In a direct shout out to the famous Harlem nightclub, and evoking the golden age of jazz orchestras, Meet Me At Minton’s by the JC Hopkins Biggish Band is a polished throwback to the era when premier vocalists fronted illustrious big bands, while dancers flooded the floor. With a rotating lineup of eight singers, backed by fifteen musicians on the bandstand, pianist and leader JC Hopkins serves up a mixed bag of standards and original compositions, enhanced by stellar arrangements, performed with a commanding sense of swing.
All of the selections feature outstanding vocalists that are perfectly cast for the specific song. The gifted Brianna Thomas begins the show with “Remember When,” a Hopkins original that establishes the mood and direction of the record. Thomas repeats on the lovely “Meant To Be,” and the up-tempo standard “Them There Eyes.” Acknowledging a major bebop influence on jazz, and house pianist at Minton’s, the Thelonious Monk masterpiece “Suddenly (In Walked Bud)” brings in the inventor of jazz vocalese, Jon Hendricks, who at 96 years, is still a force to be reckoned with. On this tune, Hendricks does his signature scatting, backing vocalists joining in to stir up the excitement.
With reverence to Billie Holiday, when she held court at the Savoy Ballroom, “Swing Brother Swing,” is turned over to Queen Esther, a versatile and accomplished songstress who steps up to the microphone with undaunted authority and confidence. She was the featured vocalist on the Biggish Band’s 2005 release Underneath A Brooklyn Moon, and her mastery of bluesy swing is obvious. Esther teams up with Charles Turner for the classic “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around,” and for the title track, praising the famed Harlem hotspot, and the roster of musicians who played there. In keeping with the multi-generational aspect of the vocalists, Andy Bey covers the Monk ballad “Looking Back (Reflections)” displaying why he is one of the venerable voices in jazz. Rising star Jazzmeia Horn demonstrates her virtuosity in “What Is Love,” and as a pleasant surprise, Hendricks and Horn combine their voices on “How I Wish (Ask Me Now) another Monk ballad done to perfection; in a clever union of two singers with dissimilar styles and ages, performing with whole-hearted feeling.
The lights are dimmed on “Dreams Come True,” presenting the full bodied tone of Alicia Olatuja, who glows in the subdued spotlight. The blues being the foundation for everything, it’s appropriate that bluesman Solomon Hicks interprets “Alright, OK, You Win,” also playing a stinging guitar solo. Kathy Sledge is given the honor of closing the show, with a splendid version of “All Of Me,” another gem associated with the immortal Lady Day.
It would take several pages of writing to give due credit to the fabulous musicians in the band, who not only play as a cohesive ensemble, but take their solo spots with accurate professionalism and zest. On his original compositions, as well as the covered standards, Hopkins and accompanists replicate the desired music down to the minute musical detail, the vocalists introducing the allure and presence that is needed for the complete experience. For those who were not around during the swinging heyday of the Harlem jazz bands, this is as close and real as it gets.