‘Swing” may be the all-inclusive label for the music played by groups such as the Brian Setzer Orchestra, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. And the label--especially since Voodoo Daddy was featured in the film “Swingers"--obviously has useful marketing value: Each of the groups has had an album in the Billboard Top 100, and the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ second album, “Hot,” has sold more than 1.3 million copies.
But “swing” doesn’t exactly describe what these bands are actually playing. Like the many young jazz players focusing on post-World War II bebop, the swingsters are fascinated by a revivalist point of view, and each has its own take on swing-related music forms.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers are far and away the most intriguing. Most of the band’s third album, “Perennial Favorites,” in fact, is inspired by ‘20s styles: New Orleans jazz, a taste of klezmer, a bit of Django Reinhardt, some early Ellington-influenced ensemble writing and a singer deeply affected by Billie Holiday. The Zippers can play, however, and their focus clearly seems to be on making their own creative variations rather than simply offering rehashed dance rhythms.
The Setzer Orchestra--the only new swing ensemble that employs a full big-band complement of players--is a talented aggregation. But on its latest album, “Dirty Boogie,” the group leaves its instrumental skills largely unexplored, sticking mostly to brisk, energetic riffing to frame Setzer’s guitar. It’s not a bad idea to have a guitarist lead a big, swing-style band--and it’s one that almost never happened during the swing era. But the result doesn’t quite deliver, with Setzer’s ‘50s-style, blues-based playing sounding oddly anachronistic against the orchestra’s ‘30s-based phrasing.
The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy albums are similar, featuring seven- and eight-piece ensembles with three- or four-man horn sections backing jivey vocals. In both cases the musical sources trace most directly to vigorous ‘40s groups such as Louis Jordan’s urban blues jump bands.
The Daddies’ album--an assemblage of tracks from their first three releases with a few added songs--sports some suggestive lyrics and occasionally interesting musical textures. And Voodoo Daddy impresses with its especially crisp ensemble work and the atmospheric lead singing of guitarist Scotty Morris. But the focus is clearly on style rather than substance. Call the albums by both Daddies effective music for the dance fad of the moment.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good), four stars (excellent).