Sarah King and The Smoke Rings

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Sarah King and The Smoke Rings

(Alex Levin Music)

April 3, 2016

Reviewed by Rob Lester for Cabaret Scenes

Sarah-King-and-the-Smoke-Rings-Cabaret-Scenes-Magazine_212Imagine cocktail-lounging high atop a Manhattan hotel, the romantic view of the city’s glittering lights through the window behind a bandstand. Through an offstage microphone, a voice booms, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, The Boom Boom Room is proud to present….”

Yes, there is a Boom Boom Room in modern-day NYC and that’s where plucky songbird Sarah King and the zippy instrumental trio The Smoke Rings have regularly been holding forth and holding back time, happily holding onto songs mostly from The Swing Era. No, this isn’t a live album, but it is lively. (The hotel, incidentally, is The Standard, neatly reinforcing their rep and repertoire: the standards.

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) The key word here: RETRO.

This is a TEAM effort; the band doesn’t merely “accompany,” but is the engine. Agile solos are truly interesting and entertaining. The terrific trio: Alex Levin (piano); Scott Ritchie (bass); Ben Cliness (drums).

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Old-timey, blithe ambience is enhanced by the vocalist also playing the ukulele. These folks very much evoke and embrace 1920s-1940s music, affection and joy palpable to the Nth degree—the “N” standing for “Nostalgia.”  

This collection of just 10 well-known, solid numbers (including “I Won’t Dance,” “Caravan,” a VERY bouncy “Jersey Bounce,” and—surprise!—“Smoke Rings”) is a pick-me-up. From the opener’s immediately intoxicating opening rhythms of a presumed mantra, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” the swing of King’s smokin’ Smoke Rings rings true.

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That is, they practice what they preach: they swing. But it’s more light/bright than raucous. Note: Don’t expect depth or dramatic lyric exploration; smile, darn ya, smile.

Youthful Miss King projects sunny innocence, with “cute” component that could cross into “coy” terrain, but, while playful, she doesn’t play the flirtatious kittenish card. Generally, I avoid impulses to compare newish singers to stars. But, in this case, flavorings fully feel like intentional homages to legends of yore, but with just-as-conscious modern winks. My bet: She’s an astute chameleon-like fan, lovingly synthesizing numerous influences. I hear a mix of very young Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington vocalist Ivie Anderson, plaintiveness of early Billie Holiday (minus the sorrow), and others. King’s sound can be on the nasal, muted- horn side of the spectrum, rather than a big, rich, open quality—but infectious breeziness prevails. “Tea for Two” is a smoother brew, with a loping style to the tempo. It’s all spiffy, fizzy fun—theirs and ours.

Rob Lester

2015 is native New Yorker Rob Lester's eighth year as contributing writer, beginning by reviewing a salute to Frank Sinatra, whose recordings have played on his personal soundtrack since the womb. (His Cabaret Scenes Foundation member mom started him with her favorite; like his dad, he became an uber-avid record collector/ fan of the Great American Songbook's great singers and writers.) Soon, he was attending shows, seeking out up-and-comers and already-came-ups, still reading and listening voraciously. He also writes for and, has been cabaret-centric as awards judge, panel member/co-host, and produces benefit/tribute shows, including one for us.