April 2008

The Hogtown Syncopators
April 11, 2008 Gate 403 Toronto
Hogtown Syncopators swing Gate 403
by Darlene Stimson
Before the first note was played it was obvious to this writer that the five members of the Hogtown Syncopators genuinely enjoy each other's company. The band is made up of Drew Jurecka (violin, saxophone, vocals), Terra Hazelton (snare drum with brushes, vocals), Mike Daley (archtop guitar, vocals), Jay Danley (flat top guitar, vocals) and James Thomson (upright bass).

Although Hazelton's name was well known to me this was the first time I was hearing her with this group, and only the third time I heard her sing in person. The first time I heard her was at Jeff Healey's fundraiser for the musicians of New Orleans in the fall of 2005. The second time was at his funeral where she delivered a beautiful rendition of “Ain't He Sweet”.

One of the nice things about Gate 403 is the lovely grand piano gracing its front room. However since this band doesn't use a piano they were somewhat crowded around it. And while my personal style of homemaking owes more to Roseanne than to Martha Stewart I wanted to grab coasters to protect that piano lid from all the beverages being placed on it! But that was a very minor distraction from all the wonderful music being performed and added to the sense of having a private party in somebody's living room.

Over the course of the evening there were ongoing discussions about material and charts; clearly one does not hear the same set twice with this group. As one of my personal mentors in the jazz idiom told me recently “if it's not spontaneous it's not jazz”. The show opened with “I can't give you anything but love”, a song composed by Jimmy McHugh with lyrics by Dorothy Fields, originally introduced in the 1928 revue Blackbirds of 1928. Over the evening we were treated to a variety of traditional jazz tunes interspersed with the band's own compositions.

The original material performed that evening included “Big Bag 'o Rag”, “The Spider” and “Judy's Tune”, ostensibly a Mother's Day gift from Danley to his mom, whose name, surprisingly, is not Judy. (when I suggested it must be a tribute to Judy Garland there was wholehearted agreement from Hazelton et al) The band's Toronto roots are evident in the original tune entitled “Rotman's Hat Shop”. The only member of the band who does not sing (at least did not on this night) is the bass player Thomson, although he was given a line to speak during "Saturday Night Fish Fry" (first recorded by Eddie Williams and his Brown Buddies before becoming a big hit for Louis Jordan).

Terra Hazelton
The sample I had heard online of Hazelton performing her own blues number “Anybody's Baby” did not prepare me for what a powerful blues singer she is live, belting out Dinah Washington's “Long John Blues” and Bessie Smith's “Send me to the electric chair”. I couldn't help wondering if the Dixie Chicks were influenced by the latter when penning their own “Earl had to die”.

I was extremely impressed with how well Hazelton managed to pull back when combining her own voice with those of Daley, Jurecka and Thomson when singing harmony rather than lead. The well balanced vocals reminded me of the Manhattan Transfer but Hazelton educated me that the arrangement of “Heebie Jeebies” was actually taken from the Boswell Sisters. The group's website mentions the Mills Brothers as another influence.

I had requested that they perform “I'm gonna sit right down and write myself a letter” as that was the video of Jeff Healey played at the National Jazz Awards ceremony a couple of nights earlier, before his posthumous Artist of Distinction award was presented. At the end of the set I reassured Jurecka that it was not his singing which had me in tears. In fact Jurecka improvised some hilarious lyrics involving email, internet shortforms, and emoticons. I wish I could have written fast enough to jot all the words of his version down.

In closing I'm going to quote one of the members of my Jazz in Toronto meetup group, who posted this comment about the event.

“I am reborn. Yup. Previously preferred CDs due to big talent and better sound quality. Terra's group is fabulous, fun, and friendly ... our tiny group had THE best seats in the house — as if they were performing in our own living room. And to think I was going to do laundry!”

Complete group's bios and gigs schedule
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Darlene Stimson
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