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Perfect Swing


"What a joy to listen to 'Perfect Swing'! Popular favourites are mixed with rarities, and the clarity of reproduction is startling." BBC Radio 2

Benny Carter & His Orchestra: Sunday << long sound clip
Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra: Ain't She Sweet?
Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra: Exactly Like You
Count Basie & His Orchestra: Topsy
Woody Herman & His Orchestra: At The Woodchoppers' Ball
Benny Goodman & His Orchestra: Air Mail Special
Harry James & His Orchestra: Music Makers
Duke Ellington & His Orchestra: Exposition Swing
Lil Armstrong & Her Swing Orchestra: Lindy Hop
Johnny Hodges & His Orchestra: Good Queen Bess
Cab Calloway & His Orchestra: The Jumpin' Jive
Tommy Dorsey & His Orchestra: Deep River
Lionel Hampton & His Orchestra: Flying Home << long sound clip
Glenn Miller & His Orchestra: Wham (Re-Bop-Boom-Bam)
John Kirby & His Orchestra: Blue Skies
Andy Kirk & His Clouds Of Joy: Wednesday Night Hop
Louis Armstrong/Jimmy Dorsey & His Orchestra: Swing That Music
Artie Shaw & His Orchestra: Oh! Lady Be Good << long sound clip
Jimmy Dorsey & His Orchestra: Major And Minor Stomp
Earl Hines & His Orchestra: Indiana
Red Norvo & His Orchestra: It Can Happen To You
Charlie Barnet & His Orchestra: Skyliner
Bud Freeman & His Summa Cum Laude Orchestra: The Eel
Benny Goodman & His Orchestra: Wrappin' It Up << long sound clip

Perfect Swing For so short and innocuous a word, ‘swing’ packs quite a punch. Although the heyday of swing music was more than half a century ago, even a passing reference to ‘swing’ can beam up images of lively jitterbuggers, crowded dance pavilions, and those beacons of the past, the big bands, endlessly active, instruments glinting in the ballroom spotlight.

Of course, to lovers of between-the-wars jazz, swing is far more than a portmanteau term for a musical style. But try to get a fan or indeed, a critic to define what they mean by swing and you tend to get a response which echoes Fats Waller’s famous dictum: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” Writer Gene Lees’ was a touch more helpful when he wrote that ‘the verb describing what the music was supposed to do turned into a noun to identify it: swing.’ In time, press agents made this a show business construct, employing ‘swing’ as useful shorthand for the music made by the myriad touring big bands (and their smaller offshoots) which - sparked by Benny Goodman’s extraordinary breakthrough at the Los Angeles Palomar Ballroom in August 1936 - sprang up all over the United States.

What better way to open our marvellous collection of re-mastered classics from the swing era than with At The Woodchopper’s Ball? Woody Herman’s greatest commercial and popular success features Woody’s haunting blues clarinet and Neil Reid’s punchy trombone with Saxie Mansfield on tenor-saxophone and trumpeter Steady Nelson. Crisp riffs - repeated instrumental figures - were a swing trademark. Jimmie Lunceford was a Memphis athletics teacher and part-time musical instructor who turned his college orchestra into one of the finest big black bands of the 1930s. Sy Oliver’s arrangements and eye for cute presentation helped Lunceford satisfy both the record-buyers and the jazz cognoscenti. Willie Smith’s plangent alto kicks things off on Ain’t She Sweet before the vocal trio led by trombonist Trummy Young amble through the lyrics.

Pianist Teddy Wilson was something of a rarity, the college-educated son of aspirational black parents who taught at Tuskegee College. Known for his poise at the keyboard, he saw to it that his big band was similarly clean-cut and classy. Wilson had achieved fame as a soloist with Benny Goodman and it is his romping piano which makes Exactly Like You so memorable William ‘Count’ Basie started out as a pupil of Fats Waller in Harlem, went on the road with a variety show and was stranded in Kansas City. This arbitrary turn of events led indirectly to the formation of one of the most long-lasting jazz orchestras, its style marked by Basie’s own cryptic pianisms and a wonderfully steady rhythmic pulse, the ‘quintessence of swing’ in musicologist Gunther Schuller’s pert phrase. A favourite with Harlem players, Topsy was written by trumpeter Edgar Battle and arranged for Basie by his trombonist Eddie Durham.. It includes a rare outing for Jack Washington on baritone sax and some gutsy tenor by Herschel Evans, a Texan who died from dropsy at the early age of thirty.

Benny Carter is another Harlem-ite, a saxophonist, trumpeter and composer, whose career has encompassed everything from small group solo work through to bandleading and film scores for Hollywood. Garlanded by honours, Carter has continued to perform into his nineties. Sunday is a vehicle for his literate alto and a series of useful solos from his instrumentalists.

Benny Goodman makes two appearances in our compilation and that is only fitting, given his dominant position in the swing pantheon. Christened the ‘King of Swing’ by his promotions people, Goodman was an incisive instrumentalist, a clarinet virtuoso who had emerged from Chicago’s Jewish ghetto, made good musically and formed an excellent big band. On a national tour in 1936, business was poor until they reached Los Angeles where the band was greeted with enormous enthusiasm by a young audience, this defining moment springboarding Goodman into extraordinary prominence. Jimmy Mundy’s arrangement of Air Mail Special is a perfect embodiment of the Goodman style, clever motifs, punchy riffs, great solos, and a surging rhythm section combining in masterly fashion.

Musicmakers opens with a repeated brass figure with sax comments, more or less in the Lunceford idiom and lacks only a trumpet solo by leader Harry James, a star sideman with Goodman who branched out on his own, married filmstar Betty Gable and made his name with trumpet versions of the Flight of the Bumble Bee and Carnival of Venice, neither, mercifully, included here.

The centenary of Duke Ellington’s birth has yielded a mass of news stories and celebrations. Little more needs to be said, save to point out that his career as composer and bandleader knows no parallels in jazz either for longevity or quality. Exposition Swing is a sprightly piece, probably a holdover from Duke’s Cotton Club days and characterised by excellent improvisations from clarinetist Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges on alto and the louche trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton. Unusually, the Ellington band carried two string bassists at the time and their ‘slap’ style is prominent here.

It was Lil Armstrong (nee Hardin) who set her husband Louis on the path to stardom with some astute promotional ideas. When he moved on and they divorced, Lil re-built her career as a bandleader and cut some tasty small-group records. Her tribute to the Lindy Hop (a dance craze pioneered at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom) spots her girlish vocal and some hot trumpet from the underrated Shirley Clay. Lil’s piano was modeled on that of Teddy Wilson and this whole track is a swinger. Another who kept rhythm to the fore was Johnny Hodges, Ellington’s most favoured soloist. This soulful altoist could create memorable themes at the drop of a crotchet and Good Queen Bess flows from bar one. Trumpeter Cootie Williams shows off his plunger-muted style, Duke keeps his head down in the rhythm section and it’s Lawrence Brown’s calm trombone which emerges at the end.

Cab Calloway pioneered his own brand of jive talk while making a name for himself at New York’s Cotton Club. It’s his musicians who answer back as he shouts out the manic lyrics of The Jumpin’ Jive. The beefy tenor is by Chu Berry, another who died young, killed in a car crash a month after his thirtieth birthday. Frank Sinatra claimed to have based his singing on the trombone style of Tommy Dorsey, his one-time employer, inspired by Dorsey’s impeccable control and his ability to play at length without seeming to need to breathe. Billed as ‘The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing’ Dorsey was a tough operator who always pursued perfection. It’s drummer Buddy Rich who powers Ziggy Elman’s excitable trumpet solo on Deep River.

Lionel Hampton, then a drummer, chanced on a set of vibes in the corner of a recording studio in 1930 and the rest, as they say, is history. Within a few years, he was part of the Benny Goodman entourage, his vibes playing a key element in the success of the Goodman Quartet. Hamp was a peerless improviser who never liked to give in (his wife would sometimes come on stage and take the vibes mallets from him) and RCA Victor’s open-ended contract enabled him with the best jazzmen of the day. Flying Home features trumpeter Elman and others of Hamp’s colleagues from the Goodman band alongside Texan tenorman Budd Johnson from the Earl Hines Orchestra. Glenn Miller’s take on swing has endured more completely than that of bands whose performances and solo strengths might be thought superior. Miller’s orchestra was hugely successful and his appeal, ironically, seems to have grown since his mysterious death in 1944, sustained, it must be said, by any number of ‘ghost’ bands claiming the Miller name. Wham is another rocking arrangement by ex-Basie trombonist Eddie Durham. Bassist John Kirby called his six-piece unit ‘the biggest little swing band in the land,’ and it became a fixture in the clubs of New York’s ‘Swing Street’ (52nd St.), always well-dressed and intent on pleasing customers with its neat re-workings of show songs - like Blue Skies - and classical airs. The charts were by the group’s trumpeter, the 20-year old Charlie Shavers and were mini-masterpieces of organisation and performance.

Andy Kirk was a musical part-timer until he took over the Dark Clouds of Joy when the leader ran off with the money. No great shakes as an instrumentalist, Kirk built the band into one of the best in Kansas City and when Decca came along with a contract, moved into national prominence. Wednesday Night Hop by band saxophonist Leslie Johnakins is typical swing fare: solid ensemble work balanced by short but distinctive solos, notably that of tenorman Dick Wilson (another early casualty, dead at thirty) and a few bars from pianist Mary Lou Williams. The trombonist is Ted Donnelly.

Louis Armstrong so much liked Swing That Music that he used it as the title for his (ghosted) autobiography. He made two versions of this exciting piece in 1936, the first with his own band and this with the popular Jimmy Dorsey orchestra just three months later. Armstrong was already an international star whose enduring jazz credentials are evident in the magisterial build-up of his solo and variations on this peppy theme. Ray McKinley is the impactive drummer.

Clarinetist Artie Shaw deserves a chapter of his own in any history of the swing era. A distinguished instrumentalist, he led a band whose quality compared with that of Goodman’s, married eight times, his wives including film stars like Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, achieved hit status with Begin The Beguine and Frenesi and then walked away, complaining that he wasn’t cut out for fame. He retired to write, published two books and has devoted his waning years to writing a trilogy about a jazz musician. Lady Be Good features Shaw, naturally, and some wheezy Georgie Auld tenor, with splendid support from drummer Buddy Rich.

Jimmy Dorsey and his brother Tommy were sibling rivals, joining and then splitting from each other over and over. Each carved out a substantial career, flitting in and out of the best jazz company. Dorsey plays stompy alto and clarinet on this solid performance of his own Major And Minor Stomp by one of the best white swing bands The muted trumpeter is Shorty Sherock. Earl Hines was an acknowledged pianistic genius, an innovator whose harmonic ideas attracted the modernists and whose big band went on to achieve considerable success in their residency at the gangster-controlled Grand Terrace in Chicago. Indiana shows Hines and company on peak form.

When Red Norvo died in 1999 at the great age of 91 much was made of his start in vaudeville playing the xylophone. He adapted this novelty instrument to jazz pretty well, its tinkling sound on It Can Happen To You complementing the perky vocal by his wife Mildred Bailey. Another much-married man, saxophonist Charlie Barnet was from wealthy stock and pursued his love of big band music at no little cost to himself. Along the way, he organised some great outfits, Skyliner with its assertive brass theme, becoming a major hit. The brilliant piano introduction is by bebopper Dodo Marmarosa. From the minute that Bud Freeman, the Chicago tenor-saxophonist, recorded his clever improvisation on The Eel it became his musical trade-mark. Freeman, a noted Anglophile, started with the Austin High School Gang and then worked in all the best white bands. Trumpeter Max Kaminsky, the frail-sounding clarinetist Pee Wee Russell and pianist Dave Bowman share the solo honours.

And so to our final word on ‘swing,’ the appropriately-titled Wrapping It Up by Benny Goodman, composed and arranged by the great black bandleader Fletcher Henderson, a key agent in Goodman’s success. Goodman’s biographer Ross Firestone marvelled at Henderson’s ability to “forge together into a single glorious entity improvisation-like ensemble choruses and high-spirited interplay between soloists and (the) larger ensemble.”

Firestone’s words could also speak for the abiding appeal of swing itself, with its combination of sublime individual creativity and disciplined orchestral performance, all set to a danceable beat, qualities evident on each and every track in this ‘perfect’ musical miscellany.

Peter Vacher

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