The sounds of hot jazz and swing conjure images of a long-lost world of back-alley speakeasies, frenetic dancers, bathtub gin and tommy gun-toting gangsters. Monday night regulars at New York’s Back Room, where Svetlana & The Delancey Five have held swinging court for more than three years, know that the world isn’t quite as lost as it may seem (minus the gangsters and with booze made in more sanitary conditions).
With the release of Night at the Speakeasy, produced by Grammy® Award-winner Guy Eckstine and co-produced by drummer Rob Garcia, the rest of us finally have the chance to revel in the sounds of the Delancey Five and their Moscow-born chanteuse, Svetlana Shmulyian (Eckstine called her “Astrid Gilberto via Moscow”). This is no strict throwback band, however; the repertoire on their debut album combines swing-era classics with modern pop songs by the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and original tunes from the pen of Svetlana and her bandmates, who are also noted for their work in the straightahead and modern jazz worlds. There’s even a tune by the Russian-German trumpeter/composer Eddie Rosner sung by Svetlana in her native tongue.
“No other band on the hot jazz and swing scene would do a song in Russian,” says Svetlana with considerable understatement. “I’m interested in songs in any genre. I wanted to write and record songs that you could dance to but that you could also listen to on the radio, in the car, or wherever. It’s music that makes you smile.”
Indeed, it’s hard to suppress a grin when Svetlana’s sweet, winsome tones intertwine with the warm, gravelly voice of legendary trombonist Wycliffe Gordon. Over the years that Svetlana has been performing on the New York jazz scene, Gordon has become a mentor and collaborator, contributing several arrangements to Night at the Speakeasy along with singing and playing on the album. “Wycliffe has a natural chemistry with the band,” Svetlana says. “He’s truly one of the most professional, supportive musicians and band members that I know. He behaves like a soldier in an army that I lead, and then when he steps out the whole room lights up in a different color.”
Gordon joins an all-star band that includes drummer Rob Garcia, a bandleader on the modern Brooklyn scene as well as an in-demand sideman (Wynton Marsalis, Anat Cohen, Woody Allen, Vince Giordano, Dianna Krall); Australian-born reeds player Adrian Cunningham, (lead alto saxophone for Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, Wycliffe Gordon, Professor Cunningham and His Old School); trumpeter Charlie Caranicas (Independence Hall Jazz Band, the Karrin Allyson Group, Chico O’Farrill’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra); master ragtime and stride pianist Dalton Ridenhour (Bria Skomberg, Vince Giordano); bassist George Delancey (Winard Harper, Christian Howes, Richard Galliano, Aaron Diehl); and guitarist Vinny Raniolo (longtime collaborator with Frank Vignola).
Every Monday the band plays for a packed crowd combining swing dancers, jazz aficionados, and those Svetlana refers to as “jazz curious” at the Back Room, one of only two speakeasies from the days of Prohibition still operating today. Located behind Ratner’s Deli on Delancey Street (hence the name of the band), the clandestine bar was purportedly the haunt of such underworld notables as Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano.
Since forming in the spring of 2012, Svetlana & The Delancey Five have gone on to consistently sell out a number of renowned New York jazz venues including the Blue Note, B.B. King’s, Ginny’s Supper Club, Zinc Bar, City Winery, and Kitano while maintaining their home base at the Back Room. The band has also become one of the most in-demand features at the numerous sold out hot jazz and swing events (Prohibition Production, Gemeni & Scorpio, Times Square flashmobs which consistently draw hundreds of attendants) – as well as secured residencies in popular Brooklyn spots whereby seamlessly integrating into the thriving Brooklyn music scene. It’s an interesting culmination of the story of a Russian girl who grew up singing, studying piano and classical vocal, singing in traditional Russian choirs – but, at insistence of her family of engineers, studied a more practical subject of mathematics.
It’s not an immigrant story that begins in hardship, however. “I had a fabulous, happy childhood in the dark concrete buildings of Moscow,” Svetlana recalls. “I have a great family and I guess that’s where it starts and ends – it doesn’t matter where you are or how long you have to stand in line to get bread and butter. I come from a family of nerds and engineers and the reality of becoming a full-time artist seemed really far-fetched, but in my heart of hearts I always knew I was an artist.”
However after completing her mathematics degree with high honors in Moscow – Svetlana enrolled in Moscow College of Improvised Music and Jazz. Still the scholarship landed her in New York – where she arrived with one suitcase and a guitar on a crisp autumn day. Soon thereafter she was playing occasional gigs by night. It wasn’t until the late 2000’s that she turned her full attention to being a musician, after forming a band for a summer music festival. “I was immediately hooked,” she says. “We do this because we couldn’t imagine our lives without it. The exhilaration of coming together with other musicians and producing this most abstract work of art, there one minute and gone the next, keeps you wanting to go back so badly.”
After a few years singing in a variety of contexts and languages, Svetlana fell into the hot jazz and swing circuit, finding the exhilaration in singing songs she listened to on old LPs since she was a kid and feeling highly energized by singing for mixed audiences of listeners and dancers. In a way that style harkened back to her earliest jazz experience, when she took her school lunch allowance to a Moscow department store determined to buy the album with the highest number of songs, whatever it was. That ended up being 30 By Ella, Ella Fitzgerald’s 1968 recording of a half-dozen medleys arranged by Benny Carter.
Through the auspices of the Back Room, Svetlana formed the Delancey Five in 2012. She began writing her own songs at Wycliffe Gordon’s behest, and in 2013 enrolled at the one of the most prestigious and demanding graduate jazz vocal performance programs, the Manhattan School of Music, where she studied vocal performance with Theo Bleckmann, Gretchen Parlato, and Kate McGarry, and composition and arranging with Jim McNeely and Phil Markowitz. The band regularly joins forces with a DJ collective for an electro-swing series, The Speakeasy Sessions for large-scale vintage-inspired soirees in warehouse-style venues of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. Svetlana is also a frequent featured vocalist of several New York based big bands (George Gee, Seth Weaver, etc). Svetlana’s vintage-inspired swing appeals strongly to both dancers and listeners – be that at a high brow jazz club or an underground Brooklyn speakeasy. The band’s “magnificent energy” (noted by the collaborator, Wycliffe Gordon) reflects the magic of “social music” which goes to the very root of how swing became popular in 1920s and why it is on the uprise again today – in that every live performance creates a strong connection between the band and it’s audience that consumes the music with their minds, their hearts, and their whole bodies. As Will Friedwald states in the record’s liner notes, this may be the reason why “Svetlana will be singing it and leading one of the major bands in the idiom for some time to come”.