What comes to mind when I say the words “dance music”? If you’re familiar with the current trends of the music industry, then your first mental images may very well include electronic DJs (meaning DJs that spin electronic music, not electrically-powered robot DJs), underground raves, and massive throngs of people jumping up and down. But this is only this decade’s version of dance music. If we travel back through the history of music, we pass by the synthpop of the 1980s, we say hello to the rise of disco in the ’70s, and we predate the birth of rock and roll as we settle down in the early 1900s. Imagine the scene in America at the turn of the 20th century. The European tradition of ballroom dancing had carried over into American culture, but the sudden rise of jazz out of the South soon took the world by storm. Before anyone knew what was happening, big bands and swing music became the new craze sweeping across the nation, and artists like Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Glenn Miller became household names.
Now, swing music was all well and good, but that died away many decades ago, didn’t it? Well no, that’s not entirely true (certainly not if Brian Setzer has anything to say about it). As I talked about in my post several months ago on Nekta, an artist going by the name of Parov Stelar is generally credited as the pioneer of the latest swing revival movement, this time fusing it with modern electronic music to form a brand new fusion of genres: electro swing.
Brian Setzer has always been a bit of an old soul. He got his big break in the early 1980s as the frontman of a group called the Stray Cats, which gained popularity as a rockabilly revival band. With the music industry having moved on from its Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly days three decades earlier, their music was a nostalgic kick that helped to revitalize the genre. After four years with the group, Setzer began to pursue a career as a solo artist, releasing The Knife Feels Like Justice in 1986, which marked a shift towards a more roots rock type of sound. Then, in 1990, the Brian Setzer Orchestra was formed. As a 17-piece ensemble with a full trumpet, trombone, saxophone, and rhythm section, it was easily his most ambitious project yet. Despite early struggles to keep the extensive group financially supported, they soon signed with Interscope Records and released their landmark album The Dirty Boogie in 1998. The release broke through into the top ten on the US charts, and quickly came to define the retro swing revival throughout the next decade.
Brian Setzer doesn’t just echo the voices of swing band stars like Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington from ages past; he redefines the genre and makes it his own. As the frontman, main vocalist, and guitarist, Setzer commands his handpicked troupe of musicians with gusto. The energy captured in the recordings on The Dirty Boogie are absolutely unreal. By doing nothing more than closing your eyes, you can be transported to the hottest swingin’ jazz club of the ’40s. With a voice that channels equal parts Presley and Sinatra, he is versatile enough to either bring the house down with a fast, raunchy number or lull them to sleep with sweet, dulcet tones.
As the music industry has moved into its newest era and embraced the digital revolution, a number of new styles have emerged as a result of classic genres incorporating electronica influences. Some such fusions have become fairly popular over time, such as industrial rock, space rock, and indie electronic (“indietronica”), but there’s a wealth of richly developed styles that have remained relatively unheard of. Electro swing, for example. Electro swing had been lurking just under the surface of discovery for many years, until Parov Stelar, generally credited as the founder of the genre, began releasing music on his newly created label, Etage Noir Recordings in 2004. After his breakthrough, a community of electro swing musicians quickly began to form and gain momentum, with groups like Caravan Palace building further popularity for the style. Today, I present you with a musical duo that presents a slightly different side of electro swing. Together, vocalist Nathalie Schäfer and producer Gyso Hilger form Nekta.
In 2009, Nekta released their second full-length album, Storybook. With this record, the duo presents a unique blend of old-time swing and deep house elements. Their music is generally more laid-back than that of other, more well-known electro swing groups, which helps to distinguish them from their contemporaries. In the words of Nekta themselves, “…it is hard to say whether the twelve new titles [off of Storybook] are retro, still modern, or already classically timeless. The successful attempt to put Jazz and Pop, acoustic and electronic sound generators, and a danceable club appeal on one hand with the qualities of songwriting on the other under one common denominator.” This sums up the main goal behind this kind of music rather concisely. When combining two very different styles of music into one, the final result (if done correctly) is getting the best of both worlds, and that is exactly what Nekta has done.
Album artwork for Funkengruven: The Joy of Driving a B3
Perhaps it would be unwise to say that Kevin Coelho is one of the best jazz organists this world has ever seen. To make such a bold statement, given the genre’s rich and expansive history, would surely step on many people’s toes. The boy is only seventeen, after all. For all we know, he may not even be allowed to legally drive anything, let alone a B3. Why is it, then, that I can feel him channeling that same energy that we hear from all the jazz and blues superstars we’ve come to love? As a rising star himself, Coelho is a living embodiment of the power of music; it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you come from, as long as you create honest, impassioned music. This is certainly the case with his debut album, Funkengruven: The Joy of Driving a B3.
Right off the bat, it is easy to tell that Kevin Coelho truly is basking in “the joy of driving a B3.” The record starts off by immediately throwing you into the swing of the title track, “Funkengruven.” Coelho teams up with guitarist Derek DiCenzo and drummer Reggie Jackson to form one of the most tightly-knit trios I’ve heard in quite some time. It quickly becomes evident that all three of them are instrumental masters in their own right, and the chemistry between them shines through. As the group starts off by running through the head of the first tune, we are lured in by a relatively calm, modest opening. And then, before you can say “jivin’ jitterbugs,” Coelho kicks it up a notch with his first organ solo on the album. This is one it starts to get real. Although he starts out soft, he continues to escalate more and more, until you suddenly find yourself wondering how such creative ingenuity is even possible. Definitely a fantastic way to kick off the record.