The Jim Morey Band's sound echoes the past

click to enlarge The Jim Morey Band: David Crisler, Ann Van Atta, Jim Morey and Billy Carr. - Stephen Hammill
Stephen Hammill
The Jim Morey Band: David Crisler, Ann Van Atta, Jim Morey and Billy Carr.

The Jim Morey Band makes music that transports you to another place and time.

A tired old riverboat paddles sluggishly down the Mississippi on a muggy summer night, carrying drooping ladies waving drooping fans, men with shirts unbuttoned and straw boater hats, the band playing muddy river jazz in a brass-soaked mosey, scattered couples swaying as closely as comfort allows.

A wagon rolls and creaks along a dusty, winding country road; the driver croons soulfully to the beat of the clip-clopping hooves; a group of roving, carefree musicians straggle behind him, plucking banjo and mandolin and acoustic bass, beating hand drums, shaking rattlers, harmonizing with the crooner and prancing to the wind blowing through trees.

Bodies shake and shimmy in a backwoods shack to manic Dixieland and swingin' jazz, maybe a jug band without a jug or vaudeville without slapstick, but at least one unicycle and a kazoo, washboard, slide whistle, vibraslap rattle, a rusty saw, all paired with jaunty banjo, upright bass, loose-limbed drumming, and the cavalier trumpet playing and bold singing of a man in a beat-up bowler hat.

Yes, the Jim Morey Band's music is pleasantly old-fashioned but manages to stay rooted in the present. Neo-ragtime, NOLA jazz by non-natives and with synths, country swing with tongue-in-cheekness, the Tom Waits style of stumblin' roots rock, kazoo- and slide whistle-driven ditties that wouldn't be out of place in Looney Tunes.

The Bay area quartet is made up entirely of members of the popular swing jazz ensemble Lounge Cat. A few years ago, when trumpeter/vocalist Morey started writing music for a side project, he realized he was already working with an awesome roster of musicians who were well versed in the jazz aesthetic. Why not play with them? "So we kind of branched off and are doing our own thing," Morey told me during last week's CL Sessions interview with the band. Despite only gigging as JMB for roughly a year, the foursome benefits from a working chemistry first established and nurtured in Lounge Cat.

Morey has a loose, mellow-mannered way of ring-leading his band and a classy vagabond appeal. Tousled brown hair under a jaunty black top hat, neatly groomed goatee, black vest over a worn tuxedo shirt. He's the band's floater, alternating between trumpet, guitar and kazoo, plunking notes on a keyboard, rubbing rhythms on a washboard, and singing in a warm, velvety drawl.

MIDI-banjo player/freelance techie David Crisler hooks his instrument up to a synthesizer and has 400 different sounds at his disposal, ranging from spacey, sustained vibraphone notes to crispy "pian-jo." Crisler explained that, "Without it, I wouldn't be able to be amplified so much, to compete with drums and electric bass and guitar and saxophones — and kazoos."

Pixie-haired Ann Van Atta brings the unruffled bass playing and backup vocals, and compact firecracker Billy Carr rounds it out on drums. When Van Atta can't make a gig (like this Saturday's ARTpool party), Carr performs as bassist and drummer simultaneously. A one-man rhythm section might sound like mere novelty, but Carr is damn good, a humble virtuoso whose amazing display fits well with the band's quirky charm.

JMB recorded its first song, "Nuthin' but Love," about a poor man who's got naught to give his honey but love, back in May 2006. JMB wrote and recorded more songs over the next few years, then self-released the well-crafted final product, Nuthin' but Love, in November at a CD release show with an adult circus theme.

If JMB's music has an overriding influence, it's the sounds of the Crescent City. "I've been listening to New Orleans music since I can remember, and the music has always inspired me," Morey said. His love of NOLA jazz was intensified after he spent a few years playing in the Big Easy and soaking up its creative vibes.

The city also inspired the slow-rolling, horn-heavy, autobiographical ode "Last Bus," about Morey having to leave the city because of Hurricane Katrina: "Caught the last bus out of New Orleans/ I'm trying to figure out just what it means/ The water keeps risin', bustin' out the seams/ It'll take more than some flooding to wash away my dreams/ I wanted one more day to play on Bourbon Street/ Just one more chance to see those people dance/ Little did I know that if I stayed my death I would meet/ Oh Lord won't you please have mercy on New Orleans."

"I felt kinda lucky getting out of there, but at the same time a little depressed," Morey said of his reluctant evacuation. Even though New Orleans wasn't his hometown, Morey said he felt a deep connection to it. "It must have been a home in a past life or something."

When I asked Morey about the traveling vagabond mystique he evokes in both his music and as a showman, he assures me it's sincere. "I've kind of lived my life like that for the past 10 years, literally living in my van in New York City, working on cruise ships — basically traveling wherever I could to experience whatever I could. And always playing music. Music always got me from point A to point B, even just playing music in the street in big cities and making money to live." And Morey insisted that even if he exaggerates a bit, "those songs were built from my experiences."

Whatever his methods, the outcome is still great music that makes you wonder what other experiences might make it into his musical gumbo.

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