Recreating Billie’s world for a new age.
By Jeff Cebulski
Metropolitan Jazz Octet
featuring Dee Alexander.
It’s Too Hot for Words. Delmark, 2019.
Dee Alexander – Vocals
Jim Gailloreto – Tenor sax
John Kornegay – Alto sax
Peter Brusen – Baritone sax
Doug Scharf – Trumpet
Russ Phillips – Trombone
Bob Sutter – Piano
Doug Bistrow – Bass
Bob Rummage – Drums
Patrons and attenders of the Chicago Jazz Festival who caught the side concert featuring the Metropolitan Jazz Octet with singer Dee Alexander should be pleased with Delmark Records’ release of It’s Too Hot for Words, a pleasurable, well-recorded mingling of players and vocalist from among Chicago’s finest veteran jazz artists.
Tribute albums are a dime a dozen, especially in the jazz world. Often the material holds close to the originals, to the point where one wonders if jazz can be jazzed. In this case, ten songs that hearken back to Holiday’s golden era are merely the starting point—Alexander’s delivery is clearly Dee’s, not Billie’s, and the songs’ arrangements, while certainly conventional in sound, are reconstituted for maximum effect, engineered wonderfully by Andy Baker (the last sound on the album is a tipped high hat, as clear as a bell) and lovingly produced by the octet’s Jim Gailloreto, John Kornegay, and Bob Sutter. The fidelity is exceptional, and John McCourtney’s mix is careful to reproduce the band in all its glory.
It’s difficult to pinpoint highs on this album, but the collection is particularly enticing on the bluesy material where Alexander gets to “represent.” The opener, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” is classic Billie attitude, delivered by Dee with appropriate swagger. On “The Blues Are Brewin’,” the horn interplay brightens the occasion centered on Sutter’s honky-tonk keyboard—there’s a strong Ray Charles influence here, as well as on “Somebody’s on My Mind,” where the prelude is taken to quality swing by a Copland-ish bridge. A tasty solo by Doug Scharf gives way to others by Russ Phillips, and Gailloreto. Dee gets to grind a bit at the end, encouraged by Russ Phillips’ meaty trombone.
Gailloreto’s arrangement of “Things Are Looking Up” nods toward Broadway, a lighter treatment, with strings, that has no hint of irony. The striking difference in vocal approach between it and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” demonstrates Alexander’s incredible range—if you don’t know Dee Alexander as a Chicago treasure by now, then this recording should cement that idea.
“You’re so Desirable” begins quietly before the octet, with a Basie dose of energy, charges in to blow the sentiment into a greater stratosphere.
“Strange Fruit” receives appropriate dignity, the reeds providing foreboding chords while Alexander enunciates the symbolism. In this version, the orchestration suggests its presence in a dramatic movie musical. As Sutter emphasized in the liner notes, Dee knows how to tell a story.
The follow-up, “I Wished on the Moon,” is nothing like Holiday’s version, which by this point is perfectly fine. I think there’s some of Sarah Vaughan in Alexander’s treatment, supported by a sedate, lavish, big-band arrangement. The swing interlude is led by a nifty Brusen solo.
And perhaps my favorite tune is “It’s Too Hot for Words,” where a classic jaunty tempo dressed up with strings and horns is interrupted by a trip into salsa-land, with Dee getting a chance to scat dance along with altoist John Kornegay.
No clunkers here. What we get is the best big-band era ambiance but with fewer instruments, played with aplomb and a great singer along for the ride, but in a twenty-first-century studio with high-quality professionals in charge. The reinvigorated Delmark label has done well, again, in providing us a timely representation of Chicago’s finest jazz musicians.