Two Bands From Washington State Offer Unique Takes on Jazz Classic "St. James Infirmary" (premiere)
In this double premiere, Birch Pereira & the Gin Joints and Hot Club Sandwich both take on the jazz standard.
"St. James Infirmary Blues" is one of the classic songs to emerge from America's early 20th-century jazz movement. The dark tune has gone on to captivate artists of assorted genres and eras in music, from Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway to the likes of Arlo Guthrie and the White Stripes. Now, two separate bands from the state of Washington are offering their unique takes on the song. Hot Club Sandwich and Birch Pereira & the Gin Joints may both be covering the same tune, but the arrangements they've created are both distinctly their own.
Hot Club Sandwich is a string band made up of some of the most consummate musicians in the Pacific Northwest. Its members take pride in their knowledge of the great jazz and orchestral movements that spread across nationwide, alongside their more local musical history. Their rendition of "St. James Infirmary" is all about the swing of things, featuring impressive string-work from the band that eventually evolves into a full-on jam while still respecting the more glum nature that the song's early arrangements intended to convey. It's a part of their new album that's just on the horizon, No Pressure (16 February).
Seattle's Birch Pereira & the Gin Joints, meanwhile, tackle the song with as much gusto as their upcoming album might imply. This goes to say that it has a lot of Western Soul to it, featuring a fine blend of western noir and underground soul influences in its arrangement. Pereira thrives as a lead singer and frontman handling this arrangement, never quite being swallowed by the grand tinges of rock and gospel that they invoke into the song. Instead, the entire band delivers their take on "St. James Infirmary" with a sort of slinkling and dark agency. Their cover will be available on Western Soul come 9 March.
Hot Club Sandwich tells PopMatters: "We all wanted Tracy Grisman to sing on the record since she's basically been an honorary band member since we first started playing almost 20 years ago. Back then, we would learn tunes from Pete Toyne, an amazing jazz guitarist in our area."
"Pete came out with his first record late in life, and called it 'Finally! By the Late Pete Toyne' — it was his running joke that a well-timed 'posthumous' record would surely lead to fame. So in jam sessions, Tracy would sing 'St. James Infirmary', and swap the name of the female character-in-mourning to 'Yvonne', in reference to Pete's wife and high school sweetheart. Yvonne, an artist, was usually at our sessions. Since then, Pete has passed away, so we chose to record 'St. James Infirmary' with Tracy singing it like she did when Pete was still living and actively pursuing posthumous fame. And we dedicated the performance to Pete and Yvonne."
Birch Pereira & the Gin Joints says, "I first discovered this song from Louis Armstrong's groundbreaking version. The background vocals on it gave me the chills, they really captured this wailing funeral dirge feeling that i hadn't heard explored by many jazz artists in that era."
"One day I heard Nina Simone doing a version of 'House of the Rising Sun' where she had really flipped the harmony and tempo around, and I decided to approach 'St. James Infirmary' in a similar manner. I also lyrically wanted to really focus on the death of the narrator's lover. In the original lyrics people sing, the narrator, after finding his lover dead on the infirmary table, turns and says 'she'll never find a man as sweet as me' and then proceeds to elaborate on all the colorful touches he'd like at his own funeral. I always found that annoyingly self absorbed, so i changed the lyrics to 'I could search this whole world wide over, and never find a woman sweet as she is to me.'"
Birch Pereira & the Gin Joints