Hayden Jones Swings Home to The Roosevelt House
Traces of gypsy jazz, swing and blues run through the first few songs of The Roosevelt House. L-R: Hayden Jones and Amy Wilkinson.
Photo by Nick Lavigne/Courtesy of Hayden Jones
Everyone has a place or time he or she can call home. In between youth and adulthood, you find yourself surrounded by friends who make you feel like you finally belong. More than anything, it’s a feeling.
On his first LP, The Roosevelt House, 23-year-old Hayden Jones sings about that feeling. “Initially the original Roosevelt house was my house in Sugar Land where my suburban as-close-as-you-can-get-to hipster friends skateboarded and played guitar," he says. "We hung out at my house and even though not everyone played music, they were all in the Roosevelt house band. We all got together and that shaped us — we jammed a lot. It shaped us all in some way. The Roosevelt house life represents that.”
The 14-song LP was recorded half in a house in Meyerland, and half in hallways and alleyways around Houston. “It’s got a long, skinny room with short ceilings and wood floors, so it had a lot of good ambience,” Jones says of the house. “I feel like that’s the most important thing. There’s a lot of room sounds and ambience as opposed to reverb.”
Jones’s former band, The Roosevelt House Band, parted ways in Christmas of 2015, only to re-form in a condensed version the following July. The process of recording was more of a casual gathering of friends than a session. “So I brought them in, set up the mikes, made sure everything was good, and we started playing," Jones says. "I didn’t even tell them we were recording an album, because I didn’t want to get it in their heads that they were recording."
Heard on The Roosevelt House is what developed out of what Jones calls "the jazz version" of the group: Aaron Varnell (saxophone); Jacob Breier (tenor guitar); Cameron Knowler (lead guitar); Julian Rivera (cello and bass); and Amy Wilkinson (second vocals). "I got them together and we did it," says Jones.
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Traces of gypsy jazz, swing and blues run through the first few songs. On opener “Where Did You Run to Sally?” Jones croons like a young Dean Martin or second-album Lou Reed, with touches of early Devendra Banhart as he goes from looking for his mother to waiting for his lover. A chorus of friends join in on the hook, with Wilkinson leading the way. The whole thing sounds completely improvised.
“It’s a live performance,” Jones recalls. ”That first session was like a reunion. Everyone brought their girlfriends, Jacob the guitar player brought his baby, and everyone was hanging out in the kitchen. We asked everyone at the table to sing the chorus with us and they did, so there’s a lot more people than just Amy who you can hear because she was closest to the mike.”
The second song, "Some of These Days," is a jazz standard written by Shelton Brooks, which opens with Jones crooning once again. The melody is reminiscent of "Summertime," but doesn’t borrow enough to steal. Wilkinson picks up right where the band kicks in and swings. "Blues In the Morning" is a harmonica-laced blues in which Jones sings about standing in a familiar post-drinking spot In downtown Houston wondering what happened. "Winchester Blues" is a slow-moving instrumental, but like most of these on the record, doesn’t feel out of place. These interludes sound just as natural as the songs themselves; it's the time it takes to get to your next destination. Another slow number, “You’ve Got the Feeling,” almost feels like a standard. The Side-A closer, “Soft Waltz,” pulls you into the intimate part of the evening; you can almost picture a couple dancing.
“I don’t think we’ll ever leave Houston completely,” Hayden Jones admits.
Photo by Amy Wilkinson/Courtesy of Hayden Jones
Shortly after finishing the song, Breier and Varnell left the band to join long-running Houston avant-garde/jazz group Free Radicals, while Jones and Wilkinson had to leave their Meyerland house/studio because of financial troubles. They were left to record the rest of the record in the hallways of friends’ houses and even alleyways around Houston.
“Literally at 4 a.m. one night, we decided to leave Houston," Jones says. "Amy had been bugging me about it, so I said, 'Okay, let's do it.' It didn’t make any sense logically, but it just felt right. There wasn’t really that much of a plan. Most of it was just that we would go to San Marcos and we had a place to stay there and we left.”
After bouncing between San Marcos and family in Houston during the holidays, Jones got back to work on recording the rest of the album, this time with a makeshift digital setup. “We were in Town Center and it was late at night and I set up my laptop and interface," recalls Jones. "I started recording digitally. I was really stuck, didn’t know what to do about the fidelity of the record. I wanted to have digital quality for the rest of the record.
"The second half was intimidating to make," he continues. "I never recorded digital, and was stuck in the mind-set of recording everything analog. Once I was able to get out of that, I started tracking the second half. With digital recording, everything went a lot quicker and I started recording in rapid fire. We recorded four songs, but ended up keeping the ones we liked.”
The second-half opener, aptly titled “Homeless Swing,” is a bouncy tune about being a rambler, followed by “Minor Harmonica Swing,” another instrumental with a parlor feel; it sounds like listening in on a jam session. “Emerald Forest Green” is more of the same, before the barrage of memories that is "This Is the Last Time of Looking at My Home,” quite possibly the strongest song on the record. With lyrics like “Apple pipes and cigarettes and laughing so stoned” or "where Jeremy lost his virginity almost twice in one night,” the song isn’t vague or distant, but full of vivid imagery. Jones is looking back but not without his feet firmly pointing forward, which he clarifies at the end of every verse. He feels the memories but knows that neither he nor they can stay.
Leaving Houston is an ongoing theme toward the end of the record. “I don’t think we’ll ever leave Houston completely,” Jones admits. The brief "Wash Me Away" introduces the final and more obvious farewell song on The Roosevelt House. In “Fare Thee Well My Friends in Houston,” Jones sings a letter to his hometown: to the bars and friends, to the long nights playing the haunts and cafes where he sharpened these songs. The mandolin carries the singer out of the door and down the road.
Hayden Jones and his band celebrate the release of The Roosevelt House 8:45 p.m. on Friday, May 19, at historic Anderson Fair, 2007 Grant. Tickets are $15.
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