Brian Setzer has made a career out of updating retro styles.
As the front man for the Stray Cats, he updated the Memphis rockabilly sound of the '50s. His complex guitar licks added a surprisingly sophisticated jazzy element to the trio's minimalist rhythm section. The band's early-'80s hits like "Sexy and Seventeen," "Stray Cat Strut" and "Rock This Town" brought the genre back into vogue and revived interest for originals like Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Though no other rockabilly band has since matched the MTV impact of the Stray Cats, rockabilly has remained a potent subgenre ever since.
Setzer was again ahead of the crowd when he formed the 17-piece Brian Setzer Orchestra in 1992. Anxious for a new vehicle that could accommodate his obsession with various vintage sounds, this time he combined Kansas City jump, rock 'n' roll and big-band swing. He further updated the style by putting his fat Gretsch hollow body guitar sound front and center where the trumpet or clarinet would have been. Always a formidable guitar player, Setzer melded a screaming rock sensibility with jazz licks over the horn-section vamps.
It was an odd mix, and initially it was easy to dismiss as a desperate gimmick by a rock star whose sales had been lackluster since the Stray Cats split. But Setzer's live audiences were consistently wowed by a sound that seemed to find the common ground between Sun rockabilly, jump blues, the twangy surf heroics of Dick Dale and the horn-fueled big-band jazz of the '40s. In Setzer's hands, one could hear that all these different musical forms shared a certain rhythmic swing that made them all eminently danceable.
Six years later, the neo-swing movement has exploded on the American music scene, and Brian Setzer now looks more like a prophet than a gimmicky has-been. So it's hardly surprising that the publicity campaign behind both his new album and tour is emphasizing that Setzer was way ahead of all the calculated bandwagon jumpers. The unspoken message: He was neo-swing when neo-swing wasn't cool.
Even within the neo-swing movement, Setzer remains something of a maverick. With his economic clout, Setzer, the most tattooed big-band leader in history, is able to assemble the biggest band of the revival. While most groups have a three- or four-piece horn section, he features the traditional big-band montage of five saxophones, four trombones and four trumpets, plus two bass players and a drummer behind his guitar.
The Brian Setzer Orchestra's latest release, The Dirty Boogie, breaks new ground by being both old and new. Previously limited to resurrecting older tunes, Setzer has now written songs that sound older than he is. "This Cat's on a Hot Tin Roof" combines hot '50s jump over the title of Tennessee Williams' popular drama from that same era, as well as a pun on Setzer's own past. The title track features screaming rockabilly riffs that would have sent audiences of the '40s running to the exits, but which are pulling in increasing numbers of younger fans. He also covers "Jump, Jive an' Wail," an oldie that had found new life as the soundtrack to a Levi's Dockers commercial. Setzer even effectively updates the Stray Cats' "Rock This Town" with his new/old big-band sound.
Of course, Setzer is only one of many swing acts that are providing some of the unlikeliest grooves ever heard on alt-rock radio. But however convincing their fedoras and pinstripe suits may be, many of the young swing bands have roots in punk or ska, and the audiences they attract tend to be loaded with alt-rock expatriates.
Kregg Barentine of the Phoenix-based six-member Swing Tips is just back from playing the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas and is packing for a gig in L.A. The sax player's resume includes a stint in local favorite Aziz and two years with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, which has continued touring even though Miller himself died during WWII.
"The audience we're finding is the alternative-music crowd, young people," he says. "A lot of people you're seeing come into the swing scene are from the ska crowd. It's an extension of the swing music that was happening in the '30s, '40s and '50s, and we do have people from that era that come out to our gigs, too.
"In terms of ska and swing, what's being melded are the happiness of the music, the fast tempos and a little more modern swing horn parts. Some things wouldn't have been done back in the '30s and '40s, the more staccato charts, vamping on the offbeats on two and four," the former Mesa Community College student notes.
Swing has always been a music for dancing, as is the neo-style. "We get a lot of dancers," Barentine says. The new movement sees everything on the dance floor from traditional styles like the jitterbug and Lindy to ska skanking and even punk moshing.
The original swing movement came out of a variety of influences in the 1920s. As public tastes changed in the Roaring '20s, jazz, previously considered a suspect and subversive music, began seeping into more pop hits of the era. Dixieland was blaring out of New Orleans, and Harlem hot jazz was finding new listeners awash with the post-World War I affluence and cosmopolitanism. Jump style from Kansas City used 12-bar blues as its starting point, opening new possibilities. The new medium of radio, in need of material to put on the airwaves, began creating mass audiences over wide geographies. And the automobile gave touring musicians an unprecedented mobility to venues in smaller cities.
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.
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"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.