Category Archives: reviewing

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.

fark. squee. the new sheiks.

I am going to write a proper review of this CD, and was going to wait til I got back from Jumptown Jam (imma leaving in a few hours) to write it, but I couldn’t wait. I’ve listened to the first half of this album, and I know I’ll be playing the shit out of this for dancers. If you like Gordon Webster’s band (which I’ll be seeing later tonight!), you’ll like this action.

Leigh Barker and the New Sheiks ‘The Sales Tax’. Run to CD Baby and buy at least the first five songs. I’ll let you know what the rest are like, but you need those first five songs. I know I’m going to DJ that version of ‘Sales Tax’ over and over and over again, until dancers confiscate my laptop.

Here’s something I need to tell you: I asked Leigh for a copy of this to review. Because I’d listened to the clips on CDBaby and had a feeling. I couldn’t get to their live gigs here in Sydney with the Cope Street Parade (dancers who were there reported that the night the two bands battled was fucking GREAT), and I’m all waaaah about that. But I was prepared to write a less than glowing review, if necessary.

Unnecessary! Phew.

The New Sheiks are from Melbourne. It’s not really that surprising that Melbourne has both a flourishing jazz dance and jazz music scene. The Melbourne Lindy Exchange and Melbourne Swing Festival in 2010 and 2011 featured truly phenomenal programs of live music.
So I’ve seen Leigh Barker around the place in various bands, but I’d not heard this band til recently. Mostly because I live in Sydney, not Melbourne :D But I’ve been keeping an eye on Hetty Kate’s band the Irwell Street Band (which also features another Melbourne jazz rock star, Andy Baylor), and Barker had been impressing me there.

A stand out name (for me) in the New Sheiks is Eamon McNelis – hot shit trumpeter, who I used to go see at the Laundry with Virus nearly every Sunday afternoon from about 2002. He was about 12 then… well, maybe a bit older, but even then he was pretty impressive. These days he would be my favourite Australian jazz musician. And he sings.
But Heather Stewart has a voice that’s just a little too awesome. The fact that she plays fiddle as well sort of makes her perfect in my book. I’m pretty sure I saw her play with a Lynn Wallis/John Scurry led combo at MSF in 2010, doing filthy hokum tunes with that brilliant little band (which also featured McNelis). That was a Monday night at the end of a massive weekend of dancing, my knees had asploded and I was all ‘waaaahmbulance’. But I got up and danced my bits off. Because I couldn’t help myself.

I shouldn’t really be surprised that I like this CD, as the New Sheiks are named for The Mississippi Sheiks, who did a sort of western-edged fiddle-and-guitar swing that’s right up my alley.

Ok, so I’ve listened to the whole CD now. There are one or two at the end that wouldn’t work for dancers (really, just one), but one’s live, and they both make for great listening anyway. And, hells, dancers gotta sit and listen sometimes. ‘Sales Tax’ is a definite stand out, but there’s a lovely, pretty version of ‘Come Sunday’ which would make for really nice slow dancing. The chunky ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ would absolutely be on my list for upenergy (fairly dirty) blues dancing. ‘Lonely One in this Town’ is a nice, medium-slow tempo song that would be just perfect for lindy hop. The sort of thing I’d play to allow dancers a moment to recuperate after something hard and fast, but without letting the energy in the room dissipate.
‘Alabama Bound’ is earworm fodder. I’d probably play it at about 2am, slotted in next to something chunky and high energy (maybe some Preservation Hall). It really is great fun, and has the sort of repetitive rhythm that will make you curse the moment you first heard it. Because you can’t unhear its catchy melody. I’m a fan of the Leadbelly treatment, but this Sheiks one makes me want to get up and shake it.

My favourite song, though, is Jungle Blues/Love in Vain. It has a steady walking bass line, but begins with the sort of sweet fiddle that immediately grabs the ear of someone who loves Bob Wills or the Hot Club of Cowtown. But then it changes a little midway, and the vocals shift the mood just a little. It makes me want to dance. Yes, this is my sort of music. It makes me very happy.

I know this is just my first proper listen, and you shouldn’t really review on just one listen. But if I were you, I’d buy this. And then laser the grooves out of it.

[EDIT 16-04-12: I listened to this three times in a row on the bus back to Sydney after a weekend dancing only to Gordon Webster’s band, and it still holds up. I think we can be pretty sure that this is a pretty decent album. :D ]

[EDIT 18-04-12: I used a couple of songs from this to teach lindy hop in class tonight, and then I DJed from it. It went down _very_ well. I still have to test it on a bigger, more hardcore dancing crowd, but I suspect it’ll work well.]

Let’s Dance! (in which I score a free CD and then brag about it)

One thing I don’t say to myself very often is “Gee, I wish I had another version of Jersey Bounce.”

I’ve really been enjoying the recent rash of smaller combos and knock-about street jazz type bands coming out of places like New Orleans and Seattle (bands like Smoking Time Jazz Club, and dancer-populated Careless Lovers.) There’s something about the DIY ethos of dancers learning to play instruments and then making the music they love dancing to. It’s exciting, as dancers move from just responding to and occupying music, to actually making it.

But I have to say, it’s a refreshing change to be presented with a big, solid band full of highly skilled, experienced musicians. And a band that’s well managed is a gem.

We’re all used to the sort of big bands that are hired to play at smaller exchanges and local events. They’re made up of a range of ring-ins and local musicians, pulled together for the night or a couple of gigs. We’ve seen all those faces before. The band leader is usually the guy who put the gig together, not the guy who drills the band each week in practice, who seeks out serious charts and arrangements, tailoring them for individual musicians. And most of these bands are less than inspiring for dancing or listening*. It’s not really surprising that dancers started getting interested in smaller, more dynamic bands.

Today, there simply isn’t enough work for more than three or four big bands (if you’re lucky) in a single (decent sized) Australian city. Even in 1920s Chicago,

the job, as South Side newspaper columnist and orchestra leader Dave Peyton insisted, created bands and held them together. Cabaret, dance hall, and vaudeville theater employment gave life to jazz groups:

The job makes the orchestra. If you lose the job and loaf a few weeks, you haven’t any band. Our field is a narrow one. Your men can’t afford to loaf long and the first bidder takes them away from you. The job is what you want to worship.

(Kenney, William Howland, Chicago Jazz: A cultural history, 1904-1930, Oxford University Press: New York, 1993, xii)

Even if your city is as large and creatively together as Sydney or Melbourne, you still see a lot of the same faces in each of the bands. And each of those guys in modern big bands is also working other projects, other musical styles, just to make a living. Jazz today is a catholic enterprise; there are lots of different styles, and 1930s/40s classic big band swing is just one of them. And you hear it in the big bands. Musicians’ styles and solos are influenced by a far wider range of music than in the original swing era, and while they might bring talent to a big band, there’s rarely the unity of style and focus in a modern big band that really makes them work as a living, breathing animal.

So Bernard Berkhout’s Orchestra’s Let’s Dance! recording is a pleasure.

I have to say, very clearly here, that I was sent a copy of this CD unsolicited. I often have reservations about reviewing bands’ CDs, especially in the swing dance world, as the pool is just too small for me to feel comfortable about reviewing things honestly. But I wasn’t asked to review the CD, I was just sent an email with the line

The CD is now out and I would like to send you a copy.

Awesome. I said “sure” and then I had a new CD. I win!

And I was bloody relieved to hear the actual music. I wasn’t going to have to make nice and fake some positive comments. This album is so fucking good. It’s a delight to hear a solid, tight big band pumping out the shit that made lindy hoppers lose their bits in the olden days. When the oldies talk about music, this is what they mean. Shit is hot. The sound quality is fabulous. The songs are all familiar, the arrangements are tight, the solos are nice, the rhythm section rocks.

I’d heard about this CD before through a thorough piece on its production and intentions on Hey Mr Jesse (ep 67), but also via the SwingDJs thread ‘Recording technique recommended for a new big band album’. I’d been interested in the community consultation that had gone into the album, and into the band. It’s an effective way of marketing a product: give people a feeling of ownership or participation, and they’re more likely to give a shit about the end product. Works with dance events, and it seems to work with CDs for dance bands. I had thought about buying the album, but having to buy a physical CD rather than downloads put me off. Buying in euros from Europe means a dodgy exchange rate and expensive shipping to Australia. So I’d put the album to the back of my mind, on my mental ‘to buy’ list for when I had a few more dollars in my DJing bank (though it’s only $AU20 including postage, which is pretty bloody decent). So a free copy was very welcome. I was curious. Also, I am a tightarse. And it’s very flattering to be sent stuff.

First off, the CD’s packaging is sweet. I don’t care much about this stuff usually (unless we’re talking Mosaic or Bear Family sets), mostly because I tend to rip the CD into my computer, then pack the physical CD away then forget about it. But this packaging is nice. It’s a cardboard case, which is great for shipping long distance. Jewel cases tend to arrive in pieces. Pieces that scratch the buggery out of the CD. And there’s a nice booklet listing all the musicians. Sweet.

To use an annoyingly overused phrase, the album does everything right. Songs are about three minutes. I’m finding dancers more and more tolerant of longer songs these days, probably because of their experience with live bands. But three minutes is a good length. Creating a good dance song in three minutes is a craft, like writing a short story. Get in, set it up, let it roll, finish it up with a bang. This shorter length means there’s less room for long, boring, wanky solos. Thank fuck. The solos in this album are concise, well-crafted and occasionally fucking GREAT. I dunno if they’re transcribed from original recordings (this whole album smacks of painstakingly accurate recreationism), and to be honest, I don’t much care. I’m here for the party, and I’ll think about the finer details later.

Most importantly for a lunk-head dancer like myself (and I am boringly lunkheaded when it comes to what I like for dancing), the band has a chunkingly solid rhythm section. It’s a machine, a power house pumping the band along. This is what a big band does right: four people shoveling the coal, stoking the boiler. A guitar, a piano, a drummer, a bass player, give or take one or two. This is what I really miss in smaller hot street-jazz type combos. I miss those four blokes laying down a good, chunky, layered rhythm.

These guys in Berkhout’s Orchestra give the rest of the band space to explore melody and solo, just getting on with their own job: holding shit together, telling even the newest dancer where the beat is. A good, solid rhythm section lets the rest of the band fuck about with fancy ways of adding/embellishing the swing, the delay that makes for excellent lindy hop.

You know how I know the rhythm section rocks? Because the sound quality is really nice. I don’t know how this was recorded, but I do know it’s nice. Good enough for me. I know it’s cool and interesting to try to recreate the exact same studio and mic set up and whatever from 1920s and 30s recordings. That’s great. Particularly if you’re listening to a CD at home on a decent sound system or good headphones. You can just sit there and soak in every echoey clunk, you can strain your ears trying to find the individual strum of the guitar or clarinetist drawing breath. Less excellent, though, is that sort of action when you’re dancing in an echoey town hall, heart pounding in your ears, trying to keep yourself and your partner safe, surrounded by two hundred people dancing in and out of time. And I’m a DJ. I’m looking for recorded music that works in shithouse conditions.

I’m usually DJing on shitty sound gear. Mishandled set ups in dirty pubs. Inadequate self-powered speakers in echoing church halls. Sure, things can be better at exchanges, but the bulk of my DJing happens in my home town in less than perfect conditions. So I need the best sound quality I can get. Because I’m then going to squeeze that brilliant sound through my shithouse laptop soundcard, down a raggedy RCA cable and into a mixer I don’t really know how to use.

To be honest, I’m completely over bands who are so into recreationism they eschew the awesomeness of modern technology. It seems kind of pointless. You think Jelly Roll Morton would have settled for dodgy sound when he could have heard himself played back in glorious stereo wonderment? If King Oliver or Genny Goodman or other band leaders of that day had had access to the sound technology we have today, you can bet your bottom dollar they’d be using it. They’d be wanting their music to sound as GOOD as possible.

I also find the recreationism that uses olden days tech so obsessively a little culturally naive. There were all sorts of politics going on in the recording industry in the swing era, and the whitest, most popular and palatable bands got access to the best technology and promotion. So those shitty recordings by black artists doing the most provocative, progressive music at the time were the result of shithouse social politics and economics. Recreating that is a bit like recreating bullshit racist dance sequences from films. You’re kind of missing the point.

Do justice to this magic. Do your best playing, and use your best technology.

Berkhout’s producers have done a pretty good job on this.

But I’m a DJ. Just because I love a song or an album, doesn’t mean this is going to be good DJing fodder. So I took this album to my most challenging gig. It’s a fortnightly dance in a large, echoey hall with a bullshitly inadequate sound system. The dancers are mostly new, even complete first-class beginners, and I usually do the first set of the night after the drop-in casual class. There are some more experienced dancers coming along, but this is a mixed crowd, and they don’t really have much time for shit DJing. If the DJ is rubbish, they walk up to Newtown’s main street full of bars and cafes. I find anything lo-fi just disappears into the high ceiling at this venue, and ends up sounding like shit. So I tend to DJ hi-fi and new bands almost exclusively there. Because I am chicken shit.

So I put this CD to the set in that setting. If it could work here, it could work anywhere.

I did my best to set it up properly. I think new music deserves that. So I started with some Big 18, a bit of Gordon Webster (current flavour of the month), some Mora’s Modern Rhythmists, and then it was time to bust out ‘Jersey Bounce’. Instant success. The floor was PACKED. Even the most jaded, heard-it-all-before experienced dancers were up and working it. Yes, we’ve all heard ‘Jersey Bounce’ a million times before, we know every note. We’ve heard every version. But this one is just fucking GREAT. WIN!

I played a few other modern bands in that set, from small to large, from New Orleans to New York. I also played ‘St Louis Blues’ from the Berkout CD, and it went down just as well. This isn’t always the most successful song with lindy hoppers. The tempo and rhythm changes often confuse new dancers. Not this night. WIN!

To be honest, if I’d thought I could have gotten away with it, I’d have played the entire CD, song after song. But there were a handful of other DJs in the room, DJs who’d pick up on that sort of stunt. And I have a rep to protect.

In future, though, this CD is going to be on my go-to list. When I need something solidly swinging and absolutely brilliant for solid lindy hop to introduce the music to beginners, this is on the short list. When I need a hi-fi recording to cope with a difficult sound set up, this is what I’m going to play. When I need a high energy, pumping song to kick a jam into gear, this is going to cut it.

I have been shamelessly pimping this album to all the DJs I know. It’s also an album I’ll recommend to new dancers or people looking for an easy entry point to classic swing.

I could conceivably get tired of this album in the near future. But not before I’ve played it so many times dancers audibly groan when they hear the first two notes of the song.

Yes, you do need another version of ‘Jersey Bounce’. Buy this CD.

* There are exceptions, plenty of them are American and well known with dancers. In Australia, the JW Swing Orchestra, for example, particularly around 2002, specialised in Benny Goodman arrangements, practiced regularly and was seriously tight. The Ozcats here in Sydney are a fully sick Bob Crosby tribute band, but they’re really not a hardcore swing era big band like Benny Goodman’s. Still, the Ozcats is made up of some of Australia’s tightest, most professional and experienced musicians. Who’ve been doing this thing for a looong time. And of course, bands like Melbourne’s Red Hot Rhythmakers are fully sick.