Swing Guitar

Dedicated to pre-bebop jazz guitar.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Why new bands don't sound old.

This was written in response to question about why new bands don't sound enough like the original swing bands:

As a bandleader and musician who's tried SO frickin' hard to get that vintage sound, both live and in the studio, let me share a couple of things I've figured out - God knows I've still got more to learn.

1. The Beat - The "swing" feel of late 30's-early-40's swing is different that the modern jazz "swing" feel of almost all post-1945 jazz. The stacato 4-feel of Swing changed into the the more legato shuffle of post war jazz. All of the modern recordings outside of the "trad-jazz" scene have a modern feel. Even all the great swing soloist's 1950's recordings are all "swingin'" rather than "Swing". It's more than on(or ahead of) the beat vs. behind the beat, but that certainly is true. Three things are responsible for this:
- The ride cymbal/bop drumming: Swing Drumming (from watching Josh Collazo on every gig) involves four-beat bass drum, and four-beats on the snare or time on the hi-hat. Very choppy. Because of the flowing ride cymbal, the choppy four feel was smoothed out. Plus the bass drum left four-to-the-floor duty so it could be free to comp and drop "bombs". The beat lays back because of this, giving that slinky feel that a lot of "groove" dancers like.
- steel bass strings/legato bass: Listen to Walter Page, then listen to Ray Brown. Page goes "dunk-dunk-dunk-dunk" - very staccato, choppy. He's playing his gut strings as hard as he can to project over the (large) band. Now, listen to Ray, he's playing "doo-doo-doo-da-doo," each note blending into the next, very legato. Again the beat will lay back because of this. Guys can play either feel on either string, but steel strings allowed bass players to lay back so they were originaly responsible for the change in sound.
- lack of rhythm guitar: although I'm partial to rhythm guitar for obvious reasons, its essential to a 30's-40's swing feel. Bear in mind that Freddie Green chunked his whole life through the Basie band and "Corner Pocket" doesn't swing like Basie in the 30's-40's. Rhythm guitar helps to chop up the rhythm, but it can't change a whole band playing in a modern style. Oh, and electric guitars don't count. They just do not work timbre-ally.

2.Old vs. Modern instruments - Swing (ie the 30's-40's sound) was largely pre-amplification. The reference point for volume was an acoustic piano - The loudest a band could get had to take into account the maximum volume of a piano. As microphones, sound systems and guitar amps got better and louder, other instruments changed to keep up with their electricifed collegues. Drums in particular, are vastly different today. Today's drums and also cymbals are made to keep up with amplified music - they are decidedly louder. It is impossible to play swing drums on modern equipment. I did two gigs on drums, borrowing Josh Collazo's kit, and got compliments from the other guys on the gig. I go into Guitar Center and sound stupid on their modern kits. (pause for jokes about my drumming) A vintage kit, and one set up vintage (heads, cymbals, etc.) are essential to play the style.
All of the other variations with horns are responsible, but I think drums and bass are the two most important.

3.Isolated Recording vs. Room Recording - The sound of a live band is the combined sounds of all the instruments interacting together in the air and then reaching your ears. The sound of modern recording is all of the instruments mic'd individually, and interacting in the sound system artificially. Appearently the overtones don't ring out right, or something -on one level this is pretty audiofile stuff, most people can hear some difference. The organic vintage sound of Mora's Cd's (www.morasmodern.com), or Swing Session's, or my own Cd is due to room recording. Everyone is the same room, with all of the frequencies interacting organically picked up by one or two mics - just like they did back in the day.
The guy who recorded Mora's and my CD (who also plays trumpet with the Chicago Six) uses a MS stereo pair to get the room sound. If something needs a boost, he has everythig mic'd individually for safety, but 99% of what you hear is just the room sound.

I could write a book about this stuff, so I've had to simplify a bit, but I really find these to be the case. Most musicians don't really bother with the specifics of the genre, but that "Swing" feel vs. "swing" feel issue really prevades every musician. 99% percent of the musicians in this city (or any city) can't play or don't try to play with a real "Swing" feel.
There's a reason some of the same guys show up in the different bands. I find that Western Swing bass players are better for Swing than most jazz players, because they are more dedicated to the style. Hope that helps explain the discrepancy.


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