Jazz CD Reviews

Roberta Donnay and the Prohibition Mob Band – A Little Sugar – Motéma

Prohibition-era music which is more than just mere nostalgia.

Published on December 11, 2012

Roberta Donnay and the Prohibition Mob Band – A Little Sugar – Motéma

Roberta Donnay and the Prohibition Mob Band – A Little Sugar – Motéma MTM-104, 50:47 ****:

(Roberta Donnay – vocals, co-producer, co-arranger; John R. Burr – piano; Sam Bevan – bass, co-producer, co-arranger; Michael Barsimanto – drums; Rich Armstrong – trumpet, cornet; Sheldon Brown – saxophone, clarinet, flute; Wayne Wallace – arranger (track 8), co-arranger (track 13), trombone; Ed Ivey – tuba (tracks 3, 11))

On the surface, there is nostalgia for the past on Roberta Donnay’s 1920s-slanted album, A Little Sugar. The San Francisco-based singer has shaped a 50-minute, 13-track excursion immersed in the speakeasy era, but unlike other, likeminded projects, this is not a hit parade from the rum-running days. Rather, Donnay focuses on a specific idea: this is music meant to carry the listener back in time, but more importantly, this is material intended to inspire and educate. On two, six-minute promotional videos, Donnay explains she sought songs which were not well known and which surveyed the Jazz Age (from about 1920 to the start of the Great Depression), which coincided with women’s suffrage and a certain establishment of freedom for women. Thus, A Little Sugar has a socioeconomic perspective which fits well with Donnay’s viewpoint and stance.

Although the pieces have essential stories to tell about relationships between men and women and what women state about their lives, this is also a swinging CD with jazz and blues connotations. Donnay pulled together an engaging group, dubbed the Prohibition Mob Band, to develop an amiable balance of enthusiastic lissomness and sassy confidence. Notable collaborators include bassist Sam Bevan (who also abetted Donnay with arrangements and production); Latin jazz trombonist Wayne Wallace (who helped arrange two cuts; he produced Donnay’s 1989 debut); trumpeter/cornet player Rich Armstrong (whose credits include Boz Scaggs, Thomas Dolby and Michelle Shocked); and others who perform on piano, drums, and other horns.

Many artists associated with these early tunes were strong self-assured women. The opening selection, the slowly-scorching, brass-charged “Oh Papa,” was originated by Ma Rainey and later became part of Bessie Smith’s repertoire (as “Oh Daddy”). While the feeling is rhythmically upbeat and fun in spirit, there is a serious, underlying lesson about a philandering man who will rue the day when he walks out on his woman. The arrangement is faster, is not as earthy as Rainey’s version, and evokes Rainey’s jazz-band work with luminaries like Kid Ory. Not as famous was Sippie Wallace (a major Bonnie Raitt influence). Here, Donnay skips lithely through one of Wallace’s less popular blues, “Mama’s Gone, Goodbye,” which Wallace did as a piano/vocal duet. Donnay maintains a blues texture, but promulgates a jazzier treatment, highlighted by John R. Burr’s striding piano, Sheldon Brown’s sweet, clear clarinet and Ed Ivey’s tuba (which handles the bass duties, a typical occurrence in the acoustic period). Donnay denotes how she’s finished with a man who cheats on her, “Been to school and learned a brand new rule, now I ain’t no one’s fool,” she asserts, “I’m gonna get me a man, who’ll treat me right, one who’ll stay home every night.” This is not a novel message, although it is still relevant, but in the 1920s this was a revolutionary declaration.

There are some standards as well. Donnay sounds wonderful, with precise phrasing and intonation, on a slow turn through Irving Berlin’s ballad, “Say It Isn’t So,” done by Billie Holiday, one of Donnay’s avowed heroines. The torch song is pure emotion, with Donnay showcasing her jazz vocal approach with assurance and skill. Bevan, Burr and drummer Michael Barsimanto provide an instrumental section which features their metered musical communication. The full band helps out on the swinging Berlin classic “(Tropical) Heatwave,” initially introduced on stage by Ethel Waters and revamped two decades later by Marilyn Monroe (see 1954’s There’s No Business Like Show Business). Wallace’s Latin-tinged arrangement (particularly the lively instrumental midpoint) supplies a charismatic South American allure. Donnay displays an easy-going charm on the pop/jazz standard, “You Go to My Head,” interpreted by everyone from Bing Crosby to Rod Stewart. Also intoxicating is Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rocking Chair” (a hit for both Mildred Bailey and Frank Sinatra), a poignant jazz waltz which Donnay learned from Dan Hicks (Donnay worked as a Lickette for seven years). Bevan, Burr and Barsimanto are a sympathetic rhythm team who support Donnay’s expressive voice.

There are a couple of cuts conceived far from the flapper period, but which aptly relate with the rest of the material. First, there is “You’ve Been a Good Ole Wagon,” composed in the 1890s, but recorded in the 1920s by Bessie Smith. This is the piece which acted as the catalyst which eventually culminated in this collection. The Prohibition Mob Band lights a flame under this percolating little number, capturing the song’s soul and establishing it as an audience-pleaser. The late-night closer is Donnay’s original “Empty Bed Blues” (co-written by Joel Evans; the track shares a title linked with Bessie Smith), which is a perfect conclusion to an album which captivatingly refashions a prominent and significant era of music and social change. Engineer and mixer Gary Mankin (who has brought his behind-the-boards expertise to Holly Near and Kitty Margolis releases) ably shows off the best elements of singer and band: he accents the supple rhythmic backing, unobtrusively brings instruments to the forefront when needed but keeps the auditory spotlight on the vocals, and complements the arrangements with subtle and useful sonic touches.

TrackList: Oh Papa; You Got to Swing and Sway; Mama’s Gone, Goodbye; Say It Isn’t So; I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling; One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show; Rocking Chair; (Tropical) Heatwave; You To to My Head; Sugar Blues; You’ve Been a Good Ole Wagon; (I Want a Little) Sugar in My Bowl; Empty Bed Blues.

—Doug Simpson




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