Swing Shift

The Hothead Fiasco chart a sophisticated sound that goes beyond the dance floor

Call it envy, snobbery, or plain old honesty. But Jay Mote and Jimmy Kennedy of the Hothead Fiasco don't mince words when evaluating their more commercial peers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. "Well, the scenesters dismiss us as just another swing band, another Big Bad Voodoo Daddy," sniffs Kennedy. That band "did a good job of bringing that music to the public," Mote adds, "but they're not pushing the genre: It's always just the same jam in different keys. Our chord changes aren't that simple."

That's not bragging, just a statement of fact. Long before the Daddies helped to sire the retro-swing trend with their paint-by-numbers horn charts, Minneapolis's Hotheads, known then as the Strawdogs, were fashioning a more complex meld of Dixieland, swing jazz, and daffy pop-rock. Since swapping ex-front man John Eric Thiede for Kennedy (formerly of the Glenrustles) and changing its name, the band has refined its approach even further, plumbing the rich veins of more obscure Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington arrangements for their melodic integrity and harmonic innovation. Ornamenting this foundation are accents of rock and a vaudeville-on-Broadway theatricality. Mote is enough of an archivist to speak fondly of Wingy Malone, a little-known Armstrong contemporary whose trumpet lines were slowed by the loss of his right hand, but he and the other Hotheads were reared in rock bands that covered everything from Black Flag to new wave and liked to lace their swing-jazz panache with the adrenaline, if not the angst, of that early-Eighties era.

Heads will roll: (clockwise from top left) Eric Nelson, Morris Engel, Frankie French, Randy Venaas, Jay Mote, and Jimmy Kennedy of the Hothead Fiasco
Tony Nelson
Heads will roll: (clockwise from top left) Eric Nelson, Morris Engel, Frankie French, Randy Venaas, Jay Mote, and Jimmy Kennedy of the Hothead Fiasco

Cold Feet, the Hotheads' new platter, is consequently an exacting olio of original tunes. There's the Voodoo Daddy-ish "Back in the Swing" and the whimsical "Kissypoo" (with vocalist Dana Thompson mincing like Betty Boop). So, too, there are tunes like "Rock Bottom," which gallivants with an urgency reminiscent of 2-Tone bands like the Specials, and the creamy, Ellington-oriented ballad "Tan Turns to Blue." Recorded at Salmagundi studio in Northfield, Cold Feet required painstaking efforts, with contributions from each member of the octet laid down separately and then layered together.

Along with its stylistic breadth, the disc is distinctive for its vocal textures and horn arrangements. The former was achieved by sifting through a raft of microphones lying around the room, enabling the group to re-create a turn-of-century megaphone sound on "Soupline" and following it up on the very next cut with a plush, breathy vocal on the ballad "Heavens to Betsy," accurately described by Mote as "a Disney tune." Boasting supple singers from both genders (Thompson and Frankie French), the group had the talent to pull off the microphone roulette and an occasional switch from stereo to mono recording without making it seem like smart-ass gimmickry. But the mettle of any swing-jazz ensemble resides in its horn voicings, the area where Mote earns his unofficial status as the band's leader. After laying down all his trumpet parts in just nine hours, Mote says, he had a solid basis upon which to work in the rest of the horns, a deft mix filled with jittery riffs and modal atmospherics.

To date, Mote has proven as agile at charting his group's career path as he is at fashioning their horn charts. Once known as the Hothead Swing Band before a copyright dispute prompted the Fiasco appellation, the ensemble has cashed in on the swing boomlet with many a corporate gig, pandering to the suits who want to loosen their ties with some trendy jumpin' jive. And now that this ersatz swing mania has crested, Mote sees the group's diverse CD as "a résumé record that shows people some of what we can do. We have been solicited about movies, both for soundtracks and live music for silent movies. I'd be very interested in doing something behind animation."

Indeed, "crazy cartoon music" makes for a pithy synopsis of Cold Feet. And once you've been likened to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, partnering up with Mickey Mouse isn't that much of a stretch.

 
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