When the Hot Sardines finished their sold-out set at the Manhattan cabaret Joe’s Pub on June 14, an album release show for French Fries & Champagne (Universal Music Classics), no one expected Alan Cumming to come out for the encore. After some salacious stage banter to set the scene, the Scottish actor channeled some combination of Cole Porter and the emcee of Cabaret, one of his signature roles, joining lead singer “Miz Elizabeth” Bougerol in a raspy, slightly nefarious rendition of “When I Get Low, I Get High.” The performance had one half of the crowd dancing in their seats and the other half reaching for their smartphones.
Initially, the New York-based band had no established relationship with the Good Wife star, but thought, “Why don’t we just ask? And to our extreme pleasure, he responded that he knew of our little outfit and was a fan,” says pianist and co-leader Evan Palazzo. Shortly thereafter, they recorded the duet at Manhattan’s now-defunct Magic Shop. The arrangement of the song, which was written by Marion Sunshine and memorably recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, subverts gender norms with Cumming’s noirish vocals. Cumming also appears in the trippy music video, directed by Alex Peacock, imbuing the minor shuffle with an air of Weimar psychedelia.
Vince Giordano, multi-instrumentalist and bandleader of the eminent Nighthawks Orchestra, has followed the Hot Sardines since early in their career. “When I was young, I was worried that the generation of musicians around my age was going to be the last bunch of folks getting involved with traditional jazz. But now there seems to be a wonderful renaissance,” Giordano says. “They’ve got a lot of energy and are really turning young folks on to vintage jazz, which is important.”
That energy is spurred by historical fidelity, bespoke suits, dedicated tap dancer “Fast Eddy” Francisco and impeccable arrangements that harken back to an era when arranging was more important than producing. “The ‘perpetual conflict’ between clarity and grace is what makes hot jazz hot,” wrote John Cage, referring to the unpredictable tension of rhythmic pulse and offbeat phrasing. That and other deft balancing acts have landed the Hot Sardines at the forefront of New York’s robust trad-jazz scene.
French Fries & Champagne, the band’s sophomore album, alternates between frothy confections with strings and greasy hot-jazz standards and originals. The album has the band venturing beyond interwar decadence, the touchstone of their self-titled Decca debut, which included zippy covers of “Honeysuckle Rose” and the Andrews Sisters’ “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön.” French Fries extends the repertoire with a gospel-tinged take on Marilyn Monroe’s “Running Wild,” from Some Like It Hot, and a foray into the ’80s, another era of conspicuous consumption, with Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.”