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Southside Johnny: Big-Band Time

Southside Johnny

John Lyon has never been interviewed by a jazz magazine-until now. But then Lyon, since the mid-’70s the leader of the New Jersey-based soul-rock collective Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, has never cut a record remotely like Grapefruit Moon: The Songs of Tom Waits. Two-and-a-half years in the making and conceived long before that, Grapefruit Moon (on Lyon’s own Leroy label) pairs the singer-whose vocal texture is now only a few shades less gritty than that of the notoriously laryngitis-lunged Waits-with the 18-piece LaBamba’s Big Band, led by Richie “LaBamba” Rosenberg. A member of the Jukes since 1976, trombonist Rosenberg, who also plays in the house band for NBC’s Late Night With Conan O’Brien, arranged the album’s dozen covers, sourced from classic Waits albums such as The Heart of Saturday Night and Rain Dogs, as well as some obscurities and more recent fare.

For Lyon, who has always featured several horn players in his bands but never 15 of them (five chairs each for saxophone, trombone and trumpet), the opportunity to re-contextualize the Waits catalog with a big band fulfills a longstanding dream. “I’m in love with his music, and I have been since his very first album,” says Lyon by phone from his home on the Jersey Shore, not far from where he and his old pal Bruce Springsteen (who has also covered a Waits song, “Jersey Girl”) first came up. “I always thought that his songs could be reinterpreted to bring out the melodies more. And I thought, Gee, I’d like to do that.”

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