Up and At 'Em: Early Victor Electric Hot Dance Bands 1925 - 1927 documents the early jazz era, that seminal time when jazz was becoming America's official "pop music." Record label executives were apparently as conservative and slow-moving then as now, and had almost completely avoided the jazz fad until the early to mid 1920s. That is, until the Victor Talking Machine Company settled on the safest possible bet, the Caucasian, classically trained, and self-proclaimed "King of Jazz," Paul Whiteman. Most jazz fans resent the title since Whiteman played almost entirely commercial dance music and "jazzed-up" classics. Nonetheless, his mass appeal, good business sense, and use of talented jazz soloists added up to profits that the big labels finally acknowledged.
To enlarge his piece of the financial pie, Whiteman built his own booking company full of like-minded, sight-reading, white boys capable of emulating the "race records" so popular at the time. Since his gentrified jazz was selling so well, Victor went for it and suddenly had a large roster of hot dance bands pumping out strangely similar songs. This CD brings many of these bands together as one thoroughly listenable catalog.
There is also a technological reason this collection is of historical import. Victor was showcasing electrical recording for the first time. This advancement allowed much wider frequency and dynamic ranges, clear definition of multiple sound sources, and overall improved realism. Previous to 1925, musicians had to crowd around and play into a large metal horn which transferred the vibrations to a stylus cutting directly into a warm wax disc; hence the phrase "cutting a record." The new electrical method returned bands to their standard seating arrangements, revealed musical subtleties, and enabled engineers to beautifully balance the acoustics.
Once you pop Hot Dance Bands 1925 - 1927 in your stereo, the historical and technological details won't mean a thing. This is just plain good music. Even if you've never heard these tunes (and you probably haven't, unless you're an obscure collector), you'll feel nostalgic for an era 50 years before your birth. The original jazz attitude wasn't so serious. It was sassy and swinging. It had a smile, a shuffle, and a swagger that it largely outgrew. Remember how the clever unison riffs were always punctuated by a little cymbal splash at the end? Ah, the good old days.
The title track "Up And At 'Em" by Philip Spitalny and His Orchestra is irresistibly hot. Sometimes everything comes together just right to make a truly great song. This is one of those times. Opening orchestra theme, then trombone, trumpet, and reeds trade solos, and then it's unison again. Whoooey! In terms of swagger, don't miss "The Lovin' Johnson Rag" by Ted Brownagle and His Orchestra. You can't help but laugh at the saloon-style piano breakdown and gunslinger trombone solo. The two arrangements by George Olsen and His Music feature intense counter-melodies and internal section writing. Check out the cool group vocal stab at the end of "Too Bad." If "Darktown Shuffle" by the Seattle Harmony Kings doesn't make you want to dance, you've got something seriously wrong.
The final track, "Hurricane" by Jack Crawford and His Orchestra is released here for the first time ever. Painstakingly retrieved from the original metal cylinder, it blends well with the other tracks. Crawford solos on soprano sax, an unusual instrumental choice back then. Though not 100% confirmed, Red Nichols probably played the cornet part on "Melancholy Lou" with Howard Lanin's Ben Franklin Dance Orchestra. Other classic recordings include "Breezin' Along (With The Breeze)", "Stomp Off, Let's Go!", "Sugar Foot Stomp" composed by Joe Oliver and Louis Armstrong, "Red Hot Henry Brown", and "Slippery Elm." This was dancers' music, musicians' music, and for the time.... the people's music. This music really swings. But then, it ought to, they named an era after it.
If you think all jazz reissues are sloppily repackaged versions of the same refrains you've heard over and over, think again. Jazz fans have come to expect the full treatment from Timeless Records: rare collections, meticulous audio restoration, educational liner notes, archival photography, and attractive package design. Hot Dance Bands 1925 - 1927 maintains the same high standard. The collection was compiled by Mark Berresford, who also wrote the discography and liner notes. You certainly get your money’s worth with a total playing time of 76:21. Up and At 'Em: Early Victor Electric Hot Dance Bands 1925 - 1927 is highly recommended to all music lovers.
David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.