Get Up Offa That Thang: Jonathan Kane’s February
I recently spent the evening at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory taking in a séance conducted by Jonathan Kane’s February. As their set built a four-guitar, blues-based throb and blast, the audience nodded with approval, or with closed-eye concentration, or with iPhones held aloft — but they remained rooted to the ground. I turned to my colleague Victoria and we shared a simultaneous thought: why aren’t people dancing to this?
(Hear for yourself, below).
Not a new phenomenon and New York audiences are renowned as more aloof than most. But February’s music presents a challenge to the staid: with Kane at the helm, the beat is a gleefully propulsive engine; the bass (Adam Wills) demands attention despite the sonic wash of the three guitars; and the guitars (Jon Crider, David Bicknell and Peg Simone ) reach serial crescendos with interlocked, elongated phrases of strum and ice-pick notes. Yes, the band references modern composition’s concerns with volume, duration and the revelations of phased repetition — but the blues elements and interpretations of the likes of Mississippi Fred MacDowell shift the center of gravity from the head to the hips.
As it happens, I’m reading Elijah Wald’s bracing history of American popular music, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Despite the rather sensational title, the book serves as a corrective to our received rock, jazz, and blues creation myths by focusing on what mass audiences chose to listen and dance to, and it is as fascinating and colorful as the myth-making. As with many long-obscured aspects of pop-music history, Wald clears things up. In fact, his book suggests a specific date when audiences began to leave the dance floor to stand in rapt attention: August 21, 1935. Benny Goodman’s appearance at LA’s Palomar Ballroom has long been considered the swing era’s birthday, but Wald points to a change in audience behavior that built over that summer.
Goodman became a hero of “hot jazz” true believers as a result of small-ensemble recordings with Bix Beiderbeck, some under the name the Charleston Chasers (a group that included Gene Krupa, Glen Miller and the Teagarden brothers), and his first Columbia sessions with, among others, Coleman Hawkins and Teddy Wilson. Now fronting his own band, Goodman commissioned charts from Fletcher Henderson and Benny Carter, and took the opening night gig at Billy Rose’s Music Hall — to the management’s consternation. Wald quotes Goodman’s recollection of that night: “Some people who came in stood around the bandstand to listen, and while we thought that was fine, Rose got the impression we weren’t getting across because everyone wasn’t dancing.”
In July, 1935, Goodman released Henderson’s arrangement of the Jelly Roll Morton song, “King Porter Stomp,” and it was a burner — but a national tour was mostly a disaster. No one knew how to dance to the fast, swinging rhythm, and halls depended on dancers, not listeners. A discouraged Goodman pulled into California, and supposedly spurred by Krupa, let loose in the final set at the Palomar. “To our complete amazement, half the crowd stopped dancing and came surging around the stand,” he recalled. Those swinging hepcats, the ancestors of the black-clad Brooklyn bloggers… ah, Reader, they are us.
The blues, however, present no such tempo or rhythmic challenges and, as Wald notes, the word itself probably first described a loose riffing with simple chord changes meant for late-night dancers clutched in a slow grind in shadowy, disreputable turn-of-the-20th-century saloons. It’s that hip-level, gravitational pull that Kane locates and then spirals into an ecstatic shout. February has just released Jet Ear Party on Table of the Elements records. An accompanying video of “Gripped” lets a constant circular tracking shot stand in for the motion the music demands — but traps the band in our gaze. So let’s make like our pre-swing forebears: put February on the laptop and grind.
To hear “Jet Ear Party”, visit Smoke Music.
Jonathan Kane’s February: “Gripped”