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November 2001

Ballin' the Jack
The Big Head
Knitting Factory

Saxophonist and clarinetist Matt Darriau's swing band Ballin' the Jack made its aims clear on its first album, Jungle. Instead of offering the typical carefully embalmed versions of swing-era repertoire-or even the tightly puckered, airless readings of Don Byron's Bug Music-Darriau's crew offered fresh, bawdy performances that captured the brash fire of the originals. The band also eschewed downtown's trademark po-mo irony. The band made it clear from the beginning that they were serious about their love for this music-and serious about having fun with it as well.

On the new The Big Head, Ballin' the Jack once again offers a slightly akimbo take on the likes of Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Gene Ammons. Leadbelly's "Dick's Holler" features impressively gutsy soloing by Darriau, guitarist Ben Sher and trumpeter Frank London, underpinned by Anthony Coleman's sinuously gurgling organ. Coleman goads the headlong rush of Goodman's "Seven Come Eleven" with spacey electric keyboards a la Sun Ra. A cheeky version of "Moonlight Serenade" interpolates extramusical bits from a Glenn Miller recording into the arrangement.

This time around, however, the band takes its concept one step further, interspersing original compositions by band members among the classic jazz and blues covers. In each case, the writing deftly balances swing-era sounds and styles with more contemporary elements, creating a true fusion that unites the two periods. Sher's solo feature "L'Espirit Django" celebrates the gypsy guitarist while gently updating his vocabulary. London's "Noche Loisada" offers a showcase for his raucous plunger mute, Darriau's keening alto and Andy Laster's booting baritone. On the whole, the results demonstrate the continued relevance and vitality of the swing era better than any literal reproduction could hope to.

Originally published in November 2001
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