Swing's still the thing

Sep 29, 1999 at 12:00 am

Swing, temporarily at least, remains something of a sure thing in terms of commercial appeal. So why shouldn’t veteran practitioners of the style show off their admirable aptitude in a genre some younger listeners might imagine was originated by the Brian Setzer Orchestra or the Royal Crown Revue?

Why not, indeed.

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, as energetic and vibrant a 75-year-old musician as you’re likely to encounter on the stages of roadhouses and concert halls around the world, nods to the sound of his 1947 debut recording with the thoroughly enchanting American Music Texas Style, sort of a sequel to the Louisiana native’s 1997 Gate Swings.

Brown matches his regular rhythm section with a baker’s dozen of horn players, including New Orleans luminaries Nicholas Payton on trumpet, alto saxophonist Wes Anderson and tenor saxophonist Tony Dagradi, for a slinky set spiked with swing and blues familiarities.

Duke Ellington is in the mix, with "I’m Beginning to See the Light" and "Don’t Get Around Much Anymore," both of which benefit from Brown’s sweetly stinging guitar bends and runs and Payton’s typically brash solos. The leader pulls out his fiddle for some gritty sawing on the opening "Rock My Blues Away," a showcase for his burnished, taunting vocals, also heard to fine effect on Jay McShann’s slow-grooving "Hootie Blues," Brown’s own "Without Me Baby" and "Guitar in My Hand," and Percy Mayfield’s rootsy "Strange Things Happen."

"Things Ain’t What They Used to Be," the hard-swinging Mercer-Ellington standard that closes the set, might be a statement of faith, with Brown’s six-string slipping and sliding in tandem with the horn section, and then bursting out for an adventuresome romp over the changes. The tune’s title be damned: In Gate’s world, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And we’re glad.

Roomful of Blues has long carried a torch for the jump-R&B mix that grew out of the swing era and proved a midwife for ’50s rock ’n’ roll. That’s made abundantly clear on Swingin & Jumpin, a compilation culled from the band’s 1977 debut album and two early-’80s collaborations with Big Joe Turner and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson.

Shouted choruses, hot horn solos, call-and-response vocals, chunky rhythm-section moves – this is the real thing, from bouncing Noble "Thin Man" Watts’ opener "Give It Up" to closing ballad "Duke’s Blues," a feature for the touch-sensitive guitar work of then-leader Duke Robillard.

Roomful, a septet until saxophonists Rich Lataille, Doug James and Greg Piccolo were augmented by trumpeter Bob Enos and trombonist Porky Cohen in the early ’80s, sounds like a little big band. But they roar like Count Basie and groove tough as you like, turning up the soul for the start-stop riff of Hank Crawford’s "He Was a Friend of Mine," with Vinson out front on vocals, and encouraging Turner to get as brassy as the horns on his saucy "Cocka-Doodle-Doo."

Cool, cats.