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April 1999 Pick of the Month


 
Swing Hard Swing Often
Artist: Jason and the Gmen
Label: True Tunes
Length: 42:53 tracks/ 10 songs + 1 slight reprise

Here's One (sample)
Girlie Girl (sample)
Lida Rose (sample)

Have you ever wondered what Tony Bennett would sound like if he had sold out to Jesus instead of Vegas? Or even if the Chairman of the Board himself, Frank Sinatra, had found faith and turned his talent and attention heavenward? Jason and the Gmen's swing outfit is about as near as you'll ever get, short of Harry Connick Jr.'s imminent conversion. In fact, there is nothing in the Christian community that comes close to comparing with the authenticity of what Jason and his pack are doing, except some of the more lounge inspired numbers Carmen was doing back in the Eighties. If Brian Seltzer Orchestra and the Cherry Poppin' Daddies are today's hip version of swing, Jason and the Gmen definitely offer your granddaddy-o's variety, straight up and uncut with vintage sounds galore. They even sound like they are having a heap load of fun doing it.

Even though he'd like to be, Jason Harms as the lead vocalist is no Frank Sinatra. Then again, who could be? It's often best not to compare to the incomparable. If you don't, you'll find Harm's old-fashioned style to be quite fashionable indeed, and not at all passé. His real affection for the old sounds is clearly translated into numbers where he croons and scats in fine form with the requisite charm and swagger. Using two guitars, a bass, drums, tympani, vibes, percussion and drums, the band that backs him weaves a tight spell of swinging lounge sounds which is especially noted on the two  instrumental tracks, the laid-back "Search for Summer," and the upbeat "G-Jive." Of particular note are Jason's brothers, Jesse Harms on bass and Isaac Harms on drums, who together create a tight, optimistic rhythm worthy of a happy shuffle or two on the dance floor. If I got to play producer, however, I would have pulled the stand-up bass licks even more forward into the music, instead of letting them wallow too far in the background. A bigger budget would also have helped flesh out the overall sound more fully.

Jason Harms also serves as the group's principal songwriter, and the few songs he offers here are entirely and seamlessly functional. The album's bulk consists of cover songs, including two from musicals: "Lida Rose" from the Music Man and "Surry with the Fringe on Top" by Rogers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma.  "Leaning into You" is a mellow story of a man who likens his blessed life to an old hickory tree, and a new collaboration coupling Harm's music with a poem that John Piper, the author of "Future Grace," wrote for his wife. The album's two largest highlights include the now ubiquitous song, "Sixteen Tons," in which the central figure laments:

      You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
        Another day older and deeper in debt
        St. Peter don't you call me ‘cause I can't go
        I owe my soul to the company store.

The other is "Here's One," which is a traditional spiritual tune given a swinging face-lift. The album opener, it stands apart as the only moment of really obvious faith-sharing in an album dedicated to more obviously human forms of romance. Sung with great conviction, you may also want to declare:

      Talk about a man who do love Jesus, here's one.
        Ever since I heard that gospel story,
        I've been walking up the road to glory.
        Talk about a man who do love Jesus, here's one.

Although the title Swing Hard Swing Often might seemingly set you up for an album that is more rocking and harder-edged than what is delivered, this smooth collection of vintage tunes has great generational appeal. Jason and the Gmen have been mimicking and creating their own authentic swing style jazz for almost a decade now, and show no signs of quitting any time soon. To some their sound will remain a mere novelty like some cute throwback to the old days, but the hordes of fans that pack the Cornerstone tents and Minnesota concert halls to see them live and in person know better.

Steven S. Baldwin     (3/21/99)

What comes to mind when I hear this disc?

My girlfriend and I, in full formal wear, sitting in a candlelit restaurant, while this music plays softly in the background. The sound is very reminiscent of acts such as Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, and just seems like it would fit in such a setting. Lyrically, there are less overtly "Christian" songs than the band's earlier album G as in Men. The only overtly Christian song is the lead track, "Here's One," an old spiritual given a big-band/jazz twist here. This album is far outside my usual scope of listening, but has been a pleasant surprise.
 

Josh Marihugh  10/17/99

If you didn't know better, you'd think they'd perfected time travel. Because here you are, back in the '40s, listening to real live big band swing. It's got the piano, the cymbals, the timpani, the vibes, and the upright bass. (No horns, but apparently we don't need them.) When else could this be but the '40s?

Jason Harms has this down. His rich, deep, resonant voice pauses in the right places, lingers on the right notes, makes you believe down to your tiptoes that this was what he was meant to do. And it may just be true.  He covers show tunes ("Lida Rose" from The Music Man and "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" from Oklahoma) with the same easy assurance he shows on his own work. His voice could be seen as a bit theatric by some, but what better medium is there than old-style swing for such a voice?

To be sure, the other musicians are just as skillful. Don Stille's nimble fingers bring the piano alive, Jeff Brueske's guitar flawlessly underlies most of the songs, Paul Babcock's drumming is perfectly suited to the mood, and Jesse Harms' upright bass underlies it all. Additional players add fullness to the mix on some songs, with Isaac Harms on drums, Christopher Fashun on vibes and percussion, and Jason Harms on guitar (are we detecting a name trend here?) .

The track list is split almost evenly between original songs and covers. The opening tune is "Here's One," a traditional hymn that lends itself well to the swing vibe. There are a couple of instrumentals ("G-Jive" and "Search for Sumner," which was developed in the style of Mancini's chase songs according to the liner notes) in addition to the aforementioned show tunes. Harms also draws inspiration from his wife ("Girly Girl") and daughters ("Secure," written as a lullaby). The remaining tracks were written using a poem written by John Piper ("Leaning into You") and the stories of a  coal miner ("Sixteen Tons"). The closing hidden track is a barbershop quartet rendition of "Lida Rose." 

The liner notes to Swing Hard Swing Often are executed just as skillfully as the music itself. Each song has its own note, revealing original source or inspiration, which is helpful in understanding the songs in context. Photos of the band in action adorn every page. 

Then again, it's hard not to be impressed with a guy who writes lullabies like this to his little girls:

There is no need to fear, my love.
You're safe with me, secure.
I have, I do, I will always provide, be assured.
When all is mine, and I love you, then all is yours -
The blue of the sky, the strength of the sea,
The light of the fire, the warmth of me.
In all cases, the music is highly polished, almost too much so. You almost want to hear some tiny little error, some small smidgen of a mistake, somewhere, but it's nowhere to be found, unless you count the hijinks at the end of the hidden track. But does anyone really believe that sort of  thing isn't just as rehearsed as the rest of the CD? Debatable.

Aside from that nitpick, this is one smooth, enjoyable ride. In a surrey with the fringe on top. After all, "the wheels are yellow, the upholstery's brown, the dashboard's genuine leather, with isinglass curtains you can roll right down in case there's a change in the weather." So kick back and enjoy the view.

Lisa Reid  12/11/99

 
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