Boston-based singer and guitarist Miss Tess channels a variety of styles on her most recent release Modern Vintage: cool jazz, country swing, blues rock and ’50s rock and roll. But her band’s sound owes most to a café jazz aesthetic most popular in the ‘20s and ‘30s: stand-up bass, brushes on drums, concise solos on reeds and, in Tess’s case, an energetic, unadorned female voice, with ornamentation limited to brief vibrato on the upper end of her register. Those little vocal trills are easier to identify than describe, but they’re a sonic reference to juke joints and early jazz 78s, and may be most familiar in Billie Holiday’s vocals (or parodically emphasized in David Sedaris’s imitation).
How was Tess drawn to this classic style of jazz singing, or even café jazz in the first place? “I probably first heard it when I was in my mama’s belly,” Tess explained, speaking with NUVO a week before her big Midwestern tour. “She was learning how to play the upright bass, and she said I would kick every time she played the bass…In my early 20s I just started discovering some of the music I had been surrounded by growing up. I’m really drawn to it, maybe partially because it’s in my blood; it reminds me of home. I find a real soul and honesty in the music, and there’s some really great songwriting.”
Speaking of home, Tess recorded her first album in 2005 with her parents, in their living room; she wanted to have something to take with her on her first trip overseas. Since then, she’s moved to Boston, where she attended the Berklee School of Music for a couple semesters, and eventually formed the Bon Ton Parade, a combo consisting of sax, clarinet, upright bass, drums and guitar (she’ll be joined on bass and reed for her Indy Hostel date). Even her choice of a first place to live in Boston proved to be serendipitous, according to Tess: “I moved into an apartment off Craig’s List, and I hadn’t even met all my roommates. But I ended up moving in with probably one of the best jazz singers in the city. Just randomly! She knew a lot of old jazz too, so we’d sing a lot of songs together. But that was the first time I realized, ‘Holy crap! People are really good up here.’”