SCOTT SIMON, host:
These days, Brooklyn is what Greenwich Village used to be in New York City, a neighborhood for odists. Photographers, graphic designers and musicians are all cheek by jowl with young families, delis and coffee shops. Among them is JC Hopkins. That's among the people, not the coffee shops. Although raised in California, he lives in Ft. Greene in Brooklyn. To JC Hopkins, this is what Brooklyn sounds like.
(Soundbite of "Finger on a Star")
SIMON: That's "Finger on a Star." Mr. Hopkins has just released his first album with the JC Hopkins Biggish Band. It's called "Underneath a Brooklyn Moon," and it features Queen Esther--the big band sounds of the soft, personal, sometimes quirky voices and lyrics often featuring the beloved borough of Brooklyn. JC Hopkins joins us from our studios in New York.
Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. JC HOPKINS (JC Hopkins Biggish Band Leader): Well, thanks for having me, Scott. Pleasure to be here.
SIMON: And Queen Esther will join us momentarily when she arrives. She's en route. Let's jump right in, listen to your song "Here Comes Love."
(Soundbite of "Here Comes Love")
Ms. MADELEINE PEYROUX: (Singing) Don't look now but here comes love. Must have heard my message from up above. Must have had to give some guy a shove. Must have heard what I was dreaming of. Don't look now but love is here. Must have been waiting for me all these years. Must have been hiding behind the fears. Oh, there was some kind of tears.
SIMON: Now, Mr. Hopkins, of all the kinds of music a talented musician can make, what attracted you to this classic sound?
Mr. HOPKINS: Well, I was raised listening to hard bop. My dad blasted it around the house to the neighborhood's delight in Southern California. So he kind of instilled that in me, but it took me a little while to get around to it. But it's a combination of songwriting, which is where I come at it from and where that meets, bop and jazz and finding the sentiment in the music to match the lyrical intent.
SIMON: Do lyrics come first with you or is there a rule?
Mr. HOPKINS: When I'm writing by myself, they usually come at the same time, and then, well, everything takes a little tinkering...
Mr. HOPKINS: ...after the fact.
SIMON: But one leads on to the other? Is it kind of line by line or...
Mr. HOPKINS: It seems like the music sort of dictates the lyrics.
SIMON: Great lyrics in this one, `Don't look now. Love's on the floor, laughing and giggling, stepping out the door.'
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. PEYROUX: (Singing) Don't look now love's on the floor, laughing and giggling, stepping out the door.
Mr. HOPKINS: That's Madeleine Peyroux. That's a song I wrote with her and we had a brief time when we were writing together, quite a few songs. And they ended up on the record here.
SIMON: Let me ask you about the title track. I want to play a little of it. It's a lovely song, "Underneath a Brooklyn Moon."
(Soundbite of "Underneath a Brooklyn Moon")
Mr. LEWIS "FLIP" BARNES: (Singing) We go against the tide. It really doesn't matter. I was under the impression we didn't know why we improvise on the weather underneath a Brooklyn moon.
QUEEN ESTHER: (Singing) We walk hand in hand on the BQE. It's making me tremble. Maybe that's because you're here. Everything is fine since we're together underneath a Brooklyn moon tonight.
SIMON: That's Lewis Flip Barnes singing along with Queen Esther. My gosh, this is the first time I have heard a reference to the BQE, Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, in a love song.
Mr. HOPKINS: That's it. It's a soundtrack to our lives.
SIMON: Indeed. Well, it certainly works.
Mr. HOPKINS: Our house is about 10 yards away from the BQE, so that was the ongoing soundtrack and...
SIMON: I am told by our folks outside the studio, in the control room, that Queen Esther has arrived, so...
Mr. HOPKINS: Oh, my gosh.
SIMON: ...why don't we just open the door and seat her.
Mr. HOPKINS: Here she is.
QUEEN ESTHER: Hi, Scott.
SIMON: Queen Esther.
QUEEN ESTHER: Hi. How are you?
SIMON: All right. And is this music fun to sing?
QUEEN ESTHER: It's a lot of fun to sing. And the reason why is because it's very difficult now in this day and age to really sing, to just let out a song and have it filled with, I don't know, memories and feelings and all these layers of things that sometimes don't happen in music anymore. But it always happens in a standard. But to do a standard that's an original, that's very special.
SIMON: Mm-hmm, yeah. What's the fascination with Brooklyn? Is it just--it sounds like it's not just loyalty, it's something more.
Mr. HOPKINS: Well, it's affordable, but it's the history, I mean, and also so many great Americans come from Brooklyn and there's the Brooklyn Dodgers--I'm a baseball fan--and it's proved to be just a beautiful place. I mean, we were lucky enough to get a house, you know, granted right next to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, but it's a house built in 1840. And so you just feel the history, you know, on the streets and...
SIMON: That might be good introduction to another song we want to play, "Small Town." Let's listen.
(Soundbite of "Small Town")
Mr. BARNES and QUEEN ESTHER: (Singing) Small town, this ain't nothing but a small town. Small town, this ain't nothing but a small town. People may come from miles around, but this ain't nothing but a small town.
Mr. BARNES: (Singing) You got small town you, a small town me, you're a small town beauty in the big city.
QUEEN ESTHER: (Singing) Small town people walking down the street, small town talking about you and me.
Mr. BARNES: (Singing) 'Cause you're a small town girl.
QUEEN ESTHER: (Singing) You're a small town guy.
Mr. BARNES: (Singing) Come on, baby, let's touch the sky.
Mr. BARNES and QUEEN ESTHER: (Singing) Small town...
SIMON: Lewis Flip Barnes singing with Queen Esther. Now Brooklyn, I believe, left to its own devices, if you took it away from New York City, would be the fourth-largest city in the country these days, so explain to us this small town attitude.
Mr. HOPKINS: People just tend to end up knowing--it's not just Brooklyn. It's Manhattan. It's...
QUEEN ESTHER: It's Harlem.
Mr. HOPKINS: ...Harlem.
QUEEN ESTHER: It's walking down the street and seeing the same people every day and greeting them until it just feels like such a little neighborhood.
Mr. HOPKINS: Yeah.
SIMON: Something reassuring in that, isn't there?
QUEEN ESTHER: Very. Very reassuring.
SIMON: Queen Esther, I want to get back to something you said that intrigues me. Talking about how the standards, the classics, the kind of songs we think of as being in the American songbook have a narrative, have a lyric quality that a lot of contemporary music doesn't. And so what you're doing here is taking advantage of the chance to sing what amounts to a new standard.
QUEEN ESTHER: Exactly. This may be, I don't know, 25, 30 songs that people love to walk around and sing and hear, and you pretty much hear the same people singing those same songs...
QUEEN ESTHER: ...and we all know what they are. They come out seasonally sometimes. If someone wants to make a good impression on you as a singer, they'll pull out a few Frank Sinatras here or, you know, this or that.
SIMON: Yeah, there are two names that get brought into any conversation about big band music, and that's Count Basie and Duke Ellington. And I just wonder how you see yourself relating to what they did?
Mr. HOPKINS: Swing and trying to just emulate the ethics that those guys had, integrity, you know, and trying to break some ground at least melodically.
QUEEN ESTHER: It certainly helps that you're working with musicians who've played in those bands as well, so they already have that feel and they know that sound, they know that music. And they can contribute that.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. HOPKINS: Yeah, when it becomes time to start riffing underneath someone's solo, you know, you have the vocabulary to reference...
QUEEN ESTHER: Duke Ellington...
Mr. HOPKINS: Duke and it's just a generosity...
QUEEN ESTHER: ...Mangas.
Mr. HOPKINS: ...of spirit that those guys had that I try to, you know, touch on--I'm not kidding myself. I'm not in their league, you know, but I'm on the planet that they lived.
QUEEN ESTHER: The fact that you're working with people who have touched on it makes all the difference in the world.
Mr. HOPKINS: Oh, yes.
SIMON: So if you guys get really successful, do you move to Manhattan or Connecticut?
Mr. HOPKINS: I think we'll see.
QUEEN ESTHER: A big, better house in Brooklyn, I think, or...
Mr. HOPKINS: There you go.
SIMON: Well, it's been a delight to talk to both of you. Thanks very much.
Mr. HOPKINS: Thank you.
QUEEN ESTHER: Thank you.
SIMON: JC Hopkins and his Biggish Band featuring Queen Esther. They crossed the river to join us from our Manhattan bureau. Their new album is "Underneath a Brooklyn Moon."
(Soundbite of music)
SIMON: You can hear the title track from "Underneath a Brooklyn Moon" and other songs from the album at our Web site, npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)