Finding those Perfect Swing Tunes Part 2

 Some Preamble…

Here’s the long awaited (by me, anyway) part two for my last post: Finding those Perfect Swing Tunes (Part 1, honest) with the extra things that I plain forgot about when I rushed out the first post planned to put in all along. Yep – I’ll stick with that second way of phrasing it 🙂

It’s also a chance to go a little more in-depth with some of the things I said in the last post.

The Story

Something I enjoy in many songs is the overall story that they tell. I don’t mean that in the literal “Here’s a tale about a boy and a girl” sense – but in the sense of a musical progression. An example of one that … doesn’t manage this is Sidney Bechet’s Blues My Naughty Sweetie. It does have a fair bit going for it, a nice enough tune, and good rhythms / rhythmic elements play to… but it just doesn’t progress – it just keeps the same energy and tempo, and simply repeats variations on the same basic refrain. Over and over again. For nearly six minutes.

So it starts like this:

By half way through, it’s progressed to this:

And eventually, it just … ends.

As a counter example – here’s Charlie Barnet’s The Last Jump – which starts off fast and energetic, and builds throughout into something absolutely crazed. Everyone needs to have this track.

There’s a whole lot of reasons I value tracks that do something like this – for one thing, it’s more interesting to dance to than something that just does the same thing throughout. Also – such tracks can be used to lift the mood in a room – if I’m building energy and / or speed, I can make use of this kind of track. Oh – and it has a great ending. Songs which have no real resolution can be frustrating – my personal pet hate being tracks that don’t know how to end, so just…. fade…. out.

It’s still important that the song be (fairly) true to traditional swing structure – I’m just on the lookout for songs that hit that sweet spot of keeping to a nice variety and progression, while still being possible to anticipate in the way the progression and changes work. The Last Jump being a good example.

Live or Studio?

It’s been commented that one of the key difference between many live recordings and studio equivalents is that during the studio recordings, the musicians are making every effort to be technically perfect – whereas during the live recordings, their efforts are focussed more on atmosphere and on the audience. Upshot – many live recordings are more exciting, and are simply more fun to dance to.

Example: Listen to this. All the way through. (Ignore the weird disparity between the video and the audio – there was no footage of this, so the uploaded did the best he could) This is a group of amazing musicians, getting carried away and whipping everything up in to a frenzy. This is where the magic happens.

Note – no, the quality of this isn’t quite what we need for DJing, and the version is a bit too long for every-day usage, but it’s a good example of the difference a live version can make.

Ending

What is the ending of a song like? Most good swing tunes do have decent endings – but not all. There’s the occasional fade-one, and some that just … stop. Here’s a really odd one – Jelly Roll Morton’s “Get the Bucket” – I’ve only found the one version of it, and it does this slightly bizarre thing at the end…

I do play this occasionally, but it often leaves a bunch of dancers with slightly puzzled looks on their faces at the end, which isn’t the ideal outcome.

A number of songs build up to a punch-line of some kind. Take Benny’s Bugle, which builds up to this riff:

In most of the best versions, this riff just repeats and repeats and repeats, building the intensity and atmosphere to reach an amazing ending to the song. As an aside, it doesn’t hurt that this clip is from a wonderfully atmospheric and exciting live version of the song.

However – some songs have this punchline, after which they just … peter out. Take Basie’s Evil Blues, for example, which spends nearly two minutes building to an awesome punchline, half a minute on the punchline itself, then nearly a minute … fizzling out. You can even see it in the waveform, which I’ve included below for, just for no very good reason other than that I haven’t put any pictures in for a while. Moving on….

Evil Blues Waveform

Stuff like this doesn’t make songs unusable – far from it. But these factors are all things I take into account when I’m reviewing music, and in this case, it stops me using the song as often as I otherwise might.

Listen to Each Song… Repeatedly

Sorting music is very time-consuming, but even so, it alway pays to keep listening to your collection. When I’m choosing new songs, I don’t like to add songs to my DJing collection based purely on one play-through – how we listen to songs can be incredibly mood-dependent, and that amazing song which sounded perfect the first time you heard it can start to sound pretty poor second time through. The flip-side is that it’s worth listening to your old rejected songs a while later – that way I’ve found tracks that I couldn’t believe I missed first time around. All that aside, if a song is worth DJing, it’s certainly worth listening to. A lot. If it doesn’t stand that test, you may want to reconsider using it…

To Wrap All This Up

This stuff is all very subjective. As I said in part one – all DJs have different tastes, different ways of looking at things, different criteria – which is a good thing, as it means we all bring different things to the table when we work.

Plus – I don’t have a hard-and-fast checklist of attributes – I try to avoid the “if a track does X, throw it away instantly” kind of criteria – because there are always exceptions to rules like that.

What I’ve talked about in these articles are things that matter a great deal to me – they affect the selections of songs that I choose to play, and how I use them. The clincher is always – how much does the song make me want to dance (and exactly how I want to dance to the song) – but the more I’ve looked into why each song has the effect it does, the easier the selection process has become – it’s changed the way I listen to music, and I hear a lot more in the music than I used to.

As a DJ, choosing good music is only part of the story. But it’s an important part.

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