Chicago Jazz Magazine,

Review of “She Swings Blue” by the Rhythm Rockets

While he was a guest on an episode of the Bing Crosby Radio Show, the great Louis Armstrong was asked to tell the studio and radio audience what “swing” music is. Armstrong replied, “Ah, swing. Well, we used to call it syncopation, then they called it ragtime, then blues, then jazz… now, it’s swing.”

By the mid-1940s the popularity of swing music, championed by big band leaders like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, had peaked. The economic pressures of WWII and the post-war era would encourage a movement toward bebop, rhythm & blues, and rock & roll in smaller musical groups. The mid 1990s through to the next decade would see a revival of sorts in swing music, and it was during this era but not because of it that the Rhythm Rockets were born. They embraced all of these similar but distinct musical styles without being limited to any one of them.

The RR’s possessed two distinct advantages over many of their now-defunct musical contemporaries that helped ensure their survival and growth into the present day: band leader Dave Downer’s wise placement of emphasis on musicianship over gimmickry, and the invaluable look and sound of lead vocalist Nicole Kestler. Few other female artists today combine the necessary daring, confidence and originality (not to mention the pipes) to follow big-voiced legends like Ruth Brown and Mabel (Big Maybelle) Smith, or Peggy Lee’s sultry purr.

Nor can most stylishly cover songs to make them their own as Kestler and the Rhythm Rockets do with She Swings Blue on songs like “Cannonball Express,” “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” and my personal favorite, “I Got A Feelin,” Sydney Wyche’s chilling, mid-tempo musical cautionary tale. It begins with a haunting bass solo by Marini before Kestler enters with extended mellifluous notes. She is joined by Fornek, and together they offer the soulful combination of voice and drum only. Add the brash horn section for contrast and you have the makings of an instant classic. Kestler’s precise phrasing and delivery make “Evil Girl Blues” with it’s not-so-subtle message of “I am one mean bitch and don’t you want me? “come alive without resorting to theatrics. After the saxophones of Bielecki and Keirans set the stage, it’s the fluid pianism and varied tonal palette of the skillful O’Hern that brings it all together.

The muscular and rambunctious tenor saxophone of Bielecki adds even more punch to Kestler’s delivery of “Baby Baby Every Night” and “Rock Me All Night Long,” with the rest of the band joining in on vocals. Downer chooses “Jumpin The Blues” (his own composition), “T’ain’t Whatcha Say, It’s Whatcha Do,” and “In The Mood for You” to step away from the free-wheeling horn section and finally cut his guitar strings loose. With contributions usually being equally substantial but more subtle, this is a rare and exciting opportunity for Downer to showcase his own distinctive phraseology. Kestler adds just the appropriate amount of her own sensuous “oh-so-cool” charm. “Till My Baby Comes Back To Me” brings out the mellow side of both Kestler’s voice and accompaniment when she is temporarily cast in the role of forsaken lover. Fornek joins Kestler to deliver vocals with a playfully articulated impudence on “A Rockin Good Way” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business But My Own,” matching her line for line, and adding variety to the Rhythm Rockets vocal presentation.

Koidonkis shines on “I Just Couldn’t Stand It No More,” momentarily displacing the horn section with his euphonious keyboard and skillfully grabbing the musical focus. In this style of music however, the attention of most listeners will eventually be drawn back to the horns, as the three saxophones rotating in and out of “Good Rockin Daddy” demonstrate. With She Swings Blue, the Rhythm Rockets pay homage to a rich musical heritage, while offering unbridled enthusiasm, great musicianship, stunning vocals, and a great big dose of pure fun. Available at CD Baby. Randy Freedman

Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist, and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.

By: Randy Freedman 


High Standards––Nicole Kestler (2003 CD––Skyscraper Souls Records)––is a vehicle for the under publicized, yet highly talented and appealing vocalist Kestler. On it, she shows off her impressive musical skills (not only as vocalist but as arranger as well) alongside some of Chicago’s best musicians starting with the late iconic violinist Johnny Frigo, guitarist Alfonso Ponticelli, guitarist Joel Patterson, pianist Brian O’Hern, Jon Novi on sax, flute and clarinet, bassist Lou Marini and drummer Joe Adamik.

Kestler has chosen songs wisely here, with heavy doses of Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, both of whom she obviously possesses a true affinity for. Instinctively, Kestler allows these choices to flatter her while she is flattering them with interpretations that sound and feel correct and natural. Often described (quite correctly) as sultry and sexy, Kestler’s vocals can give you all of that and yet still evoke a sense of optimistic youth.

Highlights include Kestler’s haunting arrangement of “Charade” (Mancini-Mercer), with Kestler getting terrific mood-setting support from O’Hern and Ponticelli, a big band-like effect on “Let Yourself Go” (Berlin), the saucy violin of Frigo on “San Fernando Valley” (Jenkins) and perhaps Kestler’s defining moments on “Skylark” and “How Little We Know” (Carmichael-Mercer).

Support local business in Chicago by searching for these discs first at your favorite music store. If that fails you can move on to Amazon and eBay for all three, and CDBaby for “High Standards”––or buy it directly from Nicole Kestler when you attend one of her live performances at venues like Katerina’s.

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Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist, and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.

Chicago Jazz Magazine

A Trip Back in Time with Nicole Kestler

Nicole Kestler is a talented and versatile Chicago vocalist who performs on a regular basis in several different musical styles. She sings as half of the pop/rock duo she formed with Chicago pianist/vocalist Professor John, and she also fronts a swing/blues dance band called the Rhythm Rockets, which appears frequently at venues like Green Dolphin Street.

However, after having heard her terrific 2003 jazz album High Standards, I was especially eager to catch her on an occasion when she would be singing the kind of jazzy American Songbook classics featured on the CD. I made a point of catching her performance on Friday, September 25, at Katerina’s Supper Club, with pianist Brian O’Hern, who accompanied her on High Standards as well.

Born in Texas, and raised in Detroit, Kestler moved to Chicago in the early 1990s. Her first professional singing performance followed in the mid-nineties when she appeared with Alan Gresik’s Swing Shift Orchestra at one of Chicagoland’s many outdoor festivals. Before the decade ended, Kestler had begun her musical association with O’Hern that continues to the present.

On stage, sitting on a stool next to the piano, Kestler began her performance with Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” Accompanied enthusiastically by the vaudevillian music hall-like sound of O’Hern’s piano, Kestler gave musical notice from the start that she was going to be using all of her abilities to transport the audience back to older, perhaps simpler times when this music was written.

At first glance, one might be tempted to file Kestler among the cute “girl next door”-type of vocalists. But it doesn’t take the listener long to understand that this “girl next door” has an edge to her.

While making eye contact with as many members of the audience as possible during “Blue Skies,” Kestler flashed a dazzling smile that, as the saying goes, lit up the room; except this particular smile lit the room with the imagery of dim, gently flickering “speakeasy” lighting reflecting off clouds of cigarette smoke generated by zoot-suited gents sipping bathtub gin at the bar.

That smile was working some serious overtime as it set the mood for the rest of her performance and started her audience on an elegant time-machine journey to bygone days: a journey fueled by Kestler and O’Hern’s focused performance and evocative song selection.

Some of the evening’s musical highlights included favorites like “Accentuate The Positive,” which allowed Kestler to showcase her intelligent and at times, very witty phrasing. She sang the ballads “Skylark,” “Where or When,” and “The Nearness Of You” with a sexy lilt to her voice, and for these particular songs, O’Hern stepped away from his dance-hall-style to a more respectful and appropriately serious tone on piano.

They took the same approach to the seldom-performed but beautiful ballad, “How Little We Know,” from the movie The Big Sleep.

Nicole Kestler is a young but polished musical artist who takes full advantage of vocal skill, nuance, and appearance to highlight the beauty of carefully selected jazz standards. Although highly evocative of earlier times, Kestler brings unbridled enthusiasm, freshness and charm (plus more than a little personal smoky, sexy magic) to the standards.

Her ability to perform in other musical styles in no way diminishes her obvious respect for (and excellence in) performing songs from the Great American Songbook.

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Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist, and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.

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