CD REVIEW: Kansas Smitty’s House Band – Kansas Smitty’s

Kansas Smitty’s House Band – Kansas Smitty’s
(Kansas Smitty’s KS002, CD review by Mark McKergow)

This record offers an unexpected and welcome pleasure – sharp young London musicians spanning the 80 years between 1930s Chicago/Kansas City and 2015 Hackney in the blink of an eye. Kansas Smitty’s, it turns out, is both a band and their own bar, where this talented group of musicians hang out, drink juleps and create their own scene with classic jazz flavours which are startling original and well executed.

The band’s commitment to the tradition jumps out from the opening notes. The record (available as LP as well as CD, and labelled Side A and Side B even on my CD copy) was recorded directly onto analogue tape in single takes, creating a great sound. Surprisingly given the style, each of the 10 tracks here is original – with almost all the band contributing numbers which perfectly capture the thrill and feel of the 1920s/30s. I was expecting at least one or two classic tunes but the chaps from Kansas Smitty’s are rightly backing their own composing and arranging talent. Even more surprisingly, the tracks are short – seven of the ten numbers are under four minutes, with three under three minutes. It’s as if they are embracing the 78 rpm format as well as analogue tape.

This conciseness still leaves plenty of space for neat arrangements, multiple textures and super tunes. Reeds player Giacomo Smith leads the composing, and performs very nicely with sliding Arabian-tinged clarinet on The Call (co-written with drummer Pedro Segundo) while tenor saxist Ruben Fox shows he’s been listening to Lester Young on Pete Horsfall’s swinging Backyard BBQ Blues (now top of my iPod favourites). Horsfall’s own lip-slidingly smooth trumpet is heard to good effect on Gravy Train, composed by guitarist Dave Archer, while his near-falsetto singing contributes to Fox and Smith’s Warm Embrace. You see how intertwined the music making becomes!

The band features both a bass and a tuba, and Theon Cross’s punchy low brass sound is shown off on Eight Ball Rag, a very authentic square-set bounce with lots of smartly arranged twists and turns. Joe Webb shines on piano, giving it plenty of space on Gravy Train with luscious behind-the-beat Basie-style lines before Ferg Ireland gets a double bass feature.

The most breath-taking moment comes on the slowish blues What Would You Do. The band sets up a simple horn riff-based tune, over which Leonie Evans’ guest vocal arrives like a knife slicing through butter. It’s almost as if Bessie Smith herself has returned, with Evans delivering the tone, vibrato and slides if not the last degree of power of the Empress of the Blues – I nearly spilled my coffee in shock. Evans co-wrote this number with Ruben Fox, and is clearly one to watch.

Brian Blain recently wrote on this site of the marvellous mystery of how New Orleans trumpeter Leroy Jones could pack the Pizza Express for five nights with a youngish and enthusiastic audience. Well, it’s a mystery no longer – the rhythm section of Kansas Smitty’s were in Jones’ band for that engagement, and they clearly brought a significant following with them. This outfit and the scene they are creating looks like one of the key developments this year for London jazz.

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