By now, most people who are musically inclined know that “swing” is making a comeback. Not exactly sweeping the country, but at least more widespread and popular than it has been in recent years. The problem is that many of swing’s better–known exponents are far more flashy than capable, and while the music may deliver some temporary kicks, there’s actually not much meat on its bones. There are, however, a handful of bandleaders who take their swinging more seriously. One of them is George Gee whose strapping 17–piece New York–based big band, presumably named for Martin Block’s popular Make–Believe Ballroom radio program of years ago, is patterned after the legendary Count Basie Orchestra and other prominent Swing Era ensembles. Instead of pandering to the uninformed (Gee has a smaller group, the Jump, Jive and Wailers, to do that, as we hear on the last two tracks of Swingin’ Away
), the Make–Believe Ballroom Orchestra serves industrial–strength swing with sophisticated charts by Frank Foster, Neal Hefti, John Clayton, Mary Lou Williams and others. The band doesn’t hold anything back, nor do its soloists, as one can readily hear on these concert dates, recorded in ’97 at the Swing 46 nightclub ( Swingin’ Live!
) and in ’98 at the Roseland Ballroom ( Swingin’ Away
) as part of an 85th birthday party for dancer / choreographer Frankie Manning. Foster’s “Come on In” is a marvelous curtain–raiser on Swingin’ Live!,
which also includes his “Down for the Count,” “Shiny Stockings” and “Four–Five–Six,” Clayton’s wonderful “Blues for Stephanie” and Hefti’s “Splanky.” From Tin Pan Alley come “Where or When,” “Street of Dreams,” “April in Paris” and “Here’s That Rainy Day,” while tenor saxophonist Lance Bryant wrote the bouncy “Wailin’ Caylen.” The band’s bang–up vocalist, Carla Cook, is heard on “Rainy Day” and “Let the Good Times Roll,” and guests Sarah Jane Cion (piano) and Benny Russell (tenor) perform on “Four–Five–Six.” Swingin’ Away
opens with another winner, Billy Strayhorn’s dependable “‘A’ Train,” whose riveting trumpet solo is by section leader Walt Szymanski. There’s some overlap from the earlier session, as “Blues for Stephanie,” “Let the Good Times Roll” and “Four–Five–Six” make encore appearances. Foster also wrote “Basie Boogie” and “Blues in Hoss’ Flat,” Williams the rockin’ swing anthem “Roll ’Em” (with red–hot clarinet courtesy of Ed Pazant). Cook sings and swings the standards “Pennies from Heaven” and “The Lady Is a Tramp,” Bryant sets his tenor aside to emulate the late Joe Williams on “Smack Dab in the Middle” and “Every Day I Have the Blues,” and sings as well on his own composition, “She’s Never Satisfied,” while Szymanski tests his vocal chops on “The Continental.” The Wailers are onstage for “Wednesday Night Hop” and “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” with Manning joining the festivities on the latter by calling a dance, the Shim–Sham, that accompanies the music. This is swing as it was meant to be, free–spirited, dynamic and unequivocally crowd–pleasing. There seems only one reasonable way to sum up, and that is to say — (I’ve always wanted to end a review this way) — Gee, you’re terrific!
Track listing: Swingin’ Live! — Come on In; Blues for Stephanie; Down for the Count; Let the Good Times Roll; Where or When; Shiny Stockings; Four–Five–Six; Street of Dreams; April in Paris; Here’s That Rainy Day; Wailin’ Gaylen; Splanky (59:16). Swingin’ Away — Take the “A” Train; Intro to Blues; Blues for Stephanie; Smack Dab in the Middle; Basie Boogie; Let the Good Times Roll; She’s Never Satisfied; Roll ’Em; Four–Five–Six; The Lady Is a Tramp; Pennies from Heaven; 720 in the Books; Every Day I Have the Blues; Blues in Hoss’ Flat; The Continental; Wednesday Night Stomp; Stompin’ at the Savoy (60:05).