With her hair pulled back, dressed in a spaghetti-strap deep plunge little black dress, a double strand of pearls, and a shimmering vintage ring-to-wrist bracelet, Sweet Megg looks like she is visiting us from the Prohibition era that shapes her music. Her voice envelops the room and invokes that same decadent, idealistic atmosphere as she and her Wayfarers perform (Up) a Lazy River to a buzzing audience at the Top of the Standard on a Saturday night.
Last week, Sweet Megg & the Wayfarers added a fifth residency to their calendar by performing their hot jazz, blues, and swing at Le Fanfare in Greenpoint, where they will play every first and third Friday of each month from 8:30-10:30pm. Every Thursday, they will host a weekly jam session at Amancay’s Diner in Bushwick. Their first record, Please Tell Me Everyone’s in Love, was released last summer.
The musical genre known as “hot jazz” is characterized by “blazing tempos and fiery improvisations,” and at the time of its invention was known for “captur[ing] a joy and sense of adventure that was an exciting and radical departure from the music of that time.”
Sweet Megg & the Wayfarers bring humanity and spontaneity to their shows, creating music people can relate to, explains Megg Farrell (Sweet Megg): “When jazz was born it was exciting and made us laugh and cry. Jazz should be the most relatable of music because it is pure human improvisation being broadcasted in real time. Our goal with this group is to not recreate the past but to explore it and mix it with the future. I want to use our original music to create that theme.”
“A guitarist I know used to say, ‘We get paid to show up and wear a suit, but we play for free’ and that is so true. That really defines how we feel about music and why this style is thriving now,” says Farrell, who began writing and performing folk music when she was 16, but entered the jazz scene after studying it for a year in Paris. When she returned to New York for her last year of college, she was introduced to the old-time jazz scene at Mona’s in Alphabet City. “All the musicians were really nice, everyone knew each other. Everyone was having fun in there. So that’s what got me into this music. Then I started hanging out with the Gypsy jazz scene in Brooklyn.”
It was in this sphere that Farrell met the members of her band, Ryan Weisheit on saxophones, Brandon Vetrano on guitar, and Abe Pollack on upright bass. “I remember I met Brandon first from a distance. We went out to see him perform at Brooklyn Winery. I remember just being mesmerized by his playing, I remember thinking in my head ‘Man someday I want to play with someone like that.’ I met Abe on the subway for the first time. We were heading somewhere and my boyfriend at the time introduced him as this awesome musician guy. Then as I started to get into the scene and singing, I actually started learning new songs and getting inspired to play with these kinds of musicians. I had a group at the time, but we weren’t doing much gigging. It wasn’t until I met Ryan that I really took the music seriously.”
Farrell met Weisheit at Mona’s at an opportune time: her group was disbanding and he didn’t have one. “Well basically we fell in love and moved in together. Once that happened we were playing music so much that it became our life,” confesses Farrell who shares a loft with Weisheit and two kittens in Bushwick. She had already been jamming with Pollack and Vetrano because she was singing with their group, The Bailsmen, so she invited them over to put together an EP. Using the recording, Farrell began reaching out to different places to perform. In October 2013, Sweet Megg & the Wayfarers had their first gig at The Standard. It is now their longest-running residency.
The group finds residencies especially valuable. In addition to being paid gigs, residencies allow them to try new songs and arrangements. “Musically it is great to have a place every week that we are comfortable with that we can explore different sounds with. At the Standard we know exactly how that room works. We know if it is a busy night or a slow night, if the crowd wants jazz or is more in the mood for background. Because we are comfortable with the reactions in the room we have more space to experiment.”
Sweet Megg & the Wayfarers’ new jam session at Amancay’s Diner creates another outlet for the group to experiment. Farrell refers to this jam as “our baby” because she got it off the ground herself. “When you are on a gig, you definitely get to play but you are always a bit more nervous because it has to be perfect. People are watching you. Whereas at a jam you have more freedom to explore. I get to sing as much or as little as I want, try new tunes, [and] listen to people play,” contrasts Farrell. “There is a freedom there not only because of the group of musicians that came out, but because of the atmosphere of the place. There can be negative attitudes at jam sessions that bum me out whereas at Amancay’s, everyone is happy and enjoying themselves.” Starting at 9pm, Sweet Megg & the Wayfarers perform as the house band, then welcome other musicians to join them onstage starting at 10pm. During their first night on April 23, the turnout of musicians wanting to jam kept the music flowing until 3am. “It was fabulous!!!,” Farrell gushes.
In addition to Le Fanfare , Amancay’s Diner, and the Standard Hotel, Sweet Megg & the Wayfarers play regularly at Epistrophy Café, Radegast, and St. Mazie, and have residencies at Chez Jef, the Flatiron Room, and the Rum House. Earlier this month, they also sold out a show at Joe’s Pub.
You could follow Sweet Megg & the Wayfarers around the entire city and never see the same set twice. The inherently improvisational nature of jazz makes every show exciting and unlike the last. “First, there are different musicians often with different strengths, so the set list is catered to that,” Farrell explains, referencing the special guests who often play with the group. “Second, we may have an inspiration to do a tune slower or faster or start at a different place, plus I will probably be altering the melody and the boys will be blowing solos that are unique to that moment. On top of that, my [repertoire] is at least 120 songs and between all the guys, we probably can add a few more hundred instrumental tunes to that list. There is always something new to play.”