Jazz Friendly

Big, bald, bearded guitarist Tod Vullo has been playing jazz around Houston for 16 years, and when he gets excited about something (which seems to happen frequently), his gruff voice grows louder, faster and jollier as the emotion increases. Loud, fast and jolly is how he sounds when he gets going about uh*huh, his first solo CD after a long career of playing sideman.

"People hate jazz albums," Vullo quips. "Most players make it too fucking complicated for even a musician to listen to."

But even if jazz is a form susceptible to intimidating levels of complexity, Vullo has learned ways to make it less scary. Being on-stage at the now-defunct Blue Moon for nine years running taught Vullo something about commercial viability, and nine years as Kirk Whalum's guitarist taught him the assets of a simple melody. Stints with Bob James, Herb Ellis and his own straight-ahead jazz trio (presently on display Mondays at the Q Cafe) have tilted Vullo's approach toward what is usually, if not always accurately, described as "smooth" jazz. "It's got more of an R&B feel," Vullo says. "Jazz to me has got a great beat -- a groove to it. "

Vullo's new CD definitely has a groove to it. Work on it began back in 1994, when Vullo guitarist buddy and Justice-signed elder statesman Herb Ellis hit town for Jazz Fest. Vullo signed up studio time, called in a favor from his friend, and the two recorded "Where'd You Get That Belt" (penned by Houston drummer Tim Solook) and "Cherokee."

Over the course of the following year, Vullo drew on the talents of organist Rick Jackson, saxophonist David Caceres, bassist Dave Nichols, drummers Solook and Todd Harrison and percussionist Kuko Miranda to flesh out the disc's ten tracks, which were finished in August 1995. Add another year to collect funding for manufacturing expenses, and uh*huh was a reality. Jackson, Solook, Miranda, bassist Don "The Judge" Patterson and Warren Sneed on sax (subbing for the out-of-town Caceres) is the lineup you'll see on-stage at Cody's celebrating the disc's at-long-last release with a two-night bash. And rest assured, it's jazz too good to be scary.

-- Brad Tyer
Tod Vullo performs at 9 and 11 p.m. Thursday and Friday, July 25 and 26, at Cody's. Tickets are $10. For info, call 520-5660.

Asylum Street Spankers -- Last time the Asylum Street Spankers came to town, they drew the wrath of a Houston civic group called P.O.P.S. (People Opposed to the Paddling of Schoolchildren). Chafed by the band's propensity toward spanking selected members of their audience, the group demanded the Mucky Duck cancel the show. The enraged citizens were appeased only after last-minute negotiations in which the Spankers not only gave assurances that they would spank only willing volunteers, but agreed to donate a percentage of the evening's profits to the cause of preventing the paddling of schoolchildren.

Such maneuvering displays how adept this ten-member Austin group is at dealing with tricky situations. After all, trying to convert the masses armed with only acoustic guitars, washboards and clarinets is no small feat, especially when your set list is rooted in vaguely unhip pre-1960 American popular music. But night after night, the Asylum Street Spankers find themselves balancing boisterous shtick with delicate anachronistic musical idioms. Under the leadership of blues harp wizard Guy Forsyth (reincarnated here as an acoustic guitarist) and the acerbic yet heavenly Christina Marrs, the Spankers put on a show that combines blues, boogie, gospel, vaudeville, swing and comedy into a thorough lesson in America's musical heritage. Forgoing electric forms of amplification, the Spankers begin their shows with the announcement: "We cannot, and will not, compete with loud conversation. It is imperative that you be quiet while we are playing." Audiences gladly comply. The resulting decibel level is closer to that of a loud campfire jam than a typical nightclub show, making it difficult to resist the up-close vitality of the group's music and its humor. At McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, at 8 and10 p.m. Saturday, July 27. Tickets are $7.528-5999. (Gerard Choucroun)

Texas Guinness Lovers -- The Texas Guinness Lovers have got more than just experienced personnel to offer; they've got an honest-to-God concept. Kilian Sweeney, whose better-known group is the long-running de Schmog, explains it this way: "[What] really hit me hard as a kid was the Clancy Brothers .... But I've also got real strong Texas connections. I don't know if it was seeing Junior Brown or rediscovering Bob Wills, but I wanted to mesh the two."

Meshing with Sweeney are bassist Chris Bacos, fiddler Jennifer Neira and Lovers co-founder Thomas Ayresol. The Lovers' first gig was an acoustic charity show in front of Amy's Ice Cream in April, and now they've settled into an indefinite weekly Tuesday night spot at Rudyard's. There, in front of a wall-size Texas flag, the band runs through honky-tonked covers of tunes by everyone from Bob Wills to Hank Williams to the Who to Leadbelly to those Clancy Brothers. With Sweeney on vocals and guitar, Ayresol singing and swinging behind the drum kit and Neira with her saw-toothed accents, the Lovers are turning into another fine example of what Houston musicians -- for all their commercial ineptitude -- seem to do best: have one hell of a good time. At Rudyard's, 2010 Waugh Drive, at 10 p.m. Tuesday, July 30. Free. 521-0521. (

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Gerard Choucroun
Brad Tyer