Corrections or additions?

This article by Richard Skelly was prepared for the November 29,

2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

The Fins’ Roadhouse Blues

To call Benny "Hi-Fi" Suriano a perfectionist

is an understatement. By day he works as a program manager for New

Jersey Transit and is part of a team of engineers working on

construction

of the $448 million Secaucus transfer project in the Meadowlands,

a project that is to be completed in a few years. On weekends the

guitarist seeks perfection with his band, the Fins — a project

that may never end.

The Fins recently released their second album, "Superstar,"

a self-produced, self-released CD. In September they celebrated with

a CD release party at one of New York’s most prestigious clubs for

blues musicians, the new B.B. King’s on West 43rd Street.

The eight-piece, horn-heavy band plays classic roadhouse blues. As

a follow-up to their 1997 recording debut, "Bluesprint," the

band has expanded the parameters of modern blues by employing their

longtime drummer, Eric Addeo, schooled at Rutgers in New Brunswick,

to write songs for the band. Suitably, "Superstar" showcases

clever originals in the style of the great small big bands led by

Louis Jordan, Aaron "T-Bone" Walker, Illinois Jacquet, and

others who once toured, or in the case of Jacquet, still tour, with

a horn ensemble.

"Bluesprint," didn’t include any original tunes, just great

arrangements and interpretations of classic blues from B.B. King,

Walker, A.C. Reed, Albert Collins, and Albert King.

"We wanted to focus more on showcasing some of our originals,"

Suriano explains from his office at New Jersey Transit in Newark,

moments before catching the train back to his hometown of Edison.

He has a master’s degree in engineering from Georgia Tech, and it

was there that he seriously got into playing guitar.

When he returned to New Jersey from Atlanta in 1990, he says he had

a vision to create a band with a horn section not unlike T-Bone

Walker’s

bands or, for a more recent example, Roomful of Blues. Since then

he has built the Fins mailing list to some 2,500 fans.

"Eric Addeo wrote lyrics to the originals we have on the new album

and Angelo Mancuso [bassist] and I kind of contributed our musical

ideas to those lyrics," Suriano explains. "We spent many

months

in planning and pre-production, and we made a lot of tapes and

evaluations

of those tapes in my basement studio. And then we would give it to

our guys to do charts," he says, referring to the band’s horn

section, which may change from gig to gig.

"Once the horn charts are done, it’s easier to perform and easier

to record," he explains. The band recorded at Eric Rachel’s Trax

East Studios in South River. Rachel, a Spotswood native, isn’t a guy

you’ll see out at clubs a lot, because his studio is almost constantly

booked.

"Our standard operating procedure is to put a lot of time into

new songs before we go near the studio. The studio in my basement

is great for all the pre-production," Suriano adds.

All three core members of the Fins — Hi-Fi Suriano,

Mancuso, and Addeo — had input into the shaping of the songs.

Another key member of the group is organist John Pittas of Middletown.

Regular members of the Fins horn section include Steve Jankowski and

John Berry on trumpets, Jack Stuckey and Alex Harding on baritone

saxophones, and Ralph Bowen and Joel Frahm on tenor saxophones.

"We all had input into the shaping of the songs and getting the

music to a form where it was in the vein of what we do," Suriano

says. "Lots of times, we ended up simplifying arrangements,

because

good blues is a simple music, and soulful music. So from time to time

we’d have to step back and ask ourselves, `What are we doing

here?’"

The Fins have created a niche at clubs and festivals around New York

and New Jersey, and in the last year, performed at the Chicago Blues

Festival in June, as well as festivals in the Florida, Puerto Rico,

Idaho, Switzerland, Spain, and France. Addeo, who works as an

assistant

with a jazz booking agency in New York, handles the band’s bookings,

often a chore because of the fickle nature of the club circuit. Addeo

has learned the ins and outs of securing gigs for his eight-piece

band and has also networked enough in the jazz and blues worlds to

know what festivals and clubs are worth going after.

All Suriano’s major influences are represented on "Superstar."

They include "T-Bone Jumps Again" by Walker, "One More

Kiss" by Johnny "Guitar" Watson, "Gator’s Groove"

by Willis "Gatortail" Jackson, and Earl King’s "Trick

Bag." "When we do cover tunes, it’s out of respect for the

masters who first performed them," says Suriano.

"When you hear Duke Robillard play a tune, he pays tribute to

the master he’s covering, and he doesn’t change things all that

much,"

he says. Robillard, a legendary guitarist and better-than-average

songwriter and vocalist, co-founded Roomful of Blues back in the late

1960s. He has long since left that band to lead bands under his own

name, but, like Suriano, he’s as much as a student of the music as

he is a performer.

"We see ourselves carrying on the swing and jump blues

traditions,"

Suriano says, "and while I’m well versed in a more heavy blues

guitar style, that allows the flexibility to take gigs as just a trio

or quartet."

"I model the Fins after a myriad of guys who took on the little

big band approach," he says, adding vocalist Wynonie Harris always

traveled with a small big band, meaning a full complement of horns.

"It used to be the big bands were led by guys with horns,"

he says, citing Benny Goodman and others, "but coming out of the

swing era, the guitar became a lead instrument as opposed to just

a rhythm instrument. Basically, T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian

were two great electric guitar players who used it as a lead

instrument,

T-Bone with blues and Charlie Christian with jazz."

To be sure, the Fins occupy a unique, sizable niche on the tri-state

blues scene, and in recent months, through the efforts of Addeo, the

band has taken its music to new audiences outside the tri-state area.

"We play with a lot of feeling and energy and that’s what sets

us apart," says Suriano. "Technically, there’s a hell of a

lot better guitar players on the scene than me, but I do learn very

quickly, so what I may lack in technical ability I make up for in

the feeling we put into our live performances."

"By reading album liner notes and books, you commit yourself to

knowing where this style of music came from, because you’ve got to

know where it came from in order to play it right and carry on the

tradition," he says.

— Richard J. Skelly

The Fins, Old Bay Restaurant, 61-63 Church Street, New

Brunswick, 732-246-3111. $5 cover. Friday, December 1, 10 p.m.


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