Beau Sample, the bassist and bandleader of the Fat Babies, has said he doesn't want his Chicago-based septet to present the jazz of the 1920s as either a caricature or museum piece.
By all accounts, Sample and his bandmates have succeeded wildly - almost certainly a result of the Fat Babies balancing its performance schedule between bars and festivals.
The group has regular gigs at the Windy City's Green Mill lounge and Honky Tonk BBQ - places where the nuances are less important than the swing. "The people who come to see us are really there to dance and drink and have fun," Sample said in a phone interview last week. "A lot of the bands playing this stuff [early jazz] don't have the opportunity to play for those crowds. ... The dancers are a big influence on what we do."
The Fat Babies, he noted, are "trying to put it [old-time jazz] back in the taverns, where it came from. ... Basically, we're doing what people have always done - which is just playing in bars for people drinking and having a good time."
But at festivals - such as the ensemble's upcoming gigs at the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival - audiences are more likely to listen than dance. And Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich, in reviewing a performance at Katerina's, said the band thrives in that quieter context, too: "Though there's no denying the energy that couples dancing at the Green Mill add to the Fat Babies' sets there, this time one could savor the details of voicing, color, and phrase that distinguish this band from lesser counterparts."
The group's two releases, 2012's Chicago Hot and 2013's 18th & Racine, both made the Tribune's list of the best jazz albums of the year. Reich's praise for the latter album was concise and direct: "Few ensembles today play early-period jazz as authentically and exuberantly as the Fat Babies, who prove it once again."
Also discussing 18th & Racine, AllAboutJazz.com wrote: "The relative obscurity of these delightful pieces and the deftness by which the dust of history is polished off them exposes their raw emotion and makes for a very intriguing listening experience."
For the Fat Babies' first album, Sample said, the group used arrangements they learned or developed on the bandstand or in the studio. But 18th & Racine, he said, was a reflection of the group's development since its founding in 2010.
"We definitely evolved, and started doing more and more arrangements," he said. Those, he added, come from cornetist Andy Schumm (a student of Bix's music whose own band has played the Bix festival) and pianist Paul Asaro (heavily influenced by Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller): "They sound a little more lush. ... Obviously, we try to do them so they sound spontaneous, but ... I would say it's a little more uptown ... . A little more sophisticated, I guess."
Sample - who's in his early 30s and also performs everything from rockabilly to country blues ("I've played all kinds of old American music") - said that when it comes to recording, his jazz band tries to mimic the hi-fi sound of the 1950s and '60s, using only two or three mics and recording to tape. "That alone takes care of a lot of the things that make [contemporary] recordings sound unnatural in my opinion," he said. (Although the Fat Babies recorded at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio studio, the bandleader said its acoustics and vintage equipment made it a perfect fit for the classic-jazz outfit: "The room he uses sounds almost like a theatre.")
At the Bix festival, you'll likely hear from the Fat Babies plenty of music by the man who lends his name to the event - as well as tunes that don't play well to bar crowds. Jelly Roll Morton's "Freakish," Sample said, is "a really crazy arrangement that drives dancers nuts. We don't get to do that often at the Honky Tonk BBQ."
The Fat Babies are scheduled to play six sets during the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, running July 31 through August 3 in downtown Davenport. Single-event tickets are $30, and all-day passes are $55. For tickets, performance schedules, and more information on the festival, visit BixSociety.org.
For more information on the Fat Babies, visit TheFatBabies.com.