That Rhythm Section

Basie & RhythmI’ve been talking a lot for a while now about the role of swing music in Lindy hop and the other swing dances. For that matter, for the last three years, I’ve been giving an ever-evolving talk about swing music, what it is, what it so irresistible for dancers – what makes it swing, in other words. What I haven’t really done is to distill that talk down and start putting my thoughts on it online – I’ve touched on it in a couple of posts, but no more than that.

So I want to talk about what makes the music what it is – and I want to do this with a dancers’ focus. Not all swing is great for Lindy, so my focus inevitably turns to the music that I like to play for dancers.

What better place to start than with the rhythm section? For most swing bands the rhythm section is the cornerstone of the band – a driving force, as it were, to provide basic timing and energy for the rest of the musicians, which the band can use to build on.

Who’s in the Rhythm Section

A classic swing band rhythm section consists of a drummer, a bass player, a guitarist and perhaps a pianist. It’s pretty rare to find examples of just the rhythm section simply doing its thing, but for one of the finest examples, here’s Basie’s rhythm section – considered by many to be the greatest rhythm section of  all time – Jo Jones on drums, Walter Page on bass, Freddie Green on guitar, and, of course, Basie himself on piano. They sounded like this (taken from a jam of Honeysuckle Rose at the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert with Benny Goodman)

Carnegie Hall 1938 – Honeysuckle Rose

A few things to note here: one is that you can barely hear the drums. To me, the sound that comes across most clearly is the Freddie Green’s guitar chords, followed closely by Walter Page’s walking bass, and a minimalist contribution from Basie. I love the subtlety here, which is typical of Basie’s orchestra, and a far cry from Benny Goodman’s rhythm section, which dominates the majority of this piece – where the main thing you hear is Gene Krupa banging away on the drums. The difference in style between the two is pretty striking.

Gene Krupa (carnegie)

Another thing to note is that Basie’s guys are not in any way spelling out a swung rhythm. To my ears, they imply one, but the orchestra is free to swing above the rhythm section however they choose. Here’s a far more modern example, from the neo-swing camp – the band is Blue Harlem. Above-average neo, and a great band, but nonetheless….

Blues Harlem – Can’t Give You Anything but Love

There’s a distinct lack of the more traditional rhythm section, and in its place, the drummer lays down a ‘swung’ rhythm with the utmost precision. This, in my opinion, doesn’t swing particularly, and feels pretty tame – apart from anything else, it lacks that solid driving feel that characterises so many great swing dance tracks.

There’s Lots of Ways to Swing a Track

The early swing era was a hugely experimental time for musicians, and musicians were forever experimenting and pushing boundaries. One consequence was that everyone did it differently – and here’s one such – Slim and Slam.

Slim & Slam Rhythm (8, 9, 10)

Two obvious differences here – one is that there’s a lot more emphasis on syncopations from Slim Gaillard’s guitar playing, and the other being Slam Stewart’s bass playing – he’s not playing every single beat, as would the majority of rhythm bass players, but instead is playing more sustained notes on the one and the three. It still swings, and it still provides the drive and energy. Another characteristic of Slim & Slam’s songs (aside from their utterly gleeful insanity) is when Slam stops plucking the bass, and gets out his bow. It’s the dreaded bowing solo.

Slim & Slam Bowing Solo (8, 9, 10)

For these solos, much of that amazing energy is lost – it really shows what can happen to a rhythm section when one of the driving forces stops doing its job. They’re still great songs for dancing, but dancers have been known to edit out those solos when choreographing routines to Slim & Slam.

That Crucial Swing

Freddie Green rarely played solos, and there’s a story told by Harry Edison from when he played trumpet with Basie’s orchestra about why this was. According to Edison, whenever Green, who had an electric guitar and amplifier did play a solo,  the rhythm section fell apart, and stopped swinging… so Edison and some others took it upon themselves to start a campaign of sabotaging his amplifier to stop him from doing it and, in their view, bringing down the orchestra – which was providing their livelihood.

While I don’t have any examples of this happening with Basie’s orchestra, here’s an excerpt from Charlie Barnet’s mostly wonderful track Growlin’ – where exactly that happens. This section demonstrates why it’s been relegated to my “Listen for pleasure, not for dancing” list.

Barnet Growlin

Still Optional

So after I’ve been banging on about the importance of the rhythm section – can one play swing without one? Well – yes, and we’ve most of us danced to bands who do just that – and see Ralf’s comment on one of my earlier posts for that one – this is a great story.

“In April 1941 Gene Krupa played a battle of the bands with Jimmie
Lunceford in Baltimore. “It was no fight at all – we lost terribly, it
was rout”, recalls trumpeter Graham Young. “They pulled one thing in
the first set. They started the last number and I remember the first
guy to quit was the drummer, but the dancers kept on cooking as if
they had one. Then, pretty soon afterwards, the bass player left, then
the guitar and the piano, and they were swinging like crazy without a
rhythm section at all – thus proving they were just using a rhythm
section for sound, they weren’t leaning on it”.
Christian Batchelor: “This Thing Called Swing” p. 239
(via http://dancing.org/music.guidelines.html)

So… yes – a band can get by without it… but for a full big-band sound, or for that energetic driving swing that gets us a little crazy on the dancefloor, having a great rhythm section powering the band is a very hard thing to beat.

3 Comments

  1. gregdyke said:

    I’ve been trying to figure out what swing era rhythm sections do vs the “jazz” influenced rhythm sections in my local swing bands.

    The two main things that stick out to me is
    1) That swing era drummers not hammering out a swung 8th rhythm on the cymbals (and if they are, it’s more likely on the hi hat than on the ride).
    2) That swing era bass (when played on all 4 beats) is playing less “legato”, with a short breath between each beat (possibly implying a swing rhythm?) Or maybe just more percussive.

    Both of these contribute to a relative shortness of the “beat”, which gives my dancing body time to resiliate up after every down: tch tch tch tch, whereas my local bands tend to play a sort of muddy long beat that drags down and down and down: tchhtchhtchhtchh.

    Is there some truth to this or is it all in my imagination (assuming that most jazz-influenced musicians have the same faults as I’d rather not be too specific about my local bands).

    Feb 10th, 2015
    Reply
    • Andy said:

      Greg,

      I think you are spot-on with this. One of the problems is that it’s hard to gain an understanding of exactly what swing *is*. This is hardly helped by the word itself has many different meanings, and I find that many people use it to describe ‘songs from the swing and crooner eras’ – so by that definition, by mere virtue of the fact that your band is playing “Mac the Knife”, you’re playing swing. Which is why so many versions of “It don’t mean a thing” … ain’t and don’t. One of swing’s greatest ironies. I think a lot of bands fall into that trap, including many dancer-led bands. Yes, it’s important what you play, but it’s far more important how you play it.

      In truth, what you describe is just the start of it. When I listen to those great early rhythm sections, they’re for the most part doing what you describe – while every single other musician is likewise focussing on rhythms – and those combinations of rhythms … make us dance. With a more lyrical rhythm section, the rest of the band just can’t do this. There’s a lovely quote from Buddy Rich (in response to all the jokes about ‘drummers’ vs ‘musicians’), where he stays that if you take sixteen of the greatest musicians in the world – and put them with one bad drummer, the end result is one drummer, and sixteen bad musicians.

      I think one of the biggest problems is simply that it’s very, very hard to play good swing. Swing drumming, for example, is often underestimated as it seems on the face of it to be comparatively simple. ‘Simple’, however, is not the same thing as ‘easy’…

      I do have a lot of respect for anyone who makes the effort to put a swing band together, and tries to create the right live music for dancers. There are some great bands out there, who have put a staggering amount of work into getting things right. We just need a few more of ’em 🙂

      Feb 13th, 2015
      Reply
  2. […] The Count (Basie) and The Duke (Ellington) are the theme this week. These two have some of the best swing music out there, in particular Count Basie had a great, if not the best, Swing Rhythm section and some rippin’ riffs in his music. There is an interesting article about Rhythm and Swing  here -http://blog.straycat.me.uk/?p=649  […]

    May 29th, 2015
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