I love a three-piece jazz combo. More so than a big band, if I’m honest, although saying so feels blasphemous: as a swing dancer, surely the ballroom-filling Basie, Ellington, and Goodman should be my Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Nonetheless, I like being able to appreciate each player and soak up every single note of a small group recording. (Oscar Peterson’s “C Jam Blues” with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen is the hottest nine minutes on YouTube—prove me wrong.)
So could the sextet line-up hit my sweet spot between big band volume and small group simplicity? The Hot Swing Sextet makes a strong case for “yes,” with their latest release What’s Your Jive? This Bordeaux-based outfit squeezes a mighty full sound out of just two horns, two guitars, bass and drums—ripe for laid-back listening or dynamic dancing. In fact, the cool cover art represents this disc’s contents well: six cartoon guys squashed into a portable record player, with a sharp-dressed pair cutting a groove atop the vinyl.
Drawing from the songbooks of lesser-played bandleaders like John Collins, Irving Ashby, Sammy Price, Hot Lips Page, and Skippy Williamson, this ear-opening (and generous) collection of fifteen tracks is apt to be something of a musical education for swing dancers as much as it is a shoe-shuffling soundtrack. As with any good dancing compilation, there’s a good range of tempos to which one might pop a tuck turn—from the steady plod of “T’aint Me” or “Wham,” to the footwork frenzy that is “Windy” or “Just Jivin’ Around.” You could even slow drag to “Payin’ Them Dues Blues,” if that’s your bag.
There’s loads to wrap your ears around here, with each tune offering up polished little arrangement gems to appreciate—from simple stones to many-faceted geodes. Take Thibaud Bonté’s staccato trumpet shots on “The Goon Drag (Gone Win De Goon),” set against Bertrand Tessier’s undulating tenor sax riffs. Or Erwann Muller and Franck Richard’s baroque electric guitar and double bass noodlings on “Bloodhound.” Quick-fingered Tessier bends the laws of physics on “What’s Your Story (What’s Your Jive)” and other numbers, I’m quite sure. And acoustic guitarist Ludovic Langlade and drummer Jéricho Ballan bear mentioning too, for laying the rhythmic foundations of this swing skyscraper.
Every single sound feels well practiced and purposeful—even the rippling, ten-second, full-band fade-out on “Red Dust’’ gave me shivers. The production is top-drawer—the liner notes say the album was recorded in a loft, but pro mixers All Mëe have imbued it with ballroom acoustics while perfectly balancing the players such that no one’s contribution sinks beneath anyone else’s. This album definitely demands and rewards repeat listens, with ears trained on different instruments each time. I tapped my toes through three rounds of this brilliant disc, which just squeaks into my top releases of 2020—I defy you not to do the same.