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The Matthew Herbert Big Band 

Goodbye Swingtime

Wednesday, May 21 2003
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If you're a dance music fan, it might be time to dig out those swing get-ups again: Big-band jazz is coming back with a vengeance. From Chicago, the U.S. capital of house music, for instance, artists like Greens Keepers and Mike Dixon are pioneering a subgenre called "swing house," infusing electronic dance music with hot horn licks and cool drum shuffling. And from across the Atlantic, Matthew Herbert, one of electronica's most iconoclastic figures, has gone one further, releasing an album of original big-band jazz, carefully tweaked using digital post-processing.

Herbert -- aka Radio Boy and Doctor Rockit -- has long been a leader of electronica's royal opposition, attacking the laziness inherent in most sample-based music and pushing himself to try new techniques. He even penned a manifesto in the style of film pioneers Dogme 95, a "Personal Contract for the Composition of Music," to keep himself on his toes. (Point 3 is key: "The sampling of other people's music is strictly forbidden.") Goodbye Swingtime is his most ambitious work to date. Written according to the terms of the decree, the album presents 10 sweeping compositions scored for the traditional setup of four trumpets, four trombones, four saxophones, piano, stand-up bass, and drums. The record is hardly traditionalist, though. The vocals -- courtesy of singers like Arto Lindsay, Super_Collider's Jamie Lidell, and Herbert's frequent collaborator Dani Siciliano -- reflect the performers' distinctive styles. Lidell's anachronistic contribution, for instance, lends a weepy R&B croon to a tune otherwise solidly grounded in the '40s.

What, exactly, makes this "electronic music"? The question might never even occur to some listeners, so subtle is Herbert's touch. On "Misprints," what sounds at first like a particularly agitated, staccato piano line turns out to be a stuttering sample; the rest of the combo plays on as though unaware of the robot on the bandstand. On tunes like "Fiction" and "The Many and the Few," however, Herbert has broken down the original arrangement and built it back up in rickety, pixel-shaped building blocks, blurring the line between the original and the remix. What makes Goodbye Swingtime so compelling is how gracefully it sidesteps old oppositions between "programmed" and "played." After all, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing; and with this collection of lush, melodic numbers, Herbert proves he's got it.

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Philip Sherburne

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