The famed Chicago performing arts center, HotHouse, is known the world over for its eclectic and wide-ranging music programming. Monday nights at HotHouse, however, is the one night of the week where the place is filled with a neighborhood bar vibe. This can be attributed largely to Yoko Noge and her veteran Jazz Me Blues Band, who lay down the most danceable rhythms in the city every week.
Noge herself is an amazing story. She achieved some notoriety in her native Osaka as a blues singer: her voice can range from a kittenish purr to a sassy growl in the space of a heartbeat. She came to America in the mid-80’s to "experience the real thing" as she says. A pilgrimage east along Route 66 led her to Chicago, where bluesmen and audiences who had seen everything were floored by her singing ability. She later began to learn stride and blues piano from famed master Erwin Helfer. Her Jazz Me Blues band- formerly a loose jam session but nowadays a tight unit containing notables such as tenor sax great Sonny Seals, Count Basie band alumnus John Watson, and prolific bassist Tatsu Aoki, has held down Monday nights at Hothouse since its inception fourteen years ago.
About two years ago, students and young adults who had picked up on the swing dance craze began flocking to Noge’s performances. They’ve never left, even as the neo-swing craze has gone the way of the hula-hoop, pet rocks, and the Ford Pinto. To this day the dancers constitute a vocal majority of Noge’s audience every week. In a joint effort to draw more people to Noge’s music and introduce more dancers to the lindy hop, the Chicago Swing Dance Society has released "Struttin’ With Yoko", a series of recordings done by Noge and the Jazz Me Blues band earlier this spring at HotHouse.
The album captures the mood of the space perfectly; you won’t find any overdubs or editing out of wrong notes. This only adds to the charm and energy of the album, even as the listener shudders from the occasional out-of-tune piano on "HotHouse Blues II" and Watson’s shuck-and-jive hustler intro on "Rack ‘Em Up". Veteran drummer Phil Thomas’ underrated timekeeping is so rock solid throughout, an atomic clock will lose time before he loses the beat.
The energy level picks up on the songs when powerhouse tenor man Sonny Seals and alto saxophonist Jimmy Ellis trade solos, feeding off each other. Seals, with his Coltrane rooted soaring wails, and Ellis, who sticks close to the melody and builds upon scales a la Cannonball Adderly, complement each other perfectly. They each add color and depth to Clark Dean’s Bechet-inspired soprano sax playing. Former Ink Spot Elijah Levi brings a bluesy urgency to "Stormy Monday Blues" and harmonizes softly with Noge on "You Don’t Have To Go" and "Mama, He treats Your Daughter Mean".
Noge is an adept bandleader, knowing when to let her sidemen shine and when to step out. She switches from English to Japanese when the mood suits her, conveying the blues equally well. Her piano playing is always lively, continuously emphasizing the rhythm section and adding character to the melodies.