I’ve no science to support this hypothesis, but there’s something magical about three-part vocal harmonies. It’s an institution in any genre. And when backed by exemplary musicians as extensions of that unified voice, the combination can be sensational.
In the tradition of the sisters Boswell and Andrews, pioneers of this timeless triad form, comes the Company B Jazz Band, one of Vancouver, B.C.’s finest purveyors of cracklin’ standards as performed in smoky gin joints and electric dance halls. The sextet’s ambitiously expansive repertoire covers 30-plus years of American life, from the 1920s to the 1950s, and they’re always unearthing more unforgettable forgotten gems to revive for appreciative modern-day ears.
“That’s so much fun,” said Jennifer Hodge, the band’s upright bassist, in a telephone interview last week, speaking with an exuberance that did not betray such spirit. “There are so many great recordings and tunes that have been lost over time. One of my hobbies is collecting 78-rpm records, and there are so many sides that have never made it onto CD, or even LP. ‘How did this song disappear into obscurity? Let’s bring it back.’ It’s so old, as they say, that it’s new.”
Company B’s kind-of the same way: a fairly recent enterprise with both a venerable set list and a name derived from a rousing (and Oscar-nominated) 1941 Andrews Sisters hit, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
The group emerged from a 2007 convergence of like-minded Capilano University music students. It all began when vocalist Shannon Scott received a 2-CD Andrews Sisters collection from her grandmother. Interestingly, Hodge said, the iconic American trio — such a lively, vital component of 1940s popular culture — was nowhere to be found in their studies.
“It seems like jazz education in this part of the world tends to focus on bebop, figures like Miles Davis and John Coltrane,” Hodge explained. “Programs tend to gravitate toward that era in jazz, where the music is technically difficult. If you learn to play bebop and pick up what you hear, then you can tackle anything else. It sharpens your musical senses.
“Some people will say that it’s easier to play ’30s jazz than ’50s jazz, but I don’t know if that’s true. But it’s so fun to dig into that music with Company B.”
Scott enjoyed the discs — as anyone would — and together with Hodge, fellow vocalists Emily Lyall and Juhli Conlinn (who also plays a contraption called the “mellozoo,” a metal kazoo affixed to a solo-tone trumpet mute; its ribald razzmatazz tickles such songs as “Sunday”), clarinetist/saxophonist Jens Christiansen and guitarist Dave Taylor, began delving deeper into a rich tradition and adapting its treasures for themselves.
“Shannon and I did a lot of the transcribing together,” Hodge said. “We went from checking out the Andrews Sisters to other groups from that era — earlier material, later material. Who were they inspired by? Who was inspired by them?”
The Andrewses, of course, were influenced by the Boswell Sisters, three siblings who rose to national fame in the 1930s on a saucy string of Brunswick-label hits that included “When I Take My Sugar to Tea” and the Hit Parade-topping “The Object of My Affection.” In fact, the younger trio first established themselves by performing Boswell numbers before coming into their own as wartime stars in the ’40s. (The later act’s popularity has since eclipsed their predecessors’, but both are more than worth your time.)
“The Boswells wrote their own arrangements,” Hodge said. “All three were highly trained musicians, whereas the Andrews Sisters had arrangements written for them. The Boswells’ arrangements are more musically complicated; the Andrews Sisters are great, danceable, more complex in a different way. They were directed more at dancers than listeners, perhaps, whereas the Boswells were maybe the other way around.”
Touring Company B’s recorded oeuvre makes it clear that they have both approaches covered. Their eponymous 2009 debut is driven by the female trio’s impeccably rendered harmonies (“Crazy People’s” vocal vamps, “The Lonesome Road’s” spooky-tight unity) playfully caressed in giving instrumental support (dig the raised-eyebrow clarinet weaving between breaths on “Straighten Up and Fly Right”).
Last November they released the cheekily named “Rock & Roll,” which, as the title of a 1934 Boswell Sisters platter, has nothing to do with the genre, as the music within attests. Company B waxed the entire album live, which required only about 24 hours, although it took more than a few grueling sessions to reach that point.
“We rehearsed hard for that recording,” Hodge recalled. “We spent a lot of time nailing our tempos and getting our tunings perfect. It was a kick in the pants, a fun, self-imposed challenge. That’s the way the Andrews and the Boswell sisters would have done it, so why not?”
Also, a live setting is where the six-piece excels, receiving and giving to a packed room of people who can’t stay off their feet.
“The music is just so much fun,” Hodge said. “That’s the bottom line. Everyone in the band, I think, loves that it attracts dancers. That adds so much energy to the mix. You can see it in people’s eyes when they watch us. Playing music is good at the best of times, but when people want to tell you how it made them feel — that’s fantastic.
“There’s a lot to be said about the music’s positivity. It’s happy and the beat is great. People naturally respond to its swingy, bouncy feel. And that three-part aesthetic is hard to say no to. Although in a lot of ways, the songs are arranged, there’s room for spontaneity. We have fun, and that fun is communicated. If you go to our shows, it’s going to be a little different each time.”
Movers and shakers with jazz hands and bees’ knees are invited to catch the band in person as part of a Corvallis Swing Dance Society event on Friday, Dec. 13. Lessons begin at 7 p.m., followed by Company B at 8, then a blues DJ at 10. Admission is $15 suggested, free for Swing 171 students.