Making swing matter

Photo credit: Chuck Stewart

Photo credit: Chuck Stewart

There is a common phrase in jazz: swing. The concept carries such a powerful charge that musicians often gain the respect of their peers based on their ability to swing. Listening to Orrin Evans’ awesome Flip the Script (Posi-Tone, 2012) has me digging through the jazz continuum for possible definitions. The swing era is long gone but jazz heads can’t get enough of the phrase. So, what does swing actually mean?

When jazz reached its heyday in the 40s, swing almost defined the music entirely. People literally swung to what was still then dance music. Big bands led by Duke Ellington or Count Basie pulsed with a wild but controlled energy that solidified swing into a potent and unassailable force. You either swung or you didn’t, because “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

As the swing era faded away and bebop broke ground, laying the foundations for a wide variety of future developments, swing lived on, crystallizing into its definitive statement, the classic 4/4 beat. The propulsion you hear/feel when walking bass and hit-hat cymbal lock in on the upbeats always makes me think of a train charging full steam ahead. I’m aware of the cliché but the metaphor holds up. Unsurprisingly, examples of railroad-inspired songs or records abound:  Take the A train, Blue train, Soultrane, you name it.  When that engine gets going, there is a sense that the journey could last forever.  One quintessential incarnation of that subtle association is the great Ahmad Jamal Trio (with Israel Crosby on bass and Vernel Fournier on drums) in the 50s. With such a hard-driving team, Ahmad has a lot of room to run over the keyboard or throw off sporadic splashes of melody whenever he wants to. Listen to and watch “Darn that Dream” here. Ben Webster looks bemused but he’s having a good time (at 3.05). You just can’t derail that kind of train. It is rock solid.

At a deeper level, though, swing is the way musicians articulate their feelings about the music, their signature takes on popular songs of the day or past. When Billie Holiday lags “behind” the beat, that’s swing. When Monk hits the same chord over 20 times on Little Rootie Tootie or inserts long stretches of silence into his off-kilter lines, that’s swing. Oscar Peterson’s left-hand powerhouse swings. Miles Davis’ pristine delivery swings. It is hard to think of a musical feature that is more distinctive and yet open-ended than that.

Today, swing is sometimes unfairly associated with conservatism in jazz. In fact, some people do lament the demise of swing and feel that all these odd time signatures or rock-tinged inflections that are now standard practice in modern jazz are corrupting the essence of the music. I totally disagree. Jazz, by nature, has consistently drawn from all kinds of music. Sure, the swing age is over but so is World War 2. There’s nothing to regret. In fact, I would argue that the spirit of swing is still going strong in some of the current music. Free bassist William Parker released an album dedicated to Duke not too long ago, and it doesn’t sound like your grandpa’s dusty Glenn Miller 78. Snippets here.

There are so many ways to play four beats in a row, that’s the beauty of it.

By the way, I have been listening a lot to pianist Orrin Evans lately. It’s hard to overstate how much of a swinger his latest CD (Flip the Script, Posi-Tone Records) is. It is a kind of swing that tips its hat to tradition while offering engaging vistas for contemporary modern jazz. Orrin is a case in point of how to rejuvenate swing and take it to uncharted places. Listen how these three guys (bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards) go at the burner “Flip the Script”. Each time the 4/4 beat kicks in, your head switches to nodding mode when you didn’t ask it to.

Flip the script is aptly titled. On this ten track cd, the band deliver a cohesive set that has all the makings of a “classic” record engaging with tradition but without sounding burdened by it. The opener “Question” plays fast and loose with time while sticking to the underlying 4/4 swing metric. “Clean House” is ¾ gem with a nice catchy melody that reminds me of Coltrane’s “Afro Blue”.  “Big Small” is a very slow blues that trudges forward like a good ol’ mule that knows exactly what its final destination is. The Tynerish intro to “A Brand New Day” leads to an epic exploration of “modal soul” (I just thought that up), if such an animal exists. The songs don’t stretch out over 6 minutes but the playing is tight throughout. I won’t comment on the other songs. Just flip it on the player. It’s refreshing to hear swing tastefully incorporated into and contrasted against a larger agenda of modern music. As long as swing maintains that pendular flexibility, there are many reasons to go along for the ride.