Since swing jazz is dance music, most swing bands have limitations on how far out on limb they can go. After all, you've got to keep everybody on their feet, right? Svetlana & the Delancey Five are the rare swing band who don't recognize any limits: they're just as fun to sit and listen to as they are for the dancers.
There weren't a lot of people on their feet at the band's sold-out show earlier this month at the Blue Note, but the band charmed the crowd for the duration of the set...with new arrangements of material that's been done to death by a whole lot of other folks. The premise of this gig was to revisit and reinvent the great Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald collaborations, a favorite Svetlana theme.
Frontwoman Svetlana Shmulyian and guest Charles Turner took those roles to plenty of new places, neither singer trying to ape any of the original Ella/Satchmo takes. A lot of singers try to replicate horn lines; Shmulyian doesn't do that, nor does she scat a lot, but she never sings anything remotely the same way twice and this show was no exception. She's protean to the point that it takes awhile to get to figure her out, to the extent that she can be figured out. That's part of the fun. There was a show last year where she didn't break out the vibrato until the last song of the night; this time, she was using every device in her arsenal from the first few notes of "Just A-Sitting and A-Rocking." Then later she bubbled and chirped her way through the rapidfire travelogue of her own bittersweetly charming romp, "Baby I'm Back."
Turner has a wide-angle vibrato, like a classic old Packard or Mercedes with a loose clutch. How he modulates it sounds easy but is actually the opposite: it takes masterful control and nuance to stay in the game. He played it on the sly side against the bandleaders' coy ingenue in "Cheek to Cheek," then the two playfully flipped the script for a cheerily sardonic take of "I Won't Dance."
The freshness of drummer Rob Garcia's charts is another drawing card. Much of the time, it seems like the band is jamming away, but they're actually not: That high-voltage interplay makes even more sense in the context that this is the rare band that's stayed together more or less for the better part of five years: Garcia knows everybody's steez and vice versa. Case in point: the band's take of "A Tisket, a Tasket," Ella's version of a jump-rope rhyme that's pretty much a throwaway. But this band's version started out as a cha-cha and took a sudden departure toward a shadowy, almost klezmer groove midway through. His Afrobeat allusions in "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" were just as unexpectedly kinetic and spot-on.
The high point of the set, at least in terms of getting a roar out of the crowd, was a long duel between Garcia and tap dancer Dewitt Fleming Jr. Rather than taking the easy road, going all cheesy and cliched, Garcia engaged Fleming as a musician...and Fleming pushed back, hard! Was Garcia going to keep up with Fleming's relentless hailstorm of beats? As it turned out, yes, with every texture and flourish and part of his hardware, but it wasn't easy. Bassist Endea Owens jumpstarted a more low-key, elegant duel earlier on, which was just about as fun if a lot quieter and slinkier.
Multi-reedman Michael Hashin (also a member of the Microscopic Septet, whose latest blues album is a purist treat) opened jauntily on soprano in an instrumental take of Cottontail (in keeping with the theme of the show) and then switched to tenor for more smoke and congeniality for most of the rest of the set. Trumpeter Charles Caranicas also switched back and forth with his flugelhorn in the set's more pensive, resonant numbers, while pianist John Chin drove the more upbeat material with an erudite yet almost feral, purist, blue-infused attack