Milestone Recordings in American Music

5/17/09

Shag & Swing (1932)

The swing era would officially begin in 1935, but that didn’t stop Duke Ellington from recording killer swing music in 1932. Meanwhile, just as small-group New Orleans jazz had been left for dead, Sidney Bechet and company made what may be the greatest New Orleans jazz record in history.

The New Orleans Feetwarmers
Shag(Victor 24150, 1932)

New Orleans-born Sidney Bechet is widely regarded as the best clarinetist and soprano saxophone player of the early jazz period. He found some success working with groups like Clarence Williams’ Blue Five in the 1920s, and was well received in Europe in the later part of that decade. After getting into trouble in France, he was deported back to the United States where he formed the New Orleans Feetwarmers with veteran trumpeter Tommy Ladnier. The group only made a handful of recordings, which failed to catch on at the time as the traditional New Orleans style of jazz was falling out of favor. That’s a shame, since the recordings – “Shag” in particular – captured Bechet and Ladnier at their peaks and are some of the finest jazz ever recorded.

“Shag” is a joyously upbeat, kinetic record that wastes no time getting to the action. Whereas most jazz songs included a brief introduction of a main theme, “Shag” opens in full polyphony with Bechet, Ladnier and trombonist Teddy Nixon each pursuing separate but complementary melodies. Bechet in particular stands out with some amazing soprano sax playing that sets the tone for what is to come. The song settles down only slightly for some soloing by Ladnier on muted trumpet and Henry Duncan on piano, followed by some lively and wonderful scat singing by bass player Ernest Meyers.

It soon launches right back into a polyphonic frenzy, though, as Bechet leads the charge with some inspired playing. Actually, “inspired” doesn’t begin to capture it. His tone is so pure, his style so natural and relaxed, and his improvisation so thrilling that it defies imagination. You simply have to hear it (preferably over and over again!) to believe how good it is. With about a minute to go, the band falls in line with Bechet to play together on some held notes, punctuated by a sharp strike on the drums by Morris Morland. The effect is exhilarating, and after a few instances, the band starts shouting “Woo! Whee!” whenever it happens. You’ll want to do the same!

~ You may also like: The New Orleans Feetwarmers, “I Found a New Baby” (Victor 24150, 1932)

Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra
It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)(Brunswick 6265, 1932)

There is no consensus on exactly what the term “swing” means, and yet jazz musicians know it when they play it and fans know it when they hear it. At its core, “swing” is about having an innate sense of rhythm that allows a musician to play in a very relaxed, individual way that flows very naturally with the beat without necessarily sticking rigidly to it. Regardless of exactly how you define it, though, there are three milestones for the term. The first is Louis Armstrong’s work with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1924-25, which inspired a change in how jazz was viewed and placed the concept of “swing” firmly at the center of that experience. The last was 1935 when the music of Benny Goodman (the so-called “King of Swing”) and others rose in popularity to kick off the big band swing craze that would define American music for the next decade. In between is 1932, the year that an immortal classic with “swing” in its title cemented the term in the lexicon.

“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” was composed by Duke Ellington with lyrics by Irving Mills. The orchestra does indeed swing, especially Johnny Hodges on alto sax, whose flying solo fills the middle of the song, grounded by some down-to-earth punctuation by Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton on trombone. However, it is vocalist Ivie Anderson that really steals the show. She kicks off the song with some cool, enticing scat singing (“wah-tah-too”), but soon opens the throttle wide. It is clear that she means what she sings: “It makes no difference if it’s sweet or hot / Just keep that rhythm, give it everything you got!”

~ You may also like: Duke Ellington and His Orchestra featuring Adelaide Hall, “The Blues I Love to Sing” (Victor 21490, 1928)

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