Hot Five

Phonoroyale carries the torch song into the modern world

It's funny how even the most esoteric ideas can reach different people at the same time.

Neither the Sex Pistols nor the Clash had heard the Ramones when they launched their own buzz-saw guitar attacks. They just happened to be on the same transatlantic wavelength as the boys from Queens. For that matter, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and most of the early great rockers simultaneously mixed R&B and country in their local bars before realizing that other artists were doing the same thing.

Jung followers--or Police fans--would call it synchronicity. The rest of us can think of it as a pop-culture convergence--kind of like a solar eclipse, and just about as infrequent.

That's the best way to consider Jack Randall's dream, about five or six years ago, of starting a hot little jazz combo that could evoke the sultry ambiance of a scratchy old 78 or a Saturday-night speakeasy. Randall, guitarist and bandleader for the hot Phoenix quintet Phonoroyale, didn't know that in 1997 the Squirrel Nut Zippers would move half a million units with a Dixieland jazz pastiche or that Gen Xers would start signing up for swing lessons. All he knew was that months of putting ads in the papers and trying out four or five musicians a week was getting him nowhere. Aside from Mary Katherine Spencer, a young singer with an appreciation for old Frank Sinatra sides, Randall couldn't find anyone willing to leap into the past.

"I thought I was crazy for wanting this," Randall says after one of Phonoroyale's biweekly Monday gigs at Chez Nous. "Mary Katherine can sing like an old record, so she wanted in on this. So we spent a couple of years thinking, 'We're the only two people in the universe that think this is an all-right thing to do.' We just liked the scratchy old 78s. And when I realized she could sing that way, I realized that I could write that way, and I tried to figure out if someone else might be interested in playing that way."

It took a few years, interrupted by an ill-fated move to Maryland, where bar patrons besieged Randall and Spencer with requests for Jimmy Buffett covers, but they have found both a lineup and an audience perfectly in tune with their vision. Bassist Kevin Pate and drummer Scott Hay come from rock backgrounds, but both sought something different. Guitarist Ben Edmonds, the band's latest addition, is a Boston native who lives for bebop.

Chez Nous isn't the only spot where you can see Phonoroyale, but this retro lounge seems custom-made for the band. The dim lighting and velvety '70s decor add just the right surreal touch to the proceedings. The guys in the band are usually decked out in matching white shirts with ties, suspenders and the obligatory porkpie hats. Spencer, with her long, dark hair and frilly, antique-store dresses, suggests a silent-film queen crossed with a Hanna-Barbera cartoon creation. She also possesses an uncanny ability to emulate the sexy coos that defined the great torch recordings.

When the band kicks into one of its beautifully languid jazz numbers, you begin to feel like you're part of a David Lynch film shoot. You half expect to find Dennis Hopper in the corner booth, gasping between shots from his inhalator. Suddenly, Hay will kick into "Crazy Moon" or one of the band's other upbeat swing tunes, the dark mood is broken, and the Chez Nous night crawlers blister the dance floor with a collective case of frenzy foot.

Randall's greatest invention--and the show's piece de resistance--is the Phonophone, a metallic pipe that works like a kazoo but sounds like a cross between a trombone and a muted trumpet. It's an idea just bizarre and contemporary enough to remind you that Calvin Coolidge is no longer in the White House and Phonoroyale really is a '90s band, even if its sense and sensibility are pure Prohibition Era.

The surest clue that this band has more on its mind than nostalgia is that it can fill up three-hour sets with nary a cover thrown in. In fact, the band members initially thought their commitment to original material would work against them at Chez Nous.

"We came in here on our night off and I told this guy, 'You do not want to have my band play here, 'cause we play originals,'" Randall says.

Spencer adds, "You come to Chez Nous, and you expect to hear 'Midnight Train to Georgia' and some stuff that everybody knows and everybody's gonna dance to. But he said yes to us."

With a CD on the way in September--its title remains a source of debate within the band--Phonoroyale could put an original face on local torch music.

"We have got to be the biggest freaks in town, because we play songs that we make up and we get paid every other night to do this," Randall says. "I guess there are other people doing it, but I don't know who they are."

Ruby in Pima: Sand Rubies bassist Robin Johnson remains in a Pima County jail on a million-dollar bond after both he and his girlfriend, Amoret Powell, were charged with murder in the July 11 death of their infant daughter, Eve Powell. The cause of death is believed to be the mother's breast milk, which authorities say contained both heroin and methadone.

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