Tuesday, 15 March 2016

What is swing music? A personal view

Swing is a particular rhythm which is very simple - yet not really.

The rhythm is this:

The Quintet of the Hot Club of Paris - Sweet Georgia Brown

So it's not really very difficult to understand, to play, to appreciate swing. 

But the fact is it wasn't used until the twentieth century - wasn't popular until less than 100 years ago. Which I find interesting - swing seems to be one of the those inventions that is so simple and obvious that it needs a genius to discover. But once it was discovered, that rhythm tore through mass popular music and was dominant for a couple of decades.

One place I see it is in the transition from the solid foursquare left hand rhythm of ragtime piano to the swinging left hand part on stride piano: here is Fats Waller:

Still a lot of syncopation (and now improvisation) in the right hand but this new rhythm. Indeed, my own definition of swing proper is that it is an evolution of ragtime that retains the use of syncopation (triplets) in the treble part, but uses this differently-stressed version of 4/4 rhythm in the bass part.

Indeed, listening to Waller, I thing swing should perhaps have been called 'spring' - because there is a sense of springing-off from the first beat of the bar: 

Anyway, swing sounds simple - it is simple - but it is almost impossible to write down using using musical notation. Which I presume is why it took so long to discover. 

You just have to hear it, then do it.

But this means that it was also fiendishly difficult to program into a synthesised drum machine. I had a drum machine, back in the early 1980s, and it could do almost anything - but not swing. 

Swing rhythm only really began to work in electronic music when sampled, instead of synthesised, sounds became usual.

The rhythm is still reasonably popular - and has its own genre Electro-Swing. 

And here is Caravan Palace - a French band consciously revisiting The Hot Club of Paris Quintet sound: