Don’t you just appreciate pleasant surprises? Especially musical ones! There’s nothing like stumbling across an artist who is fresh, original, filled with musical integrity, and especially one that has a unique perspective on the familiar. Australian Jazz vocalist extraordinaire Greg Poppleton is such an artist; one whom this reviewer can’t say enough great things about.
The album "The Phantom Dancer" by Greg Poppleton & His Bakelite Dance Band is a delightful tribute to the swing era of 1926-1939 and approaches the material with remarkable finesse and a genuineness that places the listener squarely in the lap of nostalgic mystic. Even the artwork and notable liner notes are unfeigned in their approach to the rich history of a period where jazz was the official pop music of the day. Greg & crew has maintained the sound and feel of relatable records by recording live in the studio in one session, so you get all of the energy (and sonic infidelities) - the truth of musicians swinging their hearts out.
And boy do these guys swing! Peter Locke plays the meanest, leanest piano this side of the Australian border and drummer Joel Davis (playing a vintage 1927 kit) is pocket perfect on every cut. Double bassist Dieter Vogt adds a pliant bottom to drape the incredible horn section of Paul Furniss (alto & tenor saxes and clarinet), and trumpeter Bob Henderson. The thoughtful pianist, Matt Baker who sits in on the tender ballads, adds an arrant dash of sensitivity to these magnificent selections. Sprinkling his mystifying vintage stardust throughout the mix is the ever daring Mr. Poppleton, delighting us at every turn.
The set opens with the uncompromising James P. Johnson/Harry Creamer mixer "If I Could Be with You (One Hour Tonight)" allowing the band to stretch out a minute before we are introduced to ‘the voice’ and are firmly indoctrinated into the epoch of reminiscence. This tune is the perfect set up to understand the depth of each musician’s skill and prepares us for what is to follow.
The Gershwin magnet "Do, Do Do" (1926) quaintly follows with pianist Matt Baker perfectly comping Poppleton’s tender delivery. A perfect duet makes this a classic yet again!
"My Blue Heaven" (1927) is a solid toe-tapper. Joel’s hit-hats are singing, Peter’s piano is swinging and the horns are soaring. Greg handles the Donaldson/Whiting composition with a clarity that makes it a vibrant romp 80 years later.
"Love Me or Leave Me" (1928) shows the band peaking at the arc of swingdom! A mellow cascade into the melodic Donaldson/Kahn rhapsody showcases the heart of Furniss and Henderson who share a flaring duet gingerly encased by Locke’s piano strut while Greg sings with the perfect miscellanea of silk and soul. This is my favorite track!
Henderson’s trumpet opens Hoagy Carmichael’s haunting ballad, "Star Dust" (1929). Poppleton takes ownership of the Mitchell Parrish lyrics and the satiny saxophone of Paul Furniss subtly seduces. Henderson returns for a whispering solo. The band takes their sweet time, lingering over every chorus and phrase, making sure you know they are rewriting history. This is the consummate presentation of perfection.
By the time the groove begins "On the Sunny Side of the Street" (1930), you realize that the Bakelite Dance Band is a critical force to be reckoned with. Everyone approaches this bash with ease and frolic where solos abound. Furniss whips out his clarinet and begins to chase Henderson around the studio. Poppleton knows this song like he knows his name. Vogt & Davis swing like a playground and Locke hops in and out of a Double Dutch! Just TRY not to sway to the music. I dare you!
Baker returns for "Would You to Take a Walk" (1931) and you’re immediately captivated by the chemistry he and Greg create, as if out of thin air. Suddenly Tin Pan Alley is right outside your window. As Poppleton scats the melody, he asks, "Isn’t this a pretty tune?" Baker’s sumptuous playing seems to answer, "Why, yes it is!"
A little Cuban synergy etches Cole Porter’s "Night and Day" (1932) with some sultry percussion caressing the horn section and the groove is magnetic. For some reason, Henderson’s trumpet seems distant, either by design or poor placement, but swings incessantly. Furniss is my new favorite altoist. Peter Locke’s beautiful approach to this cut actually made me stop writing to ‘google’ him. I will be following his career from now on! Feel the energy!
How many times have you heard Billy Rose’s "It’s Only A Paper Moon" (1933)? It’s been performed in several genres in a myriad parade of shapes and sizes. Well these guys take it up a notch by boosting the tempo and pumping a tad of funk into the swing. You can actually feel Vogt’s fingers and he dances across the fret board. Out comes the clarinet and everyone is all over Davis’s big beat, bending and stretching and GROOVING - and then we’re out! At 2:25, it’s the shortest cut on disc and my second favorite!
But the fun doesn’t stop there as we revisit Porter’s "Anything Goes" (1934). The horns are delightful, but are somewhat suppressed by Henderson’s trumpet being so far away from the microphone (perhaps this is the same session as "Night & Day" -giving preference to the percussion.) Nonetheless, the guys whiz along without a care and this standard is the better for it.
Brooks Bowman’s "East Of The Sun" (1935) is treated with similar TLC. Drummer Joel Davis pays careful attention to the lockstep Vogt. It’s hard to figure out how they control their energy for ballads like this as they seem to sprinkle and pour just the right amounts of snap into the groove for the solos and then pull back in time for Poppleton to cautiously walk across the lyrics.
The Yiddish "Bel Mir Bist Du Schoen" (1932) - this interpretation highlighting Sammy Cahn’s version features Davis’ bouncing drums and (finally) a solo. The tune perks along and gets you UP out of your seat! Furniss & Henderson make fantastic use of the melody and clarify the definitive phrase ‘ It Means That You’re Grand’ in appropriate style.
"Two Sleepy People" (1938) is gorgeous. The lyrics are placed squarely center stage. The atmosphere is full of comfort and provides fertile space for Locke, Furniss and Henderson to waltz through their solos with discerning repose.
The set ends with the Carr/Kennedy epiphany "South of the Border"(1939). The band moves easily between the dynamics of the Mexican excitement and Big Band Flair concluding with the entire gang singing background with Mr. Poppleton in the final chorus - the prefect end to a great hour of music!
I thoroughly enjoy this CD. It’s fresh and open. The music literally pulls you into yesteryear and reminds you of the infinite palettes jazz offers and a peak into where it was in the late 20s. The musicians are incredible and their presentation is flawless.
Greg Poppleton has captured the essence of the jazz singers of that era and is able to exhibit an originality that make his offering a new standard for tomorrow’s generation. You will be listening to this disc for years to come!