Tag Archives: Hal Smith’s Swing Central

COMPLETE! (AND COMPLETELY DELIGHTFUL): HAL SMITH’S SWING CENTRAL (August 2017, Bixfest, Davenport, Iowa)

I take a great deal of pleasure in being associated with this fine rewarding new band, one that mixes Chicago jazz, Kansas City small groups, heat and lyricism. It’s the beloved creation of drummer Hal Smith, and he’s assembled a fine crew to make memorable sounds: Steve PIkal, string bass; Dan Walton, piano / vocals; Jamey Cummins, guitar; Jonathan Doyle, clarinet.  I’ve written about them here — including comments on their debut CD, WINDY CITY SWING, whose cover is pictured above.

I could not make it to the 2017 BixFest held in Davenport, Iowa, just a week ago, but I am delighted to report to you that all the music made by Swing Central was captured by jazzmanjoe100, who is known to his banker as Edward.  But we’ll call him Joe in this post.  I’m grateful to him, and you will be too, for his diligence.  Joe and I use different cameras and have different ways of presenting music to the eager audience on YouTube, compiling one-hour DVDs which might encompass the first set of one band and then a portion of another band’s performance.  I have tried to elaborate on what’s on his videos, and the hidden pleasure is that they will lead you to other videos of his featuring the Fat Babies and Dan Levinson’s Roof Garden Jass Band.  But here is ALL of Swing Central, which is a great gift to us.

From Thursday, August 3, 2017, after the Bix Youth Orchestra (at 32:00) CHANGES MADE:

Continuing that set: ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS / DON’T LEAVE ME, DADDY / CHINA BOY / SWEET IS THE NIGHT / WHOLLY CATS / I WANT A LITTLE GIRL / BEAT ME, DADDY, EIGHT TO THE BAR (vocal Dan Walton) / LESTER LEAPS IN:

Friday, August 4, starting at 15:30, after the end of a Fat Babies set and some welcomes, HELLO, LOLA!, HI, FISHIES, BATS ON A BRIDGE, BLUE LESTER, ROLL ‘EM PETE, REPEATER PENCIL, PEE WEE’S BLUES, IT’S BEEN SO LONG, FROM MONDAY ON:

Later on Friday:  JELLY ROLL / FOR NO REASON AT ALL IN C / YOU TOOK ADVANTAGE OF ME / LONG DISTANCE MAN / LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER / PIG FOOT PETE (voc Dan Walton) / SHIVERS / I SURRENDER, DEAR / HAL, YEAH!:

From Saturday, August 5, at 49:50 (following a set by Dan Levinson’s Roof Garden Jass Band), Hal and Swing Central play MY HONEY’S LOVIN’ ARMS (with conversation) / BIG AL:

Continuing that set: Jon Doyle’s WINDY CITY SWING / Frank Melrose’s BLUESIANA / Jamey Cummins’ THE SHEIK OF AIR B N B / LOUISE / THREE LITTLE WORDS / I MUST HAVE THAT MAN / ROSE OF THE RIO GRANDE :

And from that evening, after nine minutes of Josh Duffee’s Greystone Monarchs, Swing Central comes on [and do they ever!] with THE LADY’S IN LOVE WITH YOU / SUNDAY / I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA / NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW / PIPE LINER’S BLUES (vocal Dan Walton) / LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME / I NEVER KNEW / POOR BUTTERFLY / LITTLE GIRL:

and from a different point of view, thanks to TunefulTravel, POOR BUTTERFLY:

NOBODY’S SWEETHEART:

and I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA:

What a band!  I look forward to finding SWING CENTRAL at other festivals, and I know that many of you will agree with me.

May your happiness increase!

HAL SMITH’S “SWING CENTRAL” GETS IT: BIX FEST (August 3, 2017)

Even though it’s been in existence only a short time, SWING CENTRAL, the beloved brain-and-heart child of drummer and inspiration man Hal Smith, is one of my favorite bands. Here is what I wrote about it on the occasion of its debut CD, whose nifty cover is pictured below. 

I was not able to make it to hear / see / video SWING CENTRAL at the BixFest, but fortunately “jazzmanjoe” caught a set, with nice sound.

The members of this compact swinging ensemble are Jonathan Doyle, clarinet; Dan Walton, piano / vocals; Jamey Cummins, guitar; Steve Pikal, string bass; Hal Smith, drums / leader.  In this set, they play WAY DOWN IN NEW ORLEANS; DON’T LEAVE ME, DADDY; CHINA BOY; SWEET IS THE NIGHT; WHOLLY CATS; I WANT A LITTLE GIRL; BEAT ME, DADDY, EIGHT TO THE BAR; LESTER LEAPS IN.

A few words about the band and its delightful repertoire, or maybe more than a few.  From the top, borrowing Eddie Durham’s words about Ed Hall, “Hal Smith doesn’t know how to not swing,” which means to me that his beat is irrresistible. If you put on a CD (or “record”) in another room that started with eight bars of Hal’s hi-hat, I would a) know who it was before the passage was over; b) be smiling; c) put down whatever I was doing in the other room to come closer to the speaker to soak in the swing.  Hal also has a capacious imagination: he can most effectively put together a band devoted to Kid Ory, or the Watters-Scobey-Murphy world, but he really likes supercharged small groups that float and fly, and he’s got a long list of such groups with many wonderful recordings.  As he says on the video, he was moved to create SWING CENTRAL as a band that could play “Chicago style,” but was earnestly connected to the delicate heartfelt traceries of clarinetists Lester Young, Pee Wee Russell, Frank Chace, among others: which leads me to the bold statement that (aside from the one evocation of Charlie Christian on this set) NO OTHER BAND SOUNDS LIKE THIS.

Festival promoters, please take note.  SWING CENTRAL is the doctor-tested remedy for audiences shrinking because of dulling sameness.

A long pause for calm.

Pianist Dan Walton is a hidden gem.  Like the rest of this band, he never plays a formulaic or dull note or phrase.  He’s absorbed all the great styles and recordings, but — thank heavens — he isn’t on the planet to play them note-for-note unless requested.  His solo work is quiet but it rings in the mind; his ensemble playing is just the thing, and his boogie-woogie sounds real.  I’d like to hear a Dan Walton solo or duo CD, and hope that this idea can be realized soon.

Jamey Cummins.  In a landscape of guitarists who sound fraternally similar, young Mister J.C. stands out as a gifted inventor of long spinning lines, someone whose rhythm playing rocks.  He plays himself, and that’s a wonderful thing.

I got to meet the ebullient Steve Pikal on my recent Nashville trip, and he’s a wonderful creation: you can’t tell where he stops and where the music begins, or, put it this way, his unwavering good humor, expressed in a nearly perpetual smile, comes right through his string bass.  He loves Walter Page and Pops Foster and Milt Hinton and all the propulsive people in the great tradition, and you hear his love.

Jon Doyle is a great poet who might never have written a sonnet, but each chorus is a new effusion, whether tender or searing-hot.  He’s captured the whimsical souls of the musicians he admires, but what comes out of the end of that stick of grenadilla wood is entirely Doyle.  He’s not copying Lester, Pee Wee, or Frank; he is showing himself as someone who understands their beauties and has taken from them new ways to be himself.

You’ll notice that the tunes in this set (and when you buy the CD, the same applies) are often familiar — think of WAY DOWN YONDER and CHINA BOY (the latter more often mentioned than played) are in some hands “Dixieland classics,” but here they are springboards for elegant new improvisations.  But something remarkable: other bands can play Hot, and often at a higher volume, but SWING CENTRAL has its own special tenderness: not only Jon playing a ballad, but the subtle textures of the rhythm section, of Hal’s brushwork — of a band that knows that power isn’t volume, that the way to make an audience feel is not necessarily to whack it over the head in performance after performance. A quintet of swing poets, inspired by Milt Gabler and other lights in the darkness. May they prosper.

We’re so lucky that Hal had this idea, and that he and his friends made it happen.

May your happiness increase!

HAL SMITH’S SWING CENTRAL: “WINDY CITY SWING” (JON DOYLE, JAMEY CUMMINS, DAN WALTON, STEVE PIKAL, HAL SMITH and JOSHUA HOAG)

Hal Smith is someone whose music I’ve admired long before I was able to meet him and hear the magic he works from a front-row seat.  Dogs bark; cats meow; Hal swings, and I’ve never known him to fail.  Better than CPR.

Put it another way: I’ve had a driver’s license for decades, and am thus less comfortable in the passenger seat.  When I hear a performance with Hal at the drums, I can relax — the same way I do when Jo or Sidney or Wettling or Tough is in control: I know everything’s going to be all right.

A new CD with Hal is always a pleasure; the debut recording of a new Hal Smith band is an event, one to be celebrated.  SWING CENTRAL lives up to its title, and there’s more at work here than a) a quintet playing a swing repertoire and b) that the musicians all live in the Central time zone.

Those musicians — exuberant and focused at the same time are, besides Hal — Jonathan Doyle on clarinet; Dan Walton, piano; Jamey Cummins, guitar; Steve Pikal, string bass, and appearing on one track, Joshua Hoag, also on bass.

What makes this clarinet-plus rhythm group different and thus a treasure is vividly apparent from the first notes of the first track.  For one thing, SWING CENTRAL is aware that there is music not played by Benny Goodman.  Heresy to some, I know, and I treasure my Goodman records as much as anyone, but this band and this disc go another way. And that way is the endearingly individualistic way mapped out by Lester Young, Pee Wee Russell, Frank Chace, and Charlie Christian.  SWING CENTRAL is a hot band, but not an exhibitionistic one: on this CD or in performance, you won’t hear a ten-minute version of SEVEN COME ELEVEN that’s capped with a drum solo.  Hearing the disc again, I thought, “This band is playing for the music, not for the audience,” which is a beautiful and rare thing.  And the musicians know the records, but have absorbed them into their cell memory, so that they can play themselves, which is the only way to honor the innovators.  “Feelin’ the spirit,” as they used to say.

 

Now that you’ve gotten over the pleasant shock of the remarkable cover art by JP Ardee Navarro, hear and see the band in performance (Austin’s Central Market, 2016) for yourself:

LITTLE GIRL:

and Jon Doyle’s charming sweet original, HELLO, FISHIES:

Hal asked me if I would write something for this CD, and I was honored.  Here’s what I came up with: easy to tell the truth, and easy to express happiness in words.  (And in case what I’ve written seems to favor Jon Doyle and the leader, I will say only that I’d like to hear a CD led by Dan Walton, Jamey, or Steve.)

A MEETING OF KINDRED SOULS

A true story. Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk were in a taxi, discussing “the beat”. Monk favored surprising shifts but Dizzy disagreed. “What would you do if your heart beat irregular? The steady beat is the principle of life.” My cardiologist would agree: healthy, happy organisms swing from the inside out. Hal Smith’s Swing Central is not only a wondrous cohesive group, inspired by the music of Pee Wee Russell, Lester Young, Frank Chace, and friends, but it affirms joyous principles. From Austin, Texas, comes healing jazz.

Leader Hal tells how this band came to be:

I’ve known Jon Doyle since 2009. The first time I heard him warming up on clarinet, quoting Pres’ solo from “I Want A Little Girl,” the seed was planted for this band. Steve Pikal and I worked together in the Jim Cullum Jazz Band in 2010. Steve’s outgoing personality and propulsive bass playing is always a positive influence. Dan Walton introduced me to the Western Swing scene in Texas. We played together with Jason Roberts’ band and later with Dan’s own Jump Swing Imperials. He understands that “less is more” and it shows. Jamey Cummins has been in Austin for some time, and is finally receiving the attention he deserves. He plays wonderful Freddie Green-like time and inventive, highly rhythmic solos.

We decided not to pursue the familiar Goodman-based clarinet-and-rhythm repertoire but rather to explore the more introverted music of Pee Wee Russell, Lester Young, Frank Chace. Jon Doyle took to the idea like a bat takes to the Congress Ave. Bridge. When we began, the musicians lived in the Central Time zone, so the band name suggested itself. (However, we are not going to add “Pacific” when a couple of our musicians have relocated to the West Coast!)

This was the easiest recording session I have ever done, and several other band members agreed. I think you’ll hear what a good time we had.

This quietly thrilling band reminds me not only of the three inspiring clarinet playing individualists, but of the possibilities of music that gently breaks down the barriers some listeners and journalists build, cubicles labeled “schools” and “styles.” Swing Central takes familiar songs and make them fresh and dewy; Jon’s compositions and reinventions are witty beyond their titles. And these players – happy rovers in the land of Medium Tempo, great ensemble players as well as inspiring soloists — go for themselves rather than copying.

About the repertoire. Listeners will hear the chord structures of SUGAR, MY GAL SAL, I FOUND A NEW BABY, and LADY BE GOOD reinvigorated. An answer key is available at the end of your workbook, but no peeking until you’ve handed in your finished pages.

BIG AL evokes Mr. Capone, who would have tipped Swing Central generously to keep playing his favorite song. Hal explains BATS ON A BRIDGE as “a real Austin phenomenon, and five of the six musicians here have deep roots in Texas’ weirdest city. http://www.batcon.org/index.php/our-work/regions/usa-canada/protect-mega-populations/cab-intro. HI, FISHIES comes from a sweet cross-species story. Ask Jon when you meet him on a gig. REPEATER PENCIL is for Lester, and for this band: artists who honor the innovators by being innovative themselves.

LONG-DISTANCE MAN owes its title to a Pres-and-Chace story recalled by Larry Kart: “[Chace] also told a very ‘Frank’ story about his encounter with Lester Young in 1957 in Pres’s hotel room in (I think) Indianapolis, where Frank was playing at a club and Pres was in town with a non-JATP package tour. The drummer in the band Frank was part of, Buddy Smith, suggested that they pay Pres a visit after the gig, and when they got there, Frank (‘I’m shy,’ he said), hung back while the other guys gathered around Pres. Having noticed this bit of behavior, Pres beckoned Frank to come closer, addressing him softly as ‘long-distance man.’ Probably a meeting of kindred souls.”

SHEIK OF AIRBNB is named thus because Jamey stayed in an AirBnB directly below the studio where the session was recorded. I MUST HAVE THAT MAN is from the band’s live gig at Central Market in Austin on Aug. 28, 2016. Josh Hoag (now with Asleep at the Wheel) filled in for Steve. The band decided that they must share this track with us: a lovely gift. When you are enjoying SUNDAY, don’t be surprised when the track fades out. Do not adjust your set. Hal explains, “Alex Hall’s reliable recording equipment may have been affected by a sun spot, or maybe one of Doyle’s blue notes. But we liked the overall feel so much — particularly Jon’s playing — that we decided to keep as much as possible and fade before the sudden ending.”

Sir John Davies, a Renaissance poet, wrote ORCHESTRA, his conception of a cosmos vibrating in symphonic harmony. If we are very fortunate, the world might vibrate as does Hal Smith’s Swing Central – tender, relaxed, urgent. We have a long way to go, but it’s a noble aspiration.

Here is the link to hear samples, purchase an actual disc, or a download.  Hal and SWING CENTRAL will be appearing at the Bix Festival on the first weekend of August in Davenport, Iowa. . . so you can have the mutual pleasure of buying CDs from the band there, also.  And here is the place to find out about all things Smith — the swinging ones, of course.

May your happiness increase!

THINKING OF BIX, TRAM, PRES, and PEE WEE: HAL SMITH’S SWING CENTRAL at CENTRAL MARKET (August 28, 2016)

swing-central

The response to my first posting with videos of Hal Smith’s Swing Central from August 28 of  this year has been so enthusiastic that I offer four more — with thematic connections to three of the greatest lyrical players of jazz: Bis Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Lester Young, and Pee Wee Russell.  We know that Lester deeply admired the other three players, and it’s not hard to hear an emotional connection between Pee Wee and Pres when their clarinet explorations are the subject.  Four great poets who also swung deliciously.

Swing Central is made up of Hal on drums, Jon Doyle on clarinet, Joshua Hoag on string bass, Dan Walton on piano, Jamey Cummins on guitar. This performance is from a swing dance gig at Central Market in Austin, Texas.

Before you plunge in, might I suggest that you be prepared to listen closely. This is a band that understands the pleasure of playing softly, of placing note after note and harmony upon harmony with great delicacy: yes, they can swing exuberantly (as in the final SUNDAY) but some of what follows is soft, tender, introspective — I think of Japanese paintings, where one brushstroke both is and has depths of implication.  Allow this music to reverberate — placidly yet definitely — as you listen.

And the fine videos are the work of Gary Feist of Yellow Dog Films.

FOR NO REASON AT ALL IN C (an improvisation on I’D CLIMB THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN):

PEE WEE’S BLUES (with some real-life end-of-the-night tidying at the start, very atmospheric):

BLUE LESTER:

SUNDAY (that Jule Styne opus recorded by all four of these players):

I look forward to a happy future for this gratifying small orchestra, its music so pleasing.

May your happiness increase!

JUST DELICIOUS: HAL SMITH’S SWING CENTRAL!

swing-central

Please put everything else aside.  Stop multi-tasking for a few minutes.  I invite you to celebrate the birth of a great band: Hal Smith’s Swing Central:

That’s Hal on drums, Jon Doyle on clarinet, Joshua Hoag on string bass, Dan Walton on piano, Jamey Cummins on guitar.  This performance is from a swing dance gig at Central Market in Austin, Texas.  I’ll have more to say about the music — which really “needs no introduction” and “speaks for itself,” later, but I have asked Hal to tell us everything about the creation and gestation of this fine new ensemble.  (Interspersed with his narrative you’ll find other videos from the Central Market gig, like hand-drawn illustrations in a picture book.)

A word about Hal, though.  I’ve been listening to him on records and CDs for a long time (putting the needle back over and over to listen to the way he swings the band and takes solos that seem too short rather than “fountains of noise,” as Whitney Balliett called most drum solos) and I have heard him in person for the last five years.  He’s a splendid drummer — old-fashioned in the best ways — always dreaming of the bands who can really understand and embody the glories of the past.  And he’s always on a quest to put congenial talented people together to form bands: the Roadrunners, his own trios with Bobby Gordon, Albert Alva, James Evans, Ray Skjelbred, Chris Dawson, Kris Tokarski; his California Swing Cats and Rhythmakers, Hal’s Angels, the New El Dorado Jazz Band, the Jazz Chihuauas, the Down Home Jazz Band, and the Creole Sunshine Jazz Band.

Here’s Hal, himself:

In 2015, Dave Bennett and I wanted to put together a jazz quintet. I suggested Dan Walton and Jamey Cummins from Austin and Steve Pikal from the Twin Cities. Even though we had not all played together as a group, I was sure that everything would click.

Interlude: HELLO, FISHIES, by Jon Doyle:

The quintet did click, at the Redwood Coast Music Festival in March, 2016. I secured another engagement for the group at the Capital City Jazz Festival in Madison, Wisconsin but Dave inadvertently double-booked himself that same weekend. Fortunately, the festival organizers were willing to keep the quintet in the lineup with JON DOYLE on clarinet.

Since everyone in the band plays SWING music and lives in the CENTRAL time zone, that was how the group wound up with the name.

Jon and I exchanged many e-mails regarding the repertoire and sound of the band. Since so many swing combos attempt to play in the style of Benny Goodman’s Trio, Quartet, etc. we agreed that a different song list and sound would be the way we would go.

Interlude:  SUNDAY

I have always admired Jon’s sound on clarinet, but he really caught my ear one time before a gig with Floyd Domino’s All-Stars. Jon was warming up by playing Lester Young’s introduction to the Kansas City Six’s “I Want A Little Girl.” Remembering that, I proposed that Swing Central play songs associated with Lester, then further suggested material recorded by Pee Wee Russell and Frank Chace. Jon agreed enthusiastically and began writing charts.

Interlude: JELLY ROLL

Jon was running late to our first set on Friday evening, and did not have time to go back for his tenor sax — so he played the entire set on clarinet. We kicked off with “Love Is Just Around The Corner,” and the audience responded with enthusiasm, which continued with every number. Jon’s totally unstaged animation and Steve Pikal’s contagious good spirit permeated the crowd. Jamey Cummins scored big with a swinging version of “Shivers.” Jon cued ensembles and solos and kept most performances to 78 rpm length, so with about 20 minutes left on the clock, I got Dan’s attention during a song, and mouthed, “Can you do a boogie woogie feature?” The rollicking version of “Roll ‘Em, Pete” he came up with had the crowd whistling and stomping. Our last song of the first set garnered a standing ovation, and each succeeding set ended the same way.

Fast-forward to August, 2016…I was going to be working with a Western Swing band in South Texas, and coincidentally Jon Doyle was planning to be in Austin also. Jamey and Dan would be in town, so I was able to book an appearance for the band at Central Market-Westgate. (Both Central Market locations in Austin offer a fantastic selection of groceries, an in-store café, and live music by local artists on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. In addition to paying the musicians, the market provides a professional soundman and even feeds the band). However, the performance budget would not cover the cost of an airfare from the Twin Cities, so the great Austin bassist Josh Hoag filled in for Steve Pikal.

Gary Feist, of Yellow Dog Films, was available to videotape several performances.  He captured the band, the audience, and quite a few local dancers in high spirits.

For me, playing in a band like this makes the aches and pains of the music business worthwhile. Dan, Jamey and Josh are great friends as well as great musicians. All of us look to Jon Doyle for inspiration and he always delivers! Best of all, Jon has immersed himself in the recordings of Young, Russell and particularly Chace. He inhabits the styles without copying note for note, but there is no question regarding his influences. A mutual friend, upon hearing Jon’s clarinet work on an audio clip from this session (“I Must Have That Man”) remarked, “I think the torch has been passed!” It has, and is burning brightly!

I know that Hal is speaking with several jazz festival directors about appearances for SWING CENTRAL, and that they are getting together to record their debut CD in Chicago — all excellent news.  There are many other wonderful small jazz groups on the landscape, thank heavens, but this is a real band with its own conceptions.  You wouldn’t mistake them for anyone else; they are not locked in one tiny stylistic box, and my goodness, how they swing!

May your happiness increase!