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CD REVIEW -- Rhythm Rockets
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She Swings Blue – Volume 1: The Joint is Jumpin’

Brother Raccoon Records

14 tracks/44:07

Rhythm Rockets CD art

by Mark Thompson

In the 1920s, bands roamed the country bringing music to small clubs, VFW halls and theaters – anywhere that had plenty of room for dancers and bountiful cold drinks. Known as “territory bands”, these groups were usually scaled-down jazz big bands. The reduced size made the financial strains of maintaining a touring band more manageable. The groups excelled at playing for dancers, using inventive arrangements to create a big sound with fewer horn players.  As time went on, the bands weathered the Great Depression and World War II but the rise of rock & roll music in the 1950s rapidly provided a new soundtrack for the dancers.


Based out of Chicago, the Rhythm Rockets are well-versed in the musical styles favored by the territory bands.  Their latest release focuses on material that is guaranteed to fill the dance floor and features light, swinging rhythms behind muscular horn charts to form an irresistible combination guaranteed to get bodies in motion. The line-up varies a bit across the four sessions that make up this project but the overall sound never falters.


The core of the band is featured vocalist Nicole Kestler, Mark Fornek on drums, Dave Downer on guitar, and Mike Bielecki on tenor saxophone. Additional horn players include Marty Gierczyk and Sam Burckhardt on tenor plus baritone players Ron Dulin, Justin Keirans, and Ed Enright. Michael Quiroz and Lou Marini split the bass responsibilities while Tony Kidonakis shares the piano chair with Brian O’Hern. Burckhardt was a long-time member of Sunnyland Slim’s band and Fornek served stints with notables including Jimmy Rogers and Dave Specter.


The opening tune, “In the Mood for You,” sets a jaunty pace with Downer supplying a taut solo in support of Kestler’s smooth vocal. The tight interplay between the horns sparks “Evil Gal Blues,” a hit for Dinah Washington.  Kestler takes a lighter approach on “I Got a Feelin’” than Big Maybelle did on the original. After a bowed bass intro from Marini, Fornek beats out an intricate rhythm pattern as Kestler worries about losing her man to another woman. Buddy Johnson and his sister Ella were hit makers in the final throes of the territory band era. The Rockets expertly recreate the mellow swing of Johnson’s band on “”Til My Baby Comes Back,” with Kidonakis adding rolling piano flourishes throughout.


A scintillating cover of the Ravens’ “Rock Me All Night Long” finds Bielecki’s earthy tenor urging the band on. The lone original, “Jumpin’ the Blues”, fits right in with a rocking groove. Downer, who composed the piece, delivers a blistering guitar solo that is matched by Burckhardt’s brawny tenor. “Cannonball Express” is joyous tribute to a legendary train with Kestler’s vocal gliding along over the propulsive rhythm. Her tone is more strident on “I Just Couldn’t Stand It No More,” the only time she reaches beyond the limitations of her voice.  But she recovers nicely with a duet with Fornek on “Ain’t Nobody’s Business but My Own” that holds up well to the original by Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald.


They are even better on a sparkling rendition of “A Rockin’ Good Way,” tackling a tune popularized by Dinah Washington and Brook Benton. Kestler adopts a sassy persona that contrasts nicely with Fornek’s robust tones and a meaty baritone solo by Enright. The solo honors on “T’ain’t Whatcha Say it’s Whatcha Do” go to Downer and Keirans while Kestler’s breezy delivery masks the serious nature of her plea for a real relationship.


The Rockets cover two songs from early in Etta James’ career, starting with “Baby Baby Every Night”.  The earthy charm of Kestler’s singing is supported by backing vocals from the rest of the band in addition to a torrid solo from Burckhardt. When they dig into “Good Rockin’ Daddy,” there is no holding them back. Kestler doesn’t try to match the powerful James. Instead she gives the tune a measured reading, letting a raucous sax showdown between Bielecki on tenor and Dulin on baritone provide the fireworks.


She also takes a lighter approach on “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” as the band sets up a breakneck pace that leaves Ruth Brown’s original in the dust.  Kestler’s catchy vocal, rollicking piano from Kidonakis and the horn section riffing with gusto allow the Rockets to add a final exclamation point to this marvelous collection that honors the past while artfully showing that there is plenty of life left in a genre that virtually disappeared into the mists of time. The combination of Kestler’s distinctive voice, the swinging rhythm section and the magnificent horn section will constantly delight listeners and infect the dance crowd with a serious case of happy feet. A joy from start to finish, this one comes highly recommended! We are looking forward to Vol. 2, which the Rhythm Rockets will release in the near future.


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