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Jack Kelly's Honkatonktet At Scott's Jazz Club


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Jack Kelly's Honkatonktet
Scott's Jazz Club
Belfast, N. Ireland
April 26, 2024

Who knows what sort of music Charlie Parker would have made had he lived another thirty-five years? It is tantalizing to think that he might have ventured into country music. Parker loved country music, especially Hank Williams, drawn as much by the stories as anything. In this respect, Ballyclare bassist Jack Kelly has something in common with Parker. His country-inspired quartet Honkatonktet is quite the departure from the straight-ahead, jazz standards repertoire on which he has cut his teeth, but the transition has been as organic as it has been sure-footed.

Kelly was last on All About Jazz' radar at Brilliant Corners 2023, where his trio opened for Run Logan Run. His short set of original compositions that day displayed something of the country-ish flavor that can color Bill Frisell's playing. Those fruits were the result of eighteen months in America, where Kelly played with Indiana's genre-slippery Americana band The Debutantes.

Another year in the States, working on a farm in California, traveling through Oregon, Washington, Indiana and Montana, playing bluegrass, old-time Appalachian and busking in New Orleans, has extended Kelly's musical vocabulary—and his confidence—considerably.

The set opened with the Tin Pan Alley song "Lovesick Blues," which was a huge hit for Hank Williams in 1949. Kelly's reasoning was obviously that there is no point playing country music without singing country style. He held nothing back, displaying a strong, faux-Southern twang that stopped just short of Williams' yodeling, with swinging accompaniment from pianist Scott Flanigan, guitarist Mateus Chmielewski and drummer Andrew McCoubrey.

Jazz and blues coursed through Flanigan and Chmielewski's solos on the Hank Williams/Jimmie Davis tune "(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle Blow" and on a driving version of "Frankie and Johnnie," a pre-Civil War murder ballad and country staple recorded by everyone from Big Bill Broonzy and Bob Dylan to Johnny Cash and Josh White. Whether on brushes or sticks, McCoubrey injected some serious zip. The previous Friday, McCoubrey and bassist Rohan Armstrong found themselves thrown in at the deep end with a no-rehearsal navigation of pianist Dan Costa's pan-Brazilian rhythms, but in this musical milieu—equally varied but perhaps more familiar—he seemed to be in his element.

Boppish fire raised the temperature a notch on "Back Home in Indiana," (recorded by Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917) with Flanigan, Chmielewski and McCoubrey all stretching out. It had been a fairly breathless opening forty minutes, so the arrival of Santo and Johnny Farina's dreamy "Sleep Walk," with Flanigan sitting out, brought a timely change of gear. Chmielewski's touch on this shimmering instrumental that inspired Peter Green's "Albatross" was sublime.

The Hank William's tune "Praise the Lord I Saw The Light" finished the first set on a high, morphing from country-gospel swing—via a biting blues-laced solo from Chmielewski and an equally inspired response from Flanigan—into loose-limbed terrain that sparked, flamed and then gently receded like a The Grateful Dead jam.

The second set got underway with Hank William's million-seller "Your Cheatin' Heart," and featured a delightful, Chet Atkins-esque solo from Chmielewski and some frisky brushwork from McCoubrey. There was more than a hint of Louis Jordan's proto rock 'n' roll on a dashing version of Bob Willis' "Ida Red," spiced by flowing interventions from Chmielewski, Flanigan and Kelly.

Taking things down a notch, Kelly and Chmielewski duetted on a caressing interpretation of "Louisiana Fairytale," each in turn unfurling lyrical solos of understated charm. Derry-based singer-guitarist Mick Hagan swelled the Honkatonktet ranks briefly, taking lead vocals on a rollicking, tub-thumping version of Blind Boy Fuller's "Rag Mama Rag," with Kelly's rousing vocal responses and harmonizing a signpost to the direction this band could yet take.

Kelly resumed vocal duties on William's much-covered "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)," with Flanigan making a playful diversion into Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas." Earlier in the set, Kelly had explained his new musical direction thus: "The idea is that all music comes from the same place and it's all great," he told the audience. Country-blues, country-swing, jazz, ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, rock 'n' roll, it was all there in Honkatonktet's hot gumbo. And five Hank Williams songs? Charlie Parker would surely have loved it.



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