Arts & Entertainment » Music

The Swing Shift

Fads may come and go, but Critical Martini stays true to swing

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Musical revivals come and go. Who can hazard a guess as to why these things happen, save to say that the intervals of short-term nostalgia by which the history of popular music over the past fifty years can be plotted are getting ever shorter, even as musicians and music fans reach further and further back into the post-jazz era of American music to plumb for “new” sounds? This interesting paradox accounts for, among other cultural phenomena, the strangely coincidental timing of the swing and heavy metal revivals that took hold a few years back.

These short-term resurgences in popularity of certain styles of music have a way of catching the long-term practitioners in just the right place at just the right time, even as legions of imitators scramble to retrofit, in this case, their swing credibility to compete with fashionless septuagenarians who have unwittingly been playing the current flavor of the month for the past 35 years at Elks’ Club dances and so on. Now the swing craze has subsided a little and the music has been returned to the rightful curators. Bands like the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies burn twice as bright for half as long; bands like Critical Martini are in it to win it.

OK, so Kimberly West looks a mite tender of age to bring the requisite seasoned swing cred to the songs of Louis Prima and the writing team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, but one listen to Critical Martini and you’ll be sold. Even connoisseurs like Livingston and Ray, whose six-decade collaboration produced the “Stuff Like That There” that West and her men haul off with such commendable sass on the band’s most recent self-released CD, would have to concede that West has got the vocal chops to put her alongside any vocalist of the jump-jive heyday. Earthy, seductive, la muchachita saucy, with just a tease of vibrato; blasphemy it may sound, but West could easily have mopped the floor with Keely Smith.

And fans of big band and jive will fiend for the specifics of the sound: drums heavy on hi-hat rides and jungle toms, stomping bass lines and rousing piano rave-ups, and best of all the tumble of horns that surge warmly behind West and then vie for her attention in a blizzard of solo turns, interrupting each other and cutting each other off and finally joining in chorus for big, satisfying brassy finishes that recall Prima’s players at their white-hottest. Fabulous stuff; traditional but very intricate arrangements with period flourishes aplenty set the Critical Martini versions apart on all the standards and even a contemporary selection or two, like the cleaned-up version of those very Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ “Dr. Bones.” The arrangements excel, and top-shelf playing seals the deal.

Hear me, now: Critical Martini is going to blow the roof off Sean Kelly’s this weekend. Anyone with “local swing band” on their wish list will be further cheered to know that the previously Flathead-based Critical Martini is setting up long-term Missoula shop, starting with the addition of local hornsman Chuck Florence. Get it on the ground floor, daddy-o.
Critical Martini shakes Sean Kelly’s this Friday at 9:30. Cover $2.

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