Wednesday, May 19, 1999

Acoustic Swing

Posted By on Wed, May 19, 1999 at 12:00 AM

Cross Django Reinhardt with Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks and you might come up with the oddly effective mix of jazz and vaudeville that the Asylum Street Spankers purvey. It is always difficult to consider musical clowning an art, but this is one of the few bands — Manhattan Transfer and the aforementioned Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks are others — that can make that kind of statement without automatically inducing the gag reflex.

Only four years ago, that might not have been the case. The Spankers — don’t you love the name? — were caught on tape in performances that would show up on a live disc put out by Watermelon Records. While the repertoire was interesting, with covers of early blues and jazz standards dominating, the approach was more akin to a high class frat bash than a night in a swanky joint.

Essentially, this new album contains proof that the band has matured — for lack of a better word — quite well, upgrading its market from the drunk Greek scene and playing party music for raucous-yet-sophisticated adults. It would also not be a stretch to hear this disc being played in a coffeehouse as a stress reliever after enduring a set or two of bad, tortured, adolescent poetry by your neighbor’s kids.

The Reinhardt chops are intimated in the title tune — a bongo-driven tribute to the great gypsy guitarist’s Hot Club of France days — while Benny Goodman’s "A Smo-o-oth One" gets a suitably irreverent update. It’s the original cuts that make the set a worthwhile gig, however, and the production job of Hawaiian guitar god Bob Brozman puts those songs in the best possible light. Personal faves include "If I Were You," "Smells Like Thirty-Something" and "Trippin’ Over You."

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