The Ray Gelato Giants In Chicago

Krissy Lee sees a great British swing band in her home town.

On Friday 30 April 1999 I was on my way to the club Liquid in Chicago to see The Ray Gelato Giants. I didn't know a thing about them, except that I enjoyed popping in their CD when I was cooking or hanging out with friends. The vocalist, Ray, had a voice that was like a cross between Louis Prima and Louis Armstrong: strong, romantic vocal background with a light, pleasant rasp. The horns had a tight sound and all the solos (on the CD at least) were not to be believed. I picked it up about 4 months before on a whim.

Previewing the CD in the store, I fell in love with the Prima song covers and in the picture of Ray on the front he looked even more Italian than my dad, which I didn't think was possible, so I snagged it and took it home. Then, in April, I heard they were going to perform at Liquid, so there I was. After the mandatory lesson and before the show, I'm talking to the DJ, getting in some warm-up dances (you know how it is, Kats and Kittens) when the band appears. Resplendent in steel gray suits they quietly take the stage, and, baby, that was the only thing that was quiet for the rest of the evening! Opening with a jump version of That's Amore, the audience got a blast of pure swing. Ray's sense of performance is a tantalizing mix of smooth British understatement between songs and outrageous Italian Mangia! pizzazz for the songs themselves. The first thing I thought was Hmmmmm they're really good! but as the night went on, that changed to *beep*! They're REALLY *beep*ing GOOD!! I have never in my life heard a horn section that tight. Solos and duets swirled into each other seamlessly, voices and instruments traded the stage effortlessly, and syncopation abounded.

Ray himself switched from lead vocals to sweet, sexy, saxophone and back all night long. Alex Garnett, with his young Sinatra smile and undeniable charm, is matched by no saxophone player I have ever heard in my life. Enrico Tomasso sounds as if he actually began learning the trumpet in the womb; his wah-wahs will make your knees fold. Exploding for his own impressive solos and singing a mean blues number was Andy Baker on trombone. Steve Rushton on drums can only be compared to Animal from the Muppets. He has that same sanitarium smile, the Helter Skelter eyebrows and enough talent to blow away a room. Tall and handsome 'Clark Kent' on bass was gloriously pounding in the background. And the ever-tenacious Richie Busiakiewicz on piano can be counted upon to produce pure sweet swingin' sound even when playing doubled in half in a chair. On top of all this talent, all of them have voices that angels have been known to kill for.

The band had a fantastic sense of showmanship. Constantly cracking each other and the audience up, they performed with an energy and tenacity that was a staple 50 or 60 years ago but is rarely seen today. At one point during the set closer, Richie's keyboard suddenly folded its legs and dropped flat to the stage. Amidst howling laughter from the rest of the band, the piano player gamely leaned over and continued to jam, an amicable "Well, what can ya' do?" smile on his face. All night long Ray and the band responded to the audience, trading quips, singing birthday songs, and dedicating numbers to fans. Between sets they were on hand to cheerfully sign CDs and discuss the finer differences between America (this was their first tour to the States) and England. Drinks in hand, they acted the part of not only the band, but the hosts of the evening, warming people to them effortlessly.

I overheard one gentleman moving toward the table where CDs were being sold complaining of the cost of a CD (as if $15.00 is unusual or unreasonable) and generally being drunkenly unpleasant. As this same gentleman left the table 10 minutes later, he was brandishing aloft a brand new CD, complete with signatures, smiling hugely and announcing to anyone within earshot that he had "met the band! Talked to Ray himself! Bravo Giants!" The show on Saturday night was identical in its genius and on Sunday night, at the Willowbrook Ballroom, Angelina/ Zooma Zooma fairly blew away all the Sportswear Swingers. This band is impossible to ignore and virtually unthinkable not to love. Their CD Men From Uncle captures their sound perfectly and I recommend it highly to anyone who is a true swinger. If you live in London go see 'em; if you live in the States write them and tell them to play your town, but one way or another kids, jump on this wagon before it takes off. There's nothing in this band's future but fame, fortune, and a shining place in swing history.

© 1999 Krissy Lee

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