Four members of D.C.’s The Harry Bells — saxophonists Matt Rippetoe and Jonathan Parker, trumpeter Joe Herrera and trombonist Ben Ford — are jazz cats. The third saxophonist, Chris Watling, comes out of R&B. Percussionist Nathan Graham tends toward rock, and his cohorts Mylie Durham IV and Josh Kay are funksters.
So what does this eclectic octet play when they all get together? The Harry Belafonte songbook.
Not to say that The Harry Bells are calypso, either, though that Afro-Caribbean style is the one most associated with Belafonte’s 50-year career.
“I’ve never claimed that we play calypso, per se, because we don’t necessarily play the rhythms associated with that,” says Rippetoe, the band’s founder and leader. “I don’t know how to categorize it — except that it’s an instrumental tribute to Harry Belafonte and the music he made famous.”
It could also be categorized as boisterous. The five tracks on The Harry Bells’ fifth release, The Roosevelt Island EP — which they fête Thursday at Boundary Stone — comprise Trinidadian calypso and Jamaican mento rhythms, and each one threatens to dance right out of the speakers. That sense of rhythmic fun is ultimately the link that binds its eight players.
Rippetoe fell in love with Belafonte’s music as a kid, when he first heard it in the 1988 Tim Burton movie Beetlejuice. (A pounding rendition of “Jump in the Line,” which concluded the movie, now concludes The Roosevelt Island EP.) He grew up with it and even passed on to his now 4-year-old son, born when Rippetoe was living in Brooklyn, via a ritual the saxophonist called “Belafonte Bath Time.”
“Joe Herrera was visiting me in Brooklyn one of those bath nights,” Rippetoe recalls, “and we both agreed that this stuff was too good not to do something with it on the bandstand.” From there it was just a matter of rounding up the right people — the ones, says Rippetoe, who could handle the rhythms and were fun to play with.
Their Belafonte book is about three dozen songs deep and is growing all the time. So far, The Harry Bells have recorded around 20 of the tunes on their four EPs. (They’ve also recorded a full-length CD, last winter’s Holidays with the Harry Bells, featuring Christmas songs performed in Afro-Caribbean arrangements.)
Does Belafonte himself, now retired from music, know about The Harry Bells?
“He has heard about us,” Rippetoe confirms. “He and his wife apparently gave us the thumbs-up. And I hope to send him some of this stuff soon.”
The Harry Bells play an EP release show April 14 at Boundary Stone.