Earlier this year, local self-described “jazz-exotica” group Hank West & The Smokin’ Hots recorded six-track EP Starship Nighthawk. (CD release show info follows, below.) The band is Henry Westmoreland, Jon Corbin, Mike Gray, Andrew Fletcher and Leo Johnson, and if this album is their calling card, it’s a heck of an introduction.
“Colombiana” is a wondrous romp through south-of-the-border dance styles, speakeasy piano, fierce horns, shimmering cymbals and lounge vocals. All of which evoke rum-flavored nights, salty breezes and a million stars across a sky that goes on forever.
“Reverand Sunshine Money,” too, skips between time signatures and song styles, starting with a lilting piano before catapulting into a hyper-frantic horn-driven Charleston and then punch-drunk, jazzy Tin Pan Alley nostalgia.
The album, though short, is a journey through eras and influences. Surely Louis Armstrong lurks in one candlelit corner while Marlene Dietrich, at the peak of her silver screen mojo, slinks just out of sight. There’s a hint of old New York, of the Cotton Club, of men in wingtips and women in pearls. But there’s also an unbuttoned-ness, a sultriness conveyed through brass and high-flying tangos.
“Hachi Mani” suggests something less concrete: China Town gangs lurking around the dangerous-yet-elegant opium dens that probably existed in fiction more completely than in reality. But the experimental jazz, the almost industrial churn of the low end and the jungle cadence of the percussion, takes the song into another direction — a place both organic and futuristic.
“Silver Strut” builds off that future-past theme. It could be set in the Chicago of Al Capone, scoring the kidnapping of Fats Waller. Or in the humid New Orleans of Storyville, of Buddy Bolden and of Bellocq hunting ladies of the night with his awkward box of a camera. Or now, or next week, in a lucid dream of chivalry and excess, of Thomas Crown affairs and the next great American novel banged out on a Macbook in lieu of a Scholes and Glidden.
“The first time you listen to the radio in your flying car, it will be Hank West & The Smoking Hots,” says the band on its Bandcamp page. Which suggests that said flying car will be from a past imagining a future, but in an undeniably stylish and modern way. The way mid-century modern is more modern than anything contemporary. Only this band’s sound both pre- and post-dates mid-century modern. It references the music of mature artists who are still pushing the envelope. Still crushing boundaries and reaching into the starry beyond for even more shine, even more polish, even more shimmer, even more expansiveness and tension and motion and hope and cool. Still innovating.
And that’s what Hank West & the Smokin’ Hots does, with Starship Nighthawk and with its most exploratory songs (like the spacey-nightmare-carnival romp “Baba Kush”): continues to innovate. This is no throwback album, this is the evolution of ragtime, Dixieland and other jazz and roots styles from the Americana playbook.
Which is not to say the album is dusty with history or self-important or overly serious. There’s focus and crisp musicianship, but each track also swings and winks. And the whole collection opens with “Space Love Song,” parts lounge and late-night cabana. It’s romantic and highly stylized track, but it’s also as delightfully campy as a vintage Bond film.
Ready to meet Hank West & the Smokin’ Hots in person? They play two album release shows: on Friday, June 28 at The Altamont Brewing Company (10 p.m., $5) and on Saturday, June 29 at 5 Walnut (10 p.m., no cover).