JC Hopkins Biggish Band: Underneath a Brooklyn Moon (2005)
Whether you call the locale uptown or downtown, pianist JC Hopkins and his "biggish band play it in fine New York City style on their debut, evoking the sounds of both smoky lounges and larger halls of yesteryear. The California-born Hopkins moved to New York and began this heartfelt project, which combines a larger jazz ensemble with stylish vocals by the ever-interesting voice of "soul diva Queen Esther. The biggish part comes in to play in the form of a fourteen-piece band featuring area musicians with both lesser and more recognized talent.
The vibe of the recording is totally hip, recalling sounds from the likes of Ellington, Gershwin, and even Steely Dan with a big sound, snazzy vocals, and ubiquitous swing. Hopkins shows promise with arranging and writing, contributing nine out of ten compositions with some co-arrangements by popular singers Norah Jones and Madeleine Peyroux. The tone is redolent with the aura of the large dance halls of the '50s, authenticated by a superlative set of jazz musicians who support the affable music and songs with class.
Underneath a Brooklyn Moon is based loosely on the concept of a young couple's new life in Brooklyn. The majority of the songs feature vocalist of Queen Esther, who effectively channels her added presence with style and attitude. Her range is broad, whether sharing harmonies with guest vocalist Lewis Barnes on the title selection or delivering odd eccentricities to "I Still Believe in Some Kind of Love. From upbeat pieces to involved ballads, the memorable tunes flow with optimism and spirit.
Hopkins has assembled a fine group of musicians who have performed with luminaries from Ray Charles to Henry Threadgill. While the melodies are catchy, the group and individual performances are just as profound. Every selection is encapsulated within incisive horn arrangements and good solos. On the dreamy "I've Got My Finger On A Star the trombone flows quietly as the clarinet echoes the melody. "Small Town features the band swinging heartily while supporting duel vocalists with a nice round of instrumental solos.
One of the best songs on the recording is the melancholy yet hopeful "Someday, which spotlights Esther's wonderful inflections and a beautiful tenor saxophone solo by Patience Higgins. Hopkins has done a fine job of bringing his "biggish band to life, and from the sound of this debut, it's easy to hear why it's called the hippest little big band in the country.
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Track Listing: Here Comes Love; One Never Knows; I've Got My Finger On A Star; Ice Cream Song; Underneath A Brooklyn Moon; Small Town; I Still Believe In Some Kind Of Love; Someday; Show Biz'ness; Settle Down.
Personnel: J.C. Hopkins: vocals, piano; Queen Esther: vocals; Lewis Barnes: vocals; Liberty Ellman: guitar; Cleave Guyton: clarinet, alto saxophone; Patience Higgins: tenor saxophone; Claire Daly: baritone saxophone; Erik Jacobson, James Zollar, Chuck MacKinnon: trumpet; Vincent Chancey: French horn; J. Walter Hawkes: trombone; Warren Smith: vibraphone; Catherine Popper: double bass; Sunny Jain: drums.