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After Midnight - Midnight in Madison

Reviewed by Matthew Warnock,, February 2011
Rating: 3 Stars (Out of 5)

"There is often the perception that jazz musicians are all holed up in dark, smoke-filled rooms in Greenwich Village, playing late-night sets of new and highly-experimental music that pushes the limits of the genre into never before heard sonic territories.  While there are many modern jazzers who play cutting-edge music, to varying degrees of public acceptance, there is also a movement in today’s jazz scene to reach back to the Golden Age of the music.


The After Midnight Jazz Band’s CD Midnight in Madison channels the Swing era, as it is often referred to, and features music performed in the tradition of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Count Basie.  Though some jazz fans see these more traditional ensembles as being dated and out of touch, there are large numbers of people who enjoy listening to current interpretations of the songs that made jazz great in the early days of the genre.


The Colorado based After Midnight Jazz Band is just such an ensemble, one that prefers to dig into the treasure trove of classic hits from Jazz’s early days to build their repertoire and concert programs.  Their live album Midnight in Madison is filled with songs that fans of the Swing era will no doubt easily recognize and find enjoyment in listening to.  Recorded live at the 2008 Capital Jazz Festival in Madison, Wisconsin, the album features some of the most iconic Swing/Jazz songs, including “Air Mail Special”, “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You”, and “Rose Room.”  Each song is performed with an authentic Swing approach, and the band is built in the likeness of some of the top bands of that era, featuring voice, piano, vibraphone, guitar, bass, drums and clarinet. 


Vocalist Jodi Renee is in particularly fine form on the record, and her interpretation of “It Had to Be You” showcases her strong vibrato, an interesting interpretation and her sultry vocal style that receives an instant applause from the audience midway through the song.  On the male vocalist side of things, Mike McCullough’s performance on “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” is one of the album’s brightest moments.  Not only does he lead the audience through an entertaining rendition of the melody, but he doubles the guitar line during the solo section, showcasing his range, intonation and bluesy-grit as he digs into each note and phrase.  This brings out every possible ounce of emotion in order to build a strong aural connection with the other musicians as well as the audience.


While the vocalist’s provide standout performances on the album, there are moments when the instrumentalists sound a bit stiff, especially for a Swing band.  It’s not enough to take away from the overall performance on the recording, but it is noticeable for fans of the genre.  Songs such as “Flying Home” and “Air Mail Special” are both performed with technical accuracy, but they come off as a bit rigid in certain moments and lack that high-energy interpretation that is a staple of the Swing era bands.  Though Swing bands often played songs that were more “simple” harmonically and melodically as compared to their later Bebop counterparts, what made the music great, was the showmanship and high levels of energy that the musicians poured into the songs, getting people out of their seats and onto the dance floor. 


The After Midnight band does a fine job of arranging each song in the Swing tradition, but there are moments when the audience is left wanting more energy from the group. Where the lines, mostly in the improvised sections, are a little stiff, they do not fully embrace the almost reckless abandon that is characteristic of bands from this era.  Though long-time fans of the genre will notice these issues with the recording, it is not enough of an issue that it should deter people from checking out this album.  Every band has their strong suits and weaker moments, especially in a live situation, and for many listeners, this is what makes jazz fun to listen to in the first place. Midnight in Madison captures the sense of excitement that goes along with performing music that is created in the moment."