Ron's Swing CD Reviews


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Ron's Essential Swing CDs

The CDs in the essential list were chosen to reflect some of the best and most popular swing dance CDs that I've found.  There's still no guarantee that you'll like them.  Everyone has different music tastes.  What kind of swing you like may also depend on what style of swing you dance, and how advanced you are.  But I tried to choose excellent, high-quality CDs that I believe to be well-loved by many swing dancers (not just me!).  I recommend that they be considered first by anyone starting or expanding their swing CD collection.  

Ron's recommended essential swing CDs: 

I've expanded on this list below for various categories of swing music.  For other lists of popular or essential swing CDs, see the links section. 

 

Swing Celebrity Picks

Swing instructors, swing musicians, swing DJs, and other swing "celebrities" volunteer their favorite swing CDs. See what Bill Borgida, Lavay Smith, Paul Overton, Jesse Miner, Peter Loggins, Bill Elliott and others recommend.

Also see CD recommendations by various national swing DJs on the Lindygroove site.

 

Swing Recommendations by Category

Categories of swing dancing music 
Music that Lindy-hop swing dancers like to dance to falls in various subcategories of swing music.  The definition of "swing" music is often a matter of fierce debate.  Here I get to use my own definition.  I define it broadly as any music that has a swinging rhythm, and has an emphasis on notes 2 and 4 in a measure.  The swinging rhythm is a rhythm of the eighth notes in a measure that goes (say it out loud): dah-di-dah-di-dah-di-dah-di.  In written music, these notes are usually written as eighth notes with the notation "with a swing feel" so that the musician knows to "swing" them.  The swinging rhythm is often driven by the bass and percussion, but can be carried by the vocals as well.  Some latin-rhythm songs can have a swinging rhythm, but have emphasis on notes other than 2 and 4, so they aren't "swing" songs by my definition.  Some blues songs sound like they swing, but their rhythm is what I call a shuffle rhythm (when a rhythm goes:  dah-d'dah-d'dah-d'dah) so they aren't "swing" songs by my definition.  By the definition of swing being a rhythm, not a specific type of music (like Rock or Classical), pretty much any type of music can swing, but most of it falls into Jazz or Blues.  Note that Big-Band era Swing music is a subset of swing (per my definition), and it is what I call "capital-S Swing", to distinguish it.  

Most of the swing music that East Coast and Lindy Hop swing dancers dance to basically falls into one of the following subcategories.  Many of the categories are based on those found in the excellent All Music Guide, and the definitions are heavily derived from the same source.  Note that artists can often be classified in more than one category.  

Jump Blues/50's R&B
Jump Blues refers to an uptempo, jazz-tinged style of blues that first came to prominence in the mid- to late '40s. Usually featuring a vocalist in front of a large, horn-driven orchestra or medium sized combo with multiple horns, the style is earmarked by a driving rhythm, intensely shouted vocals, and honking tenor saxophone solos -- all of those very elements a precursor to rock & roll.  Out of the jump blues of the 40's came the R&B of the 50's.  Key swing-danceable artists: Louis Jordan, Louis Prima, Ruth Brown, Wynonie Harris, Ella Mae Morse, Roy Milton, Buddy Johnson, Treniers, Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Amos Milburn, Roy Brown, Nellie Lutcher.  Recommended albums: Rock and Roll & Rockabilly
The early rock and roll sound.  Key swing-danceble artists: Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Stray Cats.  Recommended albums: Western Swing 
A type of country-western music first popularized in the 30's that  incorporated traditional pop melodies, jazz improvisation, blues, and folk.  Key swing-danceable artists: Bob Wills, Milton Brown, Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys.  I don't have any specific album recommendations.

Early Jazz
The earliest styles of jazz.  New Orleans style jazz music is a direct descendant of marching brass bands and, along with Dixieland, tends to de-emphasize solos in favor of ensembles featuring everyone playing and improvising together.   It features fairly basic harmonies and steady rhythms.  Later early jazz is more sophisticated.  Key swing-danceable artists: Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, Mora's Modern Rhythmists.  Recommended albums:

Big-Band Swing
The popular style of big-band music played from about 1935, when Benny Goodman's Orchestra caught on, to about 1946. Swing differs from New Orleans jazz and Dixieland in that the ensembles (even for small groups) are simpler and generally filled with repetitious riffs, while in contrast the solos are more sophisticated. Key swing danceable artists: Glenn Miller, Count Basie (early),  Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Cab Calloway, Charlie Barnet.  Key modern artists: Bill Elliott, Eddie Reed.  Recommended albums: Modern Jazz
This includes anything from the speedy, hard-hitting rhythms of be-bop and the mellow simplicity of piano jazz to soul jazz.  What ties it all together is a foundation in the blues, a reliance on group interplay and unpredictable improvisation. A lot of modern jazz swings, but little of it is good for dancing.  Key swing danceable artists: Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Gene Harris, Count Basie (50's and later). Recommended Albums: Vocal Jazz
Vocal Jazz is jazz where the vocalist takes the center stage. Usually, jazz vocalists improvise wordlessly and "scat," or they take liberties with the melodies and lyrics, creating their own variation on the song.  Jazz-blues singers are also in this category.  Key swing-danceable artists: Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Ernestine Anderson, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn, Dakota Staton, Shirley Horn, Maxine Sullivan, Lavay Smith, Betty Roche, Jimmy Witherspoon (for vocal blues-jazz), and Diana Krall. Recommended albums: Retro/Neo-Swing
These bands were at the forefront of the neo-swing fad of the late 1990's. The style of some of these bands can be considered to be more Rock than Jazz or Blues.  Many swing dancers distain this style of music.  Key artists: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Brian Setzer, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Cherry Poppin Daddies, Royal Crown Revue, Alien Fashion Show, Atomic Fireballs. Recommended albums:

Modern Pop Swing and Jump Blues
This is a special category I created to describe artists that have a much more classic sound than the bands in the Retro/Neo-Swing category.  This category includes most of the bands that play for swing dancers today, but certain other modern bands I've put in Vocal Jazz, or Big-Band jazz instead.  Key swing danceable artists: Indigo Swing, Swing Session/Stompy Jones, Campus Five, Big Time Operator, Steve Lucky, Casey MacGill, Jellyroll, Lily Wilde and Mighty Blue Kings.

Traditional Pop
This is a style of pop music from before the rock and roll era.  In traditional pop, the song is the key -- although the singer is the focal point, this style of singing doesn't rely on vocal improvisations like jazz singing does.  A lot of this music swings.  Key swing danceable artists: Andrews Sisters, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Harry Connick, Peggy Lee. Recommended albums:

Other
A catch-all category for any other rock or pop songs that swing, from Aerosmith to Queen to Van Morrison. I have no specific album recommendations.

 

Blues Recommendations

Many swing dancers like to dance or listen to slow swinging blues music.  Blues Dancing is what some swing dancers do when the tempo of the music falls below approximately 120 BPM and the music has a sexy bluesy "feel".  The style of blues I recommend for blues dancing is not jump blues, country blues, or electric blues.  It's a slow swinging, jazzy variety of blues.  Most of it is West-Coast Blues or Jazz Blues.  A lot of the jazz artists I already buy for their swing songs play some excellent slow blues as well, often on the same album.  Key slow-swinging blues artists: Jimmy Witherspoon, Jimmy & Jeannie Cheatham, Gene Harris, T-Bone Walker, Ray Brown, Amos Milburn, Joe Williams, Johnny Hodges, and Mose Allison.

Recommended albums:

 

How to find good Swing CDs

If you are reading this, you probably have more than a passing interesting in swing.  Maybe you are looking for a few swing CDs for yourself for listening, or for dancing.  If you have been looking for good, danceable, swing CDs, like me, you know hard it is.  Swing CDs are scattered between the Jazz, Blues, Rock, Vocals, and Oldies sections at your local record store.  Many of these bands you can't even find at your local music store, but only on-line. Its hard to figure out which jazz and blues CDs really swing.  Some of the big-band stuff is boring, or muffled and scratchy. The neo-swing sounds like ska.  The jazz singers sing mostly ballads. What to do? 

These recommendations may be obvious, but here are some things that work for me: 

  • Read my detailed reviews.  Look at the ratings summary.
  • Read other on-line reviews.   Keep the reviewers biases in mind.   
  • Read the reviews and ratings on the All-Music Guide.
  • Ask your friends, your dance instructors, and your local DJs.
  • Buy the CDs of the bands that pass through town that you like.
  • Go to local new or used record stores that allow you to listen to their CDs, ask the salespeople at the stores for suggestions.
  • Listen to or read the playlists of swing radio shows.
  • Browse your favorite on-line music retailer, like Amazon.com.  Look at their Vocal Jazz Essentials and Swing Jazz Essentials lists. 
Be careful about big-band and other CDs with songs recorded in the '30s, '40s and early '50s.  The quality of the sound can be disappointingly low.  However, modern remastering techniques used by the major record labels can do wonders for the sound.  Avoid budget collections by no-name record labels who buy up rights to old songs, sometimes lesser-known versions of good songs, do not do any remastering, and put out a shoddy collection with no liner notes, bad songs, and bad sound. 

My favorite method for finding good swing CDs is the last of the ones listed above.  Using RealAudio, you can often listen to 30 to 60 second portions of some or all of the songs on a CD.  I really recommend Amazon.com for their selection, their prices, their search engine, their speed, their customer support, and for their special features.  

There are two features I particularly like at Amazon.com. One special feature they have is that many of the CDs have a "Customers who bought this CD also bought" section, for both the title and the artist.  For example, as I write (Aug. 99), I see that customers who buy Indigo Swing's Red Light! CD, also tend to buy Royal Crown Revue, Bill Elliott, Lavay Smith, Steve Lucky, and Big Time Operator.  This is a great way of finding the more popular bands that are similar to the one you like.

The other thing I like about Amazon.com is their speed and their search engine.  With other on-line retailers, getting to the right CD takes time.  With Amazon.com, I can simply type "indigo aboard" and Indigo Swing's All Aboard CD comes right up.  Or I type "calloway hep" I get Cab Calloway's Are you Hep to the Jive?  Easy!  Try it:

Search: Enter keywords...

Amazon.com logo

From Amazon.com's music search page you can also search for particular song titles, or words in a song title. 

 

More about me, these reviews, and how to submit CDs

My name is Ron Bloom.  I am a music lover, CD collector, regular swing dancer and part-time swing music DJ by night (and an engineer by day).  I learned to dance East-Coast swing and Lindy Hop starting in January of 1998 in Chicago and have been taking lessons, going to workshops, dancing socially, and buying swing CDs ever since.  I now live in San Diego where I dance and work as a swing-DJ at a couple of different venues.  I am originally from Minneapolis.

When evaluating someone's recommendations, I think it is useful to know their biases. So here are mine.  I provide these swing CD reviews from the point of view of a Savoy-style Lindy Hop dancer and swing-DJ.  If you aren't a swing dancer, or you are a swing dancer, but you dance West-Coast or East-Coast swing rather than Lindy Hop then these reviews are probably not for you.  The CDs I reviewed are primarily the CDs I own, and I think I have a fairly broad swing taste.  But while some may prefer the truly jazzy swing, I also like jump blues.  I like some authentic big-band recordings of the '30s and '40s, but I prefer modern recordings with better dynamics and less static and noise.  I don't like a lot of the neo-swing bands like Brian Setzer and Cherry Poppin' Daddies and the like.  Their music tends to be all fast, driving, monotonous, in-your-face, and they rock more than they swing.  But I like a lot of other modern swing bands like Indigo Swing or Swing Session.  I don't tend to like rockabilly and western-swing as much, but I like '50s R&B quite a bit. I like Jazz vocalists a lot, and I prefer songs with lyrics.  I don't like much traditional pop or lounge swing.  I like some modern jazz, but I prefer songs to have more melody than many bop songs have. Finally, be aware that my preferences aren't rules, just tendencies.  See some of my sample playlists from typical DJ nights.

I prefer to dance to songs in the tempo range of 120 to 170 BPM but some people definitely prefer higher.  High tempo songs are great for the energy, but I find listening or dancing to a lot of fast songs in a row monotonous and draining.  Slower tempos give me more time to improvise, listen and play with the music. But I definitely like a fast one now and then. 

To get song BPMs, I now use a program I downloaded off the internet (called winBPM) where you tap the spacebar in time to the music.  Its quick. 

I don't pretend to be a jazz and blues music expert, nor an expert reviewer.  Like many of you, I got into swing music by getting into swing dancing.  Besides swing music, my tastes are centered on rock/pop with a little jazz, blues, alternative, and classical, but not much top-40, dance, metal or country.  I didn't start with a large interest in jazz.

As part of being a swing music DJ, I've really gone all-out to find good swing CDs. Although there are a number of internet sites out there that provide swing music recommendations and reviews, most seemed incomplete to me.  I decided to prepare this site and share my opinions of the swing music in hopes of helping others out there find good swing-dance music.  I figured that since I'm listening and analyzing my CDs anyway, I might as well write about them!  I know I open myself up to a lot of disagreement, but I hope that my readers take the reviews as they are meant to be: one person's opinion.  Also, I know your favorite local band is great, I'm sorry if I didn't think they sounded so great on CD--keep on supporting them! And if you are in one of the bands I rated low, I'm doubly sorry.  Maybe we'll connect better on your next album.  And remember that even bad reviews can be good publicity.

I'd like to acknowledge the following people who have provided me with a lot of good information and recommendations: San Diego's Meeshi Sumayao, Ithaca's Bill Borgida, San Francisco's Paul Overton, Seattle's Jen Holland (Hep Jen).  And thanks to Emily Belt for loaning me many of her CDs to review.  And thanks also to Linda Matthews for sharing her many favorites with me.

Note that as of September 2004, due to declining interest on my part, I am no longer adding new reviews to this site.  I am no longer accepting unsolicited swing CDs for review.

Contact me at rjbloom@hotmail.com.

 

Links - Other sources of Swing CD reviews and info:

On-Line CD Retailers: 
General: Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, CD Universe, to name a few

Good written reviews, recommendations, lists, radio shows and discussion (links up-to-date as of September 2004): 
Lindygroove - Swing DJs recommendations that have played at Pasadena's Lindygroove.
Yehoodi - Listen to their radio show.  Thursdays feature programs from swing DJs all over the world.
Swing music guide by Austin DJ Lawrence Page - Excellent reviews and swing CD essentials.
Paul Overton's Recommendations - Excellent swing CD buying recommendations from well-known San Francisco instructor/DJ, with an emphasis on modern, jazzy swing
Swing Celebrity Picks - See what Bill Borgida, Jesse Miner, and the others recommend
ATOMIC online reviews - Reviews of modern swing bands
Lindyinthepark.com - Excellent reviews and music discussion from the sponsors of San Fran's famous Lindy in the Park venue.
Jive Junction - Over 350 CD reviews, mostly big-band
Amazon.com's essential jazz swing - Good recommendations from Amazon.com
Twin Cities Swing CD Reviews
- (select "CD reviews") - Lots of CD reviews
DJ Ron's Sample Playlists - Playlists from some typical nights that I've DJed.
Top 50 Swing Songs - Top 50 dancer-requested swing songs, as informally compiled by NYC promotor/DJ Lo-Fi Lee based on inputs from Yehoodi discussion board sometime in 2002.
Commonly Played Swing Songs - As posted by Nathan Malone on Yehoodi in 2001.
Bill Lehman's Reviews from Jitterbuzz (DC site) (select "music") - 82 CDs reviewed/rated as of 3-18-01.  Stale site as of early '04. Good reviews.  He likes fast music 
CD Recommendations - Recommendations by Florida "DJ Timmay"
Swing CD Review book reviews - My reviews of two books that reviewed swing music.

Other sites: 
Nocturne.com - 30 CDs reviewed/rated as of 3-18-01.  Stale site as of early '04.
Swingin' Montreal's CD reviews - 22 CDs reviewed/rated as of 6-18-03.

Toronto Music Guidelines and Recommendations - good advice to bands & DJs 
Bo Lewis swing radio and reviews - a large number of mostly superficial reviews

 

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Contact me: rjbloom@hotmail.com