Black Swan Classic Jazz Band • Dance Hall Favorites – The Syncopated Times
With this double CD, Kit Johnson and the Black Swan Classic Jazz Band are on a solid footing by targeting the content towards the dancers, as the album title suggests: Dance hall favorites. Since its inception, it seems, traditional jazz has been danced, although in the UK in the 1940s many devotees disapproved of such activities, preferring to sit and listen only with their brows furrowed in. a studious concentration.
When Graeme Bell and his Australian Jazz Band visited Britain in 1948, they encouraged dance (again) to music (much to the dismay of intellectuals). Traditional jazz has never lost its appeal to dancers in the United States, according to the Dawn Club of San Francisco, where Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band filled the floor with dancers in the 1940s.
The tempos at which the pieces are taken are eminently dance oriented. While I might wonder if all of the tracks are favorites, they are a great fit for dancing. Several new things had occurred to me, such as “Daddy, what are you trying to do to me?” “; “Where did Robinson Crusoe go?” “; “When you leave me alone in Pine”; or “Bullfrog Melody”. The first and third of these Louis Armstrongs attended, and the last is an original from the frontman of the group, Kit Johnson. I’m always happy to find “new” tunes (for me, at least). Everyone else on this album should be familiar to everyone to some extent, as they were to me.
What sets the Black Swan Classic Jazz Band apart from the rest are two things: first, the caliber of the musicians who make it up, and second, the quality of the arrangements. The former can be seen in the fact that all of the performances on these two records were recorded live at concerts, and yet there is not a single blunder, not a single misplaced note. And many of these songs contain a plethora of breaks, which makes them difficult to perform. Jelly Roll Morton was very committed to incorporating breaks – and more difficult, to boot – as we hear from “Georgia Swing” and “Black Bottom Stomp”, but the band performs them to perfection. Likewise, there are some interesting Charleston breaks to hear in “Papa, What Are You Trying to Do Me?” Individually the musicians are in great shape, as they demonstrate in the solos, the pauses, the down times, whatever is asked.
And that leads to the other ingredient in the band, the arrangements. These are mostly written by Kit Johnson, but almost everyone contributes by hosting one or two of the others. Taking a well-known and often recorded piece and making it interesting is the challenge the arranger faces, and those in this group are quite up to the task. As an example, take the Johnson arrangement of “Call of the South” (better known as “Swanee River”). It opens with a duet of Steve Matthes clarinet and Alan Phillips banjo, soon joined by Lew Chapman’s trombone, the clarinet playing counterpoint while the trombone takes the bridge.
Then the roles are reversed, the clarinet taking the melody and the trombone the bridge, while Marilyn Keller begins her voice. The others give up, leaving only the piano and the banjo to accompany him, supported in part by the leader’s tuba. Next comes a vocal counterpoint by Phillips to Bennett’s melody on the piano. Bennett then does solos, with Ernie Carbajal’s trumpet joining in to take the lead on the bridge but then giving up to allow Bennett to finish the chorus. Then come the clarinet solos, followed by the trombone. Then Keller takes over the vocals, Phillips singing the delicate counterpoint behind her. After the tuba solos on the bridge, the rest of the ensemble join him in taking him out. Thus, the “Swanee River” receives a new lease of life as well as a “new” title.
Likewise, other well-known songs are getting a makeover. “By and By” opens with a solo banjo tremolo cadence. Then the tuba picks it up, setting the tempo, accompanied by the banjo and Ron Leach on percussion. With modulation, Keller sings the verse then is joined on the chorus by the rest of the group singing the harmony behind her. After several choruses, the voice modulates, Keller speaking behind the chorus leading, after a dramatic stop, to a rickety vocal ending. Another attractive arrangement is that of “San Francisco Bay Blues”, a rarely heard song written by Jesse Fuller which was very popular during the “Folk Music” period in the United States (late fifties to sixties).
It has been recorded a number of times – by Peter, Paul and Mary and by Paul McCartney, among others. Here, it opens with the last bars of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, then follows on the voice of Phillips. To name but one, “Basin Street Blues” follows, to some extent, the format we hear most often, the arrangement being a hat-trick to Teagarden with the trombone going up to the top after the last one. chorus of the whole, then playing a cadence of rubato ending on a ritard chord by the whole group. And there are a lot of such moments in this double album.
I think all the tracks have had a great appeal for the dancers. A rather curious omission for me, however, is that there are no waltzes or Latin numbers, and back in New Orleans in the dance halls, such has certainly been presented. I think the Lindy hoppers would have appreciated the opportunity to catch their breath with a waltz or a tango. Of course, while one might not be inclined – or able – to pull the rug back and step on the fantastic light, one can certainly relax and enjoy the aural feast that the album offers.
Order details, along with Scott Yanow’s tracklist, staff, and album ratings, can be found at bscjb.com.
Dance hall favorites
Classic Jazz Band Black Swan