JAZZ REVIEW : Sweet Baby Blues Knows What It Means to Swing

In the beginning, there was jazz, and the sound was swinging, and the spirit was wild and infectious. And the Lord looked down and he said, "This is good."

But musicians became gods, and music became art or big business. And the mood grew stiff and formal.

Until San Diego husband and wife team, Jimmy and Jeannie Cheatham, came along. And, Wednesday at Elario's, their Sweet Baby Blues Band swung and shucked and jived through opening night.

And the club's small stage was packed so tightly with moving and grooving musicians that Jeannie Cheatham was on the verge of falling overboard as the eight-piece band worked its way through an opening set of blues-based standards and originals, playing to a standing-room-only crowd.

The Sweet Baby Blues Band features a five-horn front line that adds punch to every tune. Jimmy Cheatham's horn charts give the ensemble all the drive of a classic big band.

Alto saxophonist Curtis Peagler was a standout, mixing rapid be-bop lines with squealing echoes of jazz's avant-garde and savory blues riffs, which he repeated over and over as the other horns goosed the tempo and the rhythm section tethered the whole spicy thing to earth.

Trombonist Cheatham and young trumpet player Nolan Smith spurred each other to better and better solos. Smith's sharp, brassy sound serves as the section's perfect high-end accent.

Jeannie Cheatham sung a molasses-slow version of the Pete Johnson blues standard "Cherry Red," with Peagler's sax and Jimmy Cheatham's muted trombone laughing and crying to mimic her vocal nuances.

Jimmy Noone switched from tenor sax to clarinet for "C.C. Rider," anchored by John (Ironman) Harris' rock-steady drumming. The other horn players added background sing-along over Noone's clarinet solos.

"Roll 'Em Pete" found the tall, angular Peagler rubbing Noone's forehead to conjure chorus after chorus of fluid tenor lines from the short, stocky saxophonist.

Jeannie Cheatham showed why she is a critics' favorite on "In the Dark," a slow blues song to which she applied her full range, from low-down growls to honey-smooth high vibrato, and everything in between. She followed up with "Ain't Nobody's Business."

The band closed the set with "Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On," with the horn section singing the title refrain over and over in unison.

Bassist Red Callendar, a half-century veteran of jazz--since his 1937 recording debut with Louis Armstrong--locks in with Harris and Jeannie Cheatham to provide a bottom end that helps every tune swing.

The Sweet Baby Blues Band was having a great time. On stage, it was one big party, as Peagler toyed with Noone, Cheatham and Smith hammed it up, and baritone saxman Dinky Morris played the straight man at the edge of the stage.

The Cheathams have received wide acclaim for several albums, but theirs is spontaneous music that is best appreciated live, where the sound is three-dimensional and the players' gestures and facial expressions are in full view.

Now, this is good.

The band plays nightly through Sunday. A word of caution: This could be its only local appearance this year.

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