An opening blast of brass for "Million Dollar Secret" lets you know instantly that swing rules with the Johnny Nocturne Band, but it’s a specialized niche of the swing genre. Given the name "jump-swing" by Decca Records in the 1940’s, it’s the place where swing meets a blacker, bluesier sound, a hybrid of jazz with rhythm and blues worked by smaller bands than had been the case before World War II.
Johnny Firmin, who plays tenor sax, has championed this music for a decade with his Johnny Nocturne Band. "Million Dollar Secret" is their fourth recording and their first with Kim Nalley. They are made for one another. Nalley immediately brings Billie Holiday to mind (and those gardenias in her hair do nothing to dispel the association), but it is a rounder, warmer tone that emerges on disk, and other influences are acknowledged: Helen Humes, Dinah Washington. In the end, it’s Kim Nalley and no one else – an unforced instrument with clarity and jazzy musicality, effortlessly delivered, and a sense of humor to boot.
"If I Could Be With You" is a standout here, a number associated with Humes. The slow, sexy arrangement ("If I could be with you one hour tonight…If I was free to do the things I like…") showcases fine work by Firmin on his tenor sax in a dialogue with Tommy Kesecker’s vibes. "Imagine My Frustration" shows off Nalley’s great comic delivery: "You’re just a mess, and in excess about your dress, I must confess…Imagine my frustration with no invitation to dance." It’s sly and underplayed and a total delight, a classic Ellington-Strayhorn piece rescued from oblivion.
"Jump Tonight" is jump-swing essence – the kind of music that won’t let you not start tapping your foot. "Black Velvet," a Jimmy Mundy number, morphed into "Don’t Cha Go Away Mad," with added lyrics: "His kind’s a dime a dozen/I really should have passed him by/Who’d ever think your cousin/would come along and give me the eye?"
Two cuts on the album are Firmin originals, "Visegrip" and "Johnny Nocturne," the latter with knockout syncopation – Latin percussion plus sizzling sax again trading off with vibes. Hot, hot, hot. Another Ellington-Strayhorn, "I’m Checking Out Go’om Bye" is a showcase for virtuoso musicianship by all; Nalley gets a chance to shine once again in this complicated number. The disk wraps with the familiar, still fresh, "Harlem Nocturne" – very slow, evocative, hauntingly bluesy.
The survival of "jump-swing" is a testament to the vitality of American jazz; Million Dollar Band illustrates the coming together of a variety of historical influences, now with new talents to carry it forward and add their own, constant reinvention. That’s part of a continuing tradition, as is the great dancing beat.