This may sound like a left-field introduction to this exceptional album by Glenn Crytzer, but bear with me: have you ever heard any of the classic big bands of the 1930s as recorded by the Associated transcription service? (Technically, the company was known as “Associated Music Publishers” and in 1936, their office was located at 25 West 46th St, Manhattan.) The recordings made by Associated sound very different from the standard 78 RPM singles that were commercially released by the various labels, major and minor, and they also sound very different from the other transcription services at the time, like Thesaurus, Standard, or MacGregor. The Associated recordings all sound like they were made in a huge studio space, with lots of reverb, and plenty of sonic space around the instruments; they’re incredibly “live,” as an engineer might say. When you listen to the Associated recordings of, say, the John Kirby Sextet, Teddy Wilson, the Ray Noble Orchestra, or that rather amazing 1934 Joe Venuti big band date (with Louis Prima and Red Norvo), just to name a couple, there’s a very specific kind of a disconnect happening. You don’t quite feel like you’re listening to historical recordings from 80 years ago, but you know they’re not newly-recorded either. They seem to exist in a unique space all their own, one that’s completely timeless.
That’s the same way that this album landed upon my ears: it doesn’t quite feel like any kind of a recreation, rather it seems like some contemporary scientist who specializes in both sound recording and astrophysics found a way to send a microphone drone into the past and make new recordings of historical big bands. I had a similar sensation when I watched the 2013 re-release of The Wizard of Oz, in which the classic 1939 film was re-jigged somehow for two 21st century movie technologies, digital 3D and IMAX. (I’ve also heard the original soundtrack adapted for 5.1 surround sound on DVD.) The 3D IMAX Oz was fascinating and highly illuminating. Naturally, going forward, I would still want to re-watch The Wizard of Oz in the original 1939 format again – this might have been just a one-off experience – but that it gave me a whole new way to look at a classic. And that’s what this album does, it allows us hear vintage big band swing in a whole other way, auditorily speaking, and takes classic music and makes us hear it in the audio equivalent of 3D IMAX – it’s a quite a wonderful, unique sensation.
The combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar is consistently startling, to the point where we can say that the music is being re-imagined rather than re-created. I keep feeling like some collector friend of mine stumbled across a set of previously undocumented Associated transcriptions recorded in the immediate pre-war period. In some cases, where the tune is very familiar, I feel like these are newly-discovered versions by alternate bands, like “Jive at Five” being played by Charlie Barnet rather than Count Basie, say, or Alvino Rey playing the central guitar part on “Solo Flight” with own his orchestra back around the same time that Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman introduced it. And this “Well Git It” makes me wonder what that classic flag waver might have sounded like if it came from the band book of Jimmy Dorsey rather than Tommy. Other tracks make me feel like I’m discovering some previously unknown local local or territory band that never made it into the history books or the discographies.
Some of Glenn’s arrangements truly sound like a wrinkle in time: the North American popular song “I Get Ideas” originated in 1927 as an authentic and famous Argentine tango titled “Adios Muchachos.” In 1951, it was adapted into “I Get Ideas” (with most of the tango rhythm extracted), wherein it became a hit for both Tony Martin and Louis Armstrong. Glenn’s treatment sounds like if some early swing bandleader – say, Alex Hill, or maybe the Mills Blue Rhythm Band – somehow got a hold of the 1951 lyrics (by Dorcas Cochrane of “Again” fame), even though they weren’t written for many years. There’s more than a hint of Louis Armstrong in Jason Prover’s trumpet solo at the heart of it, but more like Armstrong’s 1930s big band, the one led for him by Luis Russell, rather than the groups he recorded with in the 1950s, and Crytzer’s vocal here is clearly part and parcel of the 1930s idiom.
And I find myself surprisingly impressed by Glenn’s originals; normally I try to encourage contemporary musicians and singers to avoid the temptation of writing their own original songs if only because the overwhelming majority of them are lousy at it. (Make that extremely lousy at it!) But Glenn has succeeded in his highly commendable goal of creating new songs that sound like they were written in the late 1930s and recorded by bands of the period (if only on Associated Transcriptions). “Just Like a Broken Record,” for instance, really sounds like something that Larry Clinton would have played in a 1938 Vitaphone short – or on a 1938 buff Bluebird. (So does “Marche Slav”; I had a hard time believing that was a new arrangement of the iconic 1876 Tchaikovsky piece, not a transcription of Clinton or Les Brown’s Blue Devils or some other historic band that specialized in “swinging the classics.”)
There are also plenty of surprises in the vocal department: Hannah Gill is a name new me, but a formidable singer who sounds so authentic to the period that I don’t think she would even mind if I referred to her as a “band canary.” (That term has somehow become un-PC in the millennial era, go figure.) I know Dandy Wellington, as does anyone who has attended any kind of swing-centric event in New York, but mainly as a dancer and an emcee for contemporary retro-burlesque events – in fact, so much so whenever I hear his name and his voice, I expect to see a woman start taking off her clothes. Clearly he’s developed into the most perfectly appropriate male singer for this band on both ballads and novelties (especially “Swing My Soul”). And Glenn also captures the idiom very well, adding vocalist to the list of many hats (and caps) that he wears, along with bandleader, arranger, conductor, composer, lyricist, and guitarist.
I’ve possibly made too much of a fuss over the way this music plays with notions of chronological time and not enough about how the music is about time in the sense that it really swings – that Glenn and his bandsmen play with a lift, a drive and a danceable imperative that’s all too rare in the 21st century. Glenn Crytzer has, in fact, achieved something of a temporal miracle, in assembling 17 musicians and singers who have so perfectly absorbed the classic swing idiom that it’s like a language they can speak without any trace of a foreign accent. Astrophysicists may insist that time travel is impossible, but now I have cause to wonder.