Ron Sunshine & Full Swing do not have a funny name, do not wear silly clothes, do not drown you in (wink! wink!) irony, and did not jump on this big new swing revival as a career move. What Ron Sunshine & Full Swing do--on bandstands over 200 nights a year and right here on their perfectly named "Straight Up"--is swing. Theyve been doing it, hard, for most of the 90s.
They know in their souls what I recently heard Artie Shaw, the now 88-year-old clarinetist who led one of the Swing Eras finest bands (and married some of the Swing Eras finest babes, including Ava Gardner and Lana Turner), say: "They said I played swing. Whats that? Theres no such thing as swing? Swing is a verb."
"Straight Up" swings from the first note of Sunshines own "Enough for You (Mop Mop)" to the last note of "Undecided," which was a hit for Ella Fitzgerald and the Chick Webb Orchestra 60 years ago. Itll make you want to dance, itll downright force you to dance--its rhythmic riptide is that powerful. Theres no pandering here, no musical equivalents of the 1990s Hershey bar martinis--this is, in Sunshines terms, "American popular music," a slice of jumping, blues-drenched good times served "Straight Up."
"Its where blues and gospel and jazz intermingle," says Sunshine. "Its sort of like proto rock and roll."
Ron Sunshine, Full Swings indefatigable leader, lead vocalist and harmonica player, is a Denver native who found his way to this classic form of American music on the streets of Paris, where he worked with the Lost & Wandering Blues and Jazz Band (a still active ensemble whose alumni include singer Madeleine Peyroux).
Hes been putting feet on the floor of New Yorks clubs with the four-on-the- floor swing of Full Swing since 1991, as well as leading a blues band called Smoking Section. I first became aware of Full Swing years ago, when they were playing regular gigs at Tramps, the closest thing New York City has to a roadhouse. Since then theyve played every house worth playing in New York, from the sparkling Greatest Bar on Earth, located at the tippy-top of the World Trade Center, to the dark cave of Le Bar Bat, with the Supper Club, Louisiana Community Bar & Grill, Tatou, Mondo Cane and you name it thrown in.
Theyve watched the new Swing revival grow up around them, watched the dance floors slowly get more and more crowded. "Seeing everybody dance to a song that I wrote is really one of the better feelings there is," says Sunshine, which raises an important point.
Although every song on this album sounds like a standard, only four of them--"Undecided," Fats Wallers "Lounging at the Waldorf," Louis Jordans "Salt Pork, West Virginia" and the Slim Gaillard and King Cole Trio favorite "Hit that Jive, Jack"--are. The rest are Full Swing originals--three by Sunshine, one by Sunshine and saxophonist Craig Dreyer, one by pianist Paul Tillotson, and "Is That the Moon," by the bands original guitarist Joe Flood.
Except for the very 90s reference to chocolate mousse cake in "Enough for You," youd be hard pressed to separate the classics from the originals, which is the biggest compliment anybody can pay to contemporary songwriting. These are real songs built the old-fashioned way--with strong melodies, snazzy hooks, and evocative lyrics that really rhyme. Sunshine counts Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk among his writing influences, along with, of course, the more obvious influences of Jordan and Waller, and he does them proud. Ive been surprised at Full Swing gigs when Sunshine is singing a song Im sure I should know but cant identify; turns out, he probably wrote it.
Sunshines sultry, laid-back singing and punchy harmonica playing fronts a thoroughly thoroughbred ensemble. Much of the success of "Straight Up" is due to the chemistry of Full Swing, the chemistry of a real band that, by close contact, has grown tight like that.
The personnel, Ron Sunshine proudly reports, has been stable for three years. Bassist and founding member Andres Villamil studied with Miroslav Vitous and has performed with Buster Poindexter, Steve Grossman, Allen Toussaint and others. Guitarist Dan Hovey is a leader on his own and has performed with artists such as Johnnie Johnson, Earl King, Roscoe Gordon and Rootboy Slim.
Drummer James Wormworth IV has pounded the pots and pans for the likes of Johnny Copeland, Chuck Berry, Donald Fagen, Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Erskine Hawkins. (Sharp-eyed music fans might be thinking, "Didnt he also play on some classic Lambert, Hendricks & Ross records 35 years ago?" That was his equally talented daddy.).
Craig Dreyer, whose deep blue tenor saxophone brings to mind such greats of the genre as King Curtis and Hal Singer, has played behind a host of bands, from Gregg Allman, Warren Haynes, and Joan Osborne to the Mighty Sweetones and Poppa Chubby. And the rollicking pianist Paul Tillotson, composer of "Tidbits," went from the Curtis Stigers band to full-time Full Swing duty, as well as leading his own trio.
"Straight Up" also includes a handful of guests, some extra horns for some added punch here and there (most notably on "Is That the Moon") and a super- duper guest vocalist, the mysterious Moanin Mary (whose sexy Billie Holiday- inflected singing is kind of familiar), on the sassy "Lounging at the Waldorf."
Look, its great--great, really great--that theres a revival in swing (or, as so many prefer, Swing), great that the grandchildren of the original lindy- hoppers and hep cats are zipping themselves into flouncy dresses and wide- shouldered suits and cutting good old-fashioned rugs coast-to-coast, great that those two Louis (Jordan and Prima) are being revived left and right, great that a lot of people have traded in their Rolling Rocks for martinis (even if they are tutti-frutti martinis), and great that Madison Avenues savants are marketing their schmattes to the big beat.
But the bottom line is the music, and if any band swings harder, more naturally or with more genuine, unpretentious savoir faire than Ron Sunshine & Full Swing, I havent heard it yet.
To put it simply: "Straight Up" flies right.
Lee Jeske is a music journalist whose credits include Rolling Stone, the New York Times, Down Beat, the New Yorker, Billboard, Jazz Is, you name it.