Jazz Album of the Week: Smile with Bill Warfield and the Hell's Kitchen Funk Orchestra
August 17, 2020. A group of musicians from a place called Hell’s Kitchen exhorting you to smile might seem a little presumptuous in times like these. Then again, what do you have to lose?
Bill Warfield and the Hell’s Kitchen Funk Orchestra (HKFO) not only tried smiling—they organized their entire sophomore recording around it—and the results are encouraging. Smile, HKFO’s first release since their 2015 debut, is built around, or more accurately between, two versions of Charlie Chaplin’s famous imperative prescribing resolute cheeriness in the face of sorrow.
The opening take on Chaplin’s “Smile” is airy and roomy at a slower tempo, with drummer Scott Neumann on brushes and pianist Cecilia Goodman filling sensitively on piano, while guest vocalist Julie Michels—known for big range and dynamics—impresses most here with restraint, a soft alto offering solicitude through song to anyone who might be in need.
Warfield’s flugelhorn cuts through some of the smoke generated by Michels’ vocals and, though perhaps a bit maudlin, resonates with the hope that we might soon again have joyful things over which to cry.
The next one, a take on Weather Report’s “Cucumber Slumber” is an invitation to get out of your own head and onto the dancefloor. Paul Shaffer—yes, that one!—plays the Hammond B-3 and Fender Rhodes with a level of soulfulness he never quite reached as Letterman’s bandleader and erstwhile sidekick. This is the funkiest outfit Shaffer’s been a part of since his fictional guest appearance with Pootie Tang.
Even Pootie would have to agree that underneath acid-drenched solos from tenor saxophonist “Blue Lou” Marini and electric guitarist Matt Chertkoff, the man keeping this funky bus in gear is bassist Steve Count, whose bouncy riffs on the electric bass guitar call to mind the Philadelphia native who co-wrote this tune with Joe Zawinul, the one-time Weather Report bassist, Alphonso Johnson.
The road to Smile’s closer, an instrumental take on Chaplin’s lip-curling anthem memorably featuring just Warfield on trumpet and Shaffer on the Fender Rhodes, is paved with seven more eclectically sourced covers and two Warfield originals.
The first of the originals is “Dance of the Coal Cars,” a mostly by-the-numbers funkified blues for big band punctuated by brass section sound effects that sound like slow-moving trains pulling into and out of a crowded station. Of course, most jazz fans would prefer the horns to sound like ‘Trane as opposed to trains, but, as Van Morrison and Joey DeFrancesco proclaimed on their semi-recent collaboration, it’s close enough for jazz.
“Mad Dog 245” is the second and more compelling Warfield original, a tightly arranged and tightly executed piece reminiscent of the more cerebral compositions to issue from the horn-heavy fusion bands of the 70s like Chicago, Tower of Power, Blood, Sweat and Tears, et al. As such, it’s likely just a tad advanced for the Intro to Fusion course, a piece the well-trained ear might appreciate just a little bit more.
Still, the covers offer plenty of access points for the uninitiated. Whether you’re coming from a background heavy in country, Motown, pop or just happen to be really into television theme music, there’s something for you here that, via a familiar melody, will introduce you to jazz-style arrangements and instrumentation.
For those who really dug (or still dig!) the whole new wave thing in the 80s, check out HKFOs version of the Eurythmics’ “This City Never Sleeps,” a take highlighted by a sharp passage featuring just drummer Scott Neumann and pianist Cecilia Goodman playing together out front, a rare opportunity for two rock-solid members of the rhythm section.
For those who prefer their steak country-fried and their biscuits for breakfast, HFKO presents a funk-styled take on Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 hit “Ode to Billie Joe.” Complete with the wacka-wacka rhythm guitar effects, the transformation to a funk-sounding tune doesn’t lack for much, leaving aside the fact that it essentially dispatches with the pathos of the original composition. This is the inherent danger of covering tunes with a literary bent.
Still, the group’s take on Williams and Ascher’s “Rainbow Connection,” with vocalist Carolyn Leonhart affecting a more sonorous, if less froggy, Kermit, is sure to register well across age groups and time zones, despite—or more likely because of—being far from the album’s most adventurous selection.
Vocalist Jane Stuart, who acquits herself proficiently on “Ode to Billy Joe” and also appears on “First Time On a Ferris Wheel,” a tune originally written as the love theme for Berry Gordy’s 1985 motion picture The Last Dragon—this album is full of bar trivia gems— is at her strongest on “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination,” a tune that was originally a hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1973.
It’s here, finally, that the real Jane Stuart, the singer, stands up and lets listeners in on what her true voice—or best voice— sounds like.
The instrumental iteration of “Smile” is the album’s closer, but you’d do just as well to end with what might be the most satisfying—and is definitely the most gimmicky—tune on the record, HKFO’s five-and-a-half minute arrangement of the “Theme from Law and Order.”
Marini and Dave Riekenberg stand out on soprano saxophone and clarinet, respectively. And Chertkoff seems to lay down those familiar electric guitar riffs with utmost earnestness, without breaking character...but we’ll never know. One way or another, these guys will get you to smile.