Joe Smith and the Spicy Pickles – High Fidelity (2015)

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Joe Smith and the Spicy Pickles are a Denver-based group concentrating on vintage jazz and swing. High Fidelity is their second album, and it is inspired by the swing beats of the ’30s and ’40s. Leader Joe Smith studied trumpet at Drake University and the University of Iowa. He leads two bands, The Pickles and Joe Smith and The Mile High Club. With the six-piece Spicy Pickles, Joe has led the way in pushing vintage jazz to a new generation of Americans in an accessible way, introducing modern twists to the music. The music has been arranged with attention to sound quality and uses vintage instruments to create something authentic, introducing American swing to new listeners and pleasing those who know it already.

Joe Smith and the Spicy Pickles’ High Fidelity both opens and closes with the band’s theme song, “Slow Cooking” — which is short on the first hear but sweet. The second time around (Track 12). “Slow Cooking” is longer and features a great saxophone solo from Elijah Samuels. Track 2 is “Obviously” and is a danceable tune evoking images of dance halls with kitten heels and sequined dresses on the dance floor. It is a feel-good tune with a great trombone solo from Prescott Blackler and the trumpet of Joe Smith. The bassy drum sequence enhances the foot tapping, rhythmic flow to this number.

“The Pen is Mightier” pays tribute to the small-group Benny Goodman sound and features a theme played by Elijah Samuels on clarinet, Joseph Chudyk on vibes and Al Scholl on guitar. It features solos from Prescott Blackler on trombone and Adam Sammakia on bass and creates a rolling, joyful sound with everyone getting the chance to demonstrate their musicality. “The Baltiquerque Stomp” is introduced by a driving rhythm on the bass drum and is described by Joe Smith and the Spicy Pickles in their notes as an “ode to current New Orleans trumpet player Ben Polcer: (originally a New Yorker, Polcer played with Loose Marbles Jazz Band, the New Orleans Six and Baby Soda Jazz band, among others). It has spoken vocals, finger-clicking, key-ascending sections for both instruments and voices, emulating the style of small bands in the 1940s. The sliding trombone undercut by the drums lifts the final section.

“Benny’s Blues” is a blues-y tune in classic form with the brass setting the theme, under which the clarinet runs away with its own little melody. The sliding notes of the trombones, wah wah of the trumpet and extension of the clarinet dispel any chance this tune has of veering towards the melancholic. Count Basie’s “Good Times Blues” comes to mind, though it is not the same. “Chubby’s On The Way,” “Chelsea After Dark” and “Gin and Tonic” are agreeable numbers and “Chelsea After Dark” features a great bass solo. “Gin and Tonic” develops a rocky phrase in the middle section with musical discussions between trombone, bass and guitar. “It’s Alright for a Night” pays tribute to Cole Porter and sets up the rolling theme from the start, which is developed and layered, creating an atmospheric piece.

Joe Smith and the Spicy Pickles’ “Dark Elixir” is introduced by the drums before the brass come in and the trumpet takes the theme, creating a darker, slower, eerier feel with a real swing theme, anchored in true ’40s style by the bass and drum. “The Gherkin Train” is inspired by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington and features Elijah Samuels on tenor saxophone. High Fidelity is finished again with “Slow Cooking,” this time in an extended version with solos from sax, trumpet, trombone and guitar as a finale the whole band take the theme.

The tracks on Joe Smith and the Spicy Pickles’ High Fidelity are carefully crafted and aim to evoke a true swinging ’40s style, apart from the sound quality — which for purist aficionados may be just a tad over finished. What this album does, however, is make it acceptable to a listener coming to the music for the first time after being used to the clarity of modern recordings. But then with a title like High Fidelity what does the listener expect?

That very clarity along with the good musicianship is just what will make the music more accessible to the modern listener, because many of the recordings made in the ’30s and ’40s prove difficult to listen to — because of the limitations of the audio sound. At times, the six musicians sound like a big band, whilst at others they come off like a much smaller ensemble. The Dorsey Brothers sound is discernible in several of the numbers and the music often sticks very much to the small-band formats of the ’40s and late ’30s. Still, even with spoken words interjected occasionally, a solo or two followed by a group bit another solo and a finish with the whole band, there is no chance of confusing this High Fidelity with those actually of the era, because Joe Smith and the Spicy Pickles also introduce their own unique take on the compositions.

This takes nothing away and, in fact, makes the sound more authentic and true to its original aim — that is, to make this music more accessible to today’s listener. The overriding sense you get from listening to Joe Smith and the Spicy Pickles’ High Fidelity is one of well being, a grin on your face and it is not music which warps the mind. In fact, it is probably the most wholesome thing I have heard in quite a little while.

All of the tracks on Joe Smith and the Spicy Pickles’ High Fidelity were composed and arranged by horn players Elijah Samuels (who studied with Jim McNeely, David Liebman, Phil Markowitz and Steve Slagle and has performed with many musicians including nelson Rangell, Dennis DeBlasio and others), Prescott Blackler (who graduated from Berklee college of music) and Joe Smith.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

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Sammy Stein
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