Music News

Caroline Dahl

To the modern ear, "boogie-woogie" sounds pretty stupid. You can trace the origin of the term back a century, to the days when the meaning of the term depended on where you said it. In pockets of black culture, it could mean a racy dance, an act of adultery, or a gnarly STD. But the lasting definition was born in the barrelhouses of the Southern states, rough-cut bars that featured tiny dance floors and all the regional rotgut you could handle. The piano player in such ill-reputed establishments hammered out pop tunes all night, improvising melodic variations in the right hand while the left gave drunkards enough rhythm to grind to. The showy, troublemaking musical fusion in those smoky rooms became its own genre, and that was boogie-woogie.

With Night House, Bay Area pianist Caroline Dahl pays apt tribute to the colorful tradition. On "Swanee River Boogie," Dahl interweaves two traditional folk melodies ("Red River Valley" and "Old Folk at Home") in homage to historic piano giants like Albert Ammons and Eubie Blake. But Dahl really shines when she blurs the lines of historic convention. Twelve of the record's 14 tracks are original works on which Dahl blasts through a handful of mixed influences. She dresses out traditional stomping bass lines with touches of jazz harmony, country swing, and early rock 'n' roll. In the most interesting of these mash-ups, "Mexicali Rose Medley," she juxtaposes south-of-the-border tunes with snippets of the jazz standard "Caravan" and a stumble-drunk glance at Chopin's famed "Minute Waltz." Other highlights include the drooping gait of "Jackson Ramble" (which owes much of its distinctive Southern character to guest violinist Tom Rigney) and the rollicking "Rumbah Numbah."

Even in the moments when Dahl's mischievous musical stew has an odd flavor (like the strangely velvety saxophone on "Tearing Up Heaven"), Night House succeeds as a vibrant document in the increasingly scholastic boogie tradition because of its many musical risks.

If the genre's purists have a distaste for Dahl's fusions, so much the better. After all, boogie-woogie has been about causing trouble since the beginning.

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Nate Cavalieri