Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” has been an integral part of swing revival band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s live sets since day one in 1989.
Trumpeter Glen “The Kid” Marhevka calls Calloway one of the band’s biggest heroes, and just one listen to any Big Bad Voodoo Daddy track bears this out. The band’s swinging jazz sound is straight out of the 1930s and ’40s big-band era, from which Calloway is best known.
However, it took the California-based group 20 years to release a full-album tribute to Calloway. “How Big Can You Get? The Music of Cab Calloway” came out in 2009, and, surprisingly enough, it marks the first time the band has played any other Calloway songs besides “Minnie.”
“[‘Minnie the Moocher’] was pretty much the only Cab Calloway song we had done live, as a tribute to him every night — we’re fairly well-known for doing it live,” Marhevka said from his home in Los Angeles.
For Gazette music writer Brian McElhiney’s review of this show, click here.
“We’d talked about doing more of his stuff, but we mostly do original music. Later on, the idea came up again [to do the album], and we realized that Cab Calloway would have been 100 years old that coming year, so we thought it would be a sort of cool time to do a 100-year tribute to Cab Calloway.”
The record also marks the band’s first studio outing since 2004’s “Everything You Want for Christmas.” However, the band has continued to tour throughout, and has been playing shows behind “How Big Can You Get?” off-and-on for the past 10 months. On Friday night, the band will be at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall as part of another two-week outing through the Northeast.
Original material, too
While the obvious focus of the shows is the Calloway material, the band’s original material, which spans six studio albums including two Christmas albums, will also be a large part of the performance.
“We do a breakdown of what [Calloway] might have done in the Cotton Club [in New York City] in the ’30s, some of his most popular songs,” Marhevka said. “We sort of mix in our songs throughout the set.”
Having Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s songs next to those that Calloway made famous performing as vocalist and bandleader has elicited good responses from the band’s audiences. According to Marhevka, all of the music blends well together.
“People really, really love Cab’s songs, and we do cool versions of them that are really fun and great to do live,” he said. “Our music is definitely conducive to the same sort of style and sound that the Cab Calloway songbook represents, which is one of the reasons we chose to do this. . . . We wanted to pay tribute to him and get people interested in his music.”
Search through the songbook
Initially, Calloway’s estate approached the band to do the project, but eventually the band moved forward with it on their own in order to get it done within the time frame they needed to have it completed by. In 2008, the band — Marhevka, vocalist Scotty Morris, drummer Kurt Sodergren, bassist Dirk Shumaker, saxophonist and clarinetist Karl Hunter, saxophonist Andy Rowley and pianist Joshua Levy — began going through Calloway’s songbook in search of ideas.
“A lot of it came down to our singer, Scotty, what he was comfortable singing, what he wanted to sing,” Marhevka said. “Our piano player, Joshua Levy, did the arranging. . . . Some are really close to the originals, and some are a little different.”
Calloway, known for his scat singing, often led much bigger bands than Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s lineup, so may of the arrangements had to be tweaked to make them fit with the group’s instrumentation. But perhaps the biggest challenge was simply capturing the feel of Calloway’s original versions.
“It’s a very similar style to what we normally play, right on par with the language of the style we know, but some of the songs, like from the ’20s or ’30s, are just a little bit older style of jazz,” Marhevka said. “The phrasing, articulation, vibrato, are much different from what you normally do nowadays with the more modern sound, so it was cool to listen back, to listen to the way they played it then.”
With “How Big Can You Get” helping to place Big Bad Voodoo Daddy back on the musical map and to raise awareness of Calloway’s music, the band is starting to look at its original material. Audiences can expect a few new songs at the Troy show.
“Working towards that has been slow going, but we’ve definitely been building up an arsenal of new songs that we will hopefully record soon,” Marhevka said. “We’re always busy on the road, so it’s just a matter of trying to fit it in. But definitely, the next project will be doing an original album.”
That project should see release by 2011, if the band finds time to record this year. The band isn’t averse to trying out another tribute album as well, although the original material for the moment will take precedent.
“There’s nobody that we’ve talked about at this point, but it’s not out of the question to do another tribute album,” Marhevka said. “I really think it’s unlikely that we’d do another Cab Calloway tribute album. We can pick a few other artists who are our heroes as well that would be fun to do, something we really want to do.”
Categories: Life and Arts