Eventually they became confident in their sound, and audiences began to get it too: tight song structures draped on loose arrangements. And the absence of a chording instrument gave Kearney, Price, and Olson plenty of room for improvisation.
Their big break came when Kearney won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest for “Sometimes When I’m Drunk and You’re Wearing My Favorite Shirt” — it paid for their first CD, In this Episode . . . (2006), as well as the first tour and some very nice equipment. The tour also cemented the group bond and led to last year’s Promises, Promises.
Kearney: “Jazz people don’t think we sound jazzy at all, and people who aren’t jazz musicians always think that it sounds jazzy.” The band’s unity, she says, isn’t “a genre or a style, but an æsthetic, shared musical ideals: melodies that are really memorable. That’s why we can do so much with the tunes. We all try to write melodies that exist on their own — independent of production style.”
Miss Tess’s music is of a piece with her calculated stage persona. She’s always Miss Tess, even when she’s returning your phone call for an interview. Her thing is original tunes and covers that draw on early jazz and blues, with a bit of country thrown in, and she likes to perform in vintage dresses as well as play a sweet, full-toned 1920s Weymann electric guitar. On her new Live on the Road, she covers Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose,” Bessie Smith’s “Baby Doll,” and the Gaskill/McHugh standard “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me” — which, as she says on the disc, “I learned off a Peggy Lee record.” The Bon Ton Parade, meanwhile, put the emphasis on swing, with acoustic bass and drums, and the well-schooled local jazz reedman Alec Spiegelman playing saxophone and clarinet.
SWING APPEAL Miss Tess has the music to back up the persona.
Tess — who plays the Regattabar April 7 — doesn’t have as plush an instrument as Price, but the two share an honest approach to musicmaking, and you can hear her emotional directness in both her pliant phrasing and her songwriting. Home, her 2004 disc of 12 impressively mature originals, was recorded with just her musician parents backing her (father Marv on reeds and pedal-steel, mother Kathy on bass). The opening “When Tomorrow Comes” is typical: as well structured as a standard, a statement of fateful optimism. On disc (which includes 2006’s Modern Vintage) and live, her playfulness and humor are also evident. On Live on the Road, the upstroke of her guitar on “I’m on Top of the World” drives the band’s swing, and you can hear the smile in her voice. That and her up-tempo insomnia swinger “Can’t Sleep” are like hits waiting to happen. Somewhere.
Of course, it’s not out of the question for a 27-year-old to be playing such old music — Madeleine Peyroux has built a career on a Billie Holiday croon and an older swing style of playing. But Tess found her own way into the repertoire. A middle-class kid in suburban Maryland, she grew up with parents who played things like “Honeysuckle Rose” around the house, and it wasn’t unusual for Tess to come home and find her parents singing and playing.