August 17, 2020. A group of musicians from a place called Hell’s Kitchen exhorting you to smile might seem a little presumptuous in times like these. Then again, what do you have to lose?
Bill Warfield and the Hell’s Kitchen Funk Orchestra (HKFO) not only tried smiling—they organized their entire sophomore recording around it—and the results are encouraging. Smile, HKFO’s first release since their 2015 debut, is built around, or more accurately between, two versions of Charlie Chaplin’s famous imperative prescribing resolute cheeriness in the face of sorrow.
The opening take on Chaplin’s “Smile” is airy and roomy at a slower tempo, with drummer Scott Neumann on brushes and pianist Cecilia Goodman filling sensitively on piano, while guest vocalist Julie Michels—known for big range and dynamics—impresses most here with restraint, a soft alto offering solicitude through song to anyone who might be in need.
Warfield’s flugelhorn cuts through some of the smoke generated by Michels’ vocals and, though perhaps a bit maudlin, resonates with the hope that we might soon again have joyful things over which to cry.
The next one, a take on Weather Report’s “Cucumber Slumber” is an invitation to get out of your own head and onto the dancefloor. Paul Shaffer—yes, that one!—plays the Hammond B-3 and Fender Rhodes with a level of soulfulness he never quite reached as Letterman’s bandleader and erstwhile sidekick. This is the funkiest outfit Shaffer’s been a part of since his