The Atomic Fireballs
King Dapper Combo
December 22

For your entertainment buck, there are few bargains better than a night of swing. Not only do you get a show on stage, but off as well. The Atomic Fireballs concert was filled with well-dressed, talented swing dancers--most of whom appeared to be in their late teens and early 20s--who turned the Odeon mosh pit into a dance extravaganza.

While the young couples performed death-defying moves around each other--spinning their partners around their heads or flipping their girls backward--there was a small contingent which caught the eye for all the wrong reasons. As a warning to swing dancers: Please don't drink and dance.

There are stylistic differences between swing bands, and it's a relief that the Atomic Fireballs don't have that "hey, look at us, we're playing swing music" feel. Instead, the potent group used various influences, moods, and rhythms to say exactly what it is about. Led by John Bunkley, a gravel-voiced singer--Louis Armstrong, anyone?--whose twists and turns appear to be both pleasure- and pain-induced, the Atomic Fireballs incorporated the energy of punk rock, the deep groove of a blues band, and the toned-down atmosphere most often associated with jazz.

"Sing Sweet Pussycat" and "Spanish Fly" were all-out romps, as the band gave the crowd plenty to jump, jive, and wail about. But unlike their swing contemporaries, the Atomic Fireballs showed diversity through the dirty dance beat of "Caviar," a jazzy cover of Sinatra's "Luck Be a Lady," and the sly, bass-inspired "Here I Go."

During "Love or Lies," the brass section carried the bluesy melody into a higher realm. Bunkley's singular voice rounded out the track, making it one of the more memorable tunes of the evening.

Looking like a cheesy high school cover band that could have played at your parents' senior prom, Akron's King Dapper Combo was a fun bunch. Occasionally the band was joined by a female singer who complemented the already bluesy sound. The track "Booze Party" featured an early Elvis-sounding riff over which you could sing the words to "Blue Suede Shoes." A word to the wise: Don't mess with the King.

--John Benson

The Bop Stop Jazz Unit With Joe Lovano
The Bop Stop
December 26

For the packed house at the Bop Stop Saturday night, Cleveland native son and tenor monster Joe Lovano set aside his trio fascination and sat in with the Bop Stop Jazz Unit, a more sizable Cleveland-based big band. Unfortunately, once the Unit got Joe up on the bandstand, it didn't give him too much to work with.

Playing a few tunes before Lovano joined in, the Unit set a tone that, with few exceptions, lasted all evening, Lovano-augmented or not. While hinting at something like a Mingusesque balance between arrangement and improvisation, the Unit retained none of the characteristic Mingus verve or highly idiosyncratic voicings. Instead, it took a buttoned-up, somewhat stiff collectivist attitude, favoring group sound and notated passages over solos. The Unit emphasized rather flat, repetitive theme statements that resembled Aaron Copland-orchestrated hollers more than anything really vibrant. Some solos stood out, most notably the few from Howie Smith's saxophones, but most ended quickly and rarely emerged from the fuzzy-sounding group lines.

It sounded as though things were picking up for the Unit when Joe stepped up to the bandstand. Set up with a driving number, fueled from the bottom up by bassist Dave Morgan and baritone saxman Rich Shenkland, Lovano sidled up to his microphone and blew the crowd back a few inches. And his all-muscle, all-sinew solo wasn't immediately lost on the band, either. Having a horn like Lovano's in the ranks upped the energy considerably. The backing horn lines hit a little harder and faster. Lead trumpeter Joe Miller followed Lovano with the most pungent solo of the night (outside of Lovano's tenor). It didn't last.

Joe did his best to keep the band mobile--even attempting to rally it by punctuating later solos with low-register burps, growls, and honks. C'mon, he urged, follow me. Alas, the band failed to respond to Lovano's distinctive voice and his energetic playing. Wasting no time after its one thumper, the Unit waded knee-deep back into its largely unsatisfying arrangements. Aside from the occasional Lovano-centric moment (Joe alone; Joe with bass, piano, drums), all became as it was.

To be fair, there were moments that verged on something. Jack Schantz added his fair share of lamenting flYgelhorn solos. The band used more exotic instruments like bass clarinet, flute, and French horn to good effect, adding intriguing sound color to some group passages. The Unit just never got over a reluctance to step in front of the band and really shake things up. Mighta been an off night, but someone needed to get that sheet music up off of his head and blow.

--Aaron Steinberg