The final track on Christabel & the Jons’ CD Custom Made For You, coming as it does after 12 swingin’ jazz and old–timey torch songs, is a bit of a shocker. It’s “The Galaxy Song,” written by Eric Idle for the movie Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life:
Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour
That’s orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it’s reckoned
A sun that is the source of all our power.
“I love the lyrics, ‘cause we’re all pretty nerdy in the band and we get off on nerdy stuff like that,” laughs the band’s singer, songwriter, rhythm guitarist and focal point Christa DeCicco.
“And I think a large portion of our audience has a little bit of nerd in them – people who like a lot of things that are kind of old, and off the beaten path.”
Based in Knoxville, Tenn., Christabel and the Jons will perform Saturday at the Jazz’d Tapas Bar – the perfect venue for the sort of retro and romantic jazz and bluesy swing they play.
DeCicco, who writes most of the group’s material, grew up in Knoxville. “When I was a teenager, my mom introduced me to flea markets and thrift stores,” she explains. “I was like ‘Awesome. Weird stuff, old stuff, cheap stuff.’ And I started collecting vintage dresses. I still have some things that I bought 15 years ago. And some things that were a little too big for me then, fit me now.
“I became attracted to old stuff by the ‘stuff’ first, and the music second. I didn’t really start listening to jazz till I was in my mid 20s. Because my parents listened to the Beatles, James Taylor, Carole King, Stevie Wonder ... that kind of stuff.”
Forced early into the study of classical piano by her (well–meaning) parents, the teenage DeCicco abandoned the ol’ ebony and ivory for an acoustic guitar.
And then she discovered Billie Holiday.
“That opened up my eyes to the music of the ‘40s and ‘50s,” she says. “I just instantly loved it. I’ve always had a soft spot for female singers, and there’s a plethora of really awesome singers from that era. They’re so classy, and so talented, and there’s this kind of untouchable, mysterious, beautiful aura that they present. They don’t even seem real.
“My Christabel persona is taken from those classy ladies ... not my everyday, real, Christa personality!”
Years of open mic nights and pickin’ parties introduced her to drummer Jon Whitlock, one of Knoxville’s busiest musicians. He was eager to get away from loud rock ‘n’ roll, and soon he and DeCicco had formed a duo.
At first they played a lot of blues, but slowly jazz began to creep into their sets, and then swing, and with the addition of a bass player they began to expand into old–time romance and torch tunes.
DeCicco had found her calling, and she began to write with those styles of music in mind.
The four–piece Jons includes Seth Hopper, who plays violin, trumpet, mandolin and accordion.
DeCiccio’s voice is a soft, sexy purr that can do wonderful things with swing’s intricate lyric formations.
“I’m not an authentic jazz singer,” she says. “I’m not an authentic jazz guitar player – but I can fake it pretty well. I don’t do anything fancy, because I don’t really know how to do anything fancy.”
There are several terrific videos posted on the band’s MySpace page.
Christabel and the Jons are getting raves wherever they go. Custom Made For You is the band’s second album. Since 2007, they’ve averaged about 150 live dates per year.
Which is a good thing for DeCicco, whose decidedly nerdly “other” life wasn’t paying off.
“I never thought that I could make a living playing music, so when I was in college I wanted to major in something that A, could get me a job, and B, was something I enjoyed to do. I always thought music would be my hobby, and I was fine with that.”
She earned a B.A. in ornamental horticulture and landscape design from the University of Tennessee.
“I just took really naturally to it,” she explains. “I love plants, I love botany and the more scientific, in–depth aspect of it. Out of college, I was a freelance gardener for a couple of years.”
Then the economy began to flag, and many of her regular customers decided they couldn’t afford her services any longer.
At the same time, the band’s business started picking up.
“It used to be 90 percent gardening, 10 percent music,” DeCicco says. “And now it’s 90 percent music, 10 percent gardening.
“It’s been enough to keep me from getting a real job for, like, a year.”
Christabel and the Jons
Where: Jazz’d Tapas Bar, 52 Barnard St.
When: 9 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14
Artist’s Web site: www.myspace.com/christabelmusic