January 28th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Company tax proposal just made for Trump

EDITORIAL Trump installed but the left refuses to accept it

CANBERRA OBSERVED Greens' footprints all over travel claims

U.S. POLITICS Team Trump to implement new President's agenda

INTELLIGENCE Lame report on Russian interference in U.S. poll

ENVIRONMENT The scientific myth within the Murray-Darling Basin Plan

EUTHANASIA Case for assisted suicide "not made": Daniel Mulino

OPINION Submission is the fit word, Tim, not humility

OBITUARY WA loses NCC founding member, Frank Malone

GENDER POLITICS Safe Schools Coalition versus child safe schools

RURAL LIFE Sandalwood a balm for forgotten farmers

MUSIC Swing low and deep: it don't mean a thing if it don't have that

BOOK REVIEW The tyranny of the offended

BOOK REVIEW Not quite perfect but worth a revisit

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Swing low and deep: it don't mean a thing if it don't have that

by David James

News Weekly, January 28, 2017

What do Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, George Michael, Amy Winehouse, Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones, Brazilian João Gilberto and the second-line street marches in New Orleans have in common? The answer is exceptional swing. The rhythmic qualities that make listeners want to move, or dance, whenever they hear the music.

A New Orleans second-line street march.

One of the great curiosities of the so-called music industry – an “industry” that has frequently had more to do with borderline criminality than artistic endeavour – is that its managers never figured this out. Despite believing themselves to be hard-nosed analysts of what will work commercially, comparatively few of the recordings they have released swing. They simply have not been very good at their job.

Building up the tension all around the beat

To explain, let us examine more closely what is meant by “swing”, which is perhaps better described as “subtle rhythmic tensions” (a far less catchy phrase). Think of a metronome, or a computer click track. It is always perfectly in time.

Then consider how the swinging performers, or bands, deviate from that perfect time. Some of them, such as Sinatra, Michael Jackson or, to an exceptional degree, Amy Winehouse, play consistently behind the metronomic beat. Others, such as João Gilberto, play consistently ahead of the beat. Others, such as Miles Davis, sometimes play ahead of the beat and sometimes behind.

In all cases, what happens is that the listener feels the tension; it makes them feel like dancing, or at least moving.

The minute rhythmic interplays also often occur within the rhythm sections of well-known bands. For example, as the Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts has pointed out, Watts played well behind the beat, bassist Bill Wyman played ahead of the beat and guitarist Keith Richards played on the beat. Watts described it as “dangerous”: it has been that sense of danger that is behind the power of the band.

Another example is the rhythm section of Led Zeppelin. Guitarist Jimmy Page tended to be on the beat and singer Robert Plant tended to be slightly ahead of the beat. Yet listen to the drummer, John Bonham, and you can hear he played behind the beat to an unusual extent, producing a sort of rolling effect that led to the band’s superb feel. Small wonder that when Bonham died the band felt that he was irreplaceable.

Where has it gone?

Much of this has vanished from recordings of popular music, although it is still sometimes present in live performances. One reason is that studio engineers routinely record the musicians separately, so the micro-tensions and interplays between band members cannot occur.

Often, the recording engineer will object if they think a musician is speeding up or slowing down. What they will never do is try to get the performers to swing by deviating slightly from the metronomic beat. Then they add heavy compression of the sound, which further removes rhythmic subtlety.

A failure to swing is one reason why rap is in many ways a travesty of the Afro-American cultural traditions that it claims to champion.

The posture of rappers is that they have rejected inventiveness in melody and melodic phrasing because they want to focus on African-sourced rhythms. But they have done nothing of the sort.

Listen to Stevie Wonder’s occasional rap, then compare it with contemporary rappers and the difference is obvious. Rappers don’t swing, which might have been the only justification for producing music so devoid of melody and interesting lyric. All they have left is social commentary (some of which is interesting).

Swing is difficult to talk about and there is no nomenclature for it, unlike most other aspects of music. It is usually not done consciously. The best exponents of it, when they do discuss it, use vague words like “feel” to describe it. It would be comparatively easy to measure swing using computers, but as far as I am aware that is not done.

The best exponents seem to have something that goes beyond what they have learned or derived from their environment. It comes from within the depths of their character.

Witness perhaps the strangest example of all: jazz pianist Thelonius Monk.

Monk liked to play two adjacent notes at the same time as if he were playing in the cracks; perhaps because in some ways his mind was cracked. He did the same with rhythm.

Sometimes Monk played on the beat, sometimes behind it. But he could also play in the cracks: between the beats, a kind of mega-swing. It is why he is impossible to imitate.

David James is a Melbourne journalist, writer and musician.

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