Out Here

Function and form

Swinging and Singing
Johnny Reno
Menthol Records

Too often in pop, format counts for more than intention or even execution, and we're left feeling vaguely suspicious of Andy Timmons playing the blues with the Pawn Kings (his hair is long and blond; he never picked cotton) or Johnny Reno doing his swingin' cocktail soundtrack (he's not Illinois Jacquet). These are safety valves that should probably never be disconnected, but with Swinging and Singing, Reno--like Timmons before him--makes a good case for being allowed to proceed with his experiment.

The judgment isn't unanimous, however. Reno's vocals are good, considering that he's not primarily a vocalist, but listen to one of the giants of the genre--Sinatra, Torme, Bennett--and the "good" becomes rather qualified. The first song on the album, "Martinis at Eight," is a bit too glib a tour through the signifiers--drinkin', swingin', hey--of the scene that has glommed onto this music, often without truly appreciating it. Reno takes a trip through a bit deeper emotional territory on the next song--"My Baby Just Cares for Me"--with a lot more insouciant grace. When he digs even deeper, he does even better; he knows he'll never displace Sinatra, but his version of the classic "One for My Baby" finds him believably inhabiting his own melancholy joint, blowing a blue, broken-hearted stream of smoke out over his last highball. His take on "Beyond the Sea" works for the same reasons.

Clearly, the devil-may-care persona that many of these songs (and indeed the whole cocktail trip) suppose must have a believable emotional component or risk coming off like an asshole. Surprisingly enough, this heart--for it really is nothing less--is most vividly displayed on the instrumental numbers. Reno--in the past a rockin' blaster (the Sax Maniacs) and a specialist in adding emotional color (accompanying Chris Isaak)--shows real joy when dipping into the palettes of past masters: Jimmy Smith's "Vicky," Kenny Burrell's "Chitlins Con Carne," and his own collaboration with pal Red Young, "El Toro De Oro." Reno is obviously delighted to be stepping with such stylish light-footedness--the opening notes of "Harlem Nocturne" make all the emotional connections that "Martinis at Eight" misses--and that in turn makes these songs delightful. The backing musicians--including B-3 whizzes Young and Jimmy Pugh, and our own Earl Harvin (two tracks), seem likewise jazzed.

Reno has never made any bones about the fact that for him, exploring the pop stylings of an earlier generation has been a wonderful education. Like most students, he's better at some things than others, but his report card is more fun to listen to than most.

--Matt Weitz

 
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