At a glance, it would be easy to view the Hot Sardines in strictly revivalist terms.
You have a New York bred band with a singer reared in France, Canada and the Ivory Coast wielding a repertoire that reaches back to the ‘20s,’30s and ‘40s for inspiration. Then you hear sounds that come from as nearby as Harlem and as remote as Paris and New Orleans. At the forefront of the band’s music – and, in particular, its self-titled major label debut album – is vintage swing. But gypsy and creole accents, all kind of jazz spirits and bountiful performance immediacy are also at work. The result is a sound that hints heavily at the past but possesses an undeniable here-and-now vitality.
In short, while the music is not contemporary, it’s not a museum piece either.
“That is the take we really hope people will have about the album and the music we perform live,” said Hot Sardines pianist, bandleader and co-founder Evan “Bibs” Palazzo. “The music isn’t dusty in the way we approach it because we know it so well. Our attitude about the music is that it’s universal and perfect for the 21st century. It’s very joyous. The way we express joy may be a little different than how people are used to, but there is no mystery to it. It’s what we love and we play it how we feel it.”
The Hot Sardines formed when Palazzo’s wife placed a Craiglist ad seeking a jam session with enthusiasts of vintage “hot” jazz. That introduced the pianist to Parisian-born singer “Miz” Elizabeth Bougerol. In turn, that led to a pack of like-minded jazzers that included a tap dancer (“Fast” Eddy Francisco) and, eventually, an itinerary heavy on subway busking, bar gigs and open mic nights.
Enter a rave-like performance phenomenon – an underground speakeasy movement, to be exact – that quickly earned the Hot Sardines a cultish but devout following.
“You would go online, get a password and then an address comes to your email for where you need to go on a given Saturday night,” Palazzo said. “It was usually a warehouse in deep Brooklyn, somewhere non-descript. But 300 or 400 people in their 20 and 30s would come out dressed like it was the ‘20s. When you walk in, these places would be decked out like a nightclub. There was burlesque, cocktails, the whole nine yards. We kind of cut our teeth by discovering this circuit. Eventually, other people came to these underground events, like Lincoln Center, for instance. So, really, our reputation and our opportunities flowed from that.”
Flash forward to late 2014. Balancing residencies in such noted New York venues as Joe’s Pub with international touring, the band released The Hot Sardines, an album on Decca/Universal boasting classic jazz works by Fats Waller (Honeysuckle Rose), Sidney Bechet (Petite Fleur) and Victor Young (I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You) as well as similarly structured originals (the Bougerol tunes Wake Up in Paris and Let’s Go.
“Elizabeth always says we’re old souls. I don’t know if that’s true. But I do know my parents and her parents played this music for us in our formative years, so it definitely formed our understanding of music from the get-go.
“Now here we are with a lifelong hobby that has turned professional. Every night we get to have the greatest party with a great group of people. It’s a very social music with a real romantic sense to it, too, that may be a little bit lacking in music today.
“I see a lot of couples coming out and it’s always the same scene. The ladies are into the whole thing – the outfits, the fishnet stockings – and they’re dragging along their guys who are usually just wearing their business suits with maybe a fedora. But by the time the night’s over, they think it’s pretty awesome. All of that draws me to this music.”
The Hot Sardines perform at 7:30 tonight at the EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. in Richmond. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to www.ekucenter.com