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Music Review: John Burnett Swing Orchestra – West Of State Street/East Of Harlem

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The first time I ever really paid attention to or appreciated big band and/or swing music was when I appeared in a play set during WW2. I was playing the role of a soldier and at various points I would pop up on stage for a letter home to be read out loud. The penultimate scene took place at a dance to the sounds of the Glenn Miller Orchestra's classic song "Jukebox Saturday Night" after my character had returned from Europe.

Although throughout the play we had used bits and pieces of swing music to act as transitions between scenes or as background to events, in this scene the music became as much a character on stage as the actors. While "Jukebox Saturday Night" is upbeat and high tempo, making it great to dance to, there's also something about it that gives it an air of desperation – have fun now because who knows when (or if) the hell you'll get another chance.

However, I've never really sat down and listened to any big band or swing recordings. While part of that reluctance is based on a dislike generated by listening to the slick orchestrations of music that oozes out of Las Vegas like so much slime, the real reason is there's only so much time in a day and only so much music I can listen to at once. If it comes down to a choice between Willy DeVille and the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the former will win out ten times out of ten.
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Therefore the likelihood of me having picked up a copy of the John Burnett Swing Orchestra's latest release, West Of State Street/East Of Harlem, on Delmark Records on my own were slim to none. So it's a good thing the folks at Delmark persist in sending me albums I wouldn't normally buy, otherwise I would have missed out on a really good CD.

At twenty or so pieces the John Burnett Swing Orchestra isn't the biggest of big bands, but that doesn't prevent their sound from being as potent, or even stronger, than some bands I've listened to with over twice their numbers. Even better is the fact that they don't confuse power with volume. Instead of trying to blast an audience out of their seats, they up the emotional intensity of their playing to match the mood of the music. Now, of course, you can't have a band with something like five trumpets, four trombones, four saxophones, piano, bass, guitar and drums without making a little noise, but that's where the orchestra leader comes in.

The seventeen songs that are on West Of State Street/East Of Harlem are a mixture of the different ways big band music has been performed over the years. From Broadway show tunes ("Hello Dolly"), popular standards ("Begin The Beguine"), and jazz ("Night In Tunisia") the band plays each of them with equal aplomb and enthusiasm. However John Burnett never allows their enthusiasm to overwhelm the song. There's a very tricky balance on display here, as a band leader has to allow his leads opportunities to shine, so he gives them solos, but he can't allow a solo to go on for too long as that will divert the audience's attention away from the band and the song.

In many ways the band is the orchestra leader's (conductor) instrument and he or she plays it just like any other musician would play a trumpet or violin. Yet instead of plucking an individual string to make a note in a song, he selects the section of his orchestra to bring those sounds to life. His focus is on the song, and how to use the various parts of his instrument to make the song sound great. What I noticed most about John Burnett's orchestra was how clear and distinct each instrument was. No matter how many members of the band were playing, I was always able to hear the distinct tones that each instrument was adding to the sound the band generated.

In the past when I've heard other big bands, both contemporary and older recordings, one of the reasons I haven't really enjoyed them that much was that, aside from the lead instruments, it was hard to distinguish individual sounds. Not only wasn't it really that enjoyable to listen to, but it also meant that it was difficult to appreciate the song being played. Burnett and his musicians, on the other hand, have found a way to ensure that this never becomes a problem and you can hear the individual tones that make up their overall sound. It's sort of like hearing each note that comprises a chord on a guitar and the chord as a complete entity at the same time.

For this concert the Orchestra was joined by guest trumpeter Randy Sandke and he delivers some very impressive solos throughout the disc. In fact, all the solos on West Of State Street/East Of Harlem impressed me far more than any other solos I've heard played under these circumstances. Burnett appears to have encouraged his people to take more chances than other orchestra leaders, so there was quite a bit more improvisation than you're liable to hear on other swing or big band recordings.

Aside from Burnett and his eighteen regular musicians the other permanent member of the band is vocalist Frieda Lee. Ms. Lee has a wonderfully mellow voice that is also blessed with an abundance of character. Her phrasing on songs is always spot on, so like every other soloist, when she steps forward to sing, she continues being part of the band's overall sound, instead of separating herself. In fact, there are occasions where it sounds like some of the instruments are "singing" harmony for her.

If you're like me and have never really found the time, or had the inclination, to listen to big band or swing music, put aside your hesitations and make some time available for the John Burnett Swing Orchestra's latest recording West Of State Street/ East Of Harlem. Not only am I sure it will change your opinion of the genre, but you'll find yourself listening to some great music performed by musicians who really care about what they are doing.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.