Mel and Friends • Swingset Serenade

Mel and Friends • Swingset SerenadeChildren’s music is trash, isn’t it? Take “Baby Shark,” or that Colomelon dross, or anything released by the cringeworthy cover factory Kidz Bop—it’s all a steaming pile of hot commercial garbage that brings youngsters closer to neither great music nor clever songwriting. It wasn’t always this way, though: anyone who remembers those Sesame Street bangers of the seventies to nineties—perhaps best exemplified by “Pinball Countdown,” arranged by Ed Bogas and sung by the Pointer Sisters—will know this to be true.

Mel and Friends clearly remember the good old days, and they’re determined to bring them back. Indiana-born, Kansas-raised Melanie Dill has been writing and performing children’s songs since the birth of her daughter more than 25 years ago. Previous releases include Alphabet Parade (1999) and Rainbow Lemonade (2002), neither of which were—from the snippets I’ve heard online, and the reviews I’ve read—particularly jazzy. That’s all changed with Swingset Serenade, which might just be the ideal introduction to jazz for little listeners.

Hot Jazz Jubile

Within it, bilingual jazz singer Mel (who is also a high school Spanish teacher) and her talented musician friends (all stalwarts of the Kansas City scene, including veteran composer Tom Johnson) have compiled ten terrific tracks which will genuinely delight audiences aged four to fourteen. In fact, forget that—try four to a hundred and four. If you don’t crack a smile at this wonderfully wistful record, whatever your age, then you must either be tone deaf or an insufferable jazz snob.

Without its witty lyrics, diminutive singers and child-friendly themes, this album would be the perfect jazz primer for musically curious young minds: it showcases big band swing (“Swingset Serenade”), jazz manouche (“Make a Garden”), Latin jazz (“Jugo de Naranja”), bluesy ballads (“Come Back Balloon”), bebop (“The Speed of Light”) and even vocalese (“Bunk Bed”), composed and performed with all the chops one would expect from a band of seasoned professionals. Add in those elementary-school elements and you have a children’s jazz album which excels at both entertaining and educating—whatever your age.

The record follows a narrative of sorts, flowing from a morning at the play park right through to bedtime via a picnic, stargazing and other adventurous activities. Latin toe-tapper “Jugo de Naranja” teaches listeners breakfast-table Spanish, “Come Back Balloon” introduces themes of loss and grief, and “Bunk Bed” espouses the importance of imagination. The musical arrangements and performances are, in a word, polished. If you think these guys have watered things down for younger listeners, then think again. Expect sophisticated solos, complex chord progressions, close harmony singing and all the standard fare of jazz made for adults—with a slice of cuteness on the side.

UpBeat Records

Only two of these tunes left me underwhelmed. After the laugh-out-loud funny lyricism of “Make a Garden” (The rain will fall, the sun will shine / There’s no more produce left that rhymes), “Mariposa” seemed quite banal in its repetitive simplicity. And the marvelously ambitious “The Speed of Light”—which introduces children to Einstein’s theory of special relativity—seemed somewhat flawed in its execution: rather than singing, its “lyrics” are spoken arhythmically over the bebop backbeat, creating an aural tug-o-war which distracts one’s attention from both melody and words, like a TED Talk with a backing band.

Still, my favorite track, “Bunk Bed,” includes a cheeky throwback to “The Speed of Light” which made me snort with glee—but that’s not why I love it. Besides the magical tapestry it weaves, of faraway worlds imagined from the safety of a comforter, it features rollercoaster vocalese verses which stand up next to anything Jon Hendricks ever released. Remember: this is music intended for children. (Kidz Bop, take note.)

Even without everything else to recommend it, Swingset Serenade demonstrates the viability of writing songs about something other than love. So composers, can we have more music about gardening, picnics and astrophysics, please? Swingset Serenade is available digitally on all major platforms, and will be available on vinyl and CD from May 3, 2024.

Swingset Serenade
Mel and Friends

Dave Doyle is a swing dancer, dance teacher, and journalist based in Gloucestershire, England. Write him at [email protected]. Find him on Twitter @DaveDoyleComms.

Or look at our Subscription Options.