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A wonderful gem

Blue Jar - Pelican Crossing
(Blue Jar)
4 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: Aug. 22, 2007
Blue Jar

Review by Brad Walseth

In a stirring bid for multiculturalism comes this wonderful gem of a recording called "Pelican Crossing" from a group called Blue Jar, who hail from - of all places, Belfast Ireland. What do these folk from the Emerald Island have to offer hard-bitten Chicago jazz fans? How about a delightful recording of exceptional musicianship that encompasses everything from gypsy jazz and vaudeville to pop to classical. This is one musical stew you can really sink your teeth into.

Opener "I've Found a New Baby" sets things off nicely, as violinist Lesley Dennison, accordionist Ivan Black (also on barrelhouse piano and sax) and guitarist Tommy Locke trade off solos on a track that makes you think Django might have been St. Patrick himself reincarnated (or vice versa). Andrew Lavery and Rod Patterson provide solid backing on drums and bass, giving the soloists ample opportunity to shine, and they don't disappoint. Dennison (who also plays viola) seems well-schooled in the Stephane Grappelli style, but surprises pleasantly with the clear and sure tone and technique that comes no doubt from a rigid classical training, while Locke lives up to his billing as one of Ireland's most in-demand guitarists with his mastery of the fretboard.

Dennison also shows an engaging pop sensibility on her vocal rendition of the dreamlike original "Hey Mr. Pelican," while the gypsy flavored "Czardas" calls to mind Brahms' Hungarian Dances, before "Love Song Without Words" returns to a more romantic time past when dancers moved gracefully on an elegant ballroom dance floor under chandeliers.

The old-time vaudeville classic, made famous by Sophie Tucker (and used to great effect in the movie "All That Jazz") - "After You've Gone" is sheer joy personified into music. But the band then suddenly changes things up again with an utterly glorious take on Erik Satie's "Gymnopedie No. 1" that will stay shimmering in your memory long after you hear it.

This intriguing pattern continues throughout the rest of the album (Blue Jar's 2nd release), as the satisfyingly eclectic song choices careen between traditional ("Dark Eyes"), standards ("Blue Moon," and "Moonlight in Vermont" both sung with just a touch of an Irish brogue lingering in Dennison's appealing voice), tangos and interesting takes on classical pieces from Massenet and Saint-Saens, which offer the added bonus of having cellist Scott Heron involved in the presentation. His terrific whistling also highlights the jaunty original "How Can it Be?"

With their wide-ranging and addictive mix of musical styles, not to mention Chicagoland's large and vibrant Irish population, Blue Jar would be a smash sensation should they ever cross the Atlantic and visit our great city. Here's a hope that we do see them playing live here someday. In the meantime, pick up a copy of Pelican Crossing and enjoy a musical blend that is as tasty as a jigger of smooth Irish whiskey on a hot day.

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