Reptet at Cafe Van Kleef

Reptet is a band best experienced in a bar.

That’s unusual for creative music. The constant loud hum of conversations, people yelling to each other during the quiet parts, people constantly walking in front of he stage to get to the restroom … even with a good sound system, it’s hard to compete with all that.

And yet, if you saw Reptet in a sit-down venue, you’d be missing out.  You couldn’t, for instance, follow the band as they exited the venue out into the street and then covered “Riding Dirty.” Which they did Saturday night. (You know, I realized I’d never heard the real lyrics to that song before).

People at Cafe Van Cleef really loved Reptet’s show, and by walking out of the bar, passing all the drinkers/shouters who were barely aware of the live music, they got the audience involved. It helped that the music was peppy and the band was dressed in their usual thrift-store Halloween getups — a lobster, a sailor, a blue fish of some kind.

Reptet is not a clown band, though. Beyond the shtick, they’ve got serious jazz chops and an affinity for odd time signatures and long themes. They got the place hopping during the second set with a lot of danceable 4/4 numbers. During their third set, as the crowd understandably thinned out, they pulled out some songs that were slower and some that ran in 13 or 14 time — still crowd-pleasing but more cerebral.

And everyone who stuck around late was treated to “Milky Shakes,” from the new album At the Cabin — a song with lyrics about going to Jack in the Box* accompanied by unison hand gestures. (I suppose the words could be symbolic for the societal tendency towards…… oh, who am I kidding.)

There’s a reason why all four Marx brothers got song titles on Do This!, Reptet’s 2006 album.

Sandra Boshnack (trumpet), Izaak Mills (sax), and John Ewing (drums) are the three members who’ve been with the band since at least 2006. Boshnack does the bulk of the songwriting, while Mills acts as front man for the band. (He does some composing as well.) Ewing, it turns out, is Reptet’s founder and possibly the sole survivor from its first incarnation. Glad to see he’s still there — he’s a crackling drummer, strong and precise. Reptet needs loud, joyous drumming that’s also got a jazz sense of accuracy and timing.

I’ve hardly said anything about what they sound like, haven’t I? It’s well-played jazz with a smiley-face in every measure. Their use of madcap art by Jim Flora, who decorated many a 1950s jazz album, describes them well: The stage show involves lots of movement: jumping; bobbing and weaving; goofy singing. The music frequently turns to Latin themes, or at least, themes busy enough to be likened to Latin jazz, and there’s an occasional touch of marching band — you could call them a smaller version of What Cheer? Brigade or the Extra Action Marching Band, but jazz chops get a heavier emphasis in Reptet. Hip-hop pranksterism doesn’t show up much on their CDs, but it’s a lively part of the live show, especially in Mills’ stage presence.

They bring a ton of gear. In my memory, I’m counting at least six saxes/clarinets for Mills and Chris Credit, and one flute; at least three trumpets for Boshnack; extra drums for Ewing and bassist Tim Carey (for those excursions into the crowd); and a tuba, conch shell, and trombone for Nelson Bell. Random percussion was all over the stage, and someone (Ewing?) had a whistle.

I’d question whether Reptet is bringing many new converts to jazz. In fact, some bargoers might leave a show with an even lower impression of sit-down jazz. That would be sad, but I’m finding I don’t have a problem with it. This band gets to play jazz they love, and they put on a good show for those audiences smart enough to listen. And if you can catch three sets on a Saturday — well, even better. I hope this tour won them some more fans, and I hope they’re able to come back soon.

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