Oh – the dream of the perfect swing tune. Those gold-dust tracks – those beautiful, amazing tracks which everyone is going to fall in love with, and which cannot fail to set the dance floor ablaze every time they’re used. All you need is a collection filled with nothing but those, and you have it made as a DJ.
It’s nice to dream. Sadly, there’s no such thing – sure there are plenty of amazing tracks out there, but no single track can possibly fit every mood, every moment that you’re going to have to fill as a DJ. The best tracks in your collection can fall completely flat if you play them at the wrong moment. On the flipside, some of the most unlikely ones can work really well if you play them at just the right moment…
Remember – not every song is Lindy Hopper’s Delight. And even Lindy Hopper’s Delight can become Lindy Hopper’s Oh Dear God Not Again if you’re not careful.
Anyway – back to the real world. Sometimes I just hear a song, go YES! and can barely wait until I have a moment to use it in anger (so to speak) Even then, I have learned to be a little cautious – this can backfire. Even these need to be listened to again before use. Preferably a few times. And always listen all the way through.
Failing the revelation-from-on-high approach, we can try to get a little more scientific. So here’s a few slightly more measured criteria I like to use. Bear in mind that none of these criteria alone is make-or-break – and there’s no hard-and-fast formula. These are just a set of things to listen for and balance up when choosing songs.
The Rhythm Section
Those rhythm guys – what are they up to? Rhythm sections vary enormously from band to band, group to group, era to era, but there are some key things. They need to lay down a regular beat – and there are songs where this gets lost (during drum solos, or guitar solos for example)
The other side is that you don’t want them to become too dictatorial with swung rhythms. This is a particular weakness of many modern “swing” recreations. Here’s my favourite horrible example – you have a kind of syncopated shuffle rhythm going on, with absolutely no room to breathe or play. The job of the rhythm section isn’t to make the music swing, so much as to provide a framework around which it can swing as it chooses.
For an alternative we can turn to one of the finest rhythm sections of all time – Basie’s – and you have a much more laid-back, but much richer feel, which gives loads of room to breath and play.
The rhythm section alone is worth half a dozen posts – can’t possibly cover a fraction of it here, so I’m going to move on… but a good chunky, simply rhythm section providing that essential pulse is a good sign.
From a swing-dancing perspective, swing music is all about rhythm. Keeping that in mind is really one of the keys to choosing good songs. Every single member of the band is creating rhythm. All the different rhythms diverge and combine and coalesce into something that makes us want to dance. Listen to this section from the tail end of Lindy Hopper’s Delight – every single element is coming together to create wonderful, irresistible complex rhythms.
I love a textured song – one that changes energy, breaks things up – where different parts of the song have a very different feel. Here’s a couple of examples – both Swingin’ on That Famous Door, but both sounding quite different. The first is decent, but the second has a lot more variety and texture to it. Which makes for a lot more fun factor.
Decent (Duke Heitger)
Awesome (Roy Eldridge)
To me, most of the top swing tunes treat the vocals like another instrument. You can contrast this with the crooner period – Sinatra et al, where the vocalist became the most important part of the music – for the great dance tunes, in the main, the vocalist provides rhythm and texture, just like everyone else. Listen to this clip of Connie Haines singing Old Man Mose… this is all about the rhythm.
Of course – the vocals still have to swing. I have found examples in the past where the track was sounding great – and then an utterly straight-sounding, stilted vocalist has murdered the tune. Sadly, I didn’t keep any examples… so here’s an interesting contrast instead – Clarence Williams’ Mister, Will You Serenade. I’m not 100% sure who the vocalists are, but the most likely seems to be Eva Taylor and Ikey Robinson, I’m going with that. Anyway – this clip has a couple of excerpts, first Eva then Ikey, both singing essentially the same thing, but with radically different styles. Both are great, but Eva Taylor sounds quite straight, and very much on the beat much of the time. Ikey, but contrast, is far more conversational – he just plays around with the beat and with rhythms, and has this amazing free and easy style that feels so much more fun…
Everyone Loves A Good Tune
All the rhythm in the world doesn’t mean much if everyone hates the tune. Enough said.
The sound quality … has to be there. If it sounds too scratchy, or too distorted, remember that it will likely be played in less-than-ideal conditions – quite often with bad acoustics, sometimes using low-quality equipment. If it is bad quality, hunt around for better quality versions. (I have been known to get a bit carried away with this – for one track, I ended up buying it on vinyl, then having to buy a new turntable lead from Jamaica, after which I needed a new turntable pre-amp…. it was an expensive track, all told)
There are a few tracks I keep around just to remind myself of what could be, and dream about the day I can find a great quality copy. Keep them in mind.
This is Not The Definitive List
There are many other things I could say, and probably a lot of things I’ve forgotten to say – and every DJ will have a different take on this. I hope, however, you find it useful, and that it helps give a clearer idea of what to look for. At the end of the day, if a track makes you want to jump out of your chair, grab the nearest person and swing out with them, it’s probably doing its job, but most decisions aren’t quite that cut and dried.