The Queen’s Cartoonists
The Queen’s Cartoonists

Since 2015, The Queen’s Cartoonists have taken background music from classic cartoons and brought it to the forefront of their shows. In the process, it has dazzled audience members of all ages with its gleefully theatrical performances of music from a bygone era.

Alongside projections of cartoons, the New York-based band will bring their multi-instrumental mayhem and circuslike comedy to the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center on Jan. 26, and to Yoshi’s in Oakland on Feb. 2. See their website for info on other California shows in Malibu, Irvine, Saratoga, Chico, and Grass Valley.

Audiences can expect appearances by famous cartoon characters from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, including Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor Man. The rest of the program, however, is still not fully set — the band’s members share an appreciation for all things spontaneous.

It’s worth noting that for most jazz ensembles, spontaneity isn’t anything out of the ordinary. After all, improvisation has always been, and continues to be, an integral part of jazz performance.

But what sets The Queen’s Cartoonists apart from most is its unabashedly comedic approach to jazz. The band’s members follow a score to stay in sync with the animations shown on screen, and, as a result, are left with little room for improvisation — around 20 percent of their performance is improvised, postulates percussionist Rossen “Chock Full” Nedelchev. 

The Queen’s Cartoonists try to maintain that distinctive, improvised jazz feel through other means — namely, by constantly subverting audiences’ expectations. 

So much of classical music is predictable, says pianist Joel “Sweet Sauce McKinley” Pierson. If you get tickets for a Beethoven concert, you’ll probably get Beethoven. That was great Beethoven, you might say afterward. Whatever. 

That’s precisely the opposite of what they are aiming for. “I don’t ever want the audience to be ahead of us,” says Pierson. “The show should be very spontaneous and wacky.” 

Wackiness, it seems, is where The Queen’s Cartoonists shine brightest. Their past shows have featured absurdities that just might make your austere middle-school band instructor shudder. Brass player Greg “Eggs and” Hammontree boasts several unique talents, including playing the trumpet and recorder at the same time — making efficient use of his nostrils. 

Hammontree says he was initially drawn to cartoons because of their sharply contrasting moods — from frantic, to longing, then back to frantic. 

“Just like Greg’s personal life,” quips Pierson.

The Queen’s Cartoonists
The Queen’s Cartoonists

Pierson adds that the band’s performances aren’t about playing the highest notes or the fastest notes. Rather, it’s about doing more and being more ridiculous. It’s about bringing older folk back to their childhoods and tugging at their heartstrings. And sometimes, it’s about leaving people bemused.

In short, The Queen’s Cartoonists are not trying to be the next Miles Davis Quintet or Duke Ellington Orchestra. That’s an impossible task. What they want is simple: to make you smile.