Swing Set

New releases by Brian Setzer and Squirrel Nut Zippers test the staying power of the neo-swing movement

Bands under the tutelage of leaders like Duke Ellington, the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman, and Paul Whiteman began to use the new syncopated style in varying ways. The common denominator was using marching-band instruments like cornets (later trumpets), saxophones and trombones, in new timbres, and playing styles with lots of blue notes.

As swing grew, the six-to-eight-piece combos grew larger. Styles matured in the '30s, and subgenres began to take shape. Big bands with 15 or more players had reed sections that combined clarinets and a variety of saxes, while horn sections featured multiple trumpets and trombones.

Holding it together were the rhythm sections of drums and bass, keyboards and, initially, the Dixieland banjo. As guitars got loud enough with electric amplification to compete in volume, they replaced banjos for a more sophisticated sound. Eventually, full orchestras with violins and other classical instruments evolved for the pleasure of the dancing public. Live broadcasts on the radio networks were shared national events.

By World War II, swing defined American pop and united the musical sensibilities of the country. After the war, however, the style fell into increasing disfavor. Urban nightclubs no longer held the audiences as returning GIs married and moved to the suburbs. The more serious jazz musicians, such as Coleman Hawkins and Miles Davis, dissatisfied with the increasingly cliched music and searching for more challenges, began evolving the bebop and hard bop styles that left much of the general public confused and disengaged. Swing became a nostalgic backwater.

But in the '90s, the excitement was rediscovered. As alternative music became increasingly mainstream, musicians again began looking for new places to go. Neo-swing bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Royal Crown Revue, and Indigo Swing revived the style with a hip, postmodern feel. The influences place big-band leader Cab Calloway alongside Oingo Boingo, Madness, and UB40.

"There are a lot of jump swing bands who are coming out of a punk stance," Barentine notes. "There's a lot of attitude in this, and you see that in the lyrics. The lyrical content deals with more modern issues. In the old days, it was more innuendo."

One of the best-selling of the neo-swing bands, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, releases its new album, Perennial Favorites, on August 4. Perennial Favorites is the follow-up to HOT, which has sold more than a million copies.

Even though it digs deeper in time toward more of a '20s and '30s sound, SNZ, like the best of the neo-swing movement, has no interest in simply being a revival band.

"We realized that there was something going on that had been dismissed by mainstream jazz eons ago, that was incredibly powerful and intense," says SNZ multi-instrumentalist Tom Maxwell. "We're building our aesthetic house on this bedrock, but we're not at all interested in copying somebody for sentimentality or anything that implies stasis. We're interested in making our own mark on it, honoring what came before, understanding it and learning from it, but then continuing to do our own thing with it."

The Squirrel Nut Zippers add a variety of influences beyond swing jazz, from Kurt Weill to Eastern European Jewish klezmer and even Carribean calypso.

"I don't even believe in terms like retro," Maxwell says. "I see a lot of people who wholly want to participate in a joyous experience. We get an astonishing diversity of people and ages.

"Music is a vehicle for emotional expression," he says. "It's much more easily marketed if it's codified into fads and trends. But whatever instrument you use and how you decide to play it, if you're an artist, it's only a tool for expression."

The Brian Setzer Orchestra is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, August 5, at Celebrity Theatre. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.

Squirrel Nut Zippers are scheduled to perform at Cajun House on Saturday, August 8, with Bio Ritmo. Showtime is 7 p.m.

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