various artists,
Black British Swing
(Topic, 2001)

Subtitled "the African Diaspora's Contribution to England's Own Jazz of the 1930s & 1940s," these 24 tracks hail from the Jazz Collection of the British Library National Sound Archive. All that historical document jazz aside, this is a fine collection of swinging music that, when listened to in the context of the accompanying 40-page booklet, is also quite moving.

The lion's share of this CD goes to Ken "Snakehips" Johnson, whose West Indian Dance Band is heard on 11 tracks, and whose three-man rhythm section is heard on four more. The album starts off, however, with "Tap Your Feet," a single 1931 track from the Spike Hughes Orchestra with Leslie Johnson, and it's a killer. Filled with great solos, rhythmic complexities and eighth-notes traded back and forth between sections, it begs to be heard in stereo.

Then Ken Johnson's 1938 tracks kick in, beginning with "Washington Squabble," which shows off an assortment of fine solo work, with the ensemble definitely taking a back seat. Betty Dale provides the vocal in "Please Be Kind," and she has a nice way of lagging behind the beat that recalls Billie Holiday. "Snakehips Swing" swings from minor to major and back again, and there's a lively "Exactly Like You." The arrangements in all of these Johnson tracks are quite inventive, as "The Sheik of Araby" and "My Buddy" prove.

The tracks recorded just two years later show the band with a smoother sound, and their versions of "Tuxedo Junction" and "Ida" almost approach the "sweet" bands that were growing popular then. Among those sweet swing songs are two by Arthur Young with lyrics by, of all people, William Shakespeare (with whom Young didn't have to share royalties). "Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind" and "It Was a Lover and His Lass" are fairly silly, with mellow vocals by Al Bowlly, and it's no wonder they never became standards.

The four tracks with rhythm section are similar to other small group jazz being done at the time, and are reminiscent of Benny Goodman's work with Teddy Wilson, though there's no clarinet on board. It's smooth and understated, solid if uninspired small group swing, though a little bass and drum heavy.

There's only one track from the Lauderic Caton Quartet, "The Jumping Jive," but the novel instrumentation makes it interesting, with guitar and trumpet the lead voices, backed up by piano and drums. There follow three tracks by Cyril Blake and His Jigs Club Band, recorded in a live club setting in 1941. They're tight sextet numbers, and on "Rhythm Is Our Business," Biggs shows off some Satcho-style vocal chops. These tracks are great fun, in part because of the live ambience. At one point you'll hear a patron ask for a beer.

Frank Deniz and his six-man Spirits of Rhythm are represented by "Soft Winds," which boasts some strong solos, and the CD ends with three tracks from Leslie "Jiver" Hutchinson and His Coloured Orchestra, the second of which, "Big Top Boogie," contains some fine piano work from Yorke de Souza (also heard on the Ken Johnson tracks).

The booklet is well worth reading, filled with fascinating background details about the musicians. Some of their fates were tragic. On March 8, 1941, Ken Johnson's band was performing at the Cafˇ de Paris nightclub in London, when the building was struck by German bombardment. Johnson was killed, as were another band member and numerous patrons, and many in the band were severely injured. "Jiver" Hutchinson died in 1959 when his band's bus turned over. Fortunately they left behind some fine music, and this CD package does a much appreciated job of letting us hear it while telling the stories of these obscure but superb musicians.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 29 June 2002

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