As a young man, Tommy Halloran read the newspaper with a kind of morbid curiosity. Poring over the crime coverage in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Halloran noted that many of the people shot and killed in the city were found dead on the so-called "state streets," the south-side byways that pick up east of Grand. Halloran had heard the fear-mongering that often attended references to those neighborhoods, and those memories stayed with him throughout his fifteen years of living in the area.
"Through a wonderful, terrible twist of gentrification, I find myself living on a state street," Halloran says. "When I moved to south city in 2002, I was smoking weed on the floor of my apartment, and I thought if I died, I would be reported as having been killed smoking weed on a state street in south city, not as a well-educated young man from the county."
Those realities were probably banging around his head somewhere as Halloran sat down to write what would become the title track to his group Guerrilla Swing's new EP, State Streets. "We wanted to place this album geographically," he says. "I live in south city and I wanted to write a song about living on the south side." To accomplish this, Halloran took a slight detour from the breezy, pre-war jazz music he and his combo usually play. Where his earlier recordings nodded heavily in the direction of Django Reinhardt and his gyspy-jazz following, "State Streets" has the low rumble of a Tom Waits song, aided in part by Kristian Baarsvik's baritone saxophone. Halloran's voice, too, rests in the lower part of his raspy register as he sings of cruising around those streets — Utah, Texas, Wisconsin — with devil-may-care hedonism. The song's amber-hued mood fits Halloran's vision, which he says is meant to evoke the lights-on/last-call mood of 3 a.m.: "There's that sort of existential nihilism that thrives in the night culture, and that's a legit response to living in south city," he says.
State Streets is a quick, six-song program (Halloran laughs that "it's only as long as a sitcom"), but the band is able to make a compelling, romantic sketch of city life. An amicable split with his former drummer and bassist led to a replacement rhythm section that had to learn the songs on the fly.
"I went with a new drummer, and I needed a new bass player about five days before I went into the studio," says Halloran. "The looseness of it is a testament to the 'guerrilla' approach we took."
Those players — Andy Hainz on bass and Jharis Yokley on drums — mesh well with Halloran's lithe guitar playing and Baarsvik's chameleon-like sax lines. The quartet is comfortable moving from the smoky noir impressions on "Salvatore" to the peppy skateboarder's ode "Song for My Longboard." At times the "swing" in Guerrilla Swing is nominal; "Campari Kiss" has the dramatic rumble of bolero, thanks to romantic accordion and a martial snare pattern. That song in particular shows a new level of versatility for the group.
Guerrilla Swing tends to operate as a quartet, but the few guest musicians who drop in on State Streets help add sometimes earthy, sometimes ethereal properties to these tunes. Local jazz lifer Adam Maness' work on the Hammond organ for "This Is It" is more roller rink than Philly jazz club, but it fits the song's bluebeat origins like a glove, especially as Baarsvik's baritone sax mirrors the rhythm's peppy upstrokes. Kristin Dennis has been pretty quiet since she dissolved her electro-pop act Née last year, but her backing vocals on the dreamy "Black Confetti" are other-worldly. Cocktail piano and brushed drums make a feather bed for Dennis' soaring, wordless melody line, which slowly mutates, doubles and floats away as Halloran enumerates a south-city reverie.
Public buses, police helicopters and Cadillac hearses occupy his mind, and some impending sense of doom seems to be tugging at his sleeve, but Halloran sounds joyfully mired in the day-to-day of city living. As a set closer, "Black Confetti" is as lush and impressionistic as the opening title track is brash and gritty. "If it weren't so pretty, I'd weep," Halloran (and Dennis) sing as the song peters out. The listener may very well feel the same sentiment.
State Streets is available now as a digital release and Halloran hopes to have a vinyl issue ready for the spring, even through he recognizes that "most people will listen on their cell phones and computers." When asked why, as a regularly gigging musician, he felt the need to return to the studio and buck up for costly vinyl, Halloran draws a distinction between his restaurant and bar gigs, which mostly find him playing covers and standards, and his original work. "The gigs pay my bills," says Halloran. "I sing a lot of songs I like but don't have any personal importance to me."
For State Streets, at least, Halloran can play the part of the artist.
"This is sort of my canvas, I guess," he says. "When I record it's because this is what I'm trying to say as an artist: 'Hey, I'm a person. This is who I am, this is what I'm about.'"