Learning Swing Theory from Andy Mac & Will Dickerson

Swing Theory

SWING THEORY / Medley: DONALDSON-KAHN: Love Me or Leave Me/SHEARING: Lullaby of Birdland. REINHARDT: Minor Blues. Place de Broukère. FURBER-BRAHAM: Limehouse Blues. GREEN-SOUR-HEYMAN: Out of Nowhere. UNKNOWN: Zazu’s Waltz. JONES-KAHN: It Had to Be You. RICHARDS-LEIGH: Young at Heart. BROOKS: Some of These Days / Will Dickerson, Andy Mac, gtr; Ethan Cohn, bs / self-produced album available at Bandcamp

I actually ran across this album by accident while trying to find out, on the Internet, who wrote the song Swing Theory, but I’m glad I did. The Django Reinhardt Sound marches on in this 2016 album by guitarists Andy Mac, British-born and also known as MacKenzie (who comes at you out of your right channel) and Will Dickerson, who was born in Maryland but now lives in Montreal (who attacks your left) and bassist Ethan Cohn. What makes this album special is that both guitarists are adept at simulating the Reinhardt style (though the master still had some technical tricks up his sleeve that they don’t) and that the arrangements are consistently splendid, providing some melodic-harmonic twists and turns that the listener simply doesn’t expect.

Neither guitarist quite has the flash of Frank Vignola or Stocholo Rosenberg, but they don’t have to. They’re excellent musicians and they have the ability to make you smile, something that most of today’s wimpy, non-Reinhardt-influenced guitarists simply cannot do. I am SO sick of listening to guitarists, jazz and classical, who play as if they’re scared to death to break the strings by playing with some force and excitement, I can’t even begin to tell you, so for me a band like this is home cookin’. And the duo really sparkles: listen to the way Mac comes in to double Dickerson on one break in Minor Blues and you’ll be hooked. These two musicians actually listen to one another, and their communication is instantaneous.

Dickerson

Will Dickerson

My one and only caveat is that bassist Ethan Cohn almost seems like s fifth wheel on this set. Yes, he plays the bass fairly well, but he’s unnecessary. Mac and Dickerson propel each other rhythmically, They don’t need no stinkin’ bass, if you know what I mean.

Nor are they mere imitators of Django. They give Place de Brouckère a very contemporary feeling with strong backbeats, and in Limehouse Blues they really stretch their imagination, opening with a medium-tempo funky beat which they continue into the first eight bars of the melody, switching to a straight swing beat on the next 4, then alternating again. In this one, too, bassist Cohn actually has a say, contributing a nice solo while Dickerson plays soft scrubs in the left channel. When Mac comes back in, he tosses in a brief quote from Undecided before moving on to his own improvisation. Very nice touches! Dickerson throws in some rising chromatic chords in his solo just for fun.

I have no idea who wrote Zazu’s Waltz—no credit is given—but it’s one of those minor-key but lively-sounding tunes that seems quintessentially French, and they have a ball with it. The duo uses some unusual modal harmony under the opening few bars of It Had to Be You but otherwise give it to us straight (well, until the improvisations, anyway). They may not have all of Django’s technique, but they certainly have his musical imagination.

Johnny Richards’ famous mid-1950s pop tune Young at Heart surprised me, not because I don’t like the melody but because I’ve never heard anyone try to play a jazz version of it. Dickerson and Mac play with the rhythm, the former giving us a straight 4 while the latter slightly pulls back on the beat while playing the melody. When Dickerson comes in for his solo he’s bending strings and also laying back a little on the beat. Mac answers his half-chorus with one of his own.

Both guitarists give us a bit of “walking” on their guitars before launching into the finale, a lively yet tricky version of Some of These Days, replete with unexpected harmonic and rhythmic shifts. As I said earlier regarding their imagination vs. their technique, ‘tain’t whatcha do, it’s the way howcha do it, that’s what get results. And Swing Theory certainly does that. Great summertime fun jazz, lively and innovative!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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