FRIDAY, MAY 5—ECONOMY HALL TENT, 4:25 P.M.
If you’re familiar with Alia Shawkat, there’s a good chance it’s because of her work on the new dark comedy Search Party or the cult classic sitcom Arrested Development, where she plays the precocious and droll Maeby Fünke. While the 28-year-old actress has already developed an impressive resume, fans may be surprised to learn that she’s making moves in an entirely different area: jazz.
Shawkat’s partners in crime are the New Orleans Swamp Donkeys Traditional Jass Band, a relatively young group that has performed throughout the United States and Europe since forming in 2012. Led by trumpeter and vocalist James Williams, the band offers a fresh approach to old favorites by Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and other greats from the 1900s–1920s. In many ways their goal is to introduce this music to younger audiences who’ve grown up on contemporary sounds that, on the surface, seem miles away from the Dixieland jazz associated with New Orleans. It’s a mission that was exemplified by their biggest hit to date, a trad jazz reimagining of the Game of Thrones theme song that has garnered over a million views on YouTube.
This may give you the idea that the Swamp Donkeys thrive on TV-related gimmicks, yet that could not be further from the truth. Despite her reluctance in admitting it, Shawkat is a fine singer with a deep-rooted and genuine respect for the music she helps bring to life. If you’re hoping for millennial-approved irony, then look somewhere else. This is a first-rate traditional jazz show.
“I always sang, but never really for people. To be honest, that kind of started with the Swamp Donkeys,” says Shawkat. “My grandfather and I were pretty close before he passed away, and he would tell me all these stories about his friends like Nat King Cole. I have a photo that Louis Armstrong signed to my mom. Jazz was very much in my grandfather’s blood, and when he passed away, I got his collection of jazz music. That’s all I would listen to for a few years. So I started to get to know the songs and the different versions. I would learn them on piano, but it was more of a private thing. That was the knowledge I had by the time I met the gang. I was like, ‘Yeah, I know all these songs.’”
That grandfather was Paul Burke, a New Orleans native and fellow actor who was nominated for two Emmy Awards back in the ’60s. Burke spent much of his youth in a Bourbon Street nightclub that was owned by his father, so it’s no wonder that jazz was near and dear to his heart. Shawkat, on the other hand, grew up in California, and her appreciation for the culture of New Orleans did not come until later in life, when a serendipitous encounter introduced her to the Swamp Donkeys:
“About three or four years ago, I was in a film called The Final Girls that was shot in Zachary, Louisiana,” Shawkat explains. “One weekend we went to New Orleans and it was my first trip. I just remember being completely taken by the city. It was a familiar feeling, like I was supposed to be there. On the first night, I went out to Frenchmen Street by myself and just wandered around. The last spot I went to was d.b.a., and Josh [Marotta], who is the drummer for the Swamp Donkeys, was playing. We quickly became friends and then the next day I met the whole group. I told them I liked to sing and they were like, ‘Alright let’s hear it.’ It started from there.”
After collaborating for a few shows at local venues like Blue Nile and the Jazz Playhouse (then known as Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse), the Swamp Donkeys and Shawkat teamed up for a recording session in Brooklyn. As Williams noted, “Those were long, grueling, 10 or 12–hour days.” The result of that endeavor was A Fine Romance, a delightful EP featuring five covers of classic duets like “My Sweet Hunk O’ Trash,” and “They All Laughed.” The record got its official release earlier this year, though the title track’s music video earned a Best of the Beat Award nomination in 2015.
The upcoming Jazz Fest show will mark the Swamp Donkeys’ biggest gig yet with Shawkat, and everyone on board is excited for what’s in store. They’ll have a 70-minute slot, so you can expect Shawkat, Williams and the rest of the band—Ricardo Pascal (saxophone/clarinet), Miles Lyons (trombone), Joseph Faison (banjo), Joshua “Jams” Marotta (percussion), Jonathan Gross (sousaphone)—to look beyond the five songs on their EP. On top of that, the Swamp Donkeys will share a bill with the Soul Brass Band and Kristina Morales & the Bayou Shufflers when they play a late-night set at the Little Gem Saloon on Thursday, May 4. Who knows? Maybe a special guest will drop by for that one.