The Biggest Little Band in the Land

COMPOSERS: John Kirby Sextet
LABELS: ASV
PERFORMER: John Kirby (b), Charlie Shavers, Franky Newton, Emmett Berry (t), Buster Bailey (cl), Russell Procope, Pete Brown, George Johnson (as), Babe Russin (ts), Billy Kyle, Claude Thornhill, (g), etc
CATALOGUE NO: CD AJA 5304 AAD mono Reissue (1937-45)

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The current revival of interest in swing music and associated phenomena should, by rights, lead to an overdue reassessment of the John Kirby Sextet’s reputation. Unlike many contemporary small groups – the Bob Cats, the Benny Goodman Quartet et al – Kirby’s band did not have the luxury of a big-band safety-net; their unusual mix of blues, show tunes, popular songs and jazzed-up classics had to sink or swin entirely on its own merits.

And swim it did, most famously in the Onyx Club with the celebrated core line-up (front line Charles Shavers, Buster Bailey, Russell Procope) that flourished between 1938 and 1942, and which provides 20 of the 25 tracks selected for this retrospective.

Posterity, however, has been less than kind: the band’s ‘tailed-coated jazz’ has been routinely dismissed as too polite, too close to cabaret, for ‘serious’ listeners, and Shavers’s arrangements of Grieg, Donizetti and Beethoven dismissed as mere gimmickry.

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To late-Nineties ears, though – thoroughly accustomed to such eclecticism and less concerned with the ‘authenticity’ that obsessed Forties jazz fundamentalists – the Kirby Sextet’s music sounds fresh as paint: jaunty, neat arrangements are ornamented with zesty solos, and the whole is infused with a degree of subtlety, originality and tastefulness to which contemporary bandwaggon-jumpers like the Squirrel Nut Zippers can only vainly aspire. Chris Parker