For the last two months we’ve been Catching up with New Orleans, meanwhile, Europe has been catching up with us. Many will remember that during the heyday of the Dixieland Festival circuit there were many excellent European groups filling out festival schedules. Eastern Europe, in particular, was exceptionally hot for the early jazz styles they often collectively refer to as Ragtime.
There’s been a generational shift and while there is still plenty of hot jazz to be found, especially in the east, many bands are focused on pleasing the dancers at large swing festivals. If you want to be awed by the strength of the scene there look up LindyhopLT on YouTube for posts from the Harlem Traditional Jazz Dance and Music Festival in Vilnius, Lithuania.
The Swing Shouters
A Tribute to Johnny Hodges
The Swing Shouters of Tours, France, grew out of the relationship between a dance school, a studio, and an association called Swing and Shout. You can see them at Lindy Exchanges around Europe and occasionally in the States. They may appear in sizes from trio to big band but the core of the group is a quintet consisting of Sylvain Roudier, reeds; Benoist Pasquier, trombone; David Ménager, guitar; Carl Cordelier, bass; and Alban Aupert, drums. That is the formation they keep for their 2017 album Jitterbug’s Delight.
The record consists of creative arrangements of swing era numbers like Artie Shaw’s “One Night Stand,” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Johnny Come lately.” Fans of the small group sound will not be disappointed. The trumpet work on my favorite track, “Dinah,” is impressive. “Blue Drag” is given an extended two-version presentation that drifts away from Hot Club or even Swing into a more contemplative Mainstream feel.
They bring on a piano, second sax, and trumpet to fill out the sound on their simultaneously released A Tribute to Johnny Hodges. They refer to this formation as their “Little Band.” The seven tracks are all from Duke Ellington or Hodges who played with Ellington for most of forty years defining the sound of his saxophone section. Good, if sparing, use of the piano is made on “Mood Indigo,” the full horn section is most effectively engaged on “Squatty Roo,” on “Good Queen Bess” they do most nicely what they set out to do: pay tribute to the Hodges sound without being copycats.
These two albums inform each other. Jitterbug’s Delight has more than anything else an Ellington feel. The Hodges tribute is more joyfully played. Both have gems, but that’s where the bands
The Dizzy Birds (featuring Meschiya Lake)
Because We Can
Hot jazz in Europe draws closer to ragtime and marching band presentation because from polkas to mazurka’s the brass ensemble lived longer in public life on the continent. Give the Dizzy Birds new album, Because We Can, a listen and you’ll catch what I mean. The result is a sound reminiscent of the earliest period of jazz even when the band toys with other influences, as here with a notable Caribbean accent, and a romance of vocal groups.
They give “Wild Man Blues” a rag treatment with nice little piano rollouts and rising ensemble sections rather than a soloing focus. They re-imagine “Jolly Rovin’ Tar,” a song associated with The Irish Rovers, as a vocal Calypso ballad. They transform the Mills Brothers’ “Jungle Fever” into a haunting art piece. They bring something new out of each song while staying within the sound of American music from the ’20s to ’40s. Irving Berlin’s “Marie” is done neither in Dorsey fashion nor in the syrupy sweet style of the twenties but with a rock-steady beat and vocals from Meschiya Lake that are knotty and unwittingly attractive. If I had to wager I’d say the version most familiar to the band was a 1960s cut from an Irish pop vocal group called The Bachelors. The men close out the album with a vocal group take on “I Get the Blues When it Rains” an album that seems to have used those groups as a jumping off point for something hotter.
The musicianship as a whole is solid and professional, as is the production of the album. Each turn of the page brings something new. Though based in Germany the bandmates have origins across the continent. Twelve are named on the credits, many on multiple instruments, and without individual song credits it is hard to point anyone out with certainty. But together they make good use of a deep pool of talent.
The Dizzy Birds bill themselves as “Europe’s Hottest Jazz band.” With the addition of New Orleans’ own Meschiya Lake they just might be. She also appeared on their previous album, and has a long association with the Berlin-based Syncopation Society. Following in the steps of many fine musicians before her she has officially relocated to Germany as of this summer and will be singing for the Dizzy Birds among others. She brought the band to NOLA in 2017. I see more international recognition in their future.
Stretching to eleven members and having survived for over a decade Lithuania’s Rhythm Junkies are as much a jazz collective as a traditional band. Think of Baby Soda and the Loose Marbles in the United States. They consider themselves a “Street Swing Ensemble” and originally formed to provide the local Lindy Hop community music to dance to that wasn’t coming from speakers. While they still enjoy busking in the fresh air, long winters, swing events, and a growing reputation now find them frequently on stage. They’ve even guested in videos with European pop bands to add some jazz flavor to their tracks and videos.
Their first album in eight years, Drunk Sessions, is a testament to the commitment they have to each other. Despite targeting swingers their sound is traditional ensemble jazz: tuba, banjo, washboard even kazoo. Tracks featuring violin and accordion lend an unavoidable European flavor but the guitar is kept a rhythm instrument. Milda Stasaitytė is a rare treat on vocals singing in an unamplified Sophie Tucker style that gives her tracks an acoustically-recorded quality. The male vocals are joyful, and usually done as an accent chorus, but where Mindaugas Bikauskas leads he is the better of many men fronting trad bands in the US.
“I’ve found a new baby” is given an instrumental go at a tempo that allows the instruments to speak for themselves. Actually, no less than four titles are ’20s standards informing us about the singers “baby,” and though you’ve heard them before the band seems to go out of their way to instrumentalize them and jam to the point you forget how familiar they are. Track lengths often approach five minutes. One soloist is even unafraid to hop momentarily into “The Chicken Dance.” They bring an early jazz inflection to some swing standards. I was very impressed with their takes on “Dinah” and “Digga Digga Doo.” With its campfire gypsy flavoring, “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” a song that seems to have been a standard of the band for many years, was my album favorite.
Gentlemen and Gangsters
Live at 2Lång
The Gentlemen & Gangsters are a hard-swinging sextet of true professionals with a firm rooting in the hot bands on the cusp of Swing Era. They bring a self-depreciating humor to their buttoned-up appearance and have a tongue-in-cheek way of handling the anachronisms inherent in playing in 90-year-old styles. Based in Sweden, the band is popular all over Europe—with Lindy Hoppers appreciative of their talent for playing to dancers. Pål Walfridsson, trumpet & vocals along with Henrik Johnsson, trombone, have appeared with other groups in Europe but Gentlemen and Gangsters seems to be the primary engagement for all of the band members.
The band released a live album in 2012 followed by a studio endeavor in 2015. Live at 2Lång, their third release, was recorded with one stereo microphone at Speakeasy Club at 2Lång, Gothenburg, in 2017. The recording quality is balanced and clear but the live aspect got in the way at points. During “Black and Tan Fantasy” I felt I was missing some necessary visual element of the performance, similarly, crowd reaction to “Mack The Knife” let me know I had to be there. To be clear I didn’t have that issue with any of the other twelve tracks.
They are clearly a group in tune with the audience. Though suited well for dancing, tunes like “In a Mellow Tone” deserve a close listen and I’m sure many in the respectful crowd were focused on the stage (clapping can only be heard briefly with the last notes of each track).
They are best on the instrumental numbers where the ensemble skills of these talented musicians can shine. “Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” both stand out. “Rocking Chair” is given an especially slow and elegant rendition. I wasn’t able to determine whether “Ljubljana Swing” was an original to the band, but it is a peppy tune in the Moten style and named for a region of Slovenia home to both a swing festival and a remarkably active swing community. They close the show with a ODJB style “At The Jazz Band Ball” followed up with “A Closer Walk With Thee” played slow, then hopping, to show where their heart lies. I hope this talented group of gentlemen can find their way back to the studio soon.
The Rhythm Gamblers
Swing Music Revival
Out of several excellent French bands, I could have ended this column with I settled on The Rhythm Gamblers and their wonderful first release, Swing Music Revival. I chose it because I thought it would have the most appeal to our readers. Independent of the Hot Club scene, American-style traditional jazz and swing bands of high caliber are proliferating in France. (I briefly considered doing a column just covering French bands and not Europe as a whole.) A year ago we featured Paris Washboard on our cover, a quartet active since 1988. Newer French bands I hope to cover someday include The Carolina Reapers and the Hot Sugar Band.
The Rhythm Gamblers lean on the mature and experienced side of the swing continuum. Not because they average older—gray heads are common in the hippest bands and most of the Gamblers are years away from gray. The maturity is in their dedication to authenticity and experience shows in their ability to demonstrate it. While most bands playing for swing dancers in Europe cast the net wide and somewhat anachronistically towards traditional jazz styles. The Rhythm Gamblers are laser focused on an early ’40s small group sound.
Their point of departure is the collaboration of Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman, and you can feel it even when the guitar isn’t prominent. Their take on “A Smooth One,” a Christian/Goodman release from 1941, really nails it. They dig up some real gems to cover. Ben Webster’s “Woke Up Clipped” looses its growl in a smooth swinging treatment. Basie’s “Dickie’s Dream” is done with clarity and purpose. The presentation of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” is a satisfying, almost four-minute instrumental jam on a song typically given underwhelming treatment. “Savoy Blip” features light pleasing exchanges between piano, guitar, and trumpet.
Simon Laurent brings a passion to his guitar and several of these light and bright tracks are surprisingly moving. Cyril Kuntzelmann’s tickling of the ivories is smile-inducing before softly retreating into the background. Pierre Leydier delivers some excellent era-appropriate solos on his saxophone. The clarinet player, David Tavani, began his career in Hungary playing guitar in the Django Reinhart vein before slowly gravitating to clarinet because he wanted his solos louder. Eventually, he took on Benny Goodman as his model. The leader Gilles Berthenet and his trumpet are much in demand around Europe in jazz combos of all types. He celebrated his 50th birthday in New Orleans with Kermit Ruffins.
In the rhythm section, Yves Buffetrille cut his teeth playing bass for bluegrass bands before turning to jazz in 1985. He has played with a series of top-notch bands and toured the US several times. His experience helps keep this album, where solos are prominent, tightly swinging throughout. The young drummer, Auguste Caron, also impresses, his versatility has led him to play in a variety of genres.
It’s an easy album to let fade into the background and feel like you have something on from the time period, just better recorded. Released in 2015, The Rhythm Gamblers are overdue for a followup.
Please, don’t send me any CDs. I’m wonderfully overwhelmed with excellent albums to review farther into the future than I want to contemplate. I will except download codes for our Bandcamp page. You get some visibility there, and I get to enjoy your music in the car.
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