“There was not any one point where I had an epiphany and decided to [form] a jazz swing band,” insists Christa DeCicco, the voice of Knoxville, Tenn.-based Christabel and the Jons. Instead, she says, the group’s sound evolved over the two years the band has been together.
In its earliest incarnation, Christabel and the Jons was a bluegrass-tinged outfit based on DeCicco’s solo career. She describes her previous act as “more straight-ahead folk music and mountain music.” Fans of the singer/songwriter might recall her wearing dreads with girly heels—a walking contradiction with a sound she modeled after musicians like noir-folk singer Gillian Welch.
But fate—or maybe it was divine intervention—had other plans for DeCicco.
“There’s an image that goes with any look, like dreadlocks,” she tells Xpress, “and I wanted to expand from that, to not be pigeonholed as a hippie folk singer.” So, she cut her tresses. But the singer felt self-conscious of her newly shorn head and picked up a pillbox hat.
“I had no hair, so they fit my head, these tiny little hair garnishes,” she recalls. “I started wearing those to hide behind, and people went crazy over it.” But it wasn’t just a change in personal fashion that nudged her toward exploring a swing-era sound.
DeCicco says that the big change came when she transitioned from her role as a solo artist to fronting a combo. To fill out the group’s set list, she learned a couple of Ella Fitzgerald covers. Much to her surprise, those songs suited her vocal range and style.
But the deciding factor was the percussion.
“Really, the introduction of a drum kit changed everything,” the singer notes. “Things that were a little bluegrassy suddenly were like swing. We found the audience loved it.”
And who’s to argue with audience response? Not Christabel and the Jons, which gladly gave the people what they wanted.
DeCicco still claims she considers herself a folk singer, but a listen to last year’s release, Love And Circumstances, reveals a “Miss Celie’s Blues” sensibility with modern themes (“I’ve gotten roses, mixed tapes, bad wine,” says one song) and a fluency with ragtime, big band and Gypsy jazz. The songwriter may be flying by the seat of her pants, but her lyrics are simultaneously tidy and intriguing. Her songs tell stories, her characters are charmingly familiar, and she sings about what she knows.
Sticking to that theme, DeCicco’s plan for world domination (at least the musical world) exists within a one-state radius of Tennessee. The group spends half of each month on the road, playing venues within six hours of Knoxville, building up a fan base by returning to favorite locales on a regular basis. And should the band not work out, the singer has a promising future promoting her hometown, which she describes as “the place that makes me happiest.”
“The music scene in Knoxville is really rich and diverse,” she points out. “There are a lot of strong bands coming out of Knoxville.”
And Christabel and the Jons is one of them—even if they did happen to fall into their genre by circumstance rather than intention. In fact, the group’s name is the same story. Christabel is a nickname DeCicco picked up along the way. The Jons came about because when the band started, it was she and two male musicians, both named Jon. “It was sort of tongue-in-cheek, but strangely enough we went through three bass players named Jon,” she says with a laugh. “It seems impossible, but yet it truly happened.”
who: Christabel and the Jons
what: Vintage swing and jazz
where: The Town Pump (Thursday, Dec. 20. 10 p.m. 669-4808)
where: Blue Ridge Performing Arts Center (Friday, Dec. 21. 8 p.m. $15. 693-0087)
where: The Root Bar (Saturday, Dec. 22. 10 p.m. 299-7597)