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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1230

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Mitch Woods and His Rocket 88's: Jump for Joy
by George Graham

(Blind Pig 5067 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/7/2001)

The swing revival trend has been under way for more than three years now with the popularity of the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and several other groups. This has spawned a whole new generation of swing dancers getting dressed to the nines and doing the Lindy hop and jitterbug. While some of the performers are new to the music -- and it seems that the ones selling the most records are the ones recently emerging on the scene -- there have been a number of artists who have been doing swing revival for years. We have a new CD by one such performer, San Francisco-based pianist, vocalist and songwriter Mitch Woods and his group the Rocket 88s, whose new release is called Jump for Joy.

Brooklyn-born Mitch Woods, who will be 50 this year, started out on classical piano, but he found himself smitten by the boogie-woogie piano when a man his parents hired to take him to school made a stop at a cousin's place where young Mitch heard someone playing boogie-woogie piano. He was immediately hooked. By his mid teens Woods was putting together his own blues bands, and he carried his interest in the music to the University of Buffalo, where he was sitting in, performing in clubs and learning about the music of some of the boogie-woogie innovators, like Meade Lux Lewis. He also took a course in African-American music taught by jazz man Archie Shepp, and found himself challenged to play the blues authentically.

Woods moved to San Francisco in 1970 and has been performing every since, at first in a duo with singer Gracie Glassman called Mitch Woods and His Red Hot Mama. They drew comparisons to jump-band performers like Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris. Woods formed his Rocket 88's in 1980, and have been releasing a steady, though rather infrequent stream of albums, combining Woods' strong boogie-woogie piano style, his increasingly confident vocals, and his songwriting that often tended toward humorous lyrics in the Louis Jordan tradition.

Woods' earlier albums were more toward the blues and boogie-woogie, starting with Mister Boogie's Back in Town in 1988. His subsequent projects included collaborations with some well-known blues musicians including John Lee Hooker and Charlie Musselwhite.

In 1998, Woods was able to put together a big-band version of the Rocket 88s, with a seven piece horn section, and the services of guitarist Danny Caron, who worked for several years with the late jazz and blues singer Charles Brown. The result, recorded in 1998, but only now just being released, is probably Woods' best effort to date, an irresistably danceable album that is full of energy, thanks to the strong horn arrangements and great boogie-woogie beat.

The album's title Jump for Joy, is not just the name of one of the songs, but a reference to the style of music. Woods likes to point out that what is experiencing a revival is actually jump-band music in the tradition of Louis Jordan from the 1940s and early 1950s, rather than the pure swing of the 1930s. Jump-band music, marked by near-big-band arrangements, but with blues-derived songs and distinctive jive-oriented lyrics, formed a kind of bridge between big-band jazz and rock & roll. Indeed, this was the original music called "rhythm and blues." Woods specializes on this CD in that sound, and re-creates it well. But rather than revive songs from that era, he performs all original music on Jump for Joy, though one might be hard pressed to tell that it was written after say about 1952. The songs range from uptempo jump tunes, to humorous jive songs to something close to conventional swing to a little New Orleans piano influence, which Woods has found himself drawn to.

With the exception of Danny Caron, most of the players on the CD are San Francisco area musicians, and they include tenor sax man Michael Poloquin, who wrote the album's horn arrangements, and the rhythm section of bassist Joe Kyle and drummer Eric Addeo, who can keep the driving beat going. Interestingly, despite Woods' reputation as a hot blues and boogie pianist, he does little soloing on the album, preferring to help drive the group with his strong left-hand figures and, of course, to provide the lead vocals, which fit the music well.

The album gets off to a strong start with one of its most energetic tracks, the mostly instrumental Jump in the Groove and Go. It's a kind of classic big-band jump tune with a wailing dual tenor sax battle though which of the sax players are featured is not specified. <<>>

Woods wrote a song called Swingin' at the Savoy, as opposed to the big-band classic Stompin' at the Savoy. Woods' song is nothing like the old swing tune, but another driving jump-band treatment. <<>>

Woods does a song called Broke that is very much in the Louis Jordan style. The jive-infused lyrics and the tight horn arrangements are archetypical jump-band material, served hot.

More toward conventional swing is Easy Street, which despite the good writing, fails to catch fire like some of the other of the album's pieces. <<>>

Woods pays tribute to another great big band jive performer, Cab Calloway, on Woods' song Golden Gate Jump <<>> which curiously breaks into a near-Dixieland section adding interest. <<>>

The title song, Jump for Joy is less a jump-band style song than a big-band blues. It's one of only two slower songs on the album, and this is the one that works well. <<>> Woods also gets in one of his few piano solos on the track. <<>>

Woods, the writer of humorous lyrics, comes out on Not a Bad Part of My Life (to Be Good), a fun litany of bad date experiences. The result is another of the album's highlights. <<>>

Straight Eight is a kind of boogie-woogie anthem. weaving together an automotive metaphor with the rhythmic structure of boogie-woogie with its eight-to-the-bar beat. <<>>

The album ends with a short piano solo called Dr. Daddy-O Signs Off, played New Orleans style with the accompaniment some AM radio static. <<>>

Mitch Woods and His Rocket 88' new CD Jump for Joy is the best yet from this veteran Bay Area blues and boogie-woogie pianist. The big-band arrangements add a lot to the music and re-create the sound of classic jump-band music while Woods and Company do all-original material. While the solos by some of the members of the horn section may not be the strongest, the overall sound is infectiously danceable, and somewhat more wide-ranging than most other recent swing-revival albums.

In terms of audio quality, the CD has a big brassy sound to match the instrumentation, though the recorded sound seems to vary a bit from one track to the next, with the horn section and drums seeming a bit distant on some tracks but not others. The dynamic range is somewhat restricted by audio compression that takes a little of the life out of the horn section. But overall, it makes for worthy listening on a good stereo system.

Swing revival was just coming to its peak when this album was made in 1998. Why its release should be delayed until now is not clear, but it's great that the Jump for Joy finally is out, and Woods again proves himself to be an able performer who reaches new heights with the help of a big band.

(c) Copyright 2001 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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