Backsters-live_and_jumpin_span3 Indigo_swing-all_aboard_span3 Royal_crown_revue-contender_span3 8_half-happy_feet_span3
May 1999

The Backsters
Live And Jumpin'
Zebra
Indigo Swing
All Aboard
Time Bomb
Royal Crown Revue
The Contender
Warner Brothers
8 1/2 Souvenirs
Happy Feet
RCAVictor

One of the great elements of the so-called "swing trend" is that very few artists are actually talented enough to jump on the bandwagon-great swing is precise and dynamic, and eludes most pretenders. Another element is the freedom of the form-witnessed by four wonderful and dramatically different recent releases by The Backsters, Indigo Swing, Royal Crown Revue and 8 1/2 Souvenirs. Each takes the seeds of swing, and cultivates a unique corner of the jazz garden.

The veteran Southern California quartet known as The Backsters lurks in the shadowy back alleys of steamy swinging blues, and Live and Jumpin' treats listeners to a full-muscled workout. Lead by the wailing sax of Joel C. Peskin and the arch, wounded-tenor vocals of John "Marx" Markowski, the Backsters play dramatic, old-fashioned blues by the classic writers: Otis Rush, Nat Adderley, Jimmy Vaughn and more. This is the stuff of breezy walking bass lines and crazy blues-guy lyrics ("I love my baby like a rootin' pig loves his corn," sings Markowski on "Hold it Right There"), boffo, wailing improvisation (check out Peskin on "Three Times a Fool") and dramatic, rock-solid breaks ("Caledonia"). These are the chord progressions that launched 10,000 blues songs before- but the Backsters keep them fresh, surprising and irresistible. This is hard swinging blues presented as it was meant to be heard-live.

Another semi-traditionalist entry is Indigo Swing's All Aboard. This collection veers away from the more raucous and ragged blues side, and heads for the jazzier wartime radio sound. Lead singer Johnny Boyed boasts the perfect pinched-tenor, trumpet-like croon to carry out the task on tunes like the offbeat shuffle "(Today's the Day) I'm Glad I'm Not Dead" and warbling "Money." The lyrics here also pay homage to the era. "How Lucky" (which recalls Nina Simone's "My Baby Just Cares for Me") boasts: "never made a load of dough/ never been to a Broadway show / but to her I'm an original Romeo," and the lovers of "So Long" met at "a gin-house 'round the block." Although tracks like "Indigo Swing" jump with big-horn energy, the rhythm section of bassist Van Ehlers and drummer Jim Overton is key to the San Francisco quintet's contagious energy. Overton's sizzling workout on "Drinkin' it Up" and awesome railroad track double-shuffle on "What's the Matter Baby," for example, will leave listeners breathless, while challenging them to keep their feet still.

Shaking up their own atomic cocktail which combines a swing base with the relentlessly modern energy of rock and punk is the Royal Crown Revue. The Contender opens with a fiery title track-a wall-of-sound bruiser of thundering drums, staggering horn hits and occasional background bursts of rockadellic energy that lets your speakers know they mean business. From the impossibly fast, precision-timed rhythm-and-horn barn-burner "Salt Peanuts" to the sly, dark walk "Friday the 13th" (archly narrated by bruising crooner Eddie Nichols), the RCR delivers swaggering, relentlessly active arrangements which demand action. There's winking humor and nostalgic delight here as well-from the hipster-swinging spy riffs of "Deadly Nightcall" to Scott Steen's screaming siren trumpet and James Arthur's shaky "Rock Lobster"-recalling guitar riffs on the hyper dramatic "Zip Gun Bop." Daniel Glass plays dark and dangerous drums and Bill Ungerman's rich baritone sax adds to the melee as the hero's "eyes shift side to side" on "Walkin' Like Brando." These vivid, striking arrangements, combined with the pure energy of the seven-member ensemble, make The Contender one of the swing trend's hottest tickets.... and speaking of energy, perhaps the most frenzied, oddball offspring of this rage is the Austin-by-way-of-Paris ensemble known as 8 1/2 Souvenirs (their name comes from the Fellini film 8 1/2 and Reinhardt's tune "Souvenirs"-which may give you an inkling of where this is going). The quintet's Happy Feet is a heady whirlwind of traditional swing styles, early cinematic melodrama, international dance music and more. To offer an idea of the spectrum: "Happy Feet" is a wild romp of ragtime piano, tip-tap dance rhythm, dance hall harmonies sung in various languages and kazoo, and "Kazango" boasts wild west guitar, rockabilly rhythms and an undertone of jungle calls. There's a lot of Marlene Dietrich in Chrysta Bell's lurid, smoky vocal on "Black Trombone," which plays like a twisted blues of saloon piano and devious bass, and a lot of silent movie camp in the Italian-sung "No Lo Visto," with its clip-clop rhythmic drums and '20s feel. 8 1/2 Souvenirs, led by the brilliant and twisted guitarist Olivier Giraud, also injects its brand of international helium into a couple of classics as well: a hyper, dance read of "After You've Gone," and jingly funhouse version of the 1939 tune "Brazil" are among the glorious highlights of this uniquely cosmopolitan, weird, yet sublimely executed disc.

Originally published in May 1999
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