GYPSY  SWING, SOUTHERN BLUES, POPULAR STANDARDS    COMING STRAIGHT OUT OF SOUTHWEST LOUISIANA


Downbeat by Frank-John Hadley

Ann Savoy: Black Coffee (Memphis International 0025; 43:55 ***1/2)
Cajun music may be dearest to Savoy’s heart, but close are Hot Club swing jazz, Bessie Smith, Peggy Lee and 1930s jazz singers Lee Wiley and Mildred Bailey.  With excellent, unruffled support from Balfa Toujours fiddler Kevin Wimmer, jazz guitarist Tom Mitchell and a rhythm section, she’s right at home singing in English or French old favorites like “My Funny Valentine,” “If It Ain’t Love” and Smith’s “You’ve Been A good Ole Wagon.”  Too pretty and tender: “Embraceable You,” a vocal duet with Mitchell.

Ann Savoy & Her Sleepless Knights, 
Black Coffee 
(Memphis International, 2010)

Along with her husband Marc and their family, Ann Savoy (pronounced Sav-wah) is best known as a seminal figure in the traditional Cajun music of our time. In various combinations, Savoy has recorded many albums in this still-living, still-vital regional genre. As Ann Savoy & Her Sleepless Knights, however, she explores the sort of sound associated, at least in part, with the legendary Hot Club of Paris, a French-flavored mix of jazz, pop and blues. Black Coffee is, moreover, broadly reminiscent of some contemporary recordings by the likes of Maria Muldaur and Sunny Crownover, who share a taste for swing and standards played on acoustic string instruments.

Given Savoy's amply documented gifts, it is no surprise that Black Coffee -- the second Knights project; I haven't heard the first -- is as intelligently conceived and pleasurably executed as it is. The band, consisting of Kevin Wimmer (fiddle), Tom Mitchell (lead guitar), Eric Frey (upright bass), Chas Justus (rhythm guitar) and Glenn Fields (drums), tackles material from a range of vintage sources. Most of the original versions were cut during that vital era of popular and vernacular music that stretched between the early 1920s and early 1950s, when the American Songbook (the classic compositions of Ellington, Mercer, Rodgers/Hart, the Gershwins, et al.) was created, jazz entered the mainstream and rural-based music was transformed into something new as it found its way to the big cities.

On Coffee Frank Sinatra ("My Funny Valentine"), the Boswell Sisters ("If It Ain't Love") and Billie Holiday ("If You Were Mine") rub elbows with Bessie Smith ("You've Been a Good Ole Wagon," long a Dave Van Ronk signature piece albeit in a whole lot raunchier version), Blue Lu Barker ("New Orleans Blues") and Django Reinhardt (on several cuts which allow Savoy to do her vocals in French). Savoy and her band make for one formidable unit, and her vocal duet with guitarist Mitchell -- he sings in English, she in French -- on the standard "Embraceable You" is little short of a stunner.

Savoy manages, too, varying temperature levels, from the almost hypnotically cool purr of "Valentine" to the red-hot strut of "New Orleans Blues." Mostly, though, the ambience is atmospheric and saloonish. If the music is easily accessible -- and it certainly is -- it is not so easily done. But the doing is exquisite, and these six musicians, masters all, couldn't manage false notes, melodic or emotional, if they tried.