The old saw about encouraging entertainers to “break a leg” before they go onstage isn’t meant to be taken literally. But that’s basically how Monte Warden & the Dangerous Few got started.
A lifelong Austinite who’s carved out a three-decade career as a solo artist and songwriter and with country band the Wagoneers, Warden had been thinking for a while about following his passion for the pop-jazz crooner heyday of Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. The twist being that he wanted to write all new songs in that same classic style.
Last fall, Warden broke his leg while sledding with his son in Colorado. “I am not really made for sitting on the couch with my leg elevated for three months,” says the hyperkinetic Warden, who typically runs six miles a day and is known for his animated stage presence.
But with that pause came opportunity. Warden started writing some short chapters of what might eventually become a memoir. At the same time, he and his wife, Brandi, a music publisher and fellow songwriter, began envisioning a new band that could broaden Warden’s musical horizons.
“Brandi and I were talking about, what about if I did a stripped-down small combo of these Great American Songbook-style songs?” he says. “I’ll expand my core vocabulary.’”
A few weeks later, while Warden — on crutches — played the Wagoneers’ Sunday residency at the Continental Club, Brandi hatched a plan with the Continental’s Dianne Scott for a Thursday residency in the adjacent Continental Gallery featuring Warden’s as-yet unformed and unnamed new combo.
From there, everything came together quickly. Warden recruited drummer Mas Palermo, who’d recently started playing again for the first time in years when his former wife and bandmate Kelly Willis reunited her Radio Ranch band for a short run of shows. Wagoneers bassist Craig Pettigrew also was game, though he cautioned Warden that he wasn’t really a jazz player. “I said, yeah, well I’m not a jazz singer, so good!” Warden recalls with a laugh.
But the players who make the Dangerous Few sound different from anything Warden had ever done are horn player Erik Telford and keyboardist T. Jarrod Bonta. Together, they add vivid colors to the Dangerous Few’s still-growing set of original tunes, fleshing out solid structures with accents that range from cool blues tones to hot jumpin’ jazz.
Bonta, who has played both jazz and country with artists including Rosie Flores and Johnny Bush, came highly recommended from local piano ace Floyd Domino. “He said, if you’re really wanting to do this, you want T. Jarrod Bonta,” Warden recalls. “And then everybody started saying that.”
The two musicians were familiar with each other but had never worked together. Warden remembers Bonta’s reaction when he first heard demos of the Dangerous Few material.
“He called me one morning and he said, ‘Did you write ALL of these songs?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Man, these are great; some of these sound like standards.’”
Many of the songs were co-written with Brandi, a former Nashville record executive whose parents and grandparents were accomplished songwriters. Other co-writers have included Domino, former Sinatra band member Jeff Franzen and veteran keyboardist Bruce Brody.
Co-writing is nothing new for Warden, who teamed with fellow Austinite Bruce Robison on George Strait’s top-10 country hit “Desperately.” But while his past efforts have aimed largely at the country market, he cites 20th-century masters such as Johnny Mercer, Mel Torme and Bobby Darin as models for the Dangerous Few’s songs. “They’re the ones who had big traditional pop success and wrote all their own stuff,” he says.
Another old-school titan serves as a bridge from Warden’s past to his future. When I ask Warden if he’s ever used horns in his music before, he suddenly remembers the lone occasion: Legendary trumpeter Herb Alpert played a memorable intro and outro to “Stout and High,” the title track of the Wagoneers’ 1988 debut album on Alpert’s famed label A&M Records.
That’s a high bar to set for Telford, but his natural talent and versatility make him an ideal fit for the Dangerous Few. A California native who studied at Boston’s Berklee College of Music before moving to Austin about a decade ago, Telford had worked with local artists such as Bob Schneider and T Bird & the Breaks. He’s also released records under his own name and with the Akina Adderley-fronted pop-jazz group Nori.
Warden and Telford met on a session for another artist. “He just got right to the heart of the song,” Warden remembers. “He has brought so many things out of these songs I’ve written that are important to me. His horn hooks and energy are a big part of what give the Dangerous Few their sound.”
That much is readily apparent when the band takes the stage. Last week at their Continental Gallery residency, Telford and Bonta punched out especially creative solos on “Anything But Love” that left Warden laughing with glee coming out of the break, exclaiming, “That was cool!”
Even cooler was a moment a couple of weeks earlier downstairs at the Continental Club on a Sunday night. Word had spread about the Dangerous Few’s recent Antone’s appearance in June at a tribute to Prince, for which the group worked up a gloriously swaggering version of “Delirious.” At the Continental Club, one encore wasn’t enough to satisfy an enthralled crowd, so they came back out and blew down the room with the Prince tune.
That Continental show marked one of sevral recent occasions when the Dangerous Few has usurped the regular Sunday slot of the Wagoneers. Balancing the two projects could become touchy as the new band takes off, but Warden says it hasn’t been a problem so far.
Partly that’s because there’s a lot of overlap between the lineups. Original Wagoneers drummer Tom Lewis, who plays frequently with his wife Sophia Johnson, Canadian transplant Whitney Rose and others, left the group earlier this year, and Palermo was the easy choice to fill the seat. And Wagoneers guitarist Brent Wilson has filled in for bassist Pettigrew when the latter was out of town.
Still, Warden insists the Wagoneers have not become a back-burner pursuit. The group, which reunited after two decades apart when they were inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame in 2011, has a full album in the can that has yet to see the light of day, though a track was featured in the ABC television show “Nashville.”
There’s room for the Dangerous Few, he says, because “this thing is so musically different, like no other direction I’ve gone.” The next obvious step is making a record, though Warden doesn’t seem pressed to rush the fledgling band into the studio just yet.
“I want us to have at least six months’ worth of gigs under our belt,” he says. “I view the Gallery residency more than anything else as pre-production. I love pre-production and I love rehearsing, but there is no substitute for a gig – because the audience will let you know.”
AUSTIN360 ARTIST OF THE MONTH: Monte Warden & the Dangerous Few
Members: Monte Warden (acoustic guitar, vocals); Erik Telford (trumpet, flugelhorn, melodica); T. Jarrod Bonta (keyboards); Craig Pettigrew (upright and electric bass); Mas Palermo (drums).
Recordings: None yet.
Performances: Every Thursday at 8:30 p.m. at the Continental Gallery.
Statesman video: See the band perform “Black Widow” in our studio at austin360.com.