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The Fat Babies: 18th & Racine

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If Wynton Marsalis stands accused of playing museum jazz, what to make then of the Fat Babies? The young Chicago septet is steeped in the music’s earliest moments, performing 1920s jazz not only faithfully but perfectly in every way-from the blowing and strumming styles to the recording itself, with the bass and drums faded slightly into the background.

18th & Racine is the second album from Beau Sample (string bass), Andy Schumm (cornet and alto saxophone), John Otto (clarinet and alto saxophone), Dave Bock (trombone), Paul Asaro (piano), Jake Sanders (banjo) and Alex Hall (drums). As strong as their 2012 debut was, this one’s more adventurous, not just in the stylistic variations but in the material. Whereas Chicago Hot was full of familiar melodies such as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “I Surrender Dear” and “Tight Like This,” 18th & Racine plucks pieces whose melodies are unrecognizable even to the most astute jazz fans-the marching title tune, the lovely “Mabel’s Dream,” the lively “King Kong Stomp,” the rollicking “Oh Baby”-with only the rare standard like “Stardust” (taken at a faster-than-usual, midtempo speed) to ground us. And the surprises don’t end there: Within these 15 tracks are the straight-faced call-and-response vocals of the novelty tune “I Can’t Dance (I Got Ants in My Pants)” and the piano-trio take of James P. Johnson’s rag “Blueberry Rhyme,” the dessert that closes the disc.

Though the hot-jazz style is going on 90 years old, 18th & Racine feels urgent rather than hackneyed. The interlocking lines, the dazzling piano runs, the cornet blasts and clarinet squiggles and lockstep banjo-it all feels so exciting, so immediate. These fellows are utterly convincing, and that’s because they sincerely love this music. The Fat Babies are stuck in the past, and hopefully they won’t get out.

Originally Published