New music: Cats and Dinosaurs

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Hej hej, Sverige!

‘Swing på barrikaderna’ – Cats and Dinosaurs– 2016

Disclaimer: I was approached by Tove Casén Nylander to review this album, and provided with a digital copy of the album.
I then met 
Filip Bagewitz, another band member, at Herrang, and we made friends.

This is another of those happy stories of a band working with dancers, or being a band of dancers.
Cats and Dinosaurs are a Swedish band, based in Gothenburg. More importantly,

The socialist-feminist swing collective Cats & Dinosaurs plays original lindyhop dance music with political lyrics in Swedish.

I was approached by Tove Casén Nylander by email to review this album in month, and then I failed completely to write a review. I think I seem to do my reviewing when I’m stuck on a bus or a plane, and have time to sit and think about the music without interruption. So apologies to everyone.

This is an interesting one. First off, all the lyrics are in Swedish. Which is both excellent and frustrating. Excellent because SVERIGE! But frustrating because the musicians are politically engaged and vocal. The band members I met are all fairly lefty, and very much interested in issues of gender and sexuality (providing a neat dovetail with our feminist fika that year). And the lyrics of these songs, and their delivery, are informed by this thinking. But I don’t speak Swedish, so I don’t know what they’re talking about!
Ah, well.

They remind me a little, musically, of the Underscore Orkestra, for their inclusion of a range of European folk musical influences, mostly in the violin and a few percussive instruments. There are strong New Orleans street jazz influences in instrumentation, delivery, and intensity. Some of the vocal deliveries are similar as well – sort of shouty, again informed by lefty folk pop. I hear echoes of bands like Tin Pan in the earlier days in the discordant bits, and Choinure Boys in the shouty exuberance. These seem particularly relevant to a music which always had one foot in the popular, and the other in the political.
Unlike the Gamble and Doyle albums, this is not a carefully mainstream swing recording. It is not going to attract a huge mainstream lindy hopping audience.

I quite like it. I like the vocalist’s almost androgynous quality. Is this a man or a woman? Does it matter? Not so much. ‘Jobba Mindre!’ is a fun opening to the album, with a shouted, repeated chorus which makes for good singing-along, and there are shouting and clapping bits, which everyone likes. It gets in and out in 2 minutes, BOOM. Total pop song material.
I do like the combination of piano and violin. It very much positions it in European folk music, but by way of American street jazz. There are bits in songs like ‘Sång till valfriheten’ where the instrumentation is particularly awesome at the beginning (though sadly it lacks a bit of variety later). And ‘Sex timmars arbetsdag’’s use of the vibes is quite lovely. I think this band would be a lot of fun live, especially at a rowdy party. The feels are strong, and convincing. I feel, even without any Swedish, that the musicians are committed to the story their music is telling, the feels they are communicated.

It is, though, the album of a relatively raw jazz band. They straddle styles in a way which many dancers would find uncomfortable. Your hardcore lindy hopping purists wouldn’t enjoy this band, but the more relaxed jazz dancers and newer dancers would.

I’m off to DJ in Seoul this week, so I might see how this song goes down. There’ll be Swedes in the audience, so I’ll enjoy seeing how they respond to the radical left wing lyrics in a fairly politically conservative city. I have a feeling it would go down well with Japanese dancers who are used to bands like Choinure Boys.

I wouldn’t recommend this band for hard core lindy hop DJing, but I would recommend it to people who are interested in this particular type of ‘jazz fusion’ (ie street jazz + european folk music + radical politics + fun). Buy it to support and encourage the musicians, who are also dancers.

‘Swing på barrikaderna’ – Cats and Dinosaurs– 2016

New Music: Doyle and Gamble

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Jonathan Doyle Swingtet – Too Hot For Socks
and
Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders – Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders

Disclaimer: Books Primo approached me to review the Doyle album, offering me a free download. I chose to pay for it (to support the band), but i took him up on the invitation to review. I saw it as an invitation to engage with his music, to share my opinions. The Gamble review, however, is unsolicited.

Both of these albums landed in my collection on the same day, both prompted by updates and dancers’ chatter on facebook. That in itself is an indication of how closely these two bands are connected to the lindy hop scene. And the importance of digital technology in securing the success of a modern jazz band. You have to have a) a good online vendor for download sales, and b) good social networks in the international lindy hop scene to promote your album by word of mouth.
Both of these bands are American, and both play for dancers, and that’s the other side of the securing-success equation. If dancers see and hear you playing live, and if they feel your feels, and if you’re looking up, at them, engaging with them, and doing that creative, collaborative improvisation that makes jazz jazz, then you’re going to develop a reputation that will help you sell albums and book gigs.

Right now I’m a zillion kilometres above the ground (still over my own continent, though), so I don’t have access to any other information either band. So stick with me, k?

These are dance bands, peopled by, and designed for dancers. Michael Gamble is a dancer and DJ, and his band includes dancers. He also manages the DJed and live music for Lindy Focus, an event fast becoming known for its live music – both in the ballrooms and in the informal jams. Jonathan Doyle is also closely connected with dancers, his band including Brooks Primo and others. Doyle, in fact, has recorded with Tuba Skinny, the Fat Babies, and most recently with Naomi Uyama’s Handsome Devils. All big names in the jazz dance world.

Both bands play regularly for dancers, and are prominent on the american dance event calendar. I’ve never seen either live, though I’m familiar with their recordings, know band members, and have DJed their work before. While they exist as real live people and musicians in American dancers’ lives, they are online people for me. Online friends. I won’t hear them play live unless I travel to America, something I’m not likely to do in the immediate future (guns, Trump, scary arse customs processes, etc). So I consume them as recordings.

For many American dancers, though, they are living, breathing people, friends they see on the stage from the dance floor. Friends they dance with on the dance floor. I think that this relationship is very important, and we all know that live music is now, more than ever, at the core of what we do as dancers today. There was that moment where bigger scenes focussed on DJs, while smaller scenes always maintained relationships with bands, when they had them. But now we are all about live music. And customising bands for our consumption.

Peter Loggins recently noted in a talk at Swing Castle Camp that DJs have both shaped and been shaped by dancers’ preferences, playing 3 minute songs in the 120-180bpm, swing-only, comfort zone. And this has shaped dancers’ expectations of live music. I’m not entirely on board with this argument, as there are plenty of scenes where DJs are playing more varied sets, and plenty of scenes where dancers gather at live music gigs because that is all they have for social dancing.
I’m also more interested in how a contemporary ‘dance band’ might have been shaped by these experiences with DJs. Do modern lindy hop and balboa bands consciously play in ways which reflect this ‘perfect’ dancing storm? If Loggins is right, and DJs have shaped modern lindy hopping practices, have these practices in turn then shaped the way ‘dance bands’ created by and for modern dancers, put together live and recorded sets?

Hm. If this is the case in the States (and I’m not entirely convinced it is), are the European, Japanese, and other regional jazz bands working with dancers reflecting this pattern? Is it the case in Japan, where jazz flourishes, but contemporary lindy hop culture lags a little? And what of bands like the Hot Sugar Band in France, who play for dancers, know dancers, but have a kind of take-no-prisoners approach to live music (and hotel rooms)? Even within America, it’s not an entirely accurate observation about New Orleans, where bands are engaged so actively with a diverse local live music culture.
I know that here in Sydney we have a rich and vibrant live jazz scene, and because bands are playing their gigs, for mixed crowds, they play a range of styles and tempos, and different songs lengths. Even when booked for dancers, and working with dancers to develop ‘dancer-friendly’ sets, they are still holding onto these jazz traditions: playing latin rhythms, playing a range of tempos, and songs of all lengths.
For the most part, dancers are happy with these arrangements. We’ve learnt to enjoy figuring out what to do with something latin rhythmed, or how to handle a super long song. And the strategies we use are similar to the ones Peter outlines in his talk, the sort of strategies that OGs used in the swing and jazz eras.
Interestingly, Sydney is home to the oldest lindy hop scene in Australia, local dancers travel extensively overseas, and we have flourishing balboa, lindy hop, blues, and solo jazz cultures. We aren’t a small, isolated scene with inexperienced dancers. We’re a large, diverse scene with fairly particular musical tastes.

Though we are an older scene, and we do have some exceptional dancers, our overall standard of dancing is a bit patchy, and we don’t have a huge DJing culture. We have some very good DJs, but we don’t have the pervasive ‘hard core DJing culture’ of the States. The organisers and DJs our bands do work with are often firmly rooted in live jazz history, and have a solid understanding of how to work with bands to encourage good dancing and satisfy musicians’ creative drives. Having said that, there are some truly terrible events in Sydney, with awful DJs, and poorly developed visions and guidance for live music. No one wins when the organiser doesn’t have a clue about music, or doesn’t have a passion for 20s, 30s, or 40s jazz.

Many of the better, more experienced Sydney musicians publicly question dancers’ insistence on shorter songs and ‘moderate tempos’. They’re a little more obstreperous, risking gigs because they aren’t as prepared to compromise. Though of course, that’s changing, as recent funding cuts to the arts in Australia (50%!) have sent a significant proportion of our musicians overseas seeking work. If you’re in Paris or the UK, you can catch some of Melbourne’s finest, and if you’re in the Asia-Pacific region, you can often catch a Sydney band touring.
I’m actually very interested in the way local Sydney bands have begun working with dancers for mutual pleasure and creative satisfaction. The Squeezebox Trio have a long standing relationship with balboa dancers at a Wednesday night bar gig, Andrew Dickeson’s Blue Rhythm Band is pursuing Basie’s dance band legacy, working with people like me in Sydney, but also playing at all the major Australian events in 2016. Swing Rocket has played for dancers here in Sydney, but has also played a number of shows in Guadalupe with French musician Tricia Evy and Stockholm based lindy hoppers Marie N’diaye and Anders Sihlberg.

All these bands are staffed by musicians who then go on to work with other local bands, spreading their experience and inspiration from working with dancers. Musicians have been enthusiastically involved with projects like my Little Big Weekend event, where we built tap dancers, singing dancers, and musician-dancers into the program. In my events, I am determined for the music to be more than a ‘background beat’ for dancers. I want musicians engaged with dancers (and vice versa), and I want to use live music in a lot of different ways. For example, earlier this year we had Georgia Brooks arrange a sung ‘word from our sponsor’ to perform with the band during our competition. I’ve also had the band do a ‘practice competition’ with our students at a local gig, so they could all learn how to do a competition with live music. The last was especially fun as we were all trying new things,from seasoned musicians to beginner dancers and organisers. And we went into the enterprise with a spirit of curiosity and determination. And a love of jazz.

I’m not sure how to get to my original point (I did get up at 5.30 this morning), but I wonder if all this means that Gamble’s band and Doyle’s band are perhaps too perfect for dancing? Has the close association with dancers moved them away from a jazz tradition and towards a contemporary lindy hop tradition? But a lindy hop tradition that is a little too carefully curated for the ‘perfect dancing experience’? It’s a tricky issue.
Michael Gamble has been heavily involved with promoting historical swing arrangements and recordings, as well as recreating those with the musical program of events like Lindy Focus, so we know his work is rooted in the past. Which I suppose is my point: is a hardcore recreationist project at odds with the spirit of jazz? If vernacular jazz is about change and growth, innovation and improvisation, does it lose its impetus when we focus on recreating a specific moment in time?

It’s all quite interesting and challenging. And the issue puts us at odds with the function of a dance band (make people dance; make it easy for people to have fun). Can a modern jazz band support that goal while also pursuing musical creativity and innovation which might make for awkward dancing? Can a band honour the past, while also moving forward?

I think it can. But as I’ve ranted in other posts about rhythm-first approaches to dancing, we can’t approach a ‘good dance’ as a series of moves perfectly executed. A ‘good dance’ should have two rules: look after the music, look after your partner. A good dance to a live band should involve an interruption of the sequence of ‘perfect moves’ to pause and just jockey in place, digging the band. Or simpler shapes which allow partners to turn and smile and cheer at musician for an especially excellent solo. Or joke. Just as a good DJ needs to look up from their computer, a good musician look up from their score, a good dancer should look up from their partner and engage with the band, and everyone else in the room.

This is an extension of my question: is it possible for a band to be too perfect for dancing? I’ve lately become a little tired of Gordon Webster’s band for just this sort of reason. The songs he plays are predictable in structure and emotional progression, and just a bit too ‘easy’ or ‘perfect’ for dancing. You can hit every break. You can hear all your favourite songs.

Really, though, this is a silly question. These musicians are working on projects they find satisfying and challenging, interesting and fun. And it gets them work, which is the point of jazz, really, isn’t it? Being socially and creatively sustainable. Earning a living wage and playing music. And the nicest part of swinging jazz is that this playing of music is social. It asks artists to play for and with audiences, rather than locking themselves away in a garret creating ‘art’ that no one ever listens to or engages with. Swing jazz, as dance music, asks musicians to work with dancers, and it asks dancers to engage with music actively, as dancers. Whether they are up on the floor dancing, or turning their ears to the music, breathing it in as people who dance, or feel rhythm in their feet and heart.

That whole issue aside, what’s to be said about these two albums?

Bluntly, Gamble’s album is accessible, and makes for good foot-stomping dancing.
Doyle’s album is more cerebral, more of a toe-tapper than a foot stomper.
Other than that, they’re very similar. Small, swinging bands playing fun swing music.
If I was writing from my gut, I’d say that the Doyle band is a bit squarer than Gamble’s. Which is a feeling I had about their previous recordings. I enjoyed the Doyle, but it doesn’t quite let loose. There’s something in the brass, and wind instruments which says square to me. I’m not a musician, and sadly too slack to educate myself on this point, but it sounds like there’s a lot of very controlled synchronised work there. I feel like things are a bit too safe, a bit too carefully planned out. To me, this sounds like they’re used to playing for each other, more than for dancers. Or if I picture them in my mind, they’re sitting in a circle, facing each other, making it a bit harder for the audience to get in. or they’re reading sheet music, eyes down. This could of course be a matter of the mix or recording technology, with something in Gamble’s recordings lending a warmth or accessablity to the album.
They actually remind me a bit of a band I saw at Herrang, Kinda Dukish. Fantastic musicians, but as a Swedish sound engineer described them, ‘very German’. In other words, very precise. Very good.

My favourite song from this album is ‘Good News, Bad News’. Probably for the muted trombone. ‘You can’t Take These Kisses With Ya’ feels a bit sprightlier, and funner. There are parts of ‘Comfort Zone’ which are especially good. The album does open with a bit of a bang with ‘Sugar Glider’, but even this song is a bit too polite. Though I begin to feel like all the musicians are politely ‘taking turns’, rather than clumping in to give us those layers of sound and aural colour that makes for good dancing.

One of the nice parts of this album is that the cover art features dancers I know (via the internet), drawn by dancers: what a lovely combination. And an example of how ‘swing’ isn’t just about dancing, but a cultural nexus, with dancing just one point on a continuum of cultural practice. A little as Lee Ellen Friedland describes hip hop. I really enjoy this little example of how the band is bedded down into its local dance community.

Gamble’s album, in contrast, comes in like they’re playing for dancers. I know it’s a cliche, but dancers do like vocals, and it provides a point of connection. It’s a bit of an overplayed favourite, but ‘I Left My Baby’ is a good opening song. It provides a point of familiar contact for newer dancers, and it makes experienced ears ask, “Ok, what’re you going to do with this old chestnut to keep my interest?”
‘Disorder at the Border’ comes in the way I like it, with a definitely Basie feel in the rhythm section. I think it has something to do with the sense of relative timing in that rhythm section. Where Doyle’s band feels very neat and in unison almost, here, the Gamble band has the guitar, piano, bass, and drums sitting in slightly different places.

You know what, I don’t know what I’m talking about. I can’t find the words to explain what I’m hearing.

One of the clever parts of this album, is the way it moves from that Basie-esque feel to a smaller, more uptight Goodman small group feel with ‘Airmail Special’, and then on to say hello to Andy Kirk with A Mellow Bit Of Rhythm. I love the version of ‘Seven Come Eleven’, one of my most favourite songs. I really dig that ‘Slidin’ and Glidin’’; I’ve DJed it a few times, and it goes down a treat.

I have to make special mention of Laura Windley’s vocals. I’ve enjoyed her work with her own band, the Mint Julep Jazz Band, and I’ve heard she’s grand live. But I really liked her version of ‘Fine and Mellow’ on this album. It’s hard to sing a song like this, which is so indelibly stamped by Mz Holiday’s voice. When you read the title, you think of that incredible live recording, and Lester Young and Holiday passing the feels back and forth. So to come to this song and give it new feels is a real challenge.
But I think this is my favourite song on the album. The one I’ve listened to quite a few times. Laura changes the vibe, gives it something interesting, and a little more energy, but keeps the clarity and brightness Laura’s band and style are known for.

Yes, it’s all really good dance music. It makes for great dancing. I saw John Tigert drop songs from it at Herrang, and people loved it. But that’s part of my issue with this album. I feel like I’m listening to a good DJ set. The songs are picked from different bands, with different feels, and it’s all great. But I don’t quite feel like the band is taking any risks. I know I’d almost certainly have a good time dancing to this band live. I’d enjoy the performances. I’d hear favourites, plus a few of the ‘currently cool’ ‘newer finds’. But I’d be left wondering exactly what the _point_ of it is. Yes, I do like eating potato chips (a lot). But occasionally I like something a little more challenging to the palate.

In sum, then, this is a very good album. Buy it if you want some easy ‘DJing wins’. Buy it if you want something simple and easy to eat/dance to. As I did, buy it if you want to support bands who play fun music for dancers. But it doesn’t take any risks.

Too Hot For Socks – 2016 – Jonathan Doyle Swingtet
and
Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders – Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders – 2016

Glenn Crytzer’s Savoy Seven: album review

Hello!
This is a post about music!

I was approached by Glenn Crytzer a couple of weeks months ago, saying “I’d love to have you do a piece on our new record. Please let me know if that’s something you’d be interested in. Here’s a digital copy of the album for you.”
And there was a digital copy of the album Uptown Jump by Glenn Crytzer’s Savoy Seven.

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My review in brief:
Buy this album because it’s good, and it’s only $15. Buy it because you want to tell the band you support what they’re doing and you want them to keep doing it. You want dancers to hear this music and then demand organisers have them play their events. We need this stuff. I know I’d hire them in a heartbeat.
But
the sound quality is not ok for DJing, unless you are a rockstar DJ at a professionally run event, or just plain lucky enough to have a great local DJing sound set up. If you’re listening at home for pleasure, then fuck all that shit about sound quality and just buy it and LISTEN to it.

My review in extreme length:

As you probably know, this latest Crytzer project was funded by a kickstarter, and I have no idea whether I supported it or not. I’m usually quite happy to buy an album after it’s come out. More importantly, I will almost definitely buy an album if it’s on sale at a band gig. Which is the problem with Crytzer’s bands: they’re only playing in America (and maybe Canada?), which is far away, and not on my ‘to-travel’ list any time soon (soz america). I am all about Korea, as you know. So I will have to enjoy this band in recorded form.

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(image source)

This is important, because Crytzer is a dancer (or was – I dunno if he has time to dance these days, what with all the touring and recovering) and plays all the big American dance events. This is a dancer’s band, playing dance music for dancers. I’ve spoken about one particular gig in detail before. His first release, by Crytzer’s Blue Rhythm Band, Chasin’ the Blues, was popular with dancers, the band’s name an obvious nod to DJ and dancing nerds. But it was the second album Harlem Mad by Glenn Crytzer and His Syncopators that was wildly popular, DJed by people all over the place. Including me. I still hear people DJing ‘Fortunate Love’ with Meschiya Lake on vocals.

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(image source)

I think this 2011 recording, combined with the popular live shows, and the presence of the massively popular Meschiya Lake, really was the perfect storm, dropping at just the right time. Lake and all things NOLA were supercrazy popular (and some of us had begun to wail about the lack of big band action at events and in DJ sets), and squishing this charismatic performer into the line up was genius. The music itself managed to combine the rough edges and ‘real’ sound of NOLA with the larger band format and more complex arrangements of a bigger band.

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After that, there was Skinne Minne by Glenn Crytzer and his Syncopators in 2011. This album used what many dancers would describe as an ‘authentic’ recording sound. Simply put, it sounds like an olden days recording. And I will be very blunt here: it was unDJable. This is a terrible shame, because it was recorded live at Lindy Fest, and the songs are just great. It feels exciting and fun. There are a couple of musical rough spots, but who cares – it FEELS LIKE LINDY HOP! But I have only DJed from it perhaps once or twice, ever. Because I tend to DJ in shitty halls with shitty sound gear, and if I’m going to take a risk on a ‘poor quality’ recording, I’ll go with Ellington or Basie or Hamp.

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In fact, my experience with this album was so disappointing, I didn’t even buy the next album, Focus Pocus by the Savoy Seven, and featuring all original compositions. Listening to it right now, I feel like a total fool. This has a more conventionally ‘modern’ recording sound, but definitely still feels ‘old’. In fact, I’m buying it now. And you should too, because it’s only $7. Crazy.
It’s worth mentioning the christmas album A Little Love this Christmas, because lindy DJs are often looking for christmas themed music, and Glenn has gone and made some that’s actually good. Buy this too.

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Ok, so what does all this have to do with the new album? I think it’s important, because Crytzer is now a well-known name and band in the lindy hop scene, particularly on the more competitive big American event circuit. DJs and dancers aren’t as likely to cut him some slack now. The ‘authentic’ earlier swing sound is a bit more common, and we are pickier. We are less likely to tolerate poor quality recordings.

This is, of course, the first thing I noticed about the new album Uptown Jump. It uses an ‘old style’ recording technology. And I did groan. No matter how great the songs are, they’re going to be up against all those old masters again. It isn’t fair, it’s uncool, it’s even ungrateful to think like that. But this is the bottom line for a swing DJ: it has to sound good on a sound system in a crowded or empty room. And every modern band is competing with a mythic ‘golden age’ of swing.

Listening to it over the following couple of weeks and talking about it with my DJing friends, the general consensus was: great album, unworkable sound ‘quality’. It’s very unfair, because this is an album of original compositions that are actually quite good. These days when I hear a band introduce an ‘original’, I cringe a little. There’s some really bad shit out there. But the actual songs on this are pretty bloody good. They are properly in keeping with musical history (for the most part), they swing, they make great dancing. I just can’t hear them properly! ARGH!
As a friend said, I wish I could have a copy of ‘clean’ master. I’d DJ the shit out of that.

Even the album itself – the song order – is perfect for dancers. Good range of tempos, good range of styles and feels.
The musicians are all great too:
Mike Davis, tpt
Evan Arntzen, cl/ts
Dan Levinson, ss/as/ts
Jesse Gelber, pno
Glenn Crytzer, g/vcl/ldr
Andrew Hall, sb
Kevin Dorn, d
It’s a 7 piece – not too big, not too little – and there are musical moments that make me squee. Everything is here, but I can’t hear it!

Of course, I do have severely fucked up hearing from all these years DJing and dancing. And I am a picky DJ. Who has to play on some of the worst sound gear and in some of the worst rooms ever. I’m no pampered ILHC DJ, that’s for sure :D .
But I’m also a DJ who collects and plays a lot of modern bands, so I’ve heard a lot of different modern recording set ups. Some have sucked big time (there was one Tuba Skinny album that was pretty darn bad. But when I listen to something like the latest Tuba Skinny album Pyramid Strut, with a lovely, lovely warm studio sound – each instrument right THERE in the room – and that really nice, energetic street jazz musician camaraderie… I get sad about this Crytzer recording.
:(

But let’s talk about authenticity. That is the point of Glenn’s approach to the production process. Dude had a VISION, and we need to engage with that. Glenn responded to a fairly lively discussion about the new album on facebook with this great post Low-fi.
I like that he begins with the term ‘lo-fi’. Because fidelity is, of course, the idea of ‘trueness’ or faithfulness to truth, honesty, exactness of a copy, realness. This is what we are all about with recreation in lindy hop: we are looking for ‘realness’. Authenticity. We value ‘realness’ in so many ways in the lindy hop scene, from historically accurate choreography to bringing ‘real’ feels in a dance competition (the argument about improvisation vs choreography following Lindy Focus is an example of this). The key tension seems to be between recreating music/dance/art in minute detail and accuracy, and tempering that with recreating the intentions of the original artists. So we may recreate the lindy hop routine in Hellzapoppin’ to pinpoint accuracy, but miss the point that these guys valued making shit up – invention and improvisation

I have written about recreationism in the lindy hop scene approximately one million times, most recently about DJing in Herrang, land of recreationist obsession. There are good things about being an obsessive recreationist, and there are bad things. And there are interesting things that are worth talking about.

So let’s accept the premise of Glenn’s project: this is recreationism. Let’s engage with the album on those terms, lets talk about those interesting things.
One of the things I like about this album is that it’s a smaller band. I am a massive fan of Ellington’s small groups, the Goodman/Hamp small groups, John Kirby’s groups… and so on. I really like the way a small group – in the swing era, peopled by musicians who also played in big bands – allowed a band to explore more complex, more ‘modern’ arrangements and vibes. A lot of the guys in these groups went on to do bop and modern music. And each band allowed each musician a unique style and real role in the band.

Listening to Crytzer’s band, it definitely sounds like a swing era small group. Sometimes to the point of… um… homage? Take the song ‘Road to Tallahassee’. It sounds very similar to the Ellington small group recording of ‘Ain’t the Gravy Good’ (credited to Cootie Williams and his Rugcutters). Cootie’s an interesting example, because he had such a distinct sound, and Ellington’s band played arrangements that were developed just for Cootie, with parts that showcased his style.

This seems the point of this recording by the Savoy Seven, though. To do homage to these groups. And that’s what they do. There’s nothing wrong with that – we dig it! But there are moments on this album, though, where I feel they don’t give enough love and attention to developing their own sound.

Let’s have a look at something Glenn says in that tumblr post about the recording process for this album:

The modern “standard” way to record an album these days is to put mics very close to every instrument to isolate their sound. In fact sometimes the instruments are even put into separate rooms with the musicians listening to each other through headphones to create total isolation. Using this technique everyone doesn’t even have to play at the same time!
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This creates the sound we’re all used to in the 21st century – the sound of rock and pop music. It’s very bright, the instruments each sound very clearly like themselves and are isolated from each other, the sound can push the speakers really hard because the signal is super intense.

There were also some technologies that were available but were not used – by the 1940s the technology existed to put a mic on every instrument in the studio – but they chose to still use just a couple of mics – to let the sounds blend and then to record that. To me, that’s a cue that the natural blending and balancing of sounds was really important to band leaders. (link)

I like this point. I really like this idea of the importance of recording musicians who are all playing together in one room. It gets closer to capturing that sense of group is so central to jazz music, to improvised music!

I’m not sure this album as a whole is quite there. I don’t think the actual relationships between the instruments in each song are quite right. There’s something about the to-and-fro of musicians in Goodman’s small group that is unique. Their ways of taking turns, replying to each other, and interacting, reflect the dynamics and personality of the group. Goodman is the boss, but you hear him say “Ok, bring your shit. Let’s ignore all this segregation shit. You are GOOD, I am GOOD, let’s make the best fucking music ever.” And they all step up. You hear their personalities in their style and way of interacting to each other.
In Crytzer’s band, I hear people ‘taking turns’, having their say, rather than having a living conversation. A living conversation can involve interruption, call-and-response and collaborative meaning making. It doesn’t have to be this mannered, overly polite formal turn taking.

Do we have to sacrifice the clarity of sound to get that feeling of togetherness? Of course not. Nor do we have to push for that super-bright, ‘harsh’ sound that Glenn finds a bit much (and which I also find a bit much). The Tuba Skinny Pyramid Strut album is a good example of a modern recording that has real depth and warmth, but still manages sharp lightness when it needs to.

Does a modern recording have to have that particular recorded sound to be authentic? Here let’s look at a band that is almost ridiculously hardcore in their attention to historical detail. The Hot Jazz Alliance, recording their forthcoming album:

Milenberg Joys – The Hot Jazz Alliance The ‘Hot Jazz Alliance’ recording their debut album at ‘HiHat Studios’, April 2014. Michael McQuaid – clarinet, Jason Downes – alto sax, Andy Schumm – cornet, Josh Duffee – drums, John Scurry – banjo, Leigh Barker – string bass.
Sounds old, but isn’t. Different style of jazz to Glenn’s album, but I think my point is clear: it’s a pleasure to hear old music with that clarity of sound brought by modern technology. But we’ll wait and see what their recording is like.

Let me just finish off with a bit of attention to the songs themselves. Do they carry that same commitment to ‘old’ – recreationism? Is Glenn’s band pulling off this grand project?

I’m going to start with the song ‘Smokin’ that Weed’.
Songs about vipers, chasing the gong, and plain old garden variety tea are a dime a dozen in the jazz world. They don’t call them jazz cigarettes for nothing. But this one… hm. The lyrics are just too obvious, and it leaves the song feeling kind of juvenile. Sure, there were some dumb, obvious songs written in ye olden days about drugs. And sex. And food. But many of the songs about dope from the swing era (particularly for mass release) could be very clever, hiding their drug references in innuendo, metaphor and word play. Part of the pleasure of these songs is getting away with something naughty. so ‘Smokin’ that Weed’ could have been a bit…cleverer? Subtler?

I also find the lyrics of ‘Smokin’ that Weed’ and their delivery a bit too… intense. Which conflicts with the vibe of ‘floatin’ in the sky’. The accenting and pacing of the first lines is uncomfortable, and the emphasis on “suckin'” is too harsh and sharp:

Do you like the vipe
suckin’ on that pipe,
it gets ya feeling tight
aw smokin’ that weed

This song has real potential. The first, brassy notes remind me a lot of Herb Morand and the Harlem Hamfats, who of course recorded ‘If You’se a Viper’, a song that’s been very popular with American dancers over the years. This is a clever touchstone for Crytzer’s band. The Hamfats have jazzcred, being relatively obscure and yet still featuring a few very good musicians (like Buster Bailey, Rosetta Howard, Alberta Smith, etc). But the vocals in ‘Smokin’ that Weed’ aren’t right. If you listen to someone like Rosetta Howard singing ‘If Youse a Viper’, her pronounciation is mellow and relaxed, just as it should be if you’re chilling with a spliff.
But in ‘Smokin’ that Weed’, they’re rushing to get the joke out, and it feels a bit forced and eager to me. Not quite cool enough. More to the point, I’m not sure what the joke is, exactly. They’re basically just giggling about singing a song about smoking weed.
Sigh.

I guess what I’m saying is that this song lacks subtlety and nuance. Which I think is my quibble with a lot of the songs on this album, and with the general recreationist vibe. It’s not subtle. I need a little more nuance to really dig this. And it needs a little more sophistication to pass as properly ‘authentic’ in both tone and content.

What about the other songs? My favourite song is ‘Glenn’s Idea‘, because I like the piano in there. It reminds me very of all those nice small swing era groups. I’d certainly play ‘Savoy Special‘ for dancers, because it comes in strong and exciting and continues that way. ‘Missouri Loves Company‘ is definitely my sort of song, and I love it. To be honest, I’m a girl for instrumentals. Unless you’re the Hot Club of Cowtown and you have a voice like Whit Smith‘s on hand.

So, in sum, as I said up there at the beginning, buy this. It’s worth it. The musicians are good, it’s great dance music, it’s all good. But I’m disappointed by the sound ‘quality’, and I can’t DJ it at my regular gigs. :(

Reviewing

The new ACCC guidelines: Australian law and online reviews (9 Dec 2013).

This is an Australian example, and important because I do reviews of albums, events and projects quite often. They’re also often solicited by the ‘authors’ or these texts – musicians, organisers, etc. And when I’m asked, though I always remind them that they review they get might not be a review they like, I feel as though there’s an assumption that I’ll write good stuff, just because I’m getting a free cd or tickets, or because we’re mates, or because I want to ‘grow the scene’.

Just a reminder: I might not like your stuff.

Swing Session from Switzerland Belgium Europe

I bought Leapfrog by the band ‘Swing Session’ a little while ago, and it’s great. No, not this Swing Session, though that’s fun too. The Swing Session I’m talking about is Swiss, and I found them via the Red Hot Reedwarmers‘ site…. actually, I’m not sure where I found them. Looking at their site, I can’t make the French translate (because FRAMES! ARGH!), but the .ch suffix makes me think Switzerland. I recognise some of the band names in the musicians’ bios, but that’s not enough. In fact, if you scour the internet for the bands listed in these guys’ bios, you’ll find some really nice stuff.

It was a bit tricky getting hold of this CD. I had to send an email to someone or I had to use paypal on a French language site or something. It was all a bit complicated. But If you want a copy, you should send an email to Manu Hagman, who is a top bloke, and was very helpful. His details: Emmanuel Hagmann ehagmann at manusound dot net Or you can go to his site and buy directly from him.

So, anyway, this is a good band. I like this CD a lot.

What does it sound like? Well, firstly, you can tell some of the blokes in the band are Benny Goodman fans. There’s some spanking vibraphone in there. You’ll recognise songs like ‘Flying Home’, but the treatment is quite different. If you pushed me, I’d call this chamber jazz meets power groove. But that’s not a very helpful description. It doesn’t really explain the way the piano works in this album. You can listen to audio clips from the band on their site.
If I was to DJ from this CD, I’d play the really good version of ‘Bag’s Groove’, which is definitely powergroove, and has some really neat nonsense-mumbly scatting, a la ‘Incoherent Blues’ and ‘Mumbles’ by the Oscar Peterson small group. In fact, listening to it now, I don’t know why I don’t play it more often. It’s really, really good. Sometimes you just want to get down into your hips and pretend you’re Virginie Jensen.

The nice version of ‘Leap Frog’ on there is slower, and again it’s getting towards power groove. But I don’t think ‘power groove’ is actually a very useful or accurate description – there’s enough get-up-and-go in that track to make it a bit more exciting than your average power groove.
They do a version of ‘Yacht Club Swing’ which is really nice. These doods are super talented. But this treatment is a little more in the pocket than Fats’. In fact, the whole album tends to ease off the beat a bit. But it still has a really driving beat that makes you want to get up and dance. And I really like the vibes in this version of the song. It’s a really nice approach to what we tend to think of as a ‘piano song’. It’s as though Benny Goodman’s small group decided to do some Fats Waller.

So, if you like the sound of this, and can handle the convoluted ordering process, get ordering.

Hetty Kate <3

I’m a little slow on this one, but writing about Ultrafox, and the most triumphant Sydney Lindy Exchange this past weekend have prompted me to write about Hetty Kate and her band(s).

Hetty Kate is great.


I wrote about her a little while ago on SwingDJs, saying

This past weekend Melbourne singer Hetty Kate did two really nice sets at Canberrang in Canberra. She did a truly lovely blues set at a late night and a general lindy hop gig at an afternoon gig at a winery (top shelf gig, that). I only got to hear two songs from the blues set as I was DJing at the same time ( :( ), but it was really magical. She had a light, delicate touch, rather than a gritty, down-low style, and had the dancers mesmerised. I was very, very sorry to have missed out.
I really liked Hetty Kate’s stage presence, and her singing style is clear and light and swinging – a real palate cleanser after all those blues shouters.

Hetty Kate played again for dancers this past weekend at SLX, and went down a treat again. I really enjoy the way she combines a light, elegant look and sound with a crunchier, sassier stage presence. I think my only regret about these gigs is that I don’t get to hear her playing with her own band(s). And I’m only fussing about that because I’ve listened to her recordings and I’m a fan.


The Irwell Street String Band features some of my favourite Melbourne musicians – Sam Lemann (ukulele, guitar, mandolin), Andy Baylor (elec. mandolin, guitar) and Leigh Barker (double bass) – and I’d really like to hear the band working together as a tight unit.

…yes, that is a Baylor in there again. I’m a fan. And that’s Leigh Barker, and I’m a massive fan of his band the New Sheiks. I can’t remember when I last saw Sam Lemann, but well. Look:

(In A Little Spanish Town – Hetty Kate & Sam Lemann ukulele duo)

That Irwell Street String Band CD 11:60pm is really nice. There’s plenty on there that totally works for dancing, though I’d be thinking ‘sophisticated, smoothed out swing’ rather than ‘chunky, head-kicker, balls-to-the-wall lindy hop’. Which is why I want to hear that band playing together live. And if I’m going to be particular (which of course I am), I want to hear them in a more intimate venue, so I can catch every little string pluck and strum. My favourite songs on the album so far:

  • “I Go For That” – I’ve got this one in a shortlist called ‘wedding songs’, as it’d be a lovely song for a bridal couple dancing at a wedding. Particularly if they’re a couple with a sense of humour;
  • “Sing You Sinners” is a more delicate version of a dancing favourite, but it makes me want to move. Not sure I could manage delicate dancing, but the precision of this performance prompts me in a different way to Henderson’s. And I’m a DJ, so I like interesting reworkings of familiar songs.
  • “You Came A Long Way From St Louis” is probably my total favourite, but I’m not sure I’d play it for lindy hoppers. Maybe at a (very) late night in the back room when things had chillaxed a little I’d test some blues dancers or a flexible crowd. But it’s a really good example of Hetty Kate’s mix of sweet and salty.

Hetty Kate’s album Kissing Bug is a slightly different animal. It’s definitely ‘groovier’ (in the lindy hop sense, not the velour pants sense), and listening now, I think it might be my favourite. Not so much for DJing or dancing, but for listening. I’ve got a bit of a resurging interest in ‘groove’ at the moment, partly because we have so much chunky hot jazz in our dancing world these days, but also because I think there was something very nice happening in the studio when this was recorded. Or at least that’s what I imagine :D
I probably wouldn’t play all of the songs on this for dancers, but I do like listening to it. If I was to DJ it, I’d go with “Kissing Bug”, because it’s cute. “Young at Heart” would make a really nice ‘kissing song’ (you know, the sort of dance where you hold someone close and kind of cuddle your way across the floor). “You Turned The Tables On Me” (one of my favourite songs) could work with more experienced dancers, though it has some moments which might puzzle newer dancing folk.

This album was recorded in New York, which’ll ping the antennae of some of the jazznerd dancers in our scenes. Some of the very, very best modern day jazz musicians are living and working in New York, and of course we know The Ear is an important spot for visiting jazznerds’ itinerary. I think the musicians are Iranian (?), though I’m not sure. Hetty Kate told me the story on the Sunday at Canberrang and I was kind of adrenaline charged/trashed at the end of a crazy weekend. But I do remember her saying that recording this was quite special.

So, friends, if you get a chance to hear Hetty Kate live, do. I know she’s been doing some work with blues dancers in Melbourne, and I think they’d be very special gigs. And if you can’t get to a gig, have a listen to her CDs. You can get them in person, on CD via Hetty Kate’s online store, or buy and download ‘Kissing Bug’ at CDBaby. And if you’re into 50s type, slightly different stuff, you might also like Uh-oh, her album with the 2020’s.

New CD! Ultrafox: Chasing Shadows [would DJ]

[edit: I wrote this almost a month ago but have been sitting on it.]

I’m not going to rave and shout about this album Chasing Shadows by Melbourne band Ultrafox, because this is not that type of album. It’s more thoughtful. While the tempos get quite quick, the energy feels more complex and intricate. It feels very much like the difference between lindy hop and balboa: it’s hot and fast, but you wouldn’t sweat, because you are too cool. This is a jackets-on, nice-dress type of album.

Having said that, ‘Vette’ opens the album with a supersweet bass intro that makes me want to leap up and dance. And I’m not one for nice-dress, jackets-on, cool and sophisticated dancing.

I should stop for a second here, to say, once again, that I was offered a copy of this album by Peter Baylor, in return for writing a review. You know I can’t say no to free CDs, and it’s a genuine pleasure to listen to Australian music and talk about it online. It’s even nicer to develop relationships with the musicians I get to dance to (dance with – we are together, in these moments, musicians and dancers) at events around the country.
So, to be clear, this is a solicited review. And, again, I had a moment of worry when I agreed to this deal. What if the CD sucked? And then I gave myself a talking-to. Look at the people on this album: Peter Baylor, Jon Delaney, Kain Borlase, Julie O’Hara, Andy Baylor, Michael McQuaid. Do you think it’s likely it’ll suck? No. It won’t suck. It doesn’t suck.

Peter Baylor leads Ultrafox, and even here in Sydney I’ve had a bit of a big Baylor week. My copy of Chasing Shadows arrived this week, and I saw Andy Baylor launching his CD Down Where the Banksias Grow at the Petersham Bowling Club last night. The Baylors are pretty important doods in the Melbourne (hells, Australian) jazz and acoustic music scene. When I say acoustic music, I mean the sort of music that doesn’t use a lot of amplification. Not that I’m against amplification, but this stuff has its roots in the days when a band had to shout real loud to be heard in a crowded bar rather than just twiddle a dial. Anyways, if you’re into jazz, blues, old timey, western swing… all that sort of stuff (as I am), then you’ll probably have heard of the Baylors.

Dancers who’re into Australian jazz will also have heard of Michael McQuaid, saxophonist, clarinetist, leader of The Red Hot Rhythmakers, The Late Hour Boys…etcetera, etcetera. Boy got chops.

If you’ve been dancing in Melbourne to a live band ever you’ll indubitably have heard Julie O’Hara sing. I remember talking to Julie at the 2006 Melbourne Lindy Exchange the day after Anita O’Day passed away and suddenly realising ‘Anita O’Day! Of course!’

And even I recognise more of the musicians in this band, though I’ve not been in Melbourne for four years now. Ultrafox: good, well-seasoned, skilled musicians. This is going to be good.

Ok, enough of that. Let’s get back to the music. And I’m going to talk about this as music for dancers and dancing. Because, for most dancers, the music is the thing. They’re unlikely to run up to the DJ and ask who was playing guitar on that last track. They’re more likely to let you know they dig a song by running about like crazed adrenaline junkies. Unless they’re balboa dancers. Balboa dancers never look like they’re in a hurry.

Even though Balboa developed in ballrooms with big bands (if you’re interested in this, you need to watch Peter’s great talk about balboa history), there’s something about the complexity of manouche which really suits this tiny, intricate, complicated dance. While lindy hoppers tend to be a little on the meat and potato side of things, balboa dancers are more discerning. They can dance super fast, they can handle the fact that manouche rarely (if ever) features a drummer, and they’re all up in Django’s business.

I’m going to keep returning to the balboa dancer as audience for this band because there’s a long association between balboa and gypsy or manouche jazz in Australia and overseas. There aren’t a lot of Balboa events in Australia (just one at the moment) and that one has hosted Mystery Pacific more than once. Duck Musique from Melbourne also have cred with balboa dancers.

There are, however, about a million second rate gypsy jazz bands around the world. So I’m always a little sceptical when faced with yet another Hot Club of Blahtown recording. But Chasing Shadows is solid stuff. Here, let’s get into the nitty gritty: dancers really just want to know which songs to buy from a particular album.

Firstly, Chasing Shadows covers a range of styles. Totally right-on when you consider the history of manouche, the importance of a waltz and what I’d (clumsily) call ‘Latin rhythms’. But lindy hoppers and balboa dancers aren’t really into that action. Having said that, ‘The Ruby and the Pearl’ on this CD is probably my favourite track. Couldn’t DJ it, do play it regularly for my own non-dancing pleasure. So if you’re flicking through song samples, don’t stop at just one song – the breadth of styles is one of this album’s strengths.

I would totally DJ ‘Vette’ for dancers. I was charmed by the clarinet, lighting up all that strummy-strum-strum string action which makes for such solid dancing. The balance of grounding rhythm (which dancers really do need), lighter melody and instrumental flourishes makes this super nice. Listening to Andy Baylor last night, with this CD in mind, I thought to myself “Really good musicians really do make a difference.” Manouche isn’t for babbies; if it’s good, it’s hard. I see a lot of very ordinary… shitty musicians at dance gigs, but I would pay extra for these guys. I would hire them for a gig. I would DJ this album.

I also really like ‘High Flyer Stomp’. It has that lighter edge, but with a really solid rhythm – the stuff dancers need. I’m also a total fool for a bit of fiddle. I think it’s the way it joins up all the spaces between the beats to really flesh out the swing that makes what we do jazz dancing. Or swing dancing :D

I guess what I’m saying here is that the instrumentals on this CD are really really good. This is where these guys truly shine. I think they have the best cross-over value for non-Australian DJs and dancers. But that’s mostly because I still stumble when I come across Australian vocals in jazz. I think this is parochialism on my part, and I need to get over it. Think of Eamon McNellis. Think of Hetty Kate. Heather Stewart. Australian voices, marked by the intonations and rhythm of Australian English, but very fine Australian voices. And I think Andy Baylor makes very powerful arguments when he talks about the vernacular in jazz. Or about looking for Australian folk music. I’ll get over this. With the help of artists like these.

What else would I play for dancers?
There’s a version of ‘Minor Swing’ here too. Yeah, yeah, I know, most of us are totally over this staple of the balboa/gypsy jazz repertoire. But I’d have a listen to this one – the vocals are interesting, and make for more stimulating dancing than you’d expect. I’d definitely DJ this one. The intro catches the ear, the rhythm is nice and clear enough for even the newest dancer, and Julie does some of her best work on this song.

‘Swing 39’. Another staple. Would DJ.

…look, it seems I’d DJ quite a lot from this CD. Especially the uptempo stuff. But there are other, really pretty songs like ‘Royal Blue’, which I’d play for lindy hoppers or at a quieter moment in a dance.

To sum all this up, I’m very glad I have a copy of this CD. It’s lovely. And I will DJ from it, and I’m pretty sure I’ll score big time with dancers. Oh yeah, giggedy piggedy. Hoorah for bands making good music and recording it so we can share it with our friends. Hoorah.

The only problem with this album is that you can only buy it in person from Peter Baylor at gigs at the moment. So if you’re in Melbourne, keep an eye out for him. If you’re elsewhere, drop Peter a line stringbuster@pacific.net.au and hassle him for a copy. It’s definitely worth the effort.

Geoff Bull and the Finer Cuts

With all my talk about Australian jazz history (I have to warn you: I’ve just been to the doctor, and am now on some SRS DRUGZ to combat another installment of the fucking sinus infection, so this post is probably less coherent than even the earlier ones. even.)…

So, as I was saying. With all that talk about Australian Jazz History, I forgot to tell you about Geoff Bull and the Finer Cuts.

Things to know:

  • The band is headed by Geoff Bull, who is an old school Australian jazz musician with cred. He plays trumpet and sings. That last part is important, because I find a lot of Australian vocalists really irritating in jazz. I know. It’s a silly response. But I do. Geoff Bull’s vocals, however, are really nice.
  • The other people in the band are young, and some of them are from The Cope Street Parade. Including the trombone player, Grant Arthur, who is currently rocking my boat in a big way. And not just because he has a mad beard.
  • They play on Sundays at the East Sydney Hotel. For free. This is a squishy venue, but a good one. Now that the Unity Hall Hotel has fucked up everything with its ‘renovation’ (goodbye piano, goodbye dance floor), the East Sydney is (even more) important.
  • They also play at the Corridor in Newtown on Tuesday nights til about 10pm. This is a tiny venue, but this is a great gig. You should go. It really reminds me of the Virus gigs at the Laundry in Melbourne in about 2002. It’s also free, but buy some drinks, yo. Maybe for the band? Yes.
  • They have a new album/ep thing out. It’s called ‘Geoff Bull and the Finer Cuts’ and you can buy it on bandcamp for just $4. YES, THAT’S FOR JUST FOUR DOLLARS. I paid $10 for an actual CD, which was nice, as it has nice pictures on it.
  • The album is a product of Yum Yum Tree Records, which is important because it’s the sort of collective organisation that jazz really needs. Shit gets done, the right way.

When I first heard the CD I was all “omg, this is the worst thing I have ever heard.” I was tempted to delete it. I know, harsh, huh? But I had just been wallowing in my new Coleman Hawkins set (ie in sixty million 1930s big band recordings of the highest order), had just bought the latest Gordon Webster album and was really feeling quite over the ‘little street jazz band combo’ thing. I wanted a huge, sophisticated rhythm section. I was over rowdy solos.

I know. I’m a dickhead. It’s like I forgot what jazz was all about for a minute there. Maybe it was because I was getting sick. Who knows what was going on inside my head.

But I gave the CD/EP a rest, and then I came back to it. After I saw the band at the Corridor. That gig really impressed me. I wrote about it here. I really like to see a combo working well. And they did. So I gave the CD another go.

Now I’m all “omg this is good. I will even DJ it.” The song ‘Glory Glory’ is gold. It’s really quite lovely. I Approve. I really like Geoff’s vocals and trumpeting. I do like the piano. I’m still not 100% sold on some of the vocals, but then it took me a while to come around to Jesse Selengut’s vocals, and that was obviously crazy talk. But then I’m quite conservative. I know a lot of people do like the vocals, and you might too.

In summary, then, you should:

  • Go to the Corridor or to the East Sydney Hotel to see this band;
  • and

  • Buy this goddamn EP. It’s only Four goddamn dollars: complete bargain;
  • and also

  • Buy the band a beer.

Mosaic sets

The big news here in DJ supernerd land, is that my new Mosaic Coleman Hawkins collection has arrived. Yep, it’s great. There’s some Fletcher Henderson stuff in there that’ll blow your brains with the quality: you really feel as though your guts want to asplode with excitement. And there are some Metronome All-Star sessions from the 40s which really rock my boat. Especially the Frank Sinatra stuff – I love it when he plays with a real jazz band, as they stop him bullshitting on with his show pony act.

So what’s the big deal with these Mosaic sets? DJ nerds tend to get a bit squee about these sets. I admit, this is, for the most part, a fanboy thing, and I use the ‘boy’ quite deliberately – jazz fandom is totally boy dominated. Except for the bits I pwn.

The Mosaic sets are built for fans, for collectors:

  • They come in nice, LP record-sized boxes;
  • The ‘liner notes’ are record-sized, and full of gorgeous photos, full discographical details and lots of nerdy detail;
  • They’re limited edition sets, so if you miss out on a particularly popular set, you MISS OUT and this is OMG ORFUL;
  • They’re carefully remastered, which is important when you’re talking about 1920s, 30s and 40s jazz – the quality is almost always better than anything else you’ll find (though I actually think the Bear Family stuff comes in a little before Mosaic on that score, and I do prefer the Bear Family liner notes because they’re glossier and often use more colour!);
  • They make it possible to ‘go complete’ on a particular artist because they include ALL THE RECORDINGS, including outtakes, in-studio chatter and general rubbish NO HOOMAN REALLY NEEDS;
  • Mosaic do some very clever promotion when they discuss the remastering process as it happens, in particular noting the difficulties they have with copyright or finding lost masters, and this makes you feel as though you cannot miss out because this is an essential set.

I have some Mosaic sets. They are totally GREAT. They are almost all of far better quality than any other recordings I own (though I’m still not convinced about the Duke Ellington small group set – I think my RCA/Bluebird ‘Duke’s Men’ CD sets are pretty good). There’s very little doubling up between sets (so even the Chu Berry, Lionel Hampton and Coleman Hawkins sets don’t give me much double up). Sets like the Count Basie Verve set are an absolute delight: brilliant quality, some fabulous 1950s stuff which really shines in these remastered recordings.
If you do want the definitive collection of works by an artist you’re going to eventually collect anyway (the Ellington set, the Basie/Lester young set, the Lionel Hampton set, maybe the Goodman set spring to mind), then the Mosaic box sets are perfect.
And there are plenty of sets which are full of great stuff for DJing: the Django Reinhardt set is brilliant (but, honestly, of limited use for DJing), the Lunceford set is no doubt a winner, the Louis Armstrong set looks fab, but could get a bit samey, there’s a great Okeh and Brunswick Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer and Jack Teagarden set (1924-1936). There are plenty of brilliants Mosaic sets (many of which are out of print but can be found on ebay or amazon), but that’s a lot music. You’d want to be very sure you could use it.

But you know what? Nobody really needs all those bloody outtakes. Even if you’re going complete on someone like Stuff Smith, do you really want eighteen discs of Nat King Cole crooning his way through low-impact mellow? There’s no way you’re ever going to DJ even all the ‘danceable’ stuff (however you define that). And buying all the ‘cool’ Mosaic sets will not make you a better DJ. To be honest, even ripping all the music into your laptop for DJing is a bit of a waste of time – you’re only going to need to re-rip them all again in ten years time when technology moves on. And then you’re going to need to re-enter all that bpm, personnel and danceability information again. AGAIN. Mosaic sets are great, but their greatest value is as an item to display and to remember you own. They are fansquee.

I wouldn’t recommend a Mosaic set to a new DJ. I certainly wouldn’t recommend them to a new dancer. They range from $120 to $180 a set, and while you are getting between five and eight CDs of the best-quality sound and all those liner notes, that’s still a big chunk of cash. And even just five CDs by one band can wear on a listener’s ear. It’s almost certainly too much for a new dancer or DJ who really isn’t used to listening for a particular musician’s style or discerning sound quality. I’d probably even argue that an experienced DJ’s ear is so trashed by bullshit sound systems and overly mic-ed big bands they can’t discern those differences either.

But still.
I’m the type of person who adores outtakes. I love catching a moment in the studio with musicians I idolise. Just a minute of swearing and laughing. A drunken exclamation of frustration. The patience of a sound engineer requesting another take. I love all that. I love it. I love listening for the differences between takes, imagined or real. I love these massive sets. I love the way they arrive in the post, in that massive, robust cardboard box. I love peeling open the plastic. I even like swearing at the infamously crap Mosaic CD cases. Even when I crack a CD. Which I have. I especially the discographical detail. I love going through my collection and weeding out superseded duplicates. Can’t say I spend that much time with the liner notes, though. Once I’ve read (part of) them, I’m off. Mostly because there are few things I hate more than jazz journalism. It’s one of the last bastions of wanking boys club bullshit.

But I wouldn’t recommend these sets to every DJ or dancer.

I would, however, recommend the Mosaic singles or small packs.

I’d have bought the Sidney Bechet Select 3-CD set if I didn’t already have 90% of it on other quality recordings. Bechet is one of those artists who’s not only good sauce for lindy hop, he’s also often in bands with other quality folk, so you get even more bang for your buck.

The Mosaic Select: Boogie Woogie & Blues Piano a little while ago, and it’s fabulous. Again, I’m not entirely sure it’s for everyone, as boogie piano can get pretty samey if you’re not a big fan, but this set is particularly good. I am a bit disappointed by the lack of women pianists – there are fuckloads of high profile women boogie pianists, but this set only manages to squeeze in one Mary Lou Williams track. SHAME. But there are some great Kansas shouters in there (Big Joe Turner!) and some fabulously swinging tracks for dancing. Or listening.

The Witherspoon/McShann ‘Goin to Kansas City’ Mosaic single is a must-have. I don’t think Mosaic sell it themselves any more, but you can buy it on amazon (bit exy if you’re not careful). You can buy it as a download, but I wouldn’t, as most of the commercial downloads are fucked up audio files. You really want that gorgeous Mosaic quality on CD. But that McShann/Witherspoon CD is solid gold. I DJ from it all the time, and I LOVE listening to it.

I also have my eye on this Bud Freeman/Jack Teagarden Mosaic single, but I’m not sure how great it’ll be for DJing.

So, to sumarise, the Mosaic sets are truly fabulous. They do tend towards the ‘top ten’ of jazz, so you don’t hear a lot of more unusual artists. But that’s ok, because most lindy hop DJing is about DJing the top ten of swing. If you’re a collector, or a DJ with a few years under your belt who just wants top shelf quality for DJing, then get into that action. If you’re new to DJing, go for the singles or 3-CD sets, just beware of the later stuff which is rubbish for DJing.
For my money, the best Mosaic sets are the ones following a particular musician through various bands, because you get a taste of a heap of bands:

The Chu Berry set will get you recordings from big bands led by Fletcher Henderson, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, Henry ‘Red’ Allen, Cab Calloway, Wingy Manone, Lionel Hampton all from 1933-1941, prime lindy hopping territory.

The Coleman Hawkins set is also good, ranging from 1922 to 1947, with stuff by bands led by Fletcher Henderson, Lionel Hampton, smaller groups like the Chocolate Dandies and Mound City Blue Blowers, and later all-star recordings like the Metronome groups, and Hawkins’ and Cozy Cole’s own groups.

While there’s nothing as good as a well-mastered set of music by fabulous musicians, if you’re a newer DJ or dancer, you might be better off with the 2 or 3 CD sets by the big name labels for an introduction to key artists. And I do think the Ken Burns Jazz CDs are a brilliant place to begin collecting.