The lineup for this year's Tucson Jazz Festival, as has become the norm, is blessed with a fine balance of well-known names and some that are waiting to be discovered, some traditional jazz bands and some that offer a twist on the much-loved genre.
New York's Hot Sardines definitely edges towards the traditional side of things, though band leader Evan Palazzo and lead vocalist Elizabeth Bougerol add their own twist of French vintage pop. The pair met in 2007 when they both answered a Craigslist ad to take part in a jam session above a Manhattan noodle shop.
"We bonded musically over the idea that you couldn't hear traditional jazz live much," says Bougerol. "Wonderfully, there's a lot more of it today. It's a borderline spiritual experience to hear it live. There's just something about all the horns and harmonics, the joy in watching musicians improvise together—that's just something really uplifting."
The sound is seated in trad jazz, but both Palazzo and Bougerol are fascinated with that period between the beginning of the last century and the mid-'50s.
"We do a straight-ahead Dixieland tune, but then we'll also do an Edith Piaf song, or we'll take an Ella Fitzgerald song, and we'll turn it into a mambo, but a mambo that sounds like Nat King Cole would have done it in the '50s," says Bougerol. "So it's really playing with all those styles that were emerging as people were getting a sense of what this thing called jazz was."
The Piaf/vintage French-pop thing makes sense when you realize that Bougerol was born in France and moved to the States as a child. She was already singing for her own pleasure at 5, performing in high school musicals as she got older. By the time she got to New York, a whole new world was available to her.
"When I was living in New York, I started going out and hearing a lot of music," she says. "I was so buoyed by all the different styles going on at the time and just started to get a bee in my bonnet about wanting to do something with this music. I was a closet obsessive about this stuff, which you can imagine made me super-popular in school. When everyone else was listening to whatever they were listening to, I was mainlining the Cole Porter/Ella Fitzgerald songbook. I unofficially studied all that stuff for as long as I was listening to music. My mom couldn't quite handle playing kid's records for me, so she just played me Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra. That's what she loved, and that's what we listened to at home."
Of course, the New York jazz scene of today isn't the vibrant, dangerous thing that it once was, but Bougerol insists that it's been seeing a mini revival in recent years.
"In terms of the kind of stuff we do, it's really exploded in this beautiful way in the past three years," she says. "There are now so many places in New York where you can go on any night of the week and hear beautiful stuff like you probably heard in the '30s, '40s and '50s. We who play this stuff always sit around and wax lyrical about how amazing it must have been to walk through Times Square 80 years ago and stop into any bar and hear amazing musicians playing gorgeous music. We're not quite there yet again, but there's a lot of great music to be heard."
Unfortunately, Bougerol believes that jazz is still a dirty word on a national level, which is strange for her because back in France when she was growing up jazz and pop music were part of the same thing. There was no separation.
"It's interesting as an immigrant, and now living in the States, to see how jazz has been this genre over to the side," she says. "I can't speak to the grand state of jazz, but I think that so many people are making music in jazz that is connecting with people, and I think that's something jazz needs. People who want to connect with an audience, and that's been exciting to see. Some of my favorite people
are garnering attention. Cecile Salvant just got a Grammy nomination for her new record after winning last year, and it's beautiful and she deserves. I just saw Catherine Russell sell out Carnegie Hall. She is doing some of the best, beautiful, traditional vocal jazz on the scene today."
Bougerol says that she's looking forward to getting to Tucson, not least because she enjoys performing to festival crowds.
"A lot of people are there for the festival itself and may not know who a band on our level is," she says. "It's great when people stumble on us and are converts, and you get that a lot at a festival. We're going to be doing some stuff from our most recent album, French Fries and Champagne. As well as stuff from our previous record, and a couple of gems that we dug out of our early stuff that Evan and I used to play with. And then some new material that we're going to be guinea-pigging the Tucson crowd with. There'll be high energy, there'll be invitations to get out of your seat and slow dance with your sweetheart. Hopefully we can take you back in time a little bit, just for one night."
After the festival, The Hot Sardines will be spending 2018 touring, performing and recording because, at the end of the day, that's what working jazz bands do.