Swing

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The Swing genre represents a golden age for jazz that showed its first signs in the mid-20s, but really peaked from the mid-30s to the mid-40s. Going well into the 20s, most jazz bands still played in New Orleans or Dixieland styles in which the musicians all improvised simultaneously while staying within the boundaries of the original tune's melody and harmony.

When cornetist Louis Armstrong joined Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra in 1924, the band's arranger, Don Redman, knew he had a rare talent on his hands and began to spotlight Armstrong's melodic skills. No longer would the entire band improvise, instead Armstrong would be given the freedom to take solos to new heights while the rest of the band supplied supporting riffs. This new approach to band arranging spread and reached the public at a time when people were looking for large orchestral bands that could provide an evening's worth of dance music. Thus the golden age for big band jazz was born.

From 1935 to about 1946 jazz dance bands led by the likes of Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington were the number one form of entertainment in the US. The swing era finally came to an end when new taxation laws on nightclubs made dance floors unprofitable and jazz became an entertainment for listening, not dancing.

On JMA, The Classic (1920s) Jazz genre is considered the genre that happens between the end of Dixieland and the beginning of Swing. Many of the originators of swing, such as Louis Armstrong, can be found in the Classic Jazz genre.

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ART TATUM The Art Tatum - Ben Webster Quartet Album Cover The Art Tatum - Ben Webster Quartet
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BUDDY RICH The Roar of '74 Album Cover The Roar of '74
BUDDY RICH
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BIRÉLI LAGRÈNE Gipsy Project Album Cover Gipsy Project
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5.00 | 1 ratings
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BIRÉLI LAGRÈNE Gipsy Project & Friends Album Cover Gipsy Project & Friends
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BIRÉLI LAGRÈNE Move Album Cover Move
BIRÉLI LAGRÈNE
5.00 | 1 ratings
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SCOTT HAMILTON Across the Tracks Album Cover Across the Tracks
SCOTT HAMILTON
5.00 | 1 ratings
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IKE QUEBEC It Might as Well Be Spring Album Cover It Might as Well Be Spring
IKE QUEBEC
4.75 | 2 ratings
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IKE QUEBEC Blue and Sentimental Album Cover Blue and Sentimental
IKE QUEBEC
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STÉPHANE GRAPPELLI Jazz in Paris: Improvisations Album Cover Jazz in Paris: Improvisations
STÉPHANE GRAPPELLI
4.50 | 2 ratings
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DUKE ELLINGTON Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (aka Incontro Duke Ellington & Coleman Hawkins) Album Cover Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (aka Incontro Duke Ellington & Coleman Hawkins)
DUKE ELLINGTON
4.50 | 2 ratings
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DUKE ELLINGTON The Intimate Ellington Album Cover The Intimate Ellington
DUKE ELLINGTON
4.50 | 1 ratings
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DUKE ELLINGTON Play The Blues - Back To Back (with Johnny Hodges) Album Cover Play The Blues - Back To Back (with Johnny Hodges)
DUKE ELLINGTON
4.50 | 1 ratings
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swing Music Reviews

LESTER YOUNG Lester Young: Ken Burns Jazz

Boxset / Compilation · 2000 · Swing
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js
“Lester Young: Ken Burns Jazz” is a great collection of Lester Young tunes that is often criticized for its sound quality. Personally I find most of this CD to be fine, but unfortunately I think what gives people such a bad impression is that the worst moments come at the very beginning. The first 30 seconds are unbearable with a loud hiss that buries the opening piano, but after that first half a minute, the instruments seem to strengthen and the rest of the CD seems to be OK, except for “Twelfth Street Rag“, which also suffers from a very prominent hiss. Having said all that, the music on here is excellent. Lester Young is one of those rare instrumental voices who transforms every tune he plays into a personal statement. Often credited with being one of the first great jazz soloists to take a cool approach to soloing as opposed to the expected “hot” approach, Young’s languid and slightly off-kilter phrases matched with his smooth sound can be mesmerizing.

This CD does a good job of spanning Young’s entire career and includes some good performances from late in his career when he had supposedly lost his skills due to alcohol. The different settings Young is cast in on here include many sides with the Count Basie Orchestra and its many smaller off-shoots like the Kansas City Six, as well as some cuts that feature his legendary accompaniments to the sultry Billie Holiday and some cuts that feature Young as a leader. The tunes recorded with Basie seem to show what Young was best at. The Basie Orchestra was anything but cool and their high energy romps and tight riffs make for a perfect foil for Young’s rhythmically loose solos that blur the crisp lines of the big band. Due to some of the sound issues, this may not be the best Young collection to buy, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is some excellent music.

STÉPHANE GRAPPELLI Jazz in Paris: Improvisations

Album · 1958 · Swing
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Atavachron
Jazz is the bleu cheese of popular music. It's robust, complex, sophisticated, and, as any good cheese, often smells like a dead man's feet. When you're talking jazz violin, the line between sweet & sour is thin; no frets or classical positions to rely on and four delicate strings so responsive and elastic it's a miracle a few straight notes are ever voiced. Plus you're improvising. It's like dancing in a swamp, and you better be damn good.

And Stéphane Grappelli was all kinds of good. More importantly, he was brave, and understood not just trad jazz but the art of spontaneity. He'd learned it the hard way busking in France, swinging and bopping his way to the top, paying his dues, and becoming one of the finest stringmen in the world. Some think of Grappelli as "gypsy music", though he is nothing of the sort. This is one of his earliest records proper as a solo artist (a sort of comeback for him after a dry spell) backed-up by the smokin' trio of piano great Mo Vander, double-bassist Pierre Michelot, and Baptiste Reilles' skins. The 1956 issue consists largely of standards, and Sinatra never did 'Lady is a Tramp' like this.

As a young jazz listener, I wasn't much partial to standards. I found them, well, boring. But here the beauty and possibilities of a quality tune is abundantly clear, the opportunity to to alter, even destroy and rebuild a good ditty, never more glorious. Grappelli's bluenotes curl around melodies and pull them into malleable phrases of giddy delight and musical wonder, as on 'Fascinatin Rhythm' with its sudden modulations and stuttering pace. Contemplative and slightly sad 'Dans la Vie', lively 'Cheek to Cheek', tightly-swung 'Taking a Chance on Love' with Grappelli all over the neck and Mo Vander starting to come out.

For '56 this is a lovely recording, levels for 'S'Wonderful' spot-on and Baptiste Reilles showing why he was considered the best brusher in the business. More Gershwin Bros. with 'Someone to Watch Over Me' sporting a misplaced harpsichord, bright-eyed and bushytailed 'If I Had You', sublime ruminations of 'Body and Soul' and frantic whirling of 'I Want to be Happy' where these boys just let it go. Utterly heartsick 'Shes Funny That Way' takes us along with two lovers walking & shopping in Paris, and 'Time After Time' allows us to peek into their intimacy later that night.

The historic session wraps with a hot-bop treatment of Cole Porter's 'Just One of Those Things' and a few alternate takes. If you're ready for Grappelli and what is possible from a good jazz violinist, he's ready for you and always will be-- hanging in time, waiting patiently for you to discover his elegant magic.

DUKE ELLINGTON The Intimate Ellington

Album · 1977 · Swing
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js
The title, “The Intimate Ellington”, was the perfect choice for this collection of odd recordings left over from various sessions. Many of these songs are recorded with small and unique ensembles giving a very clear and unobstructed look at the music of Duke Ellington. Some of the very best cuts feature just Ellington on piano backed by bass and drums. Getting to hear Duke’s piano playing this clearly is a real treat. You can certainly hear the roots of modernists like Monk and Sun Ra in Duke’s sparse open phrases and use of extreme ranges on the keyboard. Like those future pioneers, Ellington says more with simple obtuse phrases than others can say with cascades of sophisticated scales. Possibly the oddest cut on the album features Ellington playing the celeste while delivering a bizarre spoken reading of “Moon Maiden”.

Mostly recorded in the early 70s, the band cuts on here are great and feature a mix of old Ellington standbys like Paul Gonsalves and Johnny Hodges, as well as young up and coming modernists like Julian Priester. Some of the ensembles are a bit unusual for Ellington, particularly nice is “Intimate Interlude” which features Harry Carney on bass clarinet and Norris Turney on flute. All through this album flutes and low woodwinds are featured more prominently than is usual in the Duke’s music. Another unusual addition on a few cuts is early B3 organist Wild Bill Davis who uses an old school, almost theatre, sound on the organ. As is usual with Ellington’s music, the soloists are encouraged to use very expressive vocal like techniques that go back to the earliest days of jazz.

Ellington fans will find a lot to enjoy in this eclectic collection. A lot of these tunes were recorded with small groups so that Duke could work out ideas for various projects. Hearing Ellington in these more miniature and experimental settings allows the listener to hear this more “intimate” side to his music. The intimate feel to this collection is furthered by the outstanding recording quality of these cuts. Every instrument sounds very bold and clear, as if you were in the same room with them.

ART TATUM Piano Starts Here

Boxset / Compilation · 1968 · Swing
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Chicapah
For most of my life Art Tatum was just another name to me. I worked in a few record stores back in the 70s to make ends meet (during spells when my chosen field of work, creating music, didn’t) and he was just one on a list of long-gone artists who populated the jazz bins. It wasn’t until I saw and heard a brief snippet of him in Ken Burns’ excellent documentary on the genre that I got a taste of his piano wizardry. As I eagerly absorbed all I could of that in-depth history of jazz I was introduced to a myriad of great artists that I knew little about but none electrified me the way Mr. Tatum did. I simply couldn’t fathom what I was listening to and knew that I had to hear more. It took a while but I finally started my journey of discovery when my son gave me “Piano Starts Here” for a Christmas present. Let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed in what it contains.

I understand why this giant of jazz may not be familiar to you. Born in Toledo in 1909, he had everything going against his ever being successful, much less noticed. He was a black man, he was almost totally blind, he was overweight, he played strictly by ear and most of the time he worked solo in an era when jazz was still considered a novelty unless it was being presented in a big band format. But even before he turned 20, by word of mouth, Art was acknowledged as a genuine prodigy and luminaries such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong went out of their way to see him whenever they toured through Ohio. While backing singer Adelaide Hall he made his way to New York and, in 1933, recorded four tunes for the Brunswick label. After that what had been rumor grew to become an accepted fact among pianists from both the jazz and classical sides who knew a unique virtuoso when they heard one. Many concurred that Art Tatum was the greatest piano player who ever lived. I know that’s a lofty designation but it’s one confirmed by the likes of Oscar Peterson and Vladimir Horowitz. As respected music critic Leonard Feather wrote in ’68, “We are fortunate to have lived in a century that could produce even one Art Tatum.” Lend an ear to the 13 tracks on this CD and you’ll better understand the cause for his praise.

It starts with his first studio sessions from March of ’33. At first glance “Tea for Two” might cause you to smirk sarcastically but his rendition reminds me of a memorable scene in the movie “Amadeus.” Court composer Salieri toiled for weeks to prepare a short piece in honor of Mozart’s anticipated visit to the king’s palace but after hearing it only once the young man vamps on the simple theme grandly, elevating it into a much more complex and intricate etude on the spot. Salieri is floored in awe. I have no doubt that many proficient pianists felt likewise upon hearing his spectacular version of this old chestnut. During “St. Louis Blues” I detect no delay or interruption between what Art’s imaginative mind envisioned and what his nimble fingers produced. His jazzy, impressionistic intro for “Tiger Rag” throws you for a loop before he suddenly roars into the number with the ferocity and blinding speed of a fighter jet. His take on Ellington’s classic “Sophisticated Lady” is so graceful yet so inventive that if he’d been playing it in a restaurant you were dining at you’d never have gotten around to eating because you would’ve been so thoroughly entranced by his elegant mastery. It’s hard to believe that this brand of jazz was recorded in 1933.

The remaining nine cuts were taped live in the spring of ’49 at the “Just Jazz” concert held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. If anything he’s even more phenomenal! Opening with “How High the Moon,” he demonstrates that his smooth articulations had deepened, his harmonic daring was breathtaking, he was still quick as a spooked hare and his innate timing is beyond belief. When he performs Dvorak’s “Humoresque” he utilizes all 88 keys equally and I confess that I’ve never heard anyone else’s phrasing that can top his fluid approach. He could change the entire mood at the drop of a hat. Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” follows and his introductory flourish gives the impression that he’s either amusing himself or toying with the audience (or both) but what he does with one of my all-time favorite melodies defies description. On the gem “Yesterdays” his uncanny gift for dynamics is on full display as incidental trills, brisk runs and abstract intrusions come zipping in from all directions without warning. By the time you get to “I Know That You Know” it sinks into your brain that you’re experiencing the talents of a bonafide keyboard savant doing things effortlessly that 99.99% of his peers could never pull off on their best day. Of this number Feather commented, “He tears into the standard at a breakneck pace, later halves the time and finally doubles up again, with a tongue-in-cheek ending that shows the sly sense of humor that informed so much of his work.”

“Willow Weep for Me” is the next classic song to receive the Tatum treatment as he decorates this oft-covered ditty with unbelievable showers of glittery arpeggios. As if he’d gotten bored, he plunges headlong into his own “Tatum Pole Boogie” with its eight-to-the-bar and octave-jumping bass patterns that’ll make your head spin like Linda Blair. It’s speed-demon stuff, for sure, but one is struck by the delicate touch he applies that stands in clear contrast to the heavy-handed techniques of the boogie-woogie pioneers. The calmer “The Kerry Dance” is the shortest cut but it’s also the most humorous in that it’s like he was sharing an inside joke with the crowd. The liner notes relate that it was often employed as a playful encore for his club act when the patrons wouldn’t let him go. He ends with Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” wherein he stupefies all in attendance with cascades of notes that thrill and delight. His was an amazing artistry, indeed.

Feather told of hearing Art one particular night in the mid 40s at New York’s tiny Three Deuces packed with pianists. Duke Ellington was there and “declared himself too overwhelmed to express his feelings.” Eddie Heywood, one of the top piano names of the day, was quoted as saying “The more I hear him the more convinced I am that I’d better quit playing and drive a truck.” None other than Charlie Parker once took a job as a dishwasher at a joint in Harlem just so he could hear him improvise nightly. At one point Tatum tried to expand his visibility by forming a trio but found no drummer or bassist that could keep up with him so he resigned himself to being a one-man force of nature. Art died of kidney failure at age 46 but thanks to the preservation of recordings such as this one we can share in his genius. Feather put it bluntly. “The feeling then, and it prevails to this day among thousands of musicians, was that Art Tatum represented the apotheosis of jazz improvisation. He was the greatest soloist in jazz history, regardless of instrument.” Chew on that a while and then get this CD. You’ll probably find yourself agreeing with his assessment.

GENE KRUPA Drum Battle

Live album · 1952 · Swing
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dreadpirateroberts
How powerful a crowd can be - just listen to them roar during this live swing date from Gene Krupa.

While this is one of the few swing albums I own, it's probably not a stretch to say that this approaches hard bop at times too. Released after the swing peak and during the early stages of the post-war boom (after large groups became less fashionable and had been less affordable) this is a trio date with Krupa on drums, supported by Willie Smith on alto and a more than able Hank Jones on piano. It also features Ella Fitzgerald for one song, and fellow drum legend Buddy Rich for a duet on the title track.

With quicker tempos and longer solos, the covers get a good workout here, from the lovely 'Sophisticated Lady' where Smith shines, to the ramped up Goodman tune 'Flying Home.' It also features the famous 'Drum Boogie' and a vocal appearance by Ella Fitzgerald (a little too low in the mix) on 'Predido' where a bigger band is included.

What's constantly recognised as one of the most striking things about Krupa's playing is his work with the bass drum. Here he hits heavy and uses it quite aggressively, it's impressive to see him switch his focus across the songs, from snare to the hats with his avalanche of 16th notes in 'Drum Boogie' (along with other things I can't truly appreciate as a non-drummer) but suffice to say, he swings and he hits hard when he wants to.

Despite the title of this album, which is essentially a live trio set, the Drum Battle itself is short at around three minutes, which is fine in itself. The trio playing is more satisfying to me anyway, but it's hard not to get caught up in the excitement of this historic track - the first time Rich and Krupa play onstage together - as the crowd goes pretty wild. I admit that I've found myself struggling to assign a star rating. Four stars for drummers and fans of Krupa - as I imagine this is a pretty amazing set for drummer to hear, the trio songs are fantastic and the drum battle itself is historic and impressive - but more casual Jazz fans may not rush out for this. It's still great, no doubt about it, but I can't go so far as to suggest that it's 'essential to any collection.'

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