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POP AND JAZZ REVIEWS : Good-Time Baby Blues

December 14, 1987|LEONARD FEATHER

The Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham Sweet Baby Blues Band, six men and two women strong, blew in Friday from its San Diego home base to play two nights at Catalina Bar and Grill.

Pervasive though the blues still is in most jazz territories, this good-time group is like nothing else now active. With Jeannie Cheatham singing and playing straight-from-the-roots piano, and her husband pulling his weight as bass trombonist and arranger, you are transported back to the Savoy Ballroom.

Jeannie shouts not, neither does she holler. Her blues vocals are delivered in an authentic but tempered manner, whether the song is one of her own ("Finance Company Blues," "Evil Ways") or a genuine antique ("Cherry Red," " 'Tain't Nobody's Business"). Now and then she slips in an Ethel Waters growl. Her piano, similarly, is unspectacular yet convincingly geared to the Kansas City mood.

Jimmy Cheatham, whose arrangements are serviceable, keeps his solos down to basics, using few notes and muffling his sound with felt and plunger mutes.

Oddly, the two principal soloists in this swing-oriented band are strongly bebop-influenced. Trumpeter Clora Bryant's "I Can't Get Started" (one of only three non-blues numbers in an 80-minute set) strained at a Dizzy Gillespie groove; she was more at ease on the blues numbers. Alto saxophonist Curtis Peagler's "Christmas Song" was somewhat tentative; elsewhere he came up with some explosive blues statements. At one incongruous point he tossed in a whole chorus of Charlie Parker's "Au Privave."

There were moments of genuine nostalgia. Jeannie Cheatham introduced the 1930s Pete Johnson hit "Roll 'Em Pete" with the comment: "Pete Johnson used to baby sit our son." Saxophonist Jimmy Noone Jr. switched to clarinet to achieve an uncanny duplication in "Sweet Lorraine" of the mellow lower register solo his legendary namesake father achieved on this song.

Traditional but never corny, old-fashioned but not antiquated, the Cheatham band offers a jubilant reminder of glories that are gone but not forgotten.

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