Southside Johnny - Grapefruit Moon

Southside Johnny
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A lot of jazz players are looking into the Tom Waits catalog these days. I interviewed a couple of Chicago based players who included Waits tunes in their CDs, and I listened to Diana Krall perform a version of "Temptation" while writing this review of Grapefruit Moon, a big-band swing recording by Southside Johnny - a New Jersey based artist better known for singing rock, blues and soul. However, he collaborated with LaBamba's Big Band to record a CD of jazz covers of Waits tunes. It's not too surprising that Southside Johnny would be attracted to the music of Waits - for a few reasons.

A lot of jazz players are looking into the Tom Waits catalog these days. I interviewed a couple of Chicago based players who included Waits tunes in their CDs, and I listened to Diana Krall perform a version of "Temptation" while writing this review of Grapefruit Moon, a big-band swing recording by Southside Johnny - a New Jersey based artist better known for singing rock, blues and soul. However, he collaborated with LaBamba's Big Band to record a CD of jazz covers of Waits tunes. It's not too surprising that Southside Johnny would be attracted to the music of Waits - for a few reasons.

First, Southside Johnny, a New Jersey native, is a contemporary of Bruce Springsteen, and along with the Boss is credited with crafting what is called the Jersey Shore Sound. And while Waits is a California native, both he and Springsteen are musical troubadours known for creating stories about working class heroes. Next, Waits is an eclectic artist who - even though he came up during the rock era - often fuses his music with genres such as blues, jazz and even Vaudeville, and a lot of that falls into Southside Johnny's alley. Finally, the two men have somewhat similar vocal styles. It's not accurate to say Southside Johnny and Waits sound exactly alike, but Johnny's gravelly, raspy and growling voice is tailor-made for exploring the Waits songbook.

Besides, the music of Waits is suited for the swing and big band treatment that Southside Johnny gives it on Grapefruit Moon. Songs such as the aforementioned "Temptation" and "Please Call Me Baby" show why Southside Johnny felt these compositions fit well into the swing genre. First of all, the songs sport wonderful lyrics. Secondly, the melodic structure of a song like "Please Call Me Baby" lends itself to the being played as a swing tune - especially if the band is tight. And LaBamba's Big Band is very tight. The rhythm section is solid and that allows the horns to display their cohesion when playing as a unit, as well as their creativity on solos.

Johnny's vocals on "Temptation" deviate the furthest from Waits - who performed the song in a raspy whisper. However, listening to both versions, it's easy to see why a jazz performer would be attracted to the tune. Lyrically the song is strong, but the song's sparse arrangement gives a jazz ensemble a lot of room to make the kind of musical commentary that the big band makes on the Southside Johnny/LaBamba's Big Band arrangement. The use of the horns on the version included on the Grapefruit Moon version of "Temptation" gives this Far East meets Latin tinged tune a big swing element. Much has been said about the state of jazz music. Some folks think the music is somewhat stagnant because players spend too much time rearranging songs from the Great American Songbook.

I like the songbook, but critics might have a point. A solid effort such as Grapefruit Moon not only will encourage other players to take a closer look at post 1950 era tunes - such performanes will also entice a few listeners to take a closer look at jazz. Recommended.

Howard Dukes

 
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