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Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
Consider for a moment that Tommy Halloran will play music about 300 nights this year. Even for an artist with steady gigs, that’s an enormous amount of work, spread out across club dates, weddings, and special events. And it’s a task he undertakes in different forms, some of it solo, more of it as a duo with violinist Alyssa Avery, and the bulk of it with his group Guerrilla Swing, which includes drummer Kaleb Kirby, alto sax player Kristian Baarsvik, and Halloran’s trusted collaborator on bass, Mark Wallace.
As a longtime host of open-mic nights, Halloran’s around musicians both in the heart of their career and at the beginning. From each night’s varied experience, he’s developed upon the sound that’s been in his head since childhood. While some musicians have ridden the varying waves of swing’s popularity, Halloran’s always been true to the genre. His parents played classic jazz and blues around the house, and he’s now well into two decades of public performance of that music.
The key is that he’s doing so by employing only the songs that he loves, playing chestnut-heavy sets sprinkled with a number of originals.
Asked about his set lists, the guitarist says, “I just play songs that I like. I grew up listening to vocalists like Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Chet Baker. If I walk around and sing a song in my head for a week, I figure that I should maybe learn that song. But I’ve never learned ‘Mustang Sally’ or ‘Wish You Were Here.’ If I don’t like them, I’m not going to play them.”
Even during a time when many jazz/swing acts find their niche, or crossover success, in playing unexpected or quirky covers, there’s no temptation, Halloran says.
“I love The Cure, The Dead Milkmen, Boogie Down Productions,” he says. “But I have no desire to play songs by The Cure or BDP. Ever.”
Halloran likes his sets played straight, without artifice, but with the natty attire that you might expect. Seldom will you see this cat around town without a collared shirt, hat, and blazer. He’s a sharp player, a sharp dresser—and all the way authentic.
“What I find most interesting about Tommy is how genuine his creative process is,” Wallace says of Halloran. “Tommy’s body of work [in terms of covers] was written in the ballpark of 1910 to 1945, but he is the first musician I have come in contact with that really sells this material. It's not a shtick or a revival-band project. He came up listening to this music and it sounds like it.
“This is reflected in the way he writes,” Wallace adds. “The originals that he comes up with have the feel, harmony, and lyricism of a different time. The majority of us performing jazz really weren’t aware of the music until our teens or later. Tommy feels like the only genuine exception to this rule that I’ve had the pleasure to work with. He’s really done his homework.”
In some respects, Halloran discovered his love of and feel for swing with a stint that many young musicians have done. His time in the teenage ska band graHm, he says was beneficial in many ways.
“The ska led directly into swing for me, getting me into horns and the upright bass,” he says. “Swing boils down to jazz, which is where I’m at now. But playing with ska bands, you’re around a lot of guys in those bands, which gives a different dynamic. Sometimes, you gotta stay outta the way, just be a rhythm guitar player. I never was that shredder then, that lead guitar player. I was all about rhythm guitar and was not comfortable taking solos. But I came into that in my late twenties and early thirties.”
Halloran does have a certain self-consciousness about labels, laughing as he notes that jazz purists are among some of the most uptight folks around, hashing out terms and labels with hyperspecificity. “While I call it jazz, serious players can get bent outta shape. When I talk to [guitarists] like Vince Varvel or Dave Black, even I am leery of that term. And I don’t go down to BB’s and say I’m a bluesman. It’s a netherworld where I like to hang out.”
Terminology aside, Halloran’s versatility (he can croon and strum a classic country or Americana cut with the best of them) keeps him in continual action, regularly putting in work at rooms as diverse as Remy’s Kitchen & Wine Bar, The Rustic Goat Eatery & Lounge, Big Sky Cafe, Brennan’s, Lola, even rock venues like The Heavy Anchor, where he helps shepherd the long-running Chippewa Chapel open mic. Not content just to play live, he and Wallace have been rehearsing Guerrilla Swing hard all spring, so the group can hit the studio this summer, in the hope of releasing a September album. There may even be two, one dedicated to originals, the other to the classic tracks that the band’s mastered.
It’s a busy life, yet a satisfying one. With his characteristic sense of humor, this father of two says it’s plenty doable.
“I’ll play 300 times this year,” he says. “So it’s a job. But gigs are only four hours a night. That still leaves 20 hours a day for leisure.”
Now Hear This
Recently, there’s been a big influx of music released by and featuring popular KDHX-FM DJ Tim Rakel. He and The Union Electric bandmate Melinda Cooper recently founded Extension Chord Records, dedicated to releasing St. Louis talent, especially their own UE offshoots. With UE, they release music for the L.A.–based Rankoutsider Records. And in April, for Record Store Day, they conspired to offer five 45s under the auspices of the two complementary labels.
Some of the acts on these 45s, like Beth Bombara, are known names around town. Others, like Rakel’s new Chainsaw Gentlemen, are newer to the scene. The purpose of the releases, according to Rakel, is expose area (and national) listeners to acts from St. Louis, on the vinyl format that he loves.
As Rakel recently noted in an interview on KDHX’s website (kdhx.org), “There’s quite a diversity in music that’s going on in St. Louis. I think within a week last month I saw a classical string quartet doing Beethoven and a death-metal band. You can go see either of those anytime. I don’t know if everybody knows about all those things.”
He’s helping to let you know. Check your local indie music retailer for Extension Chord releases.