Featured Music: Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Ricki Derek
Tue, Feb 17, at Scat Jazz Lounge, 111 W 4th St, Ste 11, FW. 817-870-9100.

Standards old and not so old pop up on local singer Ricki Derek’s latest album.


On his third album, the freshly released Ricki, crooner Ricki Derek interprets several ’80s pop hits, including The Cure’s “Why Can’t I Be You,” Duran Duran’s “Rio,” and Modern English’s “I Melt With You.” The choices are fitting for a thirtysomething jazz vocalist: Jazz artists’ affection for pop music has gone from crush status to hot, buttery love in just a few short years. And tunes by Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, and other soft-rockers aren’t the only ones getting jazzed. Several Radiohead songs have been covered by outré pianist Brad Mehldau, and hits by Nirvana, Black Sabbath, and Queen have been reimagined by The Bad Plus. In most cases, the rock song’s main melody just serves as a point of departure for barely structured jams a la John Coltrane’s early versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” (The Sound of Music). For Derek, arranger David Pierce, and a murderer’s row of local jazz talent on Ricki, the ’80s songs are opportunities to mess with your head.
You might not even recognize some of the tunes, happily enough. “Rio” is perhaps the first lounge epic ever recorded. Clocking in at a heroic 6:44, Derek’s take on one of the Brit-pop quintet’s biggest hits starts off slowly, ominously: Part of the brass section carries a bottom-heavy phrase as the other part cranks up the swank, resulting in a back-and-forth that soon culminates in an orgy of brass. Just as quickly, the song settles back into its slinky lurch. The chorus, instead of being bright and bubbly, is understated, even though toward the end –– “Just like a river twisting / Through a dusty land” –– the horns rise up again. The cheer is tempered by Derek’s smooth, unaffected voice, ruminating over the chorus instead of belting it out like a young British coverboy married to an Iranian supermodel.
The song slickly morphs into a vamp in the middle, ostensibly to give lovers a chance to twirl themselves silly on the dance floor. Which stands to reason: In addition to performing, Derek also co-owns Scat Jazz Lounge, a downtown hangout that recently celebrated its two-year anniversary. Derek is the main house act.
In a way, Ricki is a calling card. “Rio” isn’t the only song that lets the big band stretch out and give listeners a taste of what goes down at the Scat on any given night –– or what Ricki and company could do under the bright neon lights of Vegas, baby. About two minutes of the Cole Porter classic “Night & Day” are devoted to undulating root-a-toot-tooting. A couple of other tracks are really nothing but showing-off ops. On the reinterpretation of the ’70s R&B staple “Sunny,” Derek’s band alternates between soft Glenn Miller-influenced swing and burlesque music. The song’s innocent lyrics don’t exactly call for melodies that mirror the ebb and flow of sex, but whatever.
There are some other odd notes on Ricki — not at all sour, just confusing. The sexy swing during the instrumental portion of “The Shadow of Your Smile” doesn’t jibe with the melancholy nature of the lyrics. And “King of the Road,” unless it’s done as a heart-wrenching ballad, replete with a weepy string section, will never be anything but silly and forgettable.
The one and only track that’s almost all wrong is “Night & Day.” Popularized first by Jolson and later by Sinatra, the song reeks of desperation. (U2 also does an awesome version, on a 1990 compilation album, Red Hot + Blue, benefiting AIDS research.) “Night & Day” isn’t exactly the kind of song you’d want to dance to at your nuptials. It’s more along the lines of a cryptic note stuffed under your windshield wiper, written in blood: “In the roaring traffic’s boom / In the silence of my lonely room, I think of you / Day and night / Night and day / Under the hide of me / There’s an, oh, such a hungry yearning burning inside of me / And its torment won’t be through / ’Til you let me spend my life making love to you / Day and night / Night and day.”
Pretty scary stuff. Well, on Ricki’s interpretation, the horns swing gently, ballroom-style, and Derek sticks to his M.O. of directness. Only at one point, near the end, does he show some anguish, and it rings true, which might just make you wish he had taken more chances throughout. We can all appreciate young Derek’s modesty, not attempting to own any of the originals. Still, what’s a singer if not an egomaniacal pleaser/daredevil?
The most precisely, inventively arranged track is The Cure one. A drunken, shuffling, New Orleans-style funeral march introduces an oompah-umpah-ing tuba. A muted trumpet follows: wahhh wah wah wah wah. Derek, going against his natural instinct for restraint, comes on like a boozy lounge singer, at some points really sinking his teeth into the lyrics and growling: “Running around in circles ’til I run out of breath / I’ll eat you all up! / Or I’ll just hug you to death.” The chorus is just one question –– “Why can’t I be you?” –– asked over and over, and the horns, sparkling and sassy, respond to Derek by playfully admonishing him, like, “Oh, don’t be ridiculous, you creep!”
A close second in the creatively arranged department is the showstopper “I Melt With You,” a vibrant hip-shaker, all snappy brass, hiccupping congas, and even some tambourine. The massive crescendo –– the technical term is “toilet-flush ending” –– is totally apropos.
Derek, perhaps obviously, sounds most comfy on the standards. Yes, “When You’re Smiling” is the song that Mel Torme sings to Kramer, who in a legendary Seinfeld episode is mistaken for a mentally handicapped person after being punched in the jaw. (“I wanna dedicate this song to a very courageous young man.”) And, yes, the song also has been Louis Prima-ized. But the signature version is by Louis Armstrong, who imbues it with his trademark sweetness. Smartly, Derek hews to Louis –– you can just see him smiling with his eyes, applying a gentle palm to Kramer’s shoulder –– and, just as smartly, arranger Pierce shakes the dust off the original’s swaying, waltz-y tempo.
Derek’s best vocal performance, though, is on Benny Goodman’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” The singer squeezes words into small spaces here, elongates words there, and toward the end matches the big band’s burgeoning excitement by cranking up the volume and even adding a little vibrato.
Derek’s performing career started in earnest almost 10 years ago after he put on a tribute show to Sinatra, who had just passed away. To some people, Derek, a tall, gregarious, studly figure with a wry sense of humor that’s always evident onstage, is still known as “that Sinatra guy.” Anyone who tackles major entries in the jazz canon is bound to invite the comparison. Derek does the Chairman of the Board proud.

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