Not every artist is willing (or able) to try something new 60-something years into their career. But that’s exactly what jazz pianist and singer Ben Sidran is doing on Swing State (CD, digital), the first instrumental album of his illustrious career…and yes, it does beg the question, “What took so long?”
Photo Credit: Trixie Waterbed
Recorded August 25 and 26th 2021 at Madison, Wisconsin’s DNA Studios, Swing State features Sidran’s longtime bassist Billy Peterson, as well as Sidran’s son (and occasional collaborator) Leo on drums, on eight tracks that span a tight forty two minutes. Only one track breaks the six minute mark, making “span” the wrong verb in the previous sentence. But while brevity may be the order of the day on this disc, the album never feels short or shortchanged. Instead, it has a good amount of variety while sharing a somewhat common approach.
Starting off on a high note (no pun intended), Swing State opens with a rather ironic take on the Tin Pan Alley standard “Lullaby Of The Leaves,” which Sidran and friends here turn into something with pep in its step, a song far too jumpy to lull anyone to fall asleep.
Swing State continues its upbeat feel with its second song and titular tune, a Sidran original that would get the juke joint jumpin’ if all the juke joints hadn’t all closed during the pandemic.
Next, Swing State gets a bit serious — though not moody or mellow — with “Laura,” the iconic David Raskin tune written for the 1944 movie of the same name, and is (interestingly) best known for the vocal version with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. While far more laid back than the tunes that came before it, it has the same off-the-cuff kind of vibe.
Things get peppier (though not as peppy as before) for Swing State‘s cover of the classic “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” (Though, really, how could it not; giving this song a sad makeover would be a crime against nature.) But while this isn’t an especially inventive take on this favorite, it does give Billy Peterson a brief but well-played moment in the spotlight with a clever bass solo.
Swing State then lives up to the first word of its name with Sidran & Co.’s take on “Stompin’ At The Savoy,” the standard best known as a Benny Goodman classic (even though it was composed by Edgar Sampson). It’s by far the grooviest tune on the album, and I mean “groovy” in the truly old school way, not like some guy who can’t remember how many times I’ve seen The Grateful Dead.
Next, Sidran and Co. take on “Over The Rainbow,” the classic tune from The Wizard Of Oz. Though, sadly, while hearing a bumpin’, upbeat version of this tune might’ve been interesting, they instead play it safe, and soft. Which isn’t to say it isn’t still an interesting take on this familiar tune, or that it doesn’t fit the rest of the album, just that it’s hard not to wonder what might’ve been.
Thankfully, Swing State redeems itself with a loose but groovy take on the classic “Tuxedo Junction,” made famous by Glenn Miller And His Orchestra….though Miller’s version never made me think of a cartoon cat slinking through a rainy city the way this one does. (That’s one cool cat.)
Swing State then comes to a close…
with an unusual move: An alternate take on “Laura” that adds a lot more groove to the tune courtesy of Leo’s percussive playing. It’s a subtle difference — and one that makes it a little odd to have both on the same disc at the same time — and, to be honest, I prefer the second version more than the first, if only slightly, but it still does a nice job of bringing this engaging collection to a close.