PUTUMAYO SWINGS: Retro music with local influencesWith 39 definitions of “swing” in one dictionary, we approach this irrepressible idiom mindful of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously said of pornography that, although he had no definition for it, he knew it when he saw it. (James Joyce, who had to go to court to get Ulysses published in the United States, is smirking in his grave.)
“The Swing idiom is very difficult to define,” writes Scott Yanow in Swing (Miller Freeman Books). “At its best, it is music that makes you tap your toes and feel like swaying to the beat. It is characterized by a 4/4 walking bass [as opposed to classic jazz and Dixieland, which is often made up of two rather than four beats], solos that keep the melody in mind most of the time, and ensembles that are mostly arranged.”
All of which leaves a lot of room for interpretation, as the 1,500 CD reviews that Yanow has exhaustively culled thus attest. “According to legend,” he continues, “the Swing era began on August 21, 1935, when the Benny Goodman Orchestra practically caused a riot at Los Angeles’s Palomar Ballroom.”
Putumayo World Music, the label known for its global-music anthologies, has just released Swing Around the World, a dozen marvelous tracks spanning Europe, Africa and the United States in capturing the exuberant range of what it means to swing. This is not your average collection of notable swing hits. No Goodman, no Ellington, not even any Dave Bartholomew, the trumpet-playing maestro who channeled New Orleans big-band music into the swinging rhythm section of the 1950s Fats Domino hits.
Instead we hear artists such as the Cool Crooners of Bulawayo, four mellow, dazzlingly melodic fellows from a working-class township in Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, who hit their stride in the 1950s amidst a dance craze called marabi that swirled around ragtime, swing and homegrown polyrhythms. The Cool Crooners’ melodic flow has warmly retro tones, as though influenced by Afro-American doowop harmonizers who enriched city streets of the past.
The only drawback to this lush gathering of songs is the liner notes. With English, Spanish and French translations for each artist, the otherwise intelligent commentary omits a lot of names, such as those of the four men of the Cool Crooners.
If a single message rises from these songs, it is that swing is a resilient, ever-adapting music form, changing colors like a chameleon. It’s nice to hear Oscar Pederson and Clark Terry playing 1964’s “Jumbles,” as a reminder of vintage swing, so to speak. For the sheer breadth of what we call swing lurks at every corner, and if a single artist hovers over this production, it’s not Benny or Duke or Pops, but Django Reinhardt, the gypsy who all but reinvented jazz guitar before his untimely death in 1953, at just 43.
Reinhardt’s sinuous melodies, moving from silken to haunted, register a deep influence on Children of the Revolution, a Seattle-based world-fusion band included on Swing Around the World. A cut titled “Gypsy Fire” by the Parisian guitarist known as Romane is all about Reinhardt. And there are clear echoes of Reinhardt in a popular 1990s’ swing-retro group called the Squirrel Nut Zippers, in the tune “Pallin’ with Al.”
The swing theme weaves through these cuts like a shadow dancer, drawing riffs out of rhythms, spinning new improvisations across time. New Orleans’ Duke Heitger and his Swing Band do a version of “Swing Pan Alley” (by Ellington and his famed soloist Cootie Williams) with Heitger cradling the mute, his thought field blooming with images of the supreme moment. Great stuff, full of poetic fire.
The New Orleans Jazz Vipers, composed of six pieces but no drum, features John Rodli singing “Blue Drag,” backed by a driving beat and roaming solos, packing heat, courtesy of Joe Braun on sax and Genevieve Duvaland on trombone.
The third Louisiana group featured on Swing Around the World is the Jambalaya Cajun Band with a Francophone version of “Hey, Rock.” The Western swing accents of this group, all the way down to the accordion lines, hark back to Depression-era country bands across the Southwest who drew on the horn charts of Benny Goodman and big-band orchestras, their popularity spreading via radio. A strong boogie-R&B pulse races through Jambalaya’s stomp-down swamp pop. If you can’t dance to this stuff, baby, you better sell the shoes.