Seeing The UnSwung Heroes in concert was an emotional roller coaster. Their website promised a New Orleans-style “Dixieland” outfit (forgive them the term—we haven’t really had the, “Is the term Dixieland jazz racist?” debate in the UK). Their garb seemed suitably jazzy, with button-down shirts and suspenders—but was it all window dressing? Then the words “function band” and “covers in a vintage style” leapt off the screen. “Oh no,” I thought, “are The UnSwung Heroes a poor man’s PMJ, peddling poppy pap with brass sprinkled on top?”
Viewing their showreel, I drew back in confused dismay at the sight of synthesisers, drum machines, and electric bass—not that I dislike any of those things, when the time and place are right. But I had some brand new Balboa moves to try out and I was hoping that Cheltenham Music Festival, at which the band was playing that very night, would provide a suitable soundtrack. There was nothing for it but to hop along and find out.
It was a bright, mild evening in Montpellier Gardens, the scene of an outdoor stage for the festival’s free performances. The park rang with the giddy chatter of music fans, seated on suitably distanced picnic rugs, attending their first live event in over a year. Several acts mentioned that this was also their first gig in 18 months—something which didn’t seem to hamper performances, even though a few musicians were missing through enforced self-isolation.
When our Heroes stepped into view, they were clad in black t-shirts bearing their own name. Was this a good sign, or bad? I was undecided—but then came the sound check, and the entire ensemble (two trumpets, two trombones, sax, sousaphone, clarinet and drums) erupted into “When the Saints Go Marching In.” And this wasn’t any watered down, four-on-the-floor, wedding band rendition—this band had chops.
From the multilayered countermelodies to the intricate drum riffs and fills, here were musicians who would be just as comfortable playing Cheltenham Jazz Festival—held in the very same park, pandemics permitting—as they were at this omni-genred event. Whatever they played tonight, I could tell now that it was going to be impressive. And definitely danceable.
It was a set light on standards—this wasn’t Cheltenham Jazz Festival, after all—though “Bourbon Street Parade” made a welcome appearance. (Bandleader Luke Davies was good enough to send me their set list, which included backup tunes “Lazy River” and “Down by the Riverside”). Songs skewed towards syncopated covers of rearranged pop favorites: ABBA, Beyoncé, Boney M, and Britney Spears all featured, reimagined as second line classics. And while the styles of other pieces swerved between funk, soul and calypso, serious musicianship was a common thread.
Only one arrangement sounded anything less than stellar: playing Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” as a funk song didn’t require a whole lot of reimagining, I’d imagine, and marked a downturn in rhythmic and melodic intricacy. But it was a mere musical blip, from which the band recovered admirably.
There were very competent solos from both brass and reeds, particularly Jimmy Jefford on clarinet and tenor sax. Suffice to say everyone in it earned their spot, with what must be decades of practice between them. (And if that doesn’t sound like much, consider that none could be much over 25 years old.)
My interest was piqued and my dancing feet satisfied. Was there more of this band to enjoy after an all-too-short, hour-long set? Indeed there was, as The Heroes released their debut, self-titled record in 2020. It features that impressive “When the Saints…” along with “Charleston,” “Everybody Loves My Baby” and “Just a Closer Walk [with Thee],” plus a clutch of quite brilliant originals. “Window Shopping” is a bawdy blues ballad with hard-honking sax and a sweet female vocal, while “Give Me the Time of Day” is a stomping swing number with a trilling clarinet, male vocal chorus and well-timed slide whistle. “Pointless Flirtation” is a more obviously modern, a ukulele-driven pop piece bemoaning digital dating during lockdown with witty lyrics like, “Doing your hair and it’s a quarter to nine. All the barbers are closed, I guess a man bun is fine.” (Watch out, Rob Heron’s Tea Pad Orchestra—there’s a challenger to your modern trad throne.)
This band has only been around since 2016, with the latter third of that time spent in isolation—yet they still managed to put an album out last year. With tenacity like that and the musicianship to back it up, The UnSwung Heroes must be one to watch as regular programming returns. They bill themselves as a wedding band, as that’s where the cash is, but jazz event organizers would be foolish to overlook them for that. Check them out on Bandcamp and keep up with them on Facebook—if they’re coming to a town near you, then you won’t want to miss them.