February 16, 2005 News & Opinion » Featured story

Best of the wurst 

The White Hots rebirth the cool, with or without The Relish

It's hard to be cool when it's so cold outside. Monday night and it was snowing sideways. The wind chill had pantsed the thermometer. Nevertheless The White Hots --- guitarists Steve Greene and AleksDisljenkovic, bassist Ted Mosher, and harmonica player Tom Hanney --- strolled into The Little Theatre Café one at a time with a casual swagger that could have easily out-cooled the frigid downtown tundra.

          Bellying up for the pre-gig repast, they shucked and jived about music they call "swinging and happy jazz and blues."

          All four have straight razor-sharp wit served with a deadpan. But they never seem to laugh with more than a chuckle at things that would have most folks doubled up on the floor. And, frankly, this seems a little suspicious.

          Amidst the clatter of clinking silverware and the soft bizz-buzz of caffeinated conversation, they take to the stage and nonchalantly launch into Willie Dixon's "My Babe." The quartet shuffles around the mellow groove with swing, subtle sophistication, and purpose. It's the kind of soundtrack you wish accompanied you everywhere.

          Individually, these guys have been on the scene since the Dead Sea was just sick. Each one is a musician's musician, having earned their bones in any number of jazz and blues groups in the area over the last 30-odd years.

          The Big Time eludes them --- or maybe they're the ones doing the eluding --- as they are clearly more interested in the music than dressing up on stage or seriously pimping for gigs.

          Still, a man's gotta eat.

Sensing a market and smelling the coffee, Disljenkovic, Mosher, and Hanney formed The White Hots as a trio three and a half years ago.

          "All these coffeehouses were opening up locally and we thought, 'Let's get a little acoustic trio together,'" Disljenkovic says.

          "It was the same old standard tunes we'd been playing," adds Mosher. "We were just playing them softer, at a restaurant level."

          Jazz guitar luminary Steve Greene caught the trio's maiden voyage at Border's.

          "Well, we played one gig as a trio and Steve was there," says Disljenkovic. "And he demanded to join the band."

          "He was polite about it," Mosher says. "He goes 'I wanna play rhythm.'"

          "I had actually never heard Ted's playing in that light before," Greene says. "I had never really zoned in on his time. And I said, 'That's a time I can play rhythm with.' So I begged."

          "He started as a rhythm player," says Disljenkovic. "And that lasted about, what, two minutes?"

          Almost immediately Greene slid into more of a lead capacity, adding Django-esque Gypsy trills, thumps, and runs to Disljenkovic's fluid electric, Hanney's tin-sandwich tweet, and Mosher's smooth bass sashay.

          "But still, when he honks rhythm, it chugs, man," says Mosher.

          So the trio gave the quartet a test drive at the Little Theatre Café.

          "One of the first things we did was we came and played here with Steve on a Monday night when nobody was around," says Hanney, who hauls his tackle box of harmonicas wherever he goes. "We wanted to use it like a working practice. It went pretty well and they asked us back. That was three years ago." The group even survived the summer, when the Little decided to 86 all its bands except for The White Hots.

          Initially the group set out simply to play: no map, no template, just tunes. There was no aim to set the world on fire.

          "I don't think we had a plan," says Disljenkovic.

          "Steve had a plan," Mosher says.

          "My name is Kruschev," Greene says, copping a Russian accent. "Originally when the band started, it was more traditional blues and subtle swing blues. And as the band, in my opinion, developed, it was like the early music of the '30s and jazz where you just start to work off each other. Like I would do something a little more flip and the guys would start to hang out with that."

          And this is where the White Hots really cook... or grill. Jazz has always been rooted in improvisation, but this band throws improv sliders and curve balls at one another like double-dares.

          Sitting Indian style and sock-footed, Greene will suddenly play something so syncopated and smart-aleck in the middle of a fairly straight tune that audience eyes immediately focus on his bandmates, wondering just what the hell they're gonna do with it.

          But before you know it, Mosher, with his lackadaisical wraparound grin, will counter Greene's challenge by hijacking the overall time signature, while Haney blows something like, "Mary Had Little Lamb," or whatever, over the top. Regardless of the jazz hijinks, it all fits beautifully. The song never loses its melody or groove.

And like all good hot dogs, The White Hots go well with relish.

          Musicians like pianist DaltBerringer, trumpeter Paul Gaspar, mandolin-violin player Dennis Monroe, drummer Bill Blind, nose flutist (yeah, that's right, a nose flute) Cathy Chou, and vocalist Tina Albright began appearing as guests at White Hot gigs, eventually finding themselves dubbed "The Relish."

          "All these people found us," says Mosher, throwing his hands in the air. "They all found us here, one at a time."

          No one's really certain how this all started. None of these guest performers were ever actually invited. They just started showing up. And it worked.

          "It's like Duke Ellington's band," Greene says. "People would just kinda walk in and if they fit with the band they would stay. After a while they had the gig."

          The White Hots have two CDs under their belts, Live at The Little and White Hots With Relish Live at The ClarissaRoom. They plan on releasing a studio CD with more White Hot originals within the next six months. It's tentatively titled The Best of TheWurst.

          The Hots still hold court every Monday night at the Little, where you can score an apropos white hot while you dig the band working out the kinks; kinks inaudible to the naked ear because they're buried beneath the group's slick veneer.

          "It's pretty casual," Hanney says. "A lot of the stuff we work out here."

          The group hits other hot spots around town, including Rochester Swing Dance Network functions. Maybe they'll get out of town a bit, too.

          "Steve wants to take it on the road," Mosher says. "We're thinking The Keys in February."

          "Yeah," Greene says. "There's literally hundreds of dollars to be made in this business."

The White Hots play every Monday at the Little Theatre Café, 240 East Avenue, at 8 p.m. 258-0413.

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