The Johnny Nocturne Band featuring Kim Nalley
Retro is hip if you're talking vintage clothes or rare eBay collectibles, but in jazz it's sad. Tired bands playing tired tunes — because they've got nothing new to say — get old fast. Yet some artists, like Johnny Nocturne Band leader John Firmin, mine old-school material for its time-tested values (e.g., the blues). When handled with care, as on the combo's just-released, fourth Bullseye CD, Million Dollar Secret, this kind of investigation can open a window to the past that's indeed still relevant today.
Pumping fresh blood into the trendy but often anemic jump-and-jive craze, the Johnny Nocturne Band stands out from the other swingers on the block. First, credit the group's repertoire of slick and substantial arrangements on charts by the likes of Duke Ellington and Illinois Jacquet. Then, check the uptempo horns and brawny solos by Firmin (tenor sax), Rob Sudduth (baritone sax), Bill Ortiz (trumpet), and Marty Wehner (trombone), which fondly recall the soulful bounce of Louis Jordan or Tab Smith. But above all, the honors go hands-down to the band's sassy, sexy vocalist, Kim Nalley.
The singer's spot-on passion for the sultry phrasing, vampish attitude, and cool confidence of mother-diva Dinah Washington translate into playful, hot-under-the-collar baiting on Million Dollar Secret. In her mid-20s and already a savvy performer, Nalley doubtless gets a rise out of the gents in the audience with the title track tease: “You know them old men are fine/ And they know just what to do.” These sounds will definitely take you back a few decades, but somehow the vibe just doesn't feel old.
The Johnny Nocturne Band appears on Monday, Dec. 6, at 8 and 10 p.m. at Yoshi's, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland. Tickets are $7; call (510) 238-9200.