Hot Sardines: Speakeasy Serenaders

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The Hot Sardines (Photo by LeAnn Mueller)

The legendary Herbie Hancock once said, “Jazz is about being in the moment.” For the Hot Sardines, that means straddling the modern day and a musical epoch that draws heavily from the Roaring Twenties. Founded by vocalist Elizabeth Bougerol and pianist/bandleader Evan Palazzo roughly a decade ago, this sextet traffics in hot jazz with a contemporary twist. With roots embedded deep in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Sardines broke around the time that Palazzo’s mentor Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks were resurrecting interest in this musical form via his affiliation with HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Prohibition Era culture was also enjoying a renaissance via venues like the Shanghai Mermaid, a speakeasy-themed, 6,000-square-foot warehouse behind an unmarked door in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. More than anything, it was the instantaneous connection he made with Bougerol, who answered a Craigslist ad placed by the piano player’s wife seeking like-minded musicians.

“I had been coaxed and convinced that I should start a band because I’ve always played this music. Since I was a little child, I started playing piano and I learned how to play my version of stride piano. It wasn’t a focus of my life, but I would play it every day,” Palazzo explained. “Elizabeth saw the ad and showed up at one of our jams and we hit it off right away. Up to that point, there had been some great cats that came in and played, but Elizabeth had that same exact sensibility toward the music that I had. She had grown up listening to it and sung it her whole life, but never professionally. We shared a lot of the knowledge of these songs and how she knew the pantheon and then some, as do I, of these songs. We started meeting on our own—doing piano/vocals and working on arrangements and fantasies as a sort of hobby. This went on for some time. After a while, we talked about doing an open mic.”

That first gig wound up at Banjo Jim’s, a defunct Lower East Side haunt, which found them joining forces with their first tap dancer, Edwin “Fast Eddy” Francisco.

The band’s name originated from a desire to pay homage to the kind of jazz they played, which was heavily influenced by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven combos.

“We needed a name and had always wanted something with hot in it—Hot Fives, Hot Sevens, Hot This, Hot That—although we realized that we didn’t want to just play 1920s hot jazz, but the stuff we liked, which encompassed a lot of that,” Palazzo said. “Elizabeth was in her co-op in Brooklyn and she saw a tin of sardines packed in hot sauce called Hot Sardines. She called me up and said that we needed a name. She said she found these hot sardines and I thought it was great. She thought it was crazy but I said it was terrific, people would remember it and it had hot in it. We were stuck with it and that was that.”

Eight albums in, the Sardines’ latest opus is Welcome Home, Bon Voyage, the group’s second live outing (following 2014’s Live at Joe’s Pub). Recorded at Toronto’s Koerner Hall and their beloved Joe’s Pub home base, this collection embraces everything from a rambunctious reading of Sophie Tucker’s 1910 trademark “Some of These Days” and a dissonant version of the Duke Ellington/Juan Tizol classic “Caravan” to a soaring and syncopated rendition of “Everybody Loves My Baby” that Armstrong first recorded in 1924. It’s an album that Palazzo and his compatriots are rightfully proud of.

“The inspiration [for the album] was the energy of a live performance and the feelings that the audience gets hearing this music live. It’s what brought Elizabeth and I together. It was the lack of being able to hear this music played with young blood,” he said. “Feeling the way it used to be played is sometimes hard to glean off the 78s. It misrepresents, in a wonderful way, the authentic energy. The studio albums for us were always an effort to really think about listening. For the live album, we wanted to really try to capture the energy of two different atmospheres that we love to play that are somewhat different. And that is Joe’s Pub and Koerner Hall in Toronto.”

Palazzo’s jazz indoctrination started at the ripe age of two. As a child born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he was exposed to the opening and subsequent seven-minute version of “St. Louis Blues” found on the 1954 recording, Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy. And while Satchmo has always been a huge influence, it was at the altar of Harlem stride piano master Fats Waller that the young Palazzo worshiped (and later bonded with Bougerol over).

The band’s live show not only features Bougerol singing in French and English (and occasionally strapping on a washboard), but enthralls audiences with a three-man horn section made up of trumpet, trombone and saxophone/clarinet. Rounded out by a drummer, bass player and pianist, Palazzo feels the group’s ever-present tap dancer, “…presents a visual depiction of the energy that I think comes from this era and is rarely seen. We’ve always wanted to include that in our performances. That was one of the early things Elizabeth and I thought we should always have.”

Coupled with a grandmother who lived in Manhattan and took her 8-year-old grandson to see artists like Eubie Blake and Alberta Hunter, it’s not surprising that a project like the Hot Sardines would come into being decades later. That exuberance and passion from childhood has carried on right through the essence of the band, whose live show not only features Bougerol singing in French and English (and occasionally strapping on a washboard), but enthralling audiences with a three-man horn section made up of trumpet, trombone and saxophone/clarinet. Rounded out by a drummer, bass player and pianist, Palazzo feels the group’s ever-present tap dancer, “…presents a visual depiction of the energy that I think comes from this era and is rarely seen. We’ve always wanted to include that in our performances. That was one of the early things Elizabeth and I thought we should always have when we started out.”

As for the uninitiated, Palazzo is rather matter-of-fact as to the essence of the Hot Sardines.

“For somebody who has never heard this music before, I would say it is more than happy music, though it is. It’s joyous and a kind of fun that can be a little naughty or sincere. It’s a kind of fun that you’re not really getting in the wonderful music you’re hearing all the time, even in jazz,” he said. “We have a panoply of emotions of how music speaks to us and I think this is one that people will dig. I always say that if you’ve ever seen a second line in New Orleans, this is the visual I give because I think people really hear with their eyes and then they listen.”

Hot Sardines will be appearing on May 26 at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. NYC. For more information, visit www.joespub.com or call 212-239-6200. 

Stay tuned for Evan Palazzo’s favorite pianists.

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