Jazz Pharaohs, Suzi Stern & Terry Bowness, and David Chenu
Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., April 23, 2004
One of Austin's quiet little musical secrets is the Jazz Pharaohs, a group for whom the Ellington adage "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing" is their stock and trade. Led by clarinetist and vocalist Stanley Smith, this feisty ensemble of good-time swingsters has held down a Wednesday evening happy hour gig at the Elephant Room for five years now. Old Man Time (Buffalo Records) is a set of well-worn swing standards the band has played for years, and they ease effortlessly into the bluesy grooves like a pair of comfortable old shoes. The twin guitars of Slim Richey and Dave Biller, swapping lead and rhythm chores, propel the band through chestnuts like Django's "Minor Swing" and Seela's vocal turn on "Love Me or Leave Me." Trombonist Freddie Mendoza and guest trumpeter Martin Banks add some brassy spicing to the mix. You won't find any surprises here, but the attraction is swingingly clear. On a more temperate note is Lament (Aardvark Records), on which vocalist/lyricist Suzi Stern and pianist Terry Bowness collaborate on an intimate mix of familiar tunes, originals, and a couple of popular modern jazz gems to which Stern has provided lyrics. The tone is subdued throughout as Stern's evocative and sometimes haunting voice dances gracefully with the thoughtful and eloquent musings of Bowness' trio. While it's intriguing to hear Stern's lyrics applied to Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes" and J.J. Johnson's title track, the standouts are fresh takes of Lennon & McCartney's "I've Just Seen a Face" and Gershwin's "My Man's Gone Now." Young local saxman David Chenu is someone to keep your eye on. If his debut, One, is any indication, he should have a bright future ahead. Most noteworthy are his original compositions, which place him firmly in a modernist mode with an occasional nod to the blues. Chenu proves to be a solid player, well versed in this expressive language. The duet gigs played by Chenu and guitarist Jacob Wise bear fruit here in the compatible interplay that shines throughout the date. With this fine debut, we should eagerly anticipate chapter two.