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JAZZ REVIEW : Sweet Baby Blues Band Lets the Good Times Roll


HUNTINGTON BEACH — You'd be hard pressed to find a group that has as much fun singing the blues as Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham's Sweet Baby Blues Band.

A paradox? Not with this outfit. During the eight-piece ensemble's appearance Thursday at the outdoor amphitheater at Golden West College, it concentrated on one thing: letting the good times roll.

With a four-man horn section and pianist Jeannie's direct vocals, the group combined Texas-styled blues and Kansas City-inspired jazz to keep their 90-minute set jumping. Sure, there were plenty of tales of woe and despair, but all were given upbeat, if not uptempo, treatments.

This is a group of musicians who enjoy themselves on stage, and that meant plenty of hi-jinks, vocal asides and efforts at thespianism from the boys in the band.

On "Rock Me in Your Arms Tonight," trombonist Jimmy and trumpeter Nolan Smith responded to the lyric--"touch my finger, turn out the light"--in repeated, sweeping gestures, while alto saxophonist Charles Owens made a point of cutting the illumination.

At one point during a long, circular piano figure during Pete Johnson's "Roll 'em Pete," Jeannie leaned into her mike and asked, "How long is this line going nowhere?"

But there was serious business to attend to as well.

Most of it came from the horn section, with excellent offerings from Smith, Owens, tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Rickey Woodard and baritone player Dinky Morris.

For his part, Jimmy left most of the improvisational duties to his brass mates. But when he did step forward, Cheatham tickled the crowd with a talkin'-to-ya style that contained plenty of risque asides.

Tenor man Woodard seemed most consistently able to move the crowd. This veteran of stints with Jimmy Smith, Ernestine Anderson and Ray Charles is an especially effective R & B-style soloist, with a good sense of development and a way of inserting dramatic pauses in just the right places.

Woodard picked up the clarinet for "Ain't Nobody's Business," working into his solo with a quote from "Mona Lisa" before taking the slow-paced complaint to New Orleans with the kind of lines that Pete Fountain can never quite make feel genuine.

Nolan Smith was featured on "I Can't Get Started," his trumpet soaring to higher peaks at Jeannie's urging as he closed. In other tunes, he offered wah-wah and other mute effects, often in tandem with Jimmy. His vocal on the Cheathams' signature tune, "Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On," was a respectful Louis Armstrong imitation.

Baritone player Morris bumped and rumbled through his solos with an intensive propulsion. For "Black Drawers," he switched to the tiny sopranino sax and added bird calls to the raunchy number.

Owens, a saxophonist who has worked with Mongo Santamaria and Buddy Rich as well as Frank Zappa and Diana Ross, made his best efforts in more jazz-oriented numbers such as "In the Dark" and the be-bop flavored "Daddy-O."

Bassist Richard Reid employed a rich woody tone from his upright, adding a funky tinge to everything he played, while drummer John (Ironman) Harris supplied rock-steady timekeeping and occasional flourishes to push things along.

At the center of the parry was Jeannie's vocals and keyboard work. The singer can swing, as she did on "Daddy-O," or be soft and suggestive, as she was on "Rock Me in Your Arms Tonight."

Her keyboard work ranged from spare, chordal accompaniment to more involved, Erroll Garner-styled lines. And just when the party would seem to lag, the vocalist made some kind of comment to keep the laughs coming.

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