“It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” Duke Ellington once famously said in song. Miss Tess, who with her band, the Bon Ton Parade, will perform at The Grand in Ellsworth on Jan. 23, is of the same opinion.
“It has elements that feel good to me,” Miss Tess said of swing-era jazz. “It’s honest. It’s just real honest.”
Blessed with a silky smooth voice tempered with a touch of sass, Miss Tess takes the listener to a smoky jazz club of the 1930s, performing jazz standards and her own tunes written in the tradition, a style she calls “modern vintage.” Her influences, she said, run from Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee to contemporary singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman.
The current lineup of the Bon Ton Parade is Alex Spiegelman on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Ben Davis on bass and Matt Meyer on drums. Along with handling lead vocal chores, Miss Tess is the group’s guitarist, spinning out jazz chords on a Weymann archtop from the 1920s.
Miss Tess formed the Bon Ton Parade in 2005, shortly after moving to Boston. In 2008, the Boston Globe named her a “Local on the Verge.” The first of the group’s five albums was released in 2007.
This past year has been extremely busy, Miss Tess said. She and the band released two albums – “Live on the Road” and “Darling Oh Darling.” And they spent about six months on the road touring.
“We put 18,000 miles on the van,” she said.
The road, however, was anything but glamorous. An occasional night at a motel was the exception, not the rule. More often it was nights sleeping on the floor at the homes of friends and fans. And some of the gigs could have been better. In Florida, they were mistakenly booked into a heavy metal bar. At another club, they got requests for “Rocky Top.”
Adding to the workload was the fact that Miss Tess does her own publicity. “I’m really busy with the business side of things,” she said.
Miss Tess – she doesn’t reveal her last name – grew up in Maryland, the daughter of a saxophone and clarinet-playing father and a bass-playing mother.
“They would have friends over and have jam sessions,” she recalled. Her bedroom was above the basement where her father’s big band rehearsed.
She started playing piano, and studied classical piano for about 10 years. She later switched to guitar.
Despite her early musical experiences, Miss Tess didn’t start out to be a jazz musician. During her teen years she was a punk rocker. But she always had an open mind about musical styles and explored many different genres.
“I started doing my own research on older styles,” she said. “Jazz just started to grow on me.”
She recently moved from Boston to Brooklyn, N.Y., making the move on New Year’s Day.
“I was looking for a change,” she said.
Her plans for the new year include songwriting. She needs the time to sit back and relax to do so. While touring, she was too busy, she said.
“Sometimes I feel like I have to be bored to write,” she said. “It’s one of my goals for 2010.”
Miss Tess is also looking to record an album of waltz tunes, perhaps in February.
“I have a lot of them and want to do a concept album,” she said.
Miss Tess and the Bon Ton Parade will perform at The Grand at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 23. Tickets are $15 in advance and $18 at the door and are available at the box office, by calling 667-9500 or online at www.grandonline.org. The opening act is Christabel and the Jons.
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