The groove is a mighty power in the hands of the Countdown Quartet. At the heart of their eponymous debut album lies the second-line beat of drummer Ted Zarras and bassist Steve Grothmann, while the brass section of Dave Wright (trombone) and Tim Smith (saxophones) smears luscious, soulful, melody-shaping lines over the basic pulse. Then guitarist Jimbo Mathus jumps in with sly leads, solid rhythm riffs and the occasional banjo lick (a la the old jazz genius Elmer Snowden). This is music that gets you off your rump to shake it in total, joyous abandon, blending rhythm-&-blues sensibilities with New Orleans-style jazz. The guys also manage to toss in just a touch of whacked-out lounge-lizard atmosphere on their way to creating a soundtrack for your own personal Mardi Gras.
Saxophonist-turned-bassist Grothmann used to live in Louisiana and introduced Wright to the wonders of traditional New Orleans jazz while they were touring there with their old band, the Tonebenders. They caught a gig by Kermit Ruffins, the ex-leader of the Rebirth Brass Band, who showed the rockers how exciting and contemporary-sounding a group can be when they twist trad jazz roots into a modern context. It was there that Grothmann and Wright "just saw one of the best performers down there in a little bar in a neighborhood where people [were] just dancing and partying hard." He also notes that "jazz doesn't have to be a stuffy, supper-club kind of thing, and most people [seem to] think that."
With the Countdown Quartet opening for the campy, down-and-dirty rockabilly band Southern Culture on the Skids Monday at Sapphire, audience members will get a chance to both groove and grind. The combination isn't all that strange. The Tonebenders used to show up on many of the same bills with Southern Culture, and Grothmann and Wright often served as a horn section for Southern Culture's encores and CDs.
Mathus, the leader of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, brings some of that zoot-suit aura that made his main band such a left-field hit. Since the Zippers have been working on post-production of their new release, the guitarist has been able to play at most of Countdown's gigs, although for the Orlando date, the slot will be filled by Stu Cole, who usually plays bass in the Zippers.
Given the potential for audio whiplash among fans geared up for the headliners, Grothmann notes that the Countdown Quartet "is pretty versatile, but we're probably not going to do our jazziest numbers." They will "lean closer to the more rockin' stuff, [since] it's pretty much up, partying music."
Party and its companion noun, partying, are words that show up frequently when Grothmann talks about the band's music. Certainly anyone hearing such upbeat, rousing tunes as the group's signature song, "Countdown's Comin'," the sly "Kissin' on the Couch" and the slickly textured "I'm a Breakdown" can't deny that these guys can play their asses off. The Countdown Quartet's look back at the roots of jazz injects the verve back into pieces that are all too often relegated to the museum.