I Found A New Baby is a monthly column that seeks to shed light on swing music from the past and present, looking at albums from musicians who were once considered the biggest names around, and those who keep the style alive in the present day.
Lionel Hampton made his name as the first virtuoso vibraphonist, but surprisingly enough it wasn’t his first instrument of choice, or even his third. Hampton took xylophone and drum lesson in his youth, and even played fife at school. In his late teens/early twenties he played drums for the Dixieland Blues-Blowers in California and made his recording debut with The Quality Serenaders led by Paul Howard. Considering he was often seen performing juggling stunts while at the drums, it’s little surprise that he caught the eye of Louis Armstrong, who asked Hampton to play vibraphone on a couple of songs, an instrument which Hampton had begun practising on when he moved to California.
From there Hampton made the instrument famous, if not only because the vibraphone was just about ten years old at that point, invented in 1927 by Henry Schluter. It’s glistening, sweet, dreamy, and starry sounds seemed perfect for jazz, particularly the smooth jazz style which grew up alongside the swing era. Perhaps Hampton’s greatest feat as a musician was adding it into his tracks without drawing attention to it and making it feel like a piece of the clockwork of jazz that has been around as long as the trumpet or piano. Take “Flying Home,” which is often considered Hampton’s most famous cut. It begins on a few vibraphone notes that seem to ready the listener before the horns sweep in with the most impeccable style. Hampton’s vibes are graceful here, but also deft and definite when they need to be, only outdone by the famous Illinois Jacquet sax solo that made the song a lasting hit (and also a rare example of a solo which also remains untouched in most other recorded versions).
Recorded with Decca, it’s only fitting that “Flying Home” opens up a collection of Hampton’s best takes while under the famous record label. “Flying Home” gets Hamp: The Legendary Decca Recordings off to a flying start (pun definitely intended), and even for a 2 CD collection that features a selection of both studio and live cuts, there’s arguably nothing else that matches the track’s efficient sweep. The 7-and-half-minute live take in the middle of the first disc does a pretty fine job though, showing us Hampton playing call and response with the audience, repeating one single note over as the crowd claps along. It also showcases Hampton’s habit of stretching tracks beyond their recognizable length, allowing time for multiple solos from each band member. Hamp avoids allowing too much time to be taken up by such cuts, featuring the aforementioned live cut of “Flying Home” and a dreamy 15 minutes version of “Stardust” (featuring Slam Stewart’s unmistakable vocalized bowed double bass lines, among other features).
Hamp has other live cuts here, but the proceedings are kept tight and to the point for the most part. “Red Cross” honks with up tempo drums and sax while “Hamp’s Blues” has a celebratory and communal atmosphere. “Evil Gal Blues” unfortunately falls victim to its age, the recording fizzy and crinkly at points, but Dinah Washington’s vocals are still a undeniable highlight, smoothing out and adding real spoken personality to Hampton’s slower tempos. Elsewhere on “Dancing On the Ceiling” Hampton’s vibes glide along with the relaxed atmosphere, his tone light and exploratory but never needlessly virtuosic.
Hamp’s best features, however, are its hits. “Flying Home” is just thrilling every time you spin it, and “Lavender Coffin” is about as fun a song you can get about preparing for death, compete with plenty of joyful yelps and hollers. “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop” and “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” tinkle into Hampton’s R&B and jump blues stylings, but they’re impossible not to sing along to. All of the content on Hamp doesn’t swing, but that’s the point of a retrospective like this: it offers a take on Hampton’s career, ranging from his extended live cuts, to his serene and gentle moments (“Moonglow,” Memories of You”), to songs where he sounds like he’s just having a blast with his band mates in the studio (“Hamp’s Boogie Woogie,” the blistering six minute, two-parts of “Rockin’ In Rhythm”). Decca was fortunate to get so many great and iconic cuts from Hampton’s career, and while Hamp doesn’t give the full picture, it’s a great place to start with one of the most famous, fun, and dedicated jazz musicians of the last century.
“Are you in shape?” is certainly a question that will be answered after dancing through the Hot Sugar Band’s debut album, Swing For Dancers. On that album the Parisian band ran through a variety of classic tracks by Django Reinhardt, Fats Waller, and Count Basie, keeping pretty much everything up-tempo and full of energy. It was exhausting and thrilling, but perhaps in the best possible way. On their second album “are you in shape?” seems to be posed in the title with a reference to the longer tracklisting, which boasts some 17 tracks (or 18 if you count the hidden track). Are You In Shape? is a longer journey, but the Hot Sugar Band also offer a greater variety of tempos, providing takes on a few swing classics while also taking on some more obscure numbers.
Unsurprisingly though, Are You In Shape? hits best when it’s swinging fast. It’s fastest tracks – “Beethoven Riffs On,” “Zooming at the Zombie” – are almost too high-energy and speedy to take in properly with just one listen, requiring repeated spins to appreciate fully. The former track weaves about, virtuosic as the title might suggest, but not without a sense of humour, most notably when the band stops and Malo Mazurié’s trumpet honks like a farmyard animal. Their take on some of the most famous swing tracks are definite high points too. They slow down Jimmie Lunceford’s “Whamm!!!” to just the right tempo so as to allow some air through song while their take on Lucky Millinder’s “Savoy” arguably outdoes the original, if not just for its tidiness and clarity (but without compromising on the rollicking final section).
Elsewhere Mano Razanajato’s bowed bass vocals bring to mind Slam Stewart on the Django Reinhardt cut “At The Jimmy’s Bar” before Vincent Simonelli’s nimble guitar works comes into play, while the few introductory piano notes of “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me” are just as exciting and full of possibility as all those that follow. But on Are You In Shape? the band also show off their slower range too, allowing for each musician to really express the voice they bring to their instrument. Their take on Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” finds the absolute perfect tempo, not allowing the track to be swallowed by the darker, minor key sections. Mazurié’s trumpet wails and sounds gorgeously tinged in both light and dark. When they slow right down for “St. James Infirmary” each player bellows and yearns like the cut was their last take ever, while the fittingly sweet texture of swept drums and baritone sax on “Sugar” makes it a delight to listen to every time.
Not every cut hits perfectly, like “Cavalerie” which is a little too virtuosic and meandering for its own liking while “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?” seems absent of real feeling and longing, a track of fairly little consequence compared to the urgency of all those surrounding it. But with such a generous tracklisting on Are You In Shape?, these missteps are mostly easy to pass by. Are You In Shape? is the Hot Sugar band opening themselves up, trying out new styles , tones, and approaches. Seven of the tracks here offer vocals to the mix while the tempo range goes from 68 to 270bpm, which goes far beyond the range on Swing For Dancers. Are You In Shape? offers a plentiful amount of tracks to the band’s already hugely enjoyable catalogue, and it remains little mystery why they are the most sought after band on the swing dance circuit.