The scene: a back-alley bar in New Orleans. Maybe Paris. Smoky, dimly lit, with a selection of ragtag musicians arrayed on the stage. Or, perhaps a honky tonk in Texas, with beer signs on the walls and a big, open dance floor. Maybe even a back porch somewhere in the South, with flies buzzing and the humid air clinging to your clothes.
Any of those settings would be an appropriate place in which to find Miss Tess and the Bon Ton Parade, a Boston-based band fronted by the laid back, sweet-voiced Miss Tess. Tess and her band will play a show Saturday night at the Grand Theatre in Ellsworth, her second appearance in these parts just this year.
Tess, who got her two-word moniker from a college friend because her last name “doesn’t sound good,” has played her beguiling brand of jazz-folk since she was a wee thing, growing up in Maryland with musician parents.
“My mom and dad were really into folk music and Western swing and blues. My Dad played sax and clarinet and guitar, and he was in a big band. My Mom played upright bass and clarinet. I grew up around it,” said Tess. “I’d go home and we’d always play and sing together. They’re sing me songs to go to bed to.”
With that kind of an atmosphere, Tess naturally developed into her music and her sound.
“I spent a lot of time singing along to Ella and Peggy Lee and Sarah Vaughn,” she said. “In high school I got into punk and rock, but I was always listening to Hank Williams and Tom Waits, too.”
At the age of 18, she told her mom she wanted to travel the country playing music after she graduated high school. Her mom suggested attending Berkelee College of Music instead, which she did, studying jazz vocals and guitar and honing her sound. After some time spent back in Maryland, she returned to Boston, and there met the musicians that became the Bon Ton Parade, a vastly talented ensemble that layers sax and clarinet over brushed snare and upright bass.
Tess’ sweet, seductive voice resembles Billie Holiday’s, but her music spans the gaps and cracks in between jazz, folk, Western swing and blues. Tess calls it “modern vintage” — also the name of her 2007 album — an updated version of the early 20th century music that forms the basis of most contemporary jazz and pop music today.
However, Tess is not trying to peddle some reheated nostalgia trip. She’s very much in the same vein as fellow modern vintage songwriters such as Madeline Peyroux. And while Tess has been known to cover everyone from Waits to Bessie Smith, the focus is squarely on her own songs — from the sassy, swingin’ “I Don’t Need That Man” from “Modern Vintage” to the gently groovy “When Tomorrow Comes” from the album of the same name.
“I think with people like me and Jolie Holland and Madeleine Peyroux, sure, yeah, we’re all on a little nostalgia trip. We’re all trying to lift people up from where they are and take them into a different place,” she said. “At the same time, I do see my music as kind of timeless. It’s not a specific place, in a novelty kind of way. It’s kind of romantic and a little sexy. It honors the past, but it’s still contemporary.”
That’s not to say that Tess isn’t interested in trying new things. She likes the Pixies and Miles Davis, in addition to Django Reinhardt and Duke Ellington. She’s a musician’s musician — serious guitar and songwriting chops, and a road warrior to boot.
“I always keep my mind and ears open to new sounds and idea,” said Tess. “I’m not sure how my sound will evolve, but I’m open to anything.”
Miss Tess and the Bon Ton Parade will play at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 18, at the Grand Theatre. Tickets are $15, $10 for students. For more information, visit www.misstessmusic.com.