by Ian Mann
January 12, 2020
It’s great fun and the singing and playing are highly accomplished throughout. There's an obvious love & respect for the source material but the inventive arrangements add plenty of colourful twists.
The Swing Commanders
Peter Riley – bass, vocals
Dan Smith – guitar, lap steel guitar, vocals
Claire Roberts – violin, piano, vocals
Siena Lloyd – tenor sax, clarinet, piano, accordion, vocals
Stuart Smith – drums, vocals
Here’s an album that I’ve been intending to take a look at for a long time. It was very kindly given to me by violinist/vocalist Claire Roberts back in September 2019 following her successful one off duo performance with pianist Guy Shotton at the Wall2Wall Jazz Festival in Abergavenny. The pair were billed as the Claire Victoria Duo and my account of their performance can be read as part of my Festival coverage here;
Originally from Carmarthen Roberts studied music and composition at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music and at Bangor University. She remains based in Manchester, “it’s the kind of place that just sucks you in” she told me.
Roberts is a highly versatile musician who was written for classical ensembles large and small but who also plays fiddle and sings with the Manchester based Texas swing ensemble The Swing Commanders. She also performs duo gigs, usually in the company of a pianist, under the name Claire Victoria, these ranging from lounge events to more formal jazz club and festival appearances.
The Swing Commanders is a well established brand that has recorded a total of four albums beginning with 2012’s “Bright Lights”, followed by “Good Vintage” (2014), Steelin’ Back! (2016) and now “In Transit” (2019). They are are a hard gigging ensemble who perform at a wide variety of events right across the country and who seem to have accrued something of a cult following. They even have their own T shirts which are available to buy at gigs - something of a rarity in the jazz world.
The Swing Commanders motto is “if it swings, they can, and will play it!”. As a result the band’s repertoire covers a broad range of styles from ‘Great American Songbook’ classics to traditional and swing era jazz, to Western (Texas) Swing to novelty songs. The majority of their material is sourced from the 1930s, 40s and 50s but with the band emphasising “this isn’t a nostalgia trip or Rat Pack karaoke, it is fine songs played joyfully and brilliantly”.
Although all the members of the band are also involved in other areas of music their love of their chosen material shines through in their singing and playing. They describe all of the songs that they choose to perform as being “well crafted”.
“In Transit”, presumably named in honour of the band van, offers a typically diverse selection, with many of the songs being very well known. The Commanders put their own stamp on them with their blend of ebullient musicianship and Andrews sisters style vocal harmonies.
Opener “Darktown Strutters Ball” (Brooks) takes a swing era jazz classic and gives it a Western Swing style arrangement complete with Dan Smith’s lap steel guitar. This is a piece that is generally heard as an instrumental so it’s interesting to hear the lyrics sung by one of the male vocalists (everybody sings and the lead vocalists aren’t individually credited) as the girls provide effective harmonies. Lloyd, on clarinet, and Roberts on violin, enjoy brief instrumental cameos on this lively and spirited curtain raiser.
“Love Me Or Leave Me” (Donaldson/Khan) features a lead vocal by Siena Lloyd. Instrumentally the piece features a raunchy tenor sax solo from Lloyd and another excursion on violin from Roberts. Piano and guitar are also featured prominently.
“Opus # 1” (Oliver / Garris) is a lively paean to the virtues of swing with massed, male led, vocals and more raunchy tenor, all fuelled by Stuart Smith’s hard driving, swinging rhythms.
The Mercer / Mancini classic “Moon River” finds the Swingcos in more reflective mood with the melody initially sketched on guitar and Lloyd’s wistful sounding accordion. There’s a similarly yearning quality about Roberts’ lead vocal and its accompanying harmony as the girls double up. An instrumental passage, again featuring the sound of the accordion, is followed by a male lead vocal and lush female harmonies, with the vocal lead changing hands several times before the close.
Also written by Mercer “I’m An Old Cowhand” is more of a novelty number, treated here to a Western Swing style arrangement, featuring a male vocal, Andrews Sisters style harmonies from the girls, and Roberts’ vivacious violin. Dan Smith unleashes the lap steel once more (in his guise of ‘Steely Dan’) and there’s a brief cameo from Lloyd on clarinet. The whole thing is blatantly silly – but terrific fun!
The instrumental “Flamingo” (Grouya / Anderson) acts as a vehicle for Lloyd’s earthy Texas style tenor sax.
“St. James Infirmary Blues” takes the Commanders back to New Orleans in an intriguing arrangement featuring a male lead vocal, female harmonies and even yodelling, as the group re-locate the tune into very different musical territory. The piece also includes features for violin, guitar and the ‘tribal’ style drumming of Stuart Smith.
“Besame Mucho” (Velazquez) was one of the pieces sung by Roberts at Abergavenny, and it’s her sultry lead vocal here in an arrangement that makes effective use of guitar and accordion. Dan Smith on guitar and Roberts on violin are the featured instrumental soloists.
Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” is probably as modern as the Swingcos get, with Roberts sending up her classical background on violin. There’s also some Jerry Lee Lewis style piano, Berry style guitar and a male lead vocal as the band deliver the song fairly straight, albeit with a variety of flourishes from various sources. One thing’s for sure, the performance loses nothing of the energy of the original.
Also from the early rock ‘n’ roll era comes “Blueberry Hill” (Rose / Stock / Lewis), a song that was a massive hit for Fats Domino. The Swingcos arrangement makes rich use of male and female vocal harmonies that recall both the Andrews Sisters and the later doo-wop era. Lloyd’s tenor sax weaves it way very effectively into this rich tapestry of vocal harmonies.
The album closes with the traditional “Cotton Eyed Joe”, once performed by Bob Wills and latterly a hit for the Swedish band Rednex. Roberts’ violin leads the Swingcos foot stompin’ ‘hoedown’ version of the song with Dan Smith also weighing in with some nimble guitar picking. There are some typically vivacious vocal harmonies from the group’s members as they tackle the old chestnut with an admirable gusto, even giving Bob Wills a name-check at the close.
“In Transit” is a little outside my usual listening zone but there’s no denying that it’s great fun and that the singing and the playing are highly accomplished throughout. The group demonstrate an obvious love and respect for their source material but their inventive arrangements nevertheless add plenty of playful and colourful twists.
The ideal place to hear The Swing Commanders would undoubtedly be in the live environment where the energy and joie de vivre of their performances would become even more pronounced and the multi-instrumental versatility and virtuosity of the musicians, something of a feature of their live shows, best appreciated.
As I said they gig widely, so check out their schedule at http://www.swingcommanders.com if you fancy an enjoyable and energetic party experience.
Meanwhile Claire Victoria Roberts is set to release a solo album, “Cheating Hearts” in January 2020. Check out her personal website here;