In a recent Washington appearance, the Charlottesville-based quintet displayed a mastery of the swing genrethe blues-tinged jazz with an infection beat that swept America onto its feet during the 1930's and 1940's and evolved into rhythm'n'blues in the early 1950's.
The age of swing was the era of the big band; the original swing bands, like those headed by Count Basie and Duke Ellington, were large, horn-laden ensembles. What the Sitting Ducks do is play "big band" material with a modest rock'n'roll lineup: drums, bass, guitar and saxophone. That they pull off this adaptation successfully is a tribute to the band's ingenuity and the timeless appeal of the music itself.
The Ducks are fronted by their good-natured drummer, Brian Alpert, who sports a Panama hat and a wide grin, serves as emcee, and sings occasionally. He and bassist Pete Spaar, both Virginia natives, make up the rhythm section that supplies the bouncy cadence that is the essense of swing. Terry Loughran plays a sinuous saxophone (and sometimes, clarinet), while singer Judy Coughlin, a sultry, wavy-haired brunette from the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, moans and wails on the bluesier numbers and handles the upbeat tunes with aplomb. Her husky-grained vocals recall Bessie Smith.
Perhaps the standout instrumentalist of the group is bearded Rob Otis, an exceptionally adept guitarist. He produces the glorious, bell-toned sound that is the hallmark of good jazz guitar work, and as he hustles up and down the fretboard, he covers more musical ground with his chord-based accompaniments than many guitarists do in full-fledged leads.
ENTERTAINMENT IS WHAT the Ducks' music is all about. While other, more serious forms of jazz aspire to the status of high culture, swing jazz (like its nephew, rock'n'roll) is first and foremost a popular art form. (Band-leader Louis Jordan, who blazed the trail between swing and R & B with hits like "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie," explained the difference well when he said that many jazzmen "play mostly for themselves. I want to play for the people.") The Ducks are most entertaining when they loosen up and clown around a bit, as they did during the second set. On tunes like Wynonie Harris' "Rock Mr. Blues" and Cab Calloway's "Fifteen Minute Intermission," the band positively jumped, and their call-and-response vocal arrangements captured the jivin' spirit of the originals. Other highlights of the evening included a playful version of Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" and a powerful rendition of Louis Jordan's "How Blue Can You Get."
In short, the Sitting Ducks have two things going for them: they play one of the most delightful genres of American music, and they play it well.
STEVEN J. HOFFMAN