Young Mister Doyle and his noble colleagues are the real item, as I celebrated a few days ago here. And Jon has just issued a new CD, TOO HOT FOR SOCKS, a beauty from first to last.
Some enlightened souls who have enjoyed the live videos they saw in that earlier blogpost will want to purchase the CD right away: that can be done here. The more cautious can also visit this page to listen to samples from the CD.)
But TOO HOT FOR SOCKS can be what a dear friend of mine calls “a life-changing experience,” which is not all hyperbolic.
I have many gifted young musical friends born after Benny Goodman died (that would be 1986). So they have grown up with recordings, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube — and often with third-generation evocations of the original mystical arts. I write this not to diminish their efforts or to mock them. But often their connection to the original impetus and spiritual energy that is swing is mediated through famous recordings, which they copy for appreciative audiences. Now, I’ve made enemies by preferring improvisation over recreation, so let me be clear: if I lived next door to a pianist who could play Teddy Wilson’s LIZA note-for-note, I would ask her to do it often. The same is true for a quartet of brilliant neighbors who could “do” The Delta Four.
But I’m awed and delighted by musicians and groups who completely understand the intense easy glide of the great recordings and can write and play their own distinctive variations on the forms. Such a group is or are the Jonathan Doyle Swingtet.
The personnel is David Jellema, cornet; Jonathan Doyle, tenor saxophone; Mark Gonzales, trombone; J.D. Pendley, amplified guitar; Brooks Prumo, rhythm guitar; Ryan Gould, string bass; Jason Baczynski, drums. The disc was produced by Jonathan Doyle and Laura Glaess. Jonathan wrote all the songs except KEEPIN’ TIME and GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS, which are Laura Glaess compositions, and COMFORT ZONE, which is by Mark Gonzales. The disc is very recent — recorded on March 24, 2016 in Austin, Texas. The very evocative cover art is by Amado Pena III.
All the songs are “originals,” but even I, who shrink from a CD completely made up of the leader’s compositions, am thoroughly comfortable with these songs. For Jon’s secret is that many of them are “contrafacts,” new melody lines built over familiar harmonies. Think of MOTEN SWING (YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY), the six thousand lines built over I GOT RHYTHM, and almost all of the repertoire of the Goodman Sextet. If it was good enough for Charlie Christian, it should be good enough for us. Sometimes the harmonies are immediately recognizable — rather like seeing your favorite actress in deep makeup and knowing who’s under there — and sometimes not. I had to ask Jon about the title tune, which was driving me crazy — not in a Walter Donaldson way — and he generously unlocked the door by telling me it was built on JAPANESE SANDMAN. I found myself so happily distracted and cheered by the ensemble’s new lines that I often didn’t recognize the familiar harmonic underpinnings, which is tribute to the compositions and the authentic warm way they are played.
I so admire this group’s sound. The ensemble voicings, whether unison lines or harmonized figures, are always pleasing. Some “modern / swing” groups are made up of musicians eager to get to the solos, so that there’s one chorus of ensemble, and then a long period of time — often thrilling — when each soloist plays, backed by the rhythm section and now and again some impromptu accompaniment from the other horns.
The Swingtet is in its own way old-fashioned: they understand how lovely an ensemble can sound. (And I don’t mean “jam session” ensembles, but more often written lines that build energetic momentum — although the middle “layered” part of PRINCE HARLES happily fits the description.) So the Swingtet pleases my ears: the opening of the title track, YOU CAN’T TAKE THOSE KISSES WITH YOU (what would Johnny Mercer have made of that?) is the simplest possible combination of single-note hits, arpeggiated chords, and other streamlined delights. Yet it sounds magical, as if it were a Basie piano chorus scored for band.
The mention of Basie (to quote Jake Hanna, “You get too far from Basie and you’re just kidding yourself”) brings up two other notions. One, there’s no piano on this disc. That isn’t a problem, because the Swingtet exists in that sphere where the electric guitar has taken the piano’s place — it happens every Sunday night with the beloved EarRegulars in New York City — and the space is more than filled by a reassuringly swinging four-piece rhythm section, ticking away warmly rather than mechanically. But the overall ambiance — think of Keynote Records sessions in 1944-46 or Basie small groups — is a wonderful balance between four individualistic soloists, each with a beautifully recognizable sound, and a lovely rhythm section. Hear the glide this band creates within the first minute of KEEPIN’ TIME.
Did I mention dynamics, shadings, split choruses, background hums behind soloists, eloquent eight-bar passages, propulsive riffs, the wise use of mutes for the brass, wire brushes, acoustic string bass, open-and-closed hi-hat, and variety? You’ll hear all those and more.
Most of the fifteen compositions are medium and medium-uptempo, as you’d expect from a swing group that plays for dancers, and the Swingtet makes the most out of the subtle variations of that tempo range that the Ancestors did. But several exceptions show that the band is much more than an instrumental unit producing originals with the right number of beats per minute. A few of the songs appear to be simple riff-based creations, but each one has a surprise within. Some of them take left and right turns, and I found myself saying, “Wait a minute. That’s a new theme.” At first, JUST A LITTLE RIGHT has the dreamy warming-up sweetness of a band in the studio, experimenting without knowing that the engineer has started to record (think of WAITIN’ FOR BENNY).
Perhaps my favorite piece (at this writing) is also the most distinctive — IF THE RIVER OVERFLOWS — a minor-key lament that still swings, beginning with a sideways nod to some Russians on the river. Just when you think you’ve understood what will come next, the harmonies twist and turn. I imagine Frank Newton smiling on this music. And if I tried to describe STRANGE MACHINATIONS, I would need another page, but it’s as satisfying as a wonderfully-seasoned dish of homemade ethnic cooking. As Stan Zenkoff pointed out to me, it has some relation to QUEER NOTIONS. Thank you, Stan!
Although the Swingtet could wow an audience on Fifty-Second Street, they aren’t copying the classic recordings. No one quotes anything, and what a blissful space that creates! They aren’t a shirt-pocket full of repeater pencils. Rather, they sound like people who have so thoroughly internalized the great swing individualists that they can be themselves within — and beyond — the tradition.
I’ll stop here, but if my words have done their job, you will be listening to TOO HOT FOR SOCKS here — and buying a copy or copies. I think this CD is a small but fiercely effective panacea for many modern ills. (And, lest you think that this long blogpost is because of some odd secret indebtedness I have to Jon, the reverse is the truth: I’ve been bothering him for months now, “When will I get to listen to the new CD?” And now, gleefully, it’s here.)
Thanks go to Hal Smith — who knows all one would want about swing — for telling me about Jon Doyle as far back as late 2011 (I checked my emails and it’s true) . . . thanks and blessings to the wondrous people who made the music on this disc and made the disc a reality. And here is Jon’s website, where you can purchase his other musical efforts.
May your happiness increase!