The Night Crawlers aren't complicated

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      Vancouver’s known the world over for the strength of its out-there improvising scene—but if you like your jazz more on the soulful side, we’ve got that, too.

      In fact, groove music doesn’t get greasier than what the Night Crawlers have been serving up for the past five years. Formed to explore the kind of swinging organ jazz popularized in the 1960s by crowd-pleasers like Jimmy Smith and Brother Jack McDuff, the quintet showcases Chris Gestrin on the Hammond B-3. Its sound is a far cry, though, from the somewhat introverted, impressionistic music the keyboardist makes on his solo releases for the avant-garde Songlines imprint. Here, Gestrin sounds more like a fire-breathing bluesman, while the rest of the musicians—saxophonists Cory Weeds and Steve Kaldestad, guitarist Dave Sikula, and drummer Jesse Cahill—operate at a similar level of gritty authenticity.

      Or, to put it another way, a Night Crawlers show is as close as you’re ever going to get to a Detroit Saturday night, circa 1964.

      “The most important thing with this band is that we just want people to have a good time,” says Cahill, taking a post-rehearsal break in the back room of his bandmate Weeds’s Cellar Jazz nightclub. “We want people to come down, listen to music, and just feel good. It’s not complicated!”

      That’s not quite true, however. For six of the 11 tracks on the Night Crawlers’ second release, Down in the Bottom, the band added nine extra players, causing the complexity index to shoot skyward. Instead of harking back to Wild Bill Davis and Jimmy McGriff, the big-band numbers are likely to invoke such figures as Oliver Nelson, Nelson Riddle, and Gil Evans, arrangers known more for their sophistication than for their ability to power a party.

      Yet, the most remarkable thing about the disc is that it still sounds celebratory—a quality the expanded Night Crawlers share with other Vancouver big bands past and present, including VEJI, the NOW Orchestra, the Jill Townsend Big Band, and the Hard Rubber Orchestra.

      “Part of it might just be having everybody together,” says Cahill, who coleads the Night Crawlers with Weeds. “We all work together all the time in all these other little small groups. So to have everybody in one room, all at the same time, playing some music together, makes for a bit of a party atmosphere, I think. When you’re recording, you’ve got to be serious and you’ve got to focus and you’ve got to concentrate, but there’s still a lot of joking and people having fun. It’s a very high-spirited kind of thing.”

      Cahill credits the old-school sound of Down in the Bottom to the way it was made. Forget isolation booths, headphone mixes, and a big-ticket studio budget: for this disc, all the musicians simply crammed onto the Cellar’s stage.

      “Our first CD, Presenting, was done live, and you could really hear the crowd—it very much had that vibe,” the drummer explains. “This time, we recorded in the afternoon, without an audience, but we wanted to keep that kind of energy and that spontaneity. You sacrifice a little bit of tidiness, I guess, in the recording. But, you know, it’s worth it.

      “And Cory also opened the bar,” he adds, laughing. “In their defence, I have to say that nobody went to the bar until we got the harder music out of the way. But after that, people had a few beers or whatever. It was kind of like a party in somebody’s living room, only we just happened to be recording some music.”

      Hank Marr would be proud—and if you have to ask who he is, well, you’re in good company.

      “You know how every town has a legend, or somebody who is known by musicians all over but not necessarily by the public? Well, Hank Marr was one of those guys,” Cahill explains. “I think he was from Ohio, from Columbus. And he put out four or five records on the King label, and they were all just these really greasy down-home organ records with really good bands. And somehow I managed to find them all. I guess it was like an obsessive thing. I got one, and then I thought, ”˜I’d better get all of these.’ ”

      The organist’s 1964 release Sounds From the Marr-ket Place provided the title track for Down in the Bottom, along with the rousing “Marrket-Place”. “That’s a really, really great record,” Cahill enthuses. “And every tune is like two-and-a-half or three minutes long. They’re all jukebox tunes.”

      That’s one area where the Night Crawlers departed from Marr’s template. Given the band’s strong soloists, and such stellar guests as trumpeter Brad Turner, trombonist Rod Murray, and guitarist Bill Coon, most of the tracks on Down in the Bottom clock in around the five- or six-minute mark. They’d sound great on a vintage jukebox nonetheless—and although Weeds and Cahill aren’t quite ready to start releasing 45-rpm singles, they’ve done the next best thing. In other words, if you really want the old-school sound, buy the vinyl.

      The Night Crawlers play a free show at Performance Works at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday (February 26) as part of the Winterruption festival.