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The Definition of Swing

It’s a key characteristic of jazz, and here are six prime examples

Ted Kooshian

Ever since I was in the 7th grade, I have had a passion for jazz. I have always listened to and enjoyed a wide variety of musical genres – classical, pop, soul, rock, etc. – but the incident that had a huge impact on my life, and turned me into a future “jazz musician,” was the day my junior high school band director played me an Oscar Peterson record.  Not only was I blown away by Oscar’s obviously incredible technique, but his sense of “swing” really spoke to me – every note is placed in exactly the right moment in time. Swing is such a crucial part of jazz – it gives a sense of propelling the music forward, and it’s hard to put into words how good music feels when it’s truly swinging.  Here are six examples of swing that genuinely move me.

Oscar Peterson and Sarah Vaughan
“I’ve Got the World on a String”
Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio (Verve, 1957)

I could have picked any of hundreds of Oscar tracks to demonstrate music that is really swinging in the best possible way, but I chose this one because of the added benefit of the always grooving Sarah Vaughan.  Having Joe Pass, Ray Brown, and Louie Bellson playing doesn’t hurt the feel, either.  Everybody’s swinging, and Oscar’s and Joe’s fills and solos are perfect. Oscar’s performance – his time feel, and his deep-rooted blues influence – is always amazing.

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Eddie Harris
“The Shadow of Your Smile”
The In Sound (Atlantic, 1965) 

Another favorite swingin’ track!  Ron Carter and Billy Higgins are locked in together like they’re one entity.  When the band is playing the heads, in and out, there are instrumental breaks at the ends of phrases. The swing feel carries through the silent breaks, as the listener anticipates what’s coming next.  There’s very little that’s flashy or virtuosic in the track – it’s tasteful, melodic, and swinging.  Cedar Walton and Eddie take one chorus each, and then play the head out – the tune fades out over a coda turnaround vamp, almost like they couldn’t end the tune because they were having too much fun. 

Jeff Hamilton Trio 
“I Love Being Here with You”
The Best Things Happen (Azica, 2004)

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These guys are in the pocket!  Another case of every single note in the right place.  Jeff is a master of this driving shuffle/swing feel, and pianist Tamir Hendelman swings hard, in that Gene Harris / Oscar Peterson manner.  There’s a great chorus where Tamir plays a “shout chorus” and trades 4’s with Jeff, and bassist Chris Luty takes the bridge. I love how Jeff accents the breaks during the shout sections with his bass drum. This performance and arrangement of the old Peggy Lee song is infectious.

Frank Sinatra and Count Basie 
“Fly Me to the Moon (Live Version)”
Sinatra at the Sands (Reprise, 1966)

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I don’t think an article about “swingingest tracks” would be complete without a mention of the Basie Band, kicked along by the outstanding drummer Sonny Payne.  I’m a big fan of Sinatra’s voice and his swing feel, and this live album with Count Basie, at the Sands in Las Vegas, may be my favorite Sinatra album.  Basie’s sparce piano playing, as opposed to Oscar’s florid style, different as they are, both undeniably swing hard.

George Benson
“Beyond the Sea”
20/20 (Warner Bros, 1985)

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This cut is the only jazz track on an album of primarily 80’s pop music, but it showed that Benson still had that swing feel.  His vocal combines that feeling with some pop sensibilities, but the big band on this track definitely evokes the Basie Band.  And no wonder, with a killing horn arrangement by Frank Foster, and Freddy Green’s signature guitar comping.  This song features a swinging shout chorus, and then a swinging guitar solo by George, with him scatting along in his trademark style. 

Oscar Peterson and Stan Getz
“I Want to be Happy”
How Long Has This Been Going On? (Pablo, 1978) 

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I added another Oscar Peterson track!  I couldn’t help it.  This one is remarkable because there is no drummer, and yet the band is as tight and as swinging as can be, because of everyone’s impeccable sense of time and fantastic swing feel.  Once again, Ray Brown is on bass, this time with the exceptional Herb Ellis on guitar.  The way they, and of course Oscar and Stan, play together and hold the time together at this tempo is terrific. Their internal metronomes are really tuned and in sync.

Born in San Jose, California, pianist/keyboardist Ted Kooshian grew up in the Bay Area and started playing piano in the 2nd grade. He moved to New York City in 1987 and since then has worked with Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Edgar Winter, Marvin Hamlisch, Sarah Brightman, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, and Il Divo. On Broadway he’s performed with such hit shows as Mamma Mia, The Lion King, Aida, Come Fly Away, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Spamalot. He has performed at the Detroit Jazz Festival, the Syracuse Jazz Festival, the Sun Valley Jazz Festival, and the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival, as well as festivals in Germany, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. In addition to leading his own groups and projects, Kooshian has been a member of the Ed Palermo Big Band since 1994.   

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