“City Noir” by Billy Brandt brings noir to jazz music

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“City Noir” is Billy Brandt’s third album. With an approach like that of a film noir director or pulp fiction writer, Brandt tells the story of Seattle, Washington. The album uses narration, backup singers and classic jazz instrumentation to paint a picture of the city. The album’s title track provides a clear introduction to the project and contains the elements that set “City Noir” apart from other jazz albums.

Billy Brandt in brief

A native of Hanover, Massachusetts, Brandt lives in the Pacific Northwest. He has been a fixture on the Seattle jazz scene for several years. Brandt’s first recording was released in 2011, titled “The Ballad of Larry’s Neighbor.” That was followed in 2016 by Brandt’s second CD, “Get It Going.”

Even with his titles Brandt manages to evoke the feel of literature, or at least that there is a larger story behind the song. For many, that might be the appeal.

Brandt has a penchant for working-class environments and characters and he paints them with an unflinching honesty. He is also inspired by noir films, like “The Naked City” which served as the springboard for the idea for “City Noir.”

Brandt performs around Seattle in a band comprised of 10 rotating musicians called The Thing and The Stuff.

“City Noir” by Billy Brandt

A melancholy guitar chord complements a brooding upright bass. Backup singers sigh with what sounds like longing. The conditions set audiences up for a story about a city with a vast history and an undetermined future.

Part of the fun of listening to Brandt on this song is hearing the lyrics detail things that even people who have never lived in the Pacific Northwest know about the area. The references are clever, a kind of modern day shorthand that marks Brandt as a modern storyteller.

For example, Brandt mentions the city “is a lonely place/screaming to you live in ones and zeroes…” the reference to computer language will remind audiences of the software giant located in the area. Later, he mentions that the city “was once driven by the smell of teen spirit/now it is driven by the smell of the other evergreen/money”– here, Brandt manages to allude to Nirvana and their no-frills aesthetic, and contrasts that with what he finds is the more materialistic time that has emerged since then. Another gem of a line that emerges from the song is “Where the well-read meets the often rained upon” notes the intellectual atmosphere that can be found in Seattle.

The wordplay and phrasing are important parts of the song. In addition, the classic jazz in the background gives the track a feel from another time.

The 10 original songs on “City Noir” help “write” the story that Brandt crafts from the first song. The project is innovative and will appeal especially to those who have a fondness for noir films and pulp fiction, along with a taste for 21st century jazz.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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