The Hogtown Syncopators
Review of “Rotman’s Hat Shop”
For 75 years, Rotman's hat shop on Spadina Avenue in Toronto was the place for the Jewish community and others still wearing hats to buy a fedora, a beret, almost any kind of hat. More than that, it was the story of one man's life; David Rotman lived and worked there, every day fighting a forlorn sartorial rearguard. Finally, the ailing hat shop, a Toronto institution, closed. In some part Mr. Rotman's tenacity served as inspiration for this group; singer Terra Hazelton used to read Mr. Rotman's mail to him, and so this album is named for Rotman's hat shop.
Hogtown is local slang for Toronto, Canada. The Hogtown Syncopators set their music at the end of the swing era, just before bebop swept in like a Puritan purge to eliminate dance rhythms from jazz.
The first track on the album takes us back to a time when wholesome, blonde Doris Day was making movies, a time of A-line dresses, make-up, and heels. "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" was a love duet which she sang in the film of the same name, but it originated earlier. This version opens with a piano intro by Richard Whiteman. The conversation in the duet is between the close- harmony male voices of guitarist Jay Danley with clarinet/violinist Drew Jurecka, and Hazelton. James Thomson is on bass. The hot fiddle violin slides and weaves romantically in and out of the music in counterpoint. A pure, almost innocent, duet, arranged by Jurecka, takes a more complex and exciting shape by emphasizing the swing rhythm.
"Rotman's Hat Shop" is a track firmly rooted in the Hot Club of France tradition, swinging between Danley's guitar and the violin. "Sweet Spot" is the quintet's tribute to the early electric guitarist Charlie Christian, a member of Benny Goodman's sextet until his untimely passing at 25 years of age. Next comes a standard ballad, the wistfully charming 1934 Ray Noble Orchestra tune "The Very Thought of You." It is delivered smoothly by Hazelton, who hits and holds her notes to a soft whisper-finish.
I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket" (by Irving Berlin, from the 1936 film Follow the Fleet, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) features a rhythm guitar accompaniment to the plaintive glissando notes of the violin, reminiscent of Stephane Grappelli. The track was entirely in tune with the big Song&Dance films of the era, when light-footed Fred Astaire floated and danced his way to fame.
A change of pace takes us back to the Blues for a song about the woes of drinking moonshine, "It Ain't No Good for You." The rhythm changes location to Cuba for a bolero which ends with a novelty finish typewriter tap, slide, and bell sound. This is "Bird of Paradise," the group's tribute to Duke Ellington whom Danley had imagined writing for Django and Grappelli.
Then comes another blues, "Turnaround is Fair Play" the poetic revenge of a girl on her two-timing man, featuring train-whistle blues chords on the violin. The group changes up a gear for a fast "The Spider" (a Danley/Jurecka co-composition) which they punctuate with sharp pizzicato accents from the violin. It is a tribute to Carl Stalling, an exceptional musical director who, for 20 years, arranged the scores for universally successful Bugs Bunny and Looney Tunes cartoons.
They finish the recording with another blues, filled with loaded innuendo "My Man is Such a Handyman" and laugh their way out of their embarrassment.
It bears noting that the majority of the songs on this album were composed and written by Jay Danley. And yet, his music sits comfortably with the standards of the Swing era on the recording. A rare achievement made to sound natural. Bravo! New, inventive compositions and lyrics, written within original jazz and blues styles, will propel the music into the future.
Track Listing: By the Light of the Silvery Moon; Rotman's Hat Shop; Sweet Spot; The Very Thought of You; I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket; It Ain't No Good for You; Bird of Paradise; The Spider; Turn Round is Fair Play; My Man is Such a Handyman.
Personnel: Jay Danley: guitar; Drew Jurecka: violin, clarinet; Terra Hazelton: vocals; Richard Whiteman: piano; James Thomson: bass