm Kings, and deciding that he wanted tighter, lusher horn arrangements. He took on the tenor and baritone sax duties and recruited Don Lerman, who plays clarinet, as well as alto and baritone saxes. Then came trumpeter Vince McCool, trombonist Steve Shaw, pianist Arthur Gerstein, drummer Jeff Lodsun and bassist Adam Friedman.
Singer Marianna Previti and guitarist Rusty Bogart joined about five years ago, completing the lineup. "I turn into a complete ham when I'm singing in front of this band," admits Previti, who can also be heard in area clubs fronting a small jazz combo under her name. "It was such a challenge initially to sing with such a big group, but I loved their material so much, I was eager to try."
She has become one of the area's finest "big band" singers, and uses the context of the Jumpers to try out some lesser-known material, digging deep into the repertoire of singers like Ella Johnson for such gems as "Ain't But One" and "Til My Baby Comes Back to Me." "Johnson is a great singer for Marianna to cover," explains Hubel, "because she gets the nuance without imitating, that's what I love about the way she sings. She can get inside a song that was recorded by someone well-known, like Dinah Washington, and really get the feeling across without copying anyone else's style."
You can hear Previti and the rest of the band on the Jumpers' first CD, "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?," which received a four-star review in Down Beat magazine when it was reviewed last year. The band's second recording is almost finished, and Hubel is eager to see this one reach a wider audience (especially as he has just given up his day job and made the leap to full-time musician). "Given the popularity of this kind of music now, we're hoping some label will pick up the next CD and really get it out there."
One benefit of the "swing revival," Hubel says, is the increase in younger folks discovering the music of eras past. "At one show, a 13-year-old girl came up to me, all dressed up like it was 1946 or something, and requested a Glenn Miller tune." He laughs. "Who'd have thought a 13-year-old would even know Glenn Miller, let alone want to hear him?"
Upcoming J Street Jumpers performances include Saturday at Lewie's in Bethesda, July 22 at Whitlow's in Arlington, July 28 at Wheaton's Veteran's Memorial Park and July 31 at Glen Echo's Spanish Ballroom.
To hear a free Sound Bite from "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?" call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8131. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
Bad news from Tysons Corner, the unlikely spot of one of the hottest nightlife scenes in the area: America (703/847-6607), the enormous restaurant inside the mall has been sold to the Brew Moon brewpub chain, putting an end to the sardine-packed swing scene that's taken place there every Friday for the past few years.
On July 23, the Tom Cunningham Orchestra will take the bandstand one last time (also performing that night will be San Francisco's Indigo Swing), and the swing dancers will hit the dance floor for a final jitterbug. "It's a terrible thing to have happen to the scene," says dance instructor Tom Koerner, who began the weekly event in 1997 with partner Debra Sternberg. "People have offered us places to move the Friday night event," Koerner says, "but none of them has the combination of a large dance floor, space for the band and space to sit and watch. We're not sure what's coming next."
"It's going to be hard to find something that's as special as America has been," Sternberg says. "We have irons in the fire and we'll keep pushing for something, because this dance scene needs a place. There's that old saying that when one door closes, another opens. But it doesn't necessarily open right away."
"We'll be back," Koerner says. "Just look at demographics. There are nearly 2 million in the greater Washington area. If you can't get 600 people a week to show up to go swing dancing, there's something wrong with you. I know the demand is there."
This weekend would have been a doozy even if the news of America's closing hadn't guaranteed a huge crowd. One of the finest bands on the West Coast, the Bill Elliott Orchestra, will perform Friday night, and then Saturday night it will go head to head with the Cunningham Orchestra, making the audience the winner. There will also be beginner dance lessons before the concerts begin, with appearances by Eric & Sylvia, U.S. swing champions, and a champion French dance team, Natalie Gomez and Yuvel Hod. (Those teams will also be offering classes during the day Saturday and Sunday at the Chevy Chase Ballroom.) Former MGM ballroom and swing dance star Jean Veloz will also be honored over the weekend. For details on the shows at America and the dance lessons, call 703/527-6734 or check www.gottaswing.com).
CAPTION: The J Street Jumpers will be swinging and singing at Carter Barron Amphitheatre on Friday night in a free "Weekend's Weekends" concert.
CAPTION: Pete Ostle and Greg Boyer of A La Carte Brass & Percussion get live.