Jack’s Cats: The State of Swing
Jack Malmstrom: Bandleader, reeds
Phil Small: Piano
Gretje (Kitten) Angell: Vocals
Blake Handler: Vibraphone
Mark San Filippo: Drums
Bryan Dedlow: Guitar
Marcus Buser: Bass
When I heard that “Ain’t Gonna Be Blue” was to be part of the soundtrack for an upcoming Riverdale episode, I gave myself a pat on the back. Why? Let me tell you a little story.
It was 2008. I still lived in the same small Nova Scotia town where I’d grown up. Californian creative class types Jack and Susan Malmstrom had bought the sprawling property where I’d once tried to capture a recalcitrant horse years earlier. I lived in a mobile home. We met in a roundabout way, and before I knew it I was at their place every Tuesday night for dinner and music making.
One evening, during one of the monthly meetings Jack would host with the three of us to assess what we’d done and what we might do next, Jack asked me what I wanted from our little jazz ensemble. I told him I wanted us to write songs.
He was actually taken aback, which tickles me when I realize how much composing he’s done since then. At the time he only had standards on the brain, but thankfully his mind was open; before long we were trading tunes, and after a few false starts he came up with “Ain’t Gonna Be Blue,” one of my favourite jazz tunes ever.
Eventually we realized the town wasn’t big enough for the three of us, so Jack and Susan ended up back in California and I moved to Montreal. Jack carefully assembled a stellar combo and plugged away in his inimitable way until he’d produced Jack’s Cats’ first album, Low Down Dirty Swing. He kept up a fairly regular gig schedule and finally won a regular spot at the famous Cicada Club in Los Angeles (you’ve viewed its lavish interior if you’ve seen Pretty Woman, The Artist, or American Horror Story). And now of course there’s this wonderful CD, packed with tight rhythms, inspired solos, and great arrangements, all wrapped in crystal clear audio production.
Jack always ran a tight ship, and I’m happy to see how well it’s paid off. He’s clearly given the master musicians of Jack’s Cats free rein to express their stunning gifts in the context of vintage jazz revived, reimagined, and sparkling in the light of all we’ve learned since the forties. Their singular achievement is the balance between skill and inspiration, discipline and expressiveness, hard work and creativity, fidelity to tradition and original composition.
The era to which the Cats hark back is of course the swing era, the music, as Jack calls it, “Pre-Bop.” The fact that swing band music is reappearing now testifies to the delicious eclecticism of our times but also to parallel social conditions that all but implore musicians to deliver well-crafted brightness and levity as antidotes to the darkness of current political realities. During the original swing era of the late thirties and early forties nearly all of the popular music of the time was couched in the language and repertoire of jazz, and that too was a response to disturbing social and political conditions, including (not to scare y’all) the burgeoning of fascism. Jazz isn’t exactly center-stage today, but we can take pride in the reappearance of this fabulous music as a living reality with original new compositions.
The general pattern of each track begins with a vocal delivery from Gretje Angell, whose honey-mellow pipes are pitch perfect and rhythmically precise yet throbbing with resonance and feeling. Jack recently told me that she laid down the vocals for these tracks in one morning, an impressive feat for a singer, putting her up there with Adele in the perfect-first-take-department.
Then come the solos: first the rollicking, swinging piano, then the guitar, sometimes Django Reinhardt, sometimes Les Paul, packed with musical ideas worth studying, then the bass walking jauntily up and down the chord progression, and finally Jack Malmstrom’s soaring, joyful clarinet (or sax when the mood takes him) that has never failed to give me goosebumps.
Just a few high points: Angell’s version of the aforementioned “Ain’t Gonna Be Blue,” the rocking piano in “Phil’s Boogie,” Jack joining Gretje in a duet for “The Call of the Cicada,” and “Our Own Affair,” a delightful tune for couples who want to jettison the social commitments and just stay home and pet.
But who am I kidding? The whole album is a high point. Enjoy!