Don't be lookin' for a New Orleans-style throwdown with twirling umbrellas or waving hankies when Miss Tess and The Bon Ton Parade come to town. Although the band's name is close to the unofficial New Orleans party phrase "laissez le bon temps roulet" and Tess and her group step pretty lively, the vibe and groove in her music don't reside much in the Big Easy. "Bon ton is a sophisticated manner or style, or the appropriate thing to do," Tess explains. "There's stuff inspired by New Orleans, but certainly not all encompassing."
She admits to a Southern influence in her sound as well. "I just consider it roots music inspired by early jazz and swing and blues and country," the Boston-based singer/guitarist says by phone from the road. "It's pretty eclectic, but it definitely has a rootsy, kind of vintage sound."
On her latest offering, '09's Darling Oh Darling, the sound ranges from Western swing to country to jazz to rockabilly. The title cut is cry-your-guts-out country replete with a weepy pedal steel. "That Oo Oo Oo" sounds like it escaped from a '20s speakeasy with Tess scatting at breakneck speed. "I Don't Want To See You Anymore" is a rockabilly rave-up with Tess galloping along on guitar. "Saving All My Love" could have fallen off a bandstand in 1930. "Awake" is jazzy folk with Tess plunking along on banjo.
All that diversity makes for some confusion in labeling. Amazon.com lists her as both a folk and a jazz artist. (She received the Boston Music award for Outstanding Folk Artist in '07.) Although she admits to being influenced by the jazz guitar stylings of Charlie Christian and his disciples, she doesn't want to be typecast as a jazz performer. "I consider myself more of a songwriter than a jazz musician," she says. Writing lyrics that people can relate to is her main goal. "I'm more concerned with putting forth something where people can say, 'I've been there before,' or 'I relate to this in some way -- it has some bit of truth in it.'"
She admits jazz can be intimidating for listeners. "The better you get at jazz, the less accessible it is," she says with a chuckle. "You can't really appreciate it unless you've studied jazz, 'cause you have no frame of reference for it, so you're like, 'Oh, it's just weird sounds.' I like my music to be accessible by people."
But that doesn't mean she'll be discarding her hot, jazzy guitar licks. Over the last couple of years, Tess has stepped up from just playing rhythm to getting out front with more leads. "I think as a woman, it might sound clichéd, but it's cool for other women to see that, and go, 'I can do that.' And I feel like a real kick-ass female guitar player -- it makes me feel good."
Miss Tess -- the stage name she prefers to be known by offstage and on, insisting her last name "doesn't flow" -- inherited her love of music from her mom and dad. Both parents played on her '04 debut album, Home, with daddy Marv on sax, clarinet and pedal steel, and mother Kathy on stand-up bass. They still all play together when she goes home to Baltimore, and both stay involved in their daughter's career "Every time I go home they say, 'Hey this is a new song we learned, or you should sing this song,'" she says, laughing. "They're kinda obsessed with obscure old music."
Miss Tess got her love of Western swing from her parents, whom she says are big Bob Wills fans, but she and her bandmates share a mutual admiration for rockabilly and especially Wanda Jackson, the self-described "first lady of rockablly." Jackson toured with Elvis in his early years and made a name for herself with hits like '59's "Let's Have A Party," cut by Elvis a year earlier, a cover of Jerry Lee's "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Riot in Cell Block Number 9," also covered by the Coasters. "My band was like, 'Wanda Jackson is awesome and she's playing small clubs. We should be her back-up band and try to bring in some younger fans."
Soon afterward, Tess and the band saw an article about Jack White's plans to work with Jackson like he did with Loretta Lynn. ("He pushed me into the 21st century," Jackson said of the resulting White-produced album during her boisterous show at Raleigh's Berkeley Cafe in February. Released in January, the 7" vinyl included a cover of Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good.")
"We read the article and we were like, 'Ooh, too late,'" Miss Tess sighs.
But Tess and her group, Alec Spiegelman on sax and clarinet, Paul Dilley on upright bass and Matt Meyer on drums, don't need to back up anybody. They do pretty well on their own, playing venues that cater to bluegrass to blues to jazz. They're equally welcome at New York's Blue Note and D.C.'s Blues Alley. "We do good at those places 'cause we are a little different," she says. "Anyone who can appreciate jazz still likes what we're doing, even though it's not as avant-garde as some other people -- not like a million solos."
To further distance herself from the herd, Tess has just recorded a six-song EP, The Waltz Set, featuring a waltz arrangement of Skeeter Davis' 1962 crossover country hit "The End of the World."
That should keep the musical pigeonholers busy while Tess ponders her legacy. "I'm still figuring that out," she says, before adding that she'd like to be remembered "as a good musician and good human being." For the lady leading the bon ton parade with such sophisticated style, it's the appropriate thing to do.
Miss Tess and the Bon Ton Parade play the Double Door Inn on July 17. Tickets $10. Show time 10 p.m. Boulder Acoustic Society opens.