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Spank That Bongo! 

Countdown Quartet delivers a contagious new album

After last year's eponymous trad-jazz release, the Countdown Quartet set out to capture their live energy on their new disc--a house-shakin', groove-filled collection of horn-heavy R&B. Adept at musical styles ranging from classic Dixieland to funkified, blues-based rock and soul, Party With!, the band's sophomore release, is a gris-gris bag full of dance tunes. Brother, if this don't make you shake your moneymaker, then you got two left feet.

Party With! was recorded at SCOTS leader Rick Miller's new studio out in Mebane, with Miller himself at the console, while John Plymale (Hobex, Meat Puppets, Superchunk) took the producer role. The band members all contribute to the call-and-response vocals and group sing-a-longs, with the crowd ambience--friends doing the hootin' and hollerin'--recorded to give the disc its sweaty, juke joint vibe. Like its predecessor, Party With! was recorded live--only the vocals are overdubs--so the energy and groove is unmistakably real. When the disc kicks in with the raucous opener "All Night," you're there at the session, tapping your foot and swiggin' a highball. By the third track, the "Tequila" send-up, "Crispy Like a Free Toe," you're ready to "Spank that bongo!" and get your party on.

Like any band with chops, there's an effortlessness to Countdown's riffs, from Dave Wright's steeped-in-tradition trombone licks to former Jumpstarts/J'Azure reed player Tim Smith's silky sax playing. Both Wright and Smith can be heard all over the last Squirrel Nut Zippers release: As full-fledged Zippers, they share double duty. Steve Grothmann, when he's not wrangling upright bass, continues the war on poor sentence structure as an English instructor at N.C. State. When Ted Zarras isn't laying down syncopated Ziggy Modeliste beats with the band, or writing the group's crazier numbers (check out "Bombadier"), he's up in New Hampshire learning about Doppler radar and cloud formations. (Someday he'll be a funky jazz weatherman.) These days, Russ Wilson (Skeeter Brandon) sits in on drums if Zarras is out of town. Head Zipper Jimbo Mathus needs no introduction, but his love for traditional jazz, blues and old-style music made him a perfect fit.

For Wright, a former East Carolina University music major who, in his words, "freaked out" before completing his degree, jazz was never in or out of style. It was a passion. With Ken Burns' Jazz series contending that jazz is America's music, the way baseball is America's sport, music fans are rediscovering and re-evaluating the genre. But for the guys in the Countdown Quartet, jazz was, and is, the soundtrack to their lives. Wright mentions everyone from Armstrong and '20s and '30s legend Jack Teagarden to the Rebirth Brass Band as current faves. Except for a stint changing tires at a Firestone shop, the trombone player is making a living as a musician. In fact, all the Countdown members (it's actually a quintet) are currently out playing several nights a week: Have horns, will travel.

Florida native Grothmann was an English and clarinet major who strummed bass in non-jazz combos. Multi-instrumentalist Wright, who also happens to play a mean, swampy keyboard (an old "Silvertone Home Church" organ he found through the want ads) had been in a pop band with former Ben Folds Five member Darren Jessee down in Greenville before becoming part of the Raleigh scene.

The "Park House" ended up being a point of convergence for the Raleigh musical intelligentsia: The Tonebenders, Whiskeytown and Six String Drag all vied for the living room practice space. Wright quickly gained the nickname "Pops" at the musical bachelor pad, according to former housemate, Whiskeytown drummer Skillet Gilmore. Maybe it was his penchant for old-time jazz--his Jack Teagarden vocal stylings and studious attention to releases by Dixieland vets, The Preservation Hall Jazz Society. Or, maybe it's his air of dad-like calm, belying a guy who blows his horn like he's auditioning for funk/jazz New Orleans heavyweights, The Rebirth Brass Band. There's also his laid-back personal style, from his natty hats down to his spiffy, two-tone cream and sable brown wingtips, an accessory that any distinguishing jazz cat would recognize as serious playin' shoes.

Wright's first Raleigh group was How Town, before he and Grothmann started up the Tonebenders, whose members moonlighted as the Park House Horns with Six String Drag. While the other bands explored the alt-country sound, the Tonebenders were a soulful cross between Booker T. and Creedence, a sound that declared the band's non-alliance to any movement or scene. Southern Culture's Miller was an early champion of the Tonebenders, bringing them out on tour as SCOTS' opening band. Grothmann was still in Whiskeytown at the time, but his leanings were always more towards jazz and R&B, so he went with the more democratic, group situation afforded by the Tonebenders.

Nowadays, the guys are committed to being a working band, whether it's hipster gigs at rock clubs, informal Dixieland sessions as The King Rippers (a Wednesday night fixture at Raleigh's Humble Pie) or the occasional private party. "Part of the goal of the band is to be able to play different places and settings: a party, a rock 'n' roll club. For a wedding, the first set we'll play more traditional things that all ages can enjoy, then we move into R&B and our own material," Wright says.

What the Countdown guys excel at and thrive on is the live experience, the improvisational onstage forays that take the solos into new realms, and the reactions they get from each other and the live audience. "I like to say, 'Blow it Dave' like he's not doing it," Grothmann says, laughing. "I like to whip him up, and he responds, he gets more hyper." Wright looks amused. "Yeah, freak out," he adds. For that reason, the band never cops the "we're serious musicians, we won't play weddings" attitude. They enjoy the flow of liquor and good spirits as people of all ages gather for one reason: to celebrate. Of course, there's the occasional gig where the groom insults the bride's mother and all hell breaks loose (a recent Virginia show) but for the most part it's about getting people to loosen up and bust a move.

At a recent King Rippers gig, a whistle-blowing Wright alternated trombone and vocals as he led the group through staples like "Ballin' The Jack." With Grothmann on stand-up bass, they were joined by original Countdown member Dave "Smokebreak" Andrews ("he smokes four packs a day," Gilmore informs me) on banjo, a grinning old-timer on trumpet whose last steady gig was probably a USO tour, and also a clarinet player who looks kind of like Tor Johnson. Adjectives like "swell" came to mind--there was something timeless about the different ages and backgrounds all swingin' and boppin' to the same classic songs. Like the Preservation Hall players, or the street-smart heavyweight horn-players of Rebirth Brass Band, the Countdown Quartet perform with feeling and real heart, a rare commodity in these bottom-line days. EndBlock

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