A special swing set: Collection traces roots, rise of the big bands @

February 28, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Most people think of popular music as evolving pretty much along generational lines. Baby boomers, for example, rejected the swing-based big band music of their parents in favor of the backbeat-driven sound of rock and roll; their children, in turn, prefer the feisty funk grooves of rap. It's almost as if some sort of cultural alarm clock goes off every 30 years or so, and popular music suddenly changes its tune.

Of course, it's actually a little more complicated than that. Pop styles don't just come out of nowhere, nor do they automatically fall out of fashion as their audience ages. Instead, new ideas arise out of existing styles, gain momentum as they form an identity of their own, and eventually take over the charts -- only to be pushed aside by the next new idea.

That's essentially the arc described in "Swing Time!" (Columbia/Legacy 52862), an ambitious new boxed set chronicling the rise and fall of the big bands.

Unlike most swing era anthologies, this set avoids the easy allure of nostalgia, going instead for a clear-eyed historical perspective that shows how the familiar big band beat of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dor- sey, Glenn Miller and Count Basie grew up out of the pioneering syncopations of Fletcher Henderson, McKinney's Cotton Pickers, the California Ramblers and Chick Webb's Savoy Orchestra. Even better, it follows through to the finish, offering examples of how the big band movement gave birth to bandleaders like Stan Kenton, Claude Thornhill and Elliot

Lawrence, who saw jazz more as art music than dance fodder.

Amazingly, "Swing Time!" does all this without the sort of single-label myopia that plagues most commercially released collections. True, the offerings tend to favor recordings already in the vaults at Columbia, so that instead of Count Basie's 1937 Decca recording of "One O'Clock Jump" -- the one fans know most intimately -- we get is the version he recorded five years later for OKeh. On the other hand, the set does license such instantly recognizable originals as Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" (originally on Bluebird), Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train" (cut for Victor), and Tommy Dorsey's "Marie" (also on Victor).

Moreover, producer Aubrey Fell and remastering engineer Larry Keyes have made excellent use of CEDAR processing technology, an English noise removal system that gives these recordings -- the oldest of which date back some 68 years -- an astonishingly rich and clear sound. Obviously, no one is going to mistake these recordings for state-of-the-art stereo, but neither does the sound seem tinny and indistinct; even on the oldest sides, it's possible to hear each arrangement's inner voicings and distinguish between the members of the rhythm section.

And frankly, that's a help, because at bottom, the story told by "Swing Time!" is all about rhythm. Like almost every other popular music movement in this century, what defined swing was its sense of time, the way it treated its dance beat. Like ragtime before it, swing rhythms depended upon syncopation, meaning that the accented notes did not fall square on the beat, but afterward (duh-DAH duh-DAH duh-DAH instead of the unsyncopated DAH DAH DAH).

But where ragtime rhythms tended to be rigid and jerky, (think "Maple Leaf Rag"), swing's groove was smoother, with a feel that rounded off the syncopations into something jazzier (think "Take the 'A' Train").

Naturally, this didn't happen all at once. Listen to the California Ramblers' 1925 recording of "Sweet Georgia Brown" or to Paul Whiteman's 1930 rendition of "Happy Feet," and if the music sounds somewhat cartoonish, it's because the melodic lines still haven't totally shaken off the jumpy phrasing of ragtime, while the kind of time kept by those rhythm sections is a lot stiffer than what we now know as swing. There's even a noticeable difference between the brisk, jivey feel of Chick Webb's 1934 "Stompin' at the Savoy," and the more sophisticated swing of Benny Goodman's "Let's Dance," recorded just five years later.

Of course, Goodman -- like most white bandleaders back then -- owed quite a lot to African-American musicians like Webb. It wasn't just that Goodman's version of "Stompin' at the Savoy" (not included on "Swing Time!") was a bigger hit than Webb's original recording; the fact was that most of swing's evolution consisted of having ideas developed by African-American musicians, and then popularized by Caucasians. (Don't feel guilty, swing fans -- rock 'n' roll pulled the same stunt many years later.)

Fortunately, "Swing Time!" takes pains to give credit where due. Some of that is accomplished by Fell's insistence on including recordings by lesser-known notables like Don Redman; in other cases, it's done simply by presenting influential regional bands like McKinney's Cotton Pickers (found here under the name The Chocolate Dandies).

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