Sunny and her Joy Boys

Sunny and her Joy Boys
Introducing Sunny and her Joy Boys

Stony Plain Records

By Bill Copeland
August 2009

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When a blue vocalist like Sunny Crownover teams up with a blues musician like Duke Robillard, a satisfying product is bound to result. Robillard has harnessed the power of Crownover’s range to capture the essence of the great female jazz vocalists from America’s golden age of jazz, the 1920s to the 1940s..

Aside from Robillard playing an acoustic archtop guitar, the Joy Boys feature Billy Novick on clarinet and alto saxophone, Jesse Williams on acoustic bass, and Paul Kolesnikow on second acoustic archtop guitar.

Together, singer and players recreate not just the music but a feeling from an earlier time in American music. Every song here conjures the parties described in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Don’t be surprised if after listening to this CD you feel compelled to purchase the Robert Redford movie DVD. You might even start surfing the web to find more music from this era.

The highlight is “You’re My Thrill,” popularized by Billie Holiday back in the jazz era. Crownover’s sensual voice flows like honey over this hypnotic beat and alluring clarinet melody. Robillard relinquishes the guitar duties to play conga drums, allowing Kolesnikow to show that he too can fill out the texture on the acoustic arch top guitar. Crownover’s voice caresses each verse and fills them with emotion. Freedom and silkiness within her range allow her to treat this song like China.

“Strictly From Dixie” is a good opener for this band. The southern style notes from Novick’s clarinet create a feeling of lazing on a summer afternoon in Georgia where the people take their time in all that heat. Crownover, who grew up in Texas after her family moved from her native California, is the perfect vocalist to capture southern inflection, brimming with charm and hospitality. “You’re Driving Me Crazy” bops forward with Williams’s strong strum, and his beat makes you think there is something as strong as a drum track involved. He keeps the beat so full that there is no need for drums. Novick’s alto sax breezes merrily along on this track and strikes a careful balance with Crownover’s lovely voice.

Novick’s saxophone and Williams acoustic bass also take the front seat on “That’s My Desire.” Steady bass beats and mellifluous sax notes give this song its sense of early 20th century cool. Of course, Crownover, who makes clear she’s a real find for Robillard in each track, pours on the charm.

This vocalist brings character to “Stop, You’re Breaking My Heart.” You can almost picture her moving around on stage with a bounce in her step. She rides out each note by seeming to move up and down the scale but she is really just adding her own personality to the lyrics with inflection and timing. I never saw this much of her technique when she fronted the Boston based blues band 2120 South Michigan Avenue.

Each song here has its own distinct qualities and voice. “Between The Devil And The Deep Blues Sea” has a touch of whimsy. Crownover purrs its lyrics about a woman in a tight spot while the guitars weave into a thick batch of notes to give the clarinet a space to play in. The interaction between players perfectly augments the story she’s telling and her fetching vocal.

Novick does a lot to fill out the sound in these songs. Whether on clarinet or alto sax, he finds the right moment to come in and the right moment to cut out. He can strike a careful balance with the guitars, or he can tastefully play around them. His uptempo clarinet notes are a masterful combination of feeling and precision, winding them around the beat and the guitars and playfully teasing around the vocal.

Crownover has earned the artistic success she’s deserved for so many years. This project gives her many opportunities to strut her stuff and present her voice in numerous satisfying ways. Robillard has found a vocalist that can pave the way for many of his unrealized projects, and Williams and Kolesnikow have found a project worthy of their huge talents. Production values are high here. Every note jumps out of the speakers with freshness and grandnesss, even though these songs were originally recorded with less advanced recording devices and listened to, often enough, on transistor radios.

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