The Smoke Rings are Alex Levin on piano, Scott Ritchie on bass and Ben Cliness on drums and these cats swing hard. Fronting this exemplary group is Sarah King on vocals on ukulele. The guys play straight-up swing and Ms. King delivers an adorable approach to the lyrics. The song choices and track order are just what makes a swingster swoon.
The first song is the old Duke Ellington/Irving Mills chestnut It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing). The prelude is a deep-voiced groove before Sarah King joins in with her soprano sass. The vocalization is light-hearted, as it should be, and the musicians roll with her. Alex Levin plays the cool cat piano as Scott Ritchie bumps along with the bass. Ben Cliness gets a brief drum interlude and the whole groups carries the song to completion.
Vincent Youmans’ Tea for Two is a great representation of what the band presents in their weekly residence at the Boom Boom Room atop the Standard Hotel in New York City. The first half represents the trio as they were before Alex Levin decided to add a vocalist. The second half of the piece shows just how smart he was to ask her to come aboard.
The story must be told of how she joined The Smoke Rings. Levin was wanting to add a female vocalist to the trio. One day, he was in Prospect Park in Brooklyn and saw a young woman walking by with a ukulele in hand. Levin asked her to play a number for him and, instead of hammering him over the head with the cherished instrument, she obliged him. He said that her voice sounded like an old record. And so it does…in a good way.
That quality is nowhere more evident that on the Tiny Bradshaw/Eddie Johnson/Bobby Plater number Jersey Bounce. She has a brilliantly charming enunciation that over-emphasizes her Rs and rounds the OU diphthong as it disappears into the N. Listen to the album and you’ll see what I mean. Cute as can be.
I Won’t Dance is the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II standard is given a new swing by Sarah King and Smoke Rings. Despite the title, the music compels exactly that. Scott Ritchie gets a smoking bass solo which he delivers with great swagger.
Gifford and Washington’s Smoke Rings follows. The piece is wistful and sweet and delivered wonderfully. I realized, as I listened to this track, that I had been smiling from the start of the album. It has not gone away.
What comes next is one of my favorite Jazz standards of all time. Duke Ellington’s famed Caravan—co-written by Ellington, Juan Tizol and Irving Mills—is perfect. Cliness opens the track with the throaty toms and brings the whole kit to bear as Ritchie swing s the bass alongside. Sarah King nails the vocal performance splendidly with a near-Ella Fitzgerald delivery. I was still thrilling to her over-hardened Rs.
Ritchie’s bass solo runs brightly and warmly andLevin’s piano is spot-on. Beautiful.
Some Other Spring by Arthur Herzog, Jr. is lovely and innocent and compelling. An andante swing casts the image of cool stroll as Levin’s piano creates the oh-so-right atmosphere Ms. King’s gorgeous vocals.
Our Love is Here to Stay (George & Ira Gershwin) is introduced by Ms. King’s encouraging a cappella before kicking in gear with the trio. The Smoke Kings’ version pulls off a bigger swing and Cliness’ well-seated rim shots and snare rolls add a punch that is welcome indeed.
I Don’t Know Why (I Just Do) by Roy Turk and Fred Ahlert is a sweet lament that King presents with anguish and languish but without losing that delightful charm.
The album concludes with Hoagy Carmichael’s Up a Lazy River. The piece opens with vocals, ukulele and piano. A warm and lucid image of just what the title suggests. Then the listener hears the countback and a whole ‘nother thing breaks loose—a ripping yarn of fun and merriment. The instrumental passage is catchy and gives all the artists a spin in the spotlight. The smile has remained undimmed.
Some have suggested that Sarah King’s voice is the center of attention and the “star of the show.” While there can be little doubt that she has enhanced what went before, the trio delivers with integrity and aplomb and creates the foundation upon which Ms. King builds. All four artists are integral to the finished sound.
Sarah King and The Smoke Rings are a treasure. Here's to the lucky New Yorkers who get to enjoy them weekly.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl