Throughout the 20th Century, jazz musicians and fans have maintained that “swing is the thing,” but it takes more than matching zoot suits to make a tune really cook.
And while it’s admirable that a new generation of revved-up fans are reviving America’s pop music of the 30s and 40s, the neo-swing scene is, unfortunately, devoted as much to superficial schtick (in terms of lyrical content as well as fashion) as it is to the hot music of the WWII era.
Swing This, Baby! III, the latest in a series documenting just a few of today’s swing revival bands, is a mixed bag of alternately cliched and genuinely jazzy music.
Dr. Zoot’s advanced horn arrangements and Benny Goodman-style rhythm on “Trip the Night Fantastic” are a great example of how today’s swing can stand with some of the best of the classic era’s performances.
Similarly, the Flying Neutrinos’ “Cry” would do Billie Holiday and her various all-star groups proud. And Big Time Operator’s “The Game” shows off impressive brass musicianship, though the band could try some more daring charts to highlight their chops even more.
But most of the groups on Swing This, Baby! III seem to suffer from a lack of serious dedication to the artistry of the big band age. While most of the tunes on the disc are punchy and danceable, few actually stay with the listener.
Not every band can achieve, or even build on, the formidable compositions of swing masters like Duke Ellington or Count Basie, but since these young groups are bent on performing original material, they owe it to the music and their audiences to put more effort into their songcraft than casually tossed-off numbers like “Oooh Wow!” and “Baseball Bat Boogie” demonstrate. Swing can’t just be about simple-minded “good times” and rockabilly licks.
Consider veteran players like the trumpeter Clark Terry, who’s performed with the small and big bands of Basie and Ellington and still plays out and teaches new students to this day. And then there’s the pianist Jay McShann, a Kansas City legend who hired a budding saxophonist named Charlie Parker in 1939; he’s also still recording and playing with eager young musicians today.
Neither McShann nor Terry has slacked off in their approach to the music they love over the years whether swing was in vogue or not. You don’t have to be an old-timer to “get” what swing’s all about, but to ignore the history of America’s classical music is to do a disservice to the legacy of our melting pot culture.
There’s another Swing This! out there the latest album by New Orleans’ Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers. They’re a young jazz group whose members balance covers of classic tunes such as “St. James Infirmary” with their own material. But they regularly play with and learn from other local musicians from across generations of jazz history.
Seems like that’s the smart way to go why reinvent the wheel to get rolling when tire lots are scattered across the country just waiting to be mined for their expertise? Every town with a neo-swing scene has a traditional one as well. I hope more fans and bands alike dip into those wells of knowledge just waiting to be tapped.