We didn’t miss the Saturday dance, I assure you. And they crowded the floor.
The event I’m referring to took place at the 39th annual San Diego Jazz Fest — a Saturday-night swing dance featuring Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenadersand Laura Windley, sharing the bill with the Mad Hat Hucksters. I could only stay for Michael’s opening set, but the music I captured was honey to my ears. And you’ll see many happy dancers too.
The Rhythm Serenaders were a mix of local talent and gifted people from New Orleans: Michael on string bass; Kris Tokarski, piano; Jonathan Stout, guitar; Josh Collazo, drums; Joe Goldberg, clarinet and tenor; Nate Ketner, alto and clarinet; Corey Gemme, cornet; Charlie Halloran; trombone; Laura Windley, vocals. Did they rock! And you’ll notice the delightfully unhackneyed repertoire: this is not a group with a narrow range: no IN THE MOOD here.
An incomplete PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (the late start is my doing: at swing dances I have a hard time finding a good place for camera and tripod, and at this one the music was so good that I decided to take the risk of being intrusive and set my tripod on the stage, right behind Kris at the piano. The dancers didn’t notice, or if they did, no one came over to object. Later on, I was able to achieve a pleasing split-screen effect.):
Laura sings IF DREAMS COME TRUE, and they do:
Rex Stewart’s ‘T’AIN’T LIKE THAT:
Laura’s homage to Teddy Grace, the charming I’VE TAKEN A FANCY TO YOU:
Laura’s warning, courtesy of Kay Starr: DON’T MEDDLE IN MY MOOD:
The Henderson COMIN’ AND GOIN’:
Sid Phillips’ MAN ABOUT TOWN:
Chu Berry’s MAELSTROM:
For Billie and Lester, Laura’s HE AIN’T GOT RHYTHM:
and the classic swing tune (Carmen Lombardo, don’t you know) COQUETTE:
Find Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders on Facebook here.
As my friend Nick Rossi would say, I fell down the rabbit-hole — comfortable, not claustrophic. And I’m grateful to Dustin Wittmannfor pointing out where the entrance was located, by posting this anonymous-but-delightful dance band side on Facebook.
Forty years ago, I wouldn’t have paid much attention to this recording, disdaining the tune as nothing much — not Hart, Rodgers, Porter, Kern — and I would have been waiting for the hot solo and been disappointed that the side wasn’t full of episodes by known players.
Now, I think, “What lovely music! How well-played! How charming this is!” And the tune, with its descending chromatic hook, might not be the high point of twentieth-century composition, but it certainly lingers in the ear:
It must have been a staple of the 1931 dance-band repertoire, I assume in a stock arrangement. And I am posting variant versions of it so that you can muse over how a variety of bands brought their own flavors to it — voicings, tempo, vocal, ensemble work, rhythmic approach, and solos.
Incidentally, it’s hard to clear my mind of the 1931 Tin Pan Alley scenario: Kahn and Fio Rito, in shirtsleeves but with ties and suspenders, perhaps with cigars. “Awright. BLONDE. What the hell can we do with that? POND? FROND? No, none of those tropical songs. Hey! FOND!” And they were off.
I think comparative study like this is so enlightening, but it’s also fun. If there’s a blue-eyed blonde nearby, listening seriously but joyously, so much the better, but it’s the spirit that counts, not the genetics.
Debroy Somers and Dan Donovan, a very bright approach, a clarinet trio, and assertive cymbal work. If you couldn’t move your body to this, something was wrong:
The Phillips version has a slightly more prominent banjo part and a wonderful alto saxophone explosion. One of the things close listeners will also note is how the various sections sound on each recording, and the recording balance itself:
This American version has a slightly looser rhythmic feel, perhaps because the drummer is relying less on his cymbals. The tempo seems a touch slower: a fox-trot more than a one-step? I don’t know. It just sounds good:
and back to the UK for no reason at all except the delight in hearing another approach as well as Sam Browne’s tidy, affectionate vocal. The Blue Lyres were perhaps twelve musicians, but this recording shows off soloists throughout in obbligato as well as improvised passages, as if the leader or arranger had chosen to treat it as rich material for individual players as well as keeping the skeleton of the stock arrangement intact. To me, this recording suggests most clearly how a free-spirited swing / hot dance orchestra might handle this material in 2018. Any takers?:
and, finally, this delight (a Gene Gifford arrangement?) with a new introduction and a stylishly individualistic vocal by Pee Wee Hunt before an unusual transition into the final chorus, where Clarence Hutchenrider takes the bridge. A recording beautifully anchored by tuba, and note the sweetly decelerating ending:
There are several subtexts here, but only one for the moment that deserves a few sentences. It’s about what I’d call JAZZ POLITICS, or “What’s worthy?” Tom Lord, whose work I rely on, lists only the final side in his massive jazz discography. Does that mean the others aren’t jazz? Does that mean they aren’t worth our attention? They sound like beautiful elastic hot music to me. But then again, I could be someone who’s grown out of his earliest rigid adolescent definitions of what’s rewarding to the ears and heart. In this, as always, I owe much to the not-didactic guidance of my mentor, Sammut of Malta.
No, the aliens haven’t landed. And this isn’t a detour into NASA’s territory or a nostalgic trip back to the Mickey Mouse Club (although I haven’t been able to get one ancient “The Martians come to New York” joke out of my head*).
MESSAGE FROM MARS is the name of a splendid new disc by Echoes of Swing, a world-class band that lives up to its name and more. While retaining its essential identity — flexible and convincing — this quartet can sound like a much larger unit, and the disc is characterized by a delightful variety in mood, tempo, and approach. The players are superb chameleons who remain true to themselves: Chris Hopkins (himself a superb pianist) on alto sax; Colin T. Dawson on trumpet and vocal; Bernd Lhotzky on piano; Oliver Mewes on drums.
Each of those musicians savors the past and does it personal homage: Mewes suggests Catlett and Jones; Lhotzky celebrates Waller and Nat Cole; Dawson evokes Eldridge and Emmett Berry; Hopkins summons up Pete Brown and Carter. But this isn’t a repertory effort: the music produced here is both profound and hilariously flightly, skittering from surprise to surprise.
On the surface, Echoes of Swing might sound like a John Kirby Sextet spin-off, with tightly voiced ensembles and an affection for “jazzing the classics.” But they avoid the potential claustrophobia of these categories by being very eager to play hooky: you’ll hear echoes of many other styles and hints of other approaches, all fused delightfully into something both nostalgic and startling.
But don’t take my word for it. Here are Echoes of Swing performing James P. Johnson’s SWINGA-DILLA STREET (recorded only by Fats Waller and his Rhythm before this):
And here’s a Lhotzky original, HIS HONOUR AND THE VERMIN (FLEAS IN MY WIG):
MESSAGE FROM MARS offers a deliciously subtle and witty tasting menu of music — a disc you could listen to all the way through without the slightest hint of monotony; at the same time, you could savor each of the sixteen miniatures for its own surprises without ever getting tired. There I saw this group for the first and only time in Germany in 2007, thanks to Manfred Selchow, and found them exciting and deep: the disc captures their subtleties and drive wholly. It’s beautifully recorded and (as a bonus) has expansive notes by our own Dan Barrett.
The songs are SHAKE IT AND BREAK IT / MESSAGE FROM MARS (groovy and futuristic by Sid Phillips) / THE GHOST OF MARSDEN GHETTO (an atmospheric piece by Colin T. Dawson) / DON’T EXPLAIN / BUTTERFLY CHASE (Lhotzky-Chopin) / THE GOON DRAG (Sammy Price) / DELIRIUM (Arthur Schutt) / HIS HONOUR AND THE VERMIN / MOONLIGHT FIESTA (also known as PORTO RICAN CHAOS) / LIEBESLIED (Kreisler) / TWILIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS (by Chris) / DON’T SAVE YOUR LOVE FOR A RAINY DAY (an obscure Harold Spina pop tune) / ODEON (Ernesto Julio Nazareth) / BUGHOUSE (Red Norvo – Teddy Wilson) / SPRING IS HERE / GAVOTTE (Shostakovich).
Here’s what Scott Hamilton said about this band:
I’ve been listening to these guys for a few years now, and they’re always full of surprises. This CD is their best yet. They all have a deep understanding of the literature, and they play from inside. How they do it all with four instruments is beyond me.
[*The Martians land in New York. They’re friendly interstellar tourists who want to learn everything about us — to swap information and customs. A curious New Yorker hands one of the Martians a toasted bagel to see what the alien might make of it. The Martian, to everyone’s surprise, sniffs the bagel, inserts it into where his jaws might be, chews it a bit, and says (through simultaneous translation), ‘Mmmmm. This would go great with cream cheese and lox.'”]