(Purcell Room. 15th November 2014. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Sebastian Scotney)
“You like old jazz, right? Because if you don’t you’re in the wrong room.” The proposition from New York-based band the Hot Sardines, and its engaging lead singer Elizabeth Bougerol is clear. There’s a twenties Gatsbyish flapper vibe. The songs are almost all well known, things like Everybody Loves My Baby and Honeysuckle Rose, but stretching forwards into later repertoire like I Wan’na Be Like You from the Jungle Book, sung in Bougerol’s native language, French.
This band has an improbable back-story. Both of its instigators were involved in fields other than music. Bougerol was a travel writer, indeed she is the published author of New England’s Favorite Seafood Shacks. She had long harboured a fascination for the music of Fats Waller, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, wanted to sing, but found gigs hard to come by. Her initial co-conspirator was an actor with a few film credits to his name, who had always played stride piano, Evan Palazzo. They were then joined by a tap-dancer “Fast Eddy” Francisco, who formed the first bit of rhythm section, apart from Bougerol’s washboard, which she plays, Joan of Arc-style as a breastplate. Francisco with his tap shoes (he also doubles on ukulele) occupies the front of the stage alongside Bougerol.
They have expanded to an eight-piece (the website in fact lists a full complement of ten), and have professionalized. It’s a show, it’s slick. Bougerol is a characterful singer and genial host, and engages the audience well.The seven men of the band are suited, two wear fedoras, and pianist/bandleader Palazzo is dressed to walk straight into a tale by Damon Runyon. The band also includes that rarest of sights, a left-handed double bassist playing with the strings reversed, Evan “Sugar” Crane.
The Hot Sardines are going places, They have appeared with the Boston Pops Orchestra, they have caused articles to be written about then in the New Yorker, they have the support of a major label. As Will Friedwald has said, what they are doing is taking jazz out of the concert hall: “it’s fun, it’s inclusive, it’s a social event.”
In the UK, perhaps this phenomenon is not so rare. We have had bands such as the Pasadena Roof Orchestra doing similar things. We also have a strong Gypsy swing fraternity. We also have up-and coming bands such as the Kansas Smittys and Basin Street Brawlers in similar vein.
Back to the show. What they are doing definitely works: they had won over the Purcell Room audience right from the start.The closing sequence had the crowd baying for more. The last scheduled number Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen had almost the whole band lying down for a quiet clarinet solo, and the encore Down on Bourbon Street has them processing round the room (a full Purcell Room is not a place where you can process very far), and there was a scrum at the CD counter afterwards
After two sold out shows tonight, they will appear on the BBC One Andrew Marr show tomorrow morning.
The album Hot Sardines is out on Decca/ Universal. Hotsardines.com