ELEGANTLY IMAGINATIVE: ECHOES OF SWING, “BLUE PEPPER”

I begin somberly . . . but there are more cheerful rewards to follow.

As the jazz audience changes, I sense that many people who “love jazz” love it most when it is neatly packed in a stylistically restrictive box of their choosing. I hear statements of position, usually in annoyed tones, about banjos, ride cymbals, Charlie Parker, purity, authenticity, and “what jazz is.”

I find this phenomenon oppressive, yet I try to understand it as an expression of taste.  One stimulus makes us vibrate; another makes us look for the exit.  Many people fall in love with an art form at a particular stage of it and their development and remain faithful to it, resisting change as an enemy.

And the most tenaciously restrictive “jazz fans” I know seem frightened of music that seems to transgress boundaries they have created .  They shrink back, appalled, as if you’d served them a pizza with olives, wood screws, mushrooms, and pencils.  They say that one group is “too swingy” or “too modern” or they say, “I can’t listen to that old stuff,” as if it were a statement of religious belief.  “Our people don’t [insert profanation here] ever.”

But some of this categorization, unfortunately, is dictated by the marketplace: if a group can tell a fairly uninformed concert promoter, “We sound like X [insert name of known and welcomed musical expression],” they might get a booking. “We incorporate everyone from Scott Joplin to Ornette Coleman and beyond,” might scare off people who like little boxes.

Certain musical expressions are sacred to me: Louis.  The Basie rhythm section. And their living evocations.  But I deeply admire musicians and groups, living in the present, that display the imaginative spirit.  These artists understand that creative improvised music playfully tends to peek around corners to see what possibilities exist in the merging of NOW and THEN and WHAT MIGHT BE.

One of the most satisfying of these playful groups is ECHOES OF SWING. Their clever title says that they are animated by wit, and this cheerful playfulness comes out in their music — not in “comedy” but in an amused ingenuity, a lightness of heart.  They have been in action since 1997, and when I saw them in person (the only time, alas) in 2007, they were wonderfully enlivening.

This action photograph by Sascha Kletzsch suggests the same thing:

EchoesOfSwingInAction1 (Foto Sascha Kletzsch, v.l. Lhotzky, Hopkins, Dawson, Mewes)

They are Colin T. Dawson, trumpet / vocal;  Chris Hopkins, alto sax; Bernd Lhotzky, piano; Oliver Mewes, drums.  And they are that rarity in modern times, a working group — which means that they know their routines, and their ensemble work is beautiful, offering the best springboards into exhilarating improvisatory flights. They are also “a working group,” which means that they have gigs.  Yes, gigs!  Check out their schedule here.

Here  is a 2013 post featuring their hot rendition of DIGA DIGA DOO, and an earlier one about their previous CD, MESSAGE FROM MARS, with other videos — as well as my favorite childhood joke about a Martian in New York City here.  And while we’re in the video archives, here is a delicious eleven-minute offering from in November 2014:

and here they are on German television with a late-period Ellington blues, BLUE PEPPER:

All this is lengthy prelude to their new CD, aptly titled BLUE PEPPER:

EchoesOfSwing  - BluePepperCover

The fifteen songs on the disc are thematically connected by BLUE, but they are happily varied, with associations from Ellington to Brubeck and Nat Cole, composers including Gordon Jenkins, Rodgers, Bechet, Waller, Strayhorn — and a traditional Mexican song and several originals by members of the band: BLUE PEPPER / AZZURRO / BLUE PRELUDE / LA PALOMA AZUL / BLUE & NAUGHTY / BLUE MOON / BLACK STICK BLUES / BLUE RIVER / OUT OF THE BLUE / AOI SAMMYAKU [BLUE MOUNTAIN RANGE] / THE SMURF / BLUE GARDENIA / THE BLUE MEDICINE [RADOVAN’S REMEDY] / WILD CAT BLUES / AZURE.

What one hears immediately from this group is energy — not loud or fast unless the song needs either — a joyous leaping into the music.  Although this band is clearly well-rehearsed, there is no feeling of going through the motions. Everything is lively, precise, but it’s clear that as soloists and as an ensemble, they are happily ready to take risks. “Risks” doesn’t mean anarchy in swingtime, but it means a willingness to extend the boundaries: this group is dedicated to something more expansive than recreating already established music.

When I first heard the group (and was instantly smitten) they sounded, often, like a supercharged John Kirby group with Dizzy and Bird sitting in while at intervals the Lion shoved Al Haig off the piano stool.  I heard and liked their swinging intricacies, but now they seem even more adventurous.  And where some of the most endearing CDs can’t be listened to in one sitting because they offer seventy-five minutes of the same thing, this CD is alive, never boring.

A word about the four musicians.  Oliver Mewes loves the light-footed swing of Tough and Catlett, and he is a sly man with a rimshot in just the right place, but he isn’t tied hand and foot by the past.  Bernd Lhotzky is a divine solo pianist (he never rushes or drags) with a beautiful lucent orchestral conception, but he is also someone who is invaluable in an ensemble, providing with Oliver an oceanic swing that fifteen pieces could rest on.  I never listen to this group and say, “Oh, they would be so much better with a rhythm guitar or a string bassist.”

And the front line is just as eloquent.  Colin T. Dawson is a hot trumpet player with a searing edge to his phrases, but he knows where each note should land for the collective elegance of the group — and he’s a sweetly wooing singer in addition.  Chris Hopkins (quiet in person) is a blazing marvel on the alto saxophone — inventive and lyrical and unstoppable — in much the same way he plays the piano.

And here is what my wise friend Dave Gelly wrote: It’s hard to believe at first that there are only four instruments here. The arrangements are so ingenious, and the playing so nimble, that it could be at least twice that number. But listen closely and you will discover just a quartet of trumpet, alto saxophone, piano and drums – with absolutely no electronic tricks. The style is sophisticated small-band swing, the material a judicious mixture of originals and swing-era numbers and there is not a hint of whiskery nostalgia in any of it. It’s about time this idiom received some fresh attention and here’s the perfect curtain-raiser.

Here is their Facebook page, and their website.

We are fortunate that they exist and that they keep bringing us joyous surprises.

May your happiness increase!

2 responses to “ELEGANTLY IMAGINATIVE: ECHOES OF SWING, “BLUE PEPPER”

  1. “like a supercharged John Kirby group with Dizzy and Bird sitting in” Yes! By that approving definition, you should check out the young (Brit) Brownfield- Byrne group, if you haven’t already, Michael: you’ll like them!

  2. I know them and have blogged about a video of theirs! (Maybe also a CD — the mind is dusty today.) But you are right.

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