Unswung heroes

I am gratified that what might have been seen as quite an opaque post  regarding the serious business of epistemology, and possibly a bit obscure regarding even its main subject music, should have hit the right buttons with some readers regarding humanness, holism and the limitations of analytic thinking. I’m especially gratified because, as usual with me, it takes the form of an analytic examination. To shake the foundations I should really have told you to listen to some piece of arcane jazz repeatedly until enlightenment came… something like the sound of one hand clapping in triple time, maybe.

This post is more of the same. No new insights, except to build on my exposition of the phenomenon of swing to show how – without any formal theory – the complexities can be applied in increasingly subtle ways to form the character of an entire piece of music. I hope your ears are tuned in.

Let’s start with Glenn Miller again, who if not the King of Swing (that was Benny Goodman) was at least a prominent member of the Senate. The following clip is (IMHO) the best of the three versions of the ballad At Last his orchestra recorded. It’s a brilliant arrangement, inventive and harmonically glorious. It also demonstrates the whole swing thing well, including a helpful contrast in bars 3-4 where “straight eights” (ie not swung) are used for dramatic effect. If you start it now you can relive the lost world of romance…

But listen what happens when, eventually, the vocal begins. Do you get that sense of looseness and sentiment, which goes through both male and female parts to the very end of the song? What’s actually happening is that the singers do the whole thing without swing, whilst the band is still Dump-tying away behind. It’s quite hard to do consciously, as my 1st altos and 1st tenors are finding attempting my saxophone transcription, and I suspect the original singers did it quite unconsiously. Who would have thought that two people holding hands could skip and walk at the same time and still look beautiful?

When rock and roll hit the scene it was, of course, the driving rhythm that changed the world of popular music.

“It’s got a back-beat, you can’t lose it”, of course. But it’s also got something else I only noticed quite recently. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear that Chuck Berry’s vocal and guitar are, for the most part, chundering away in straight eights. But simultaneously pianist Johnnie Johnson is swinging his bar-room piano like anything. The drummer, emphasising the back-beat, seems ambiguous regarding swing. The result? A sense of off-balance forward motion that neither straight nor swing rhythm alone would achieve. Now one might argue that Johnson had just had (as was common, it seems) too much to drink. But that same not-quite-either-type groove contributes to the success of more recent stuff too.

I don’t know if Status Quo are well known outside the UK, but they were a psychedelic band that re-invented themselves as a perennial live act doing straight 12-bar rock. And the single that really broke big was this one:

Even now, whenever I hear it, I’m unsure whether it’s straight or swung. But for that very reason (in my view) it’s compulsive dance music. But I seriously doubt if these Essex boys could answer the question coherently – though Francis Rossi’s family made the best ice-cream you could get in that part of the world.

Undoubtedly drummer Ginger Baker would give an analytical account of his own playing. Despite his cockney origins (and hell-raising reputation) he’s actually a technically very literate musician. It’s appropriate to use the band Cream as an example since bassist Jack Bruce died last month. But it was actually Eric Clapton, in an interview, who said that Ginger was such a good drummer because of his sense of swing. That surprised me because, although Baker has jazz roots, Cream was a power trio, the precursor of “heavy metal” rather than anything one would normally associate with the word “swing”. But he does swing, sometimes so subtly that you only hear it from the whole “feel” of the piece, rather than easily “parsing” the swing rhythmically. Listen to the percussion on this (after the 5/4 bolero introduction):

The swing is minimal, but is what makes the song sound “just right”. Baker himself says that his sense of time is “a gift” – you either have it, or not, and it can’t be taught. That’s another way of saying that, although he’s quite able to articulate what he’s doing analytically, the “theory” actually follows the experiential “knowledge”, rather than explaining it.

My last example is intended to show that, by pointing to the most un-technical of drummers, Ringo Starr. He famously refused to do solos, unlike Ginger Baker, who would do them for twenty minutes at a time. But purely by feel, the fourth Beatle could swing on what was, ostensibly, a “straight” piece, thereby turning it into something magical and mysterious:

You can best hear it on the hi-hat cymbal (left channel) which has a triple-rhythm as pronounced as you could wish, even though much of the rest of the drumming (and the rest of the arrangement) is straight. The resulting rhythmic ambivalence is what turns Lennon’s nonsense-song into something that gets under your skin (or under mine, at least, for the last 47 years).

The final point I want to make is that this whole business of swing – a minor matter in the scheme of even musical things – in all its subtle variations, is usually employed pretty well unconsciously by musicians of all educational levels, and is certainly appreciated unconsciously by audiences often totally unaware of its existence. And there is no analytic theory that can adequately explain it, let alone be applied in order to create (predict?) music that “really” swings (as opposed to some dehydrated and formulaic imitation of it). Yet its effect on the music is holistic: a piece doesn’t “contain swing” – it swings, in its entirety. And the only valid understanding of it – its entire meaning – is the experience of it.

I’m not sure, in the light of J S Bach, that I fully endorse Ellington’s conclusion that “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”. But if it ain’t hasn’t, though the meaning may be equally valid, it is fundamentally different.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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