Saturday, September 27, 2008

Ella Fitzgerald - Sugarfoot Rag

Available on Amazon and iTunes.

Some songs that I otherwise really enjoy present a problem for deejaying. A lot of big band music is meant to convey excitement/energy/pep, so it comes out with horns blaring, firing riffs off every which way, and never lets up. (I think this is true of music from every era--maybe particularly so for more arranged music.) Sounds like the perfect way to keep the energy high in a room full of dancers, but actually I've seen songs like that backfire. The problem is, if a dancer doesn't feel up to matching the intensity of the first few bars of the song, they might be more inclined to sit the song out. Sometimes you just don't want to dance that exuberantly.

In songs with big intros, sometimes the energy also drops off a cliff once you hit a long solo. Take for instance, Count Basie Orchestra playing Dance of the Gremlins--fun song, great riffs, but it can be kind of draining. Other Count Basie numbers have a different energy pattern to them--the steady build. Basie's version of One O'Clock Jump is a masterpiece (will have to blog about that one later), but the energy in it is like a steady climb up a hill--it doesn't peak until two thirds of the way through the number.

Sugarfoot Rag, on the other hand, is like a roller coaster ride. It has an interesting pattern of phrases that take the energy up and down, then up and down again. The song is a standard three choruses, but the choruses follow a rather unusual pattern. Typically in swing music, a chorus is made up of 4 (8-bar or 4-eight count) phrases in an AABA pattern. In this song, the pattern is AABCC, and each phrase puts a different twist on the energy.

After a very short intro from the horns and Ella, she starts in on the first verse (phrase A):
Gonna get out the sycamore, shine up my shoes,
Meet my baby and tell him the news.
I bet my bundle on a sway-back nag
And I came home a winner with plenty of swag
In the second phrase (also an A), she sings the refrain, which sounds a bit like a nursery rhyme:
One foot, two foot, slew foot drag
Swing your honey to the sugarfoot rag
Dig a little jig and a zig and a zag
And listen to the trombone, sugarfoot rag
In the background, the band claps their hands, which gives a little boost to the energy, but not over the top. At the end of the phrase, Ella summons the trombone, who comes in for the next phrase (B) as the band plays a sort of smooth, slow riff. It's cool and tense at the same time--it feels to me like the song is in slow-motion all of a sudden. The trombone kicks into high gear with a bigger, more energetic solo for the next two phrases (C), while the band plays some bold, brassy riffs in support.

Then the same pattern repeats, first with the verse and refrain, then a slow-motion phrase, and then two phrases of high-energy solos. This time, Ella calls out "And listen to the tenor, sugarfoot rag," which cues a saxophone solo. The third time, same thing, but Ella cues herself "And listen to me, sugarfoot rag," then unleashes some virtuosic scatting.

Calling out the next soloist is a neat gimmick. I've played this song at dances with good results, because it's high-energy but not in a draining way. The constant ups and downs of the arrangement give it a playful feeling, and make it seem less daunting for dancers who might be at the edge of their comfort-zone as far as the tempo goes.

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