An appreciation and notes By Philip Elwood, San Francisco Examiner The New Deal Rhythm Band, in various configurations, has been performing it's way through the San Francisco area for many years. The nine-piece ensemble represented on this, the New Deal's third, LP played for a number of weeks high atop the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. In it's early days, the NDRB was a considerably less distinctive band than the 1982 version. Typical of such "revivalist" groups, it gained it's modest fame by re-creating sounds of the past; sounds taken, for the most part, from vintage 78 rpm recordings. What makes the current NDRB a quite different, and unique, group is their tendency to play original materials scored along older, traditional lines, but not in any way copied from shellac discs. This is not as easy a task as some might think. It is one thing to take an older pop tune or a memorable recording, and use that as the basis of an arrangement; it is quite another to create one's own library of selections which may sound like the New Deal era of the 1930s but are actually designed to spotlight the various (an many) attributes of the NDRB. In fact, this recent direction by the New Dealers has economic hazards, too, since the accurate recreating of old numbers will always bring out a certain kind of audience (or one of a certain age) but the playing of mostly original stuff assumes that the band, itself, can draw a crowd made up of many generations who want to hear their distinctive renditions. The New Deal Rhythm Band functioned as a musical anachronism for a number of years - young, bright musicians playing shimmering old arrangements for audiences whose pop music memories extended from the late 1920s up to the World War II era. But talented and ambitious musicians get restless and, indeed, frustrated when their own creativity is squelched by leaden arrangements and few opportunities to solo, or at least solo in free fashion. And so, we have this third NDRB LP - of the eleven selections many are originals, all are arranged by NDRB members, some are obscure swing-era jump tunes and only one ("There's a Boat That's Leavin' Soon") could be called a "standard," and it is hardly among the Gershwin's' most famous numbers. The New Deal Rhythm Band sports three saxes - one of them is Jerry A. Ranger, the group's leader and principal arranger-composer. The brass "section" contains but one trombonist and one trumpet-flugelhornist. This sort of complement, of course, requires expert musicians, and those with strong chops and good wind. You'll note, time and again, on the LP the finesse of the brasses and the careful attention in the orchestrations to the balance between reed and brass lines. "Hot Tonight," written by Ranger and vocalist Linda Asher, leads off the LP and is an excellent showpiece which demonstrates the band's current direction. Drummer Mark Clark kicks the beat, pianist Kevin Chalk romps through the boogie-based theme, Asher has a ball with the "Beat Me Daddy" -styled lyrics, and saxist Steve Yamasaki reminds us that even the unwieldy baritone can swing mightily. On "He's My Lover," Asher gets a fuller backup vocal support and both trumpeter Jim Kerl and trombonist Chris Cannard squeeze solos into the tight, swinging, complex arrangement. "Uncle in Harlem" begins like a Cab Calloway number ca. 1933, but expands into a marvelously entertaining vocal and instrumental arrangement. This is the NDRB at it's best and is quite a tribute to Ranger, who did the whole score, sings the vocal and takes the soprano sax solo. Shuffle-rhythm is what we used to call the up-beat tempo of "Chicken Feathers," Louis Jordan used it a lot with his "Tympani Five" and later on Jerry Lee Lewis converted into a rockabilly form. The NDRB doesn't stick with it too long, however, and alters the tune's middle section into a stop-time backup for Cannard's trombone and Yamasaki's baritone. There's a bit of a Woody Herman sound to Ranger's arrangement of this instrumental. Asher, down in her mellowest contralto range, opens up the lavish treatment of "There's
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