Review: Robert Bell Hot Swing Combo: Songs for Socially Distant Happy Feet and Hearts

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by Joe Bebco as published in the Syncopated Times

Robert Bell’s Hot Swing Combo has spent the last fifteen years as regional favorites at Midwestern swing events. They are based in Minneapolis and have connections reaching into the decades long legacy of trad jazz in the area. Bell is involved in the Southside Aces, the local trad group, and he’s also part of an accordion focused world music orchestra.

The Hot Swing Combo though is his own unique project. It’s aim, successfully accomplished, was to introduce Gypsy inflected swing into the area. Having first been inspired to turn to jazz by hearing Django he went on to found the Twin Cities Hot Club in 2005. He started playing dance events with his combo around the same time. They play a number of dance meetups in  CO, OH, IA, NE, MI, WI, and even made it to DC.

The Twin Cities Hot Club has released a CD and DVD, and Bell has been on any number of albums, but his popular combo went unrecorded, until now.

They were booked to play Madison Invasion 2020 in Wisconsin this April before the world turned upside down. The organizers generously offered to pay them what they would have made by appearing and in gratitude the members of The Robert Bell Hot Swing Combo came up with a way that everyone could still dance. Rather than try to stream a live collaboration from everyone’s living rooms they recorded this album ahead of the event and streamed it for all the quarantined dancers to enjoy from home at the designated time.

Remember this is as we were all just getting used to this. They describe their recording process thus:

Every musician in the band maintained a 20ft or more distance while recording outside, nitrile gloves were used to setup and teardown. The physical distance made recording the five of us a challenge, but the entire world is facing far greater challenges.

I’ve heard a lot of albums where the musicians record to one mic while maintaining period formations to get the proper sound, and of course others where they aren’t even in the same room, but until now I don’t think I’ve heard an outside recording where everyone kept a 20 foot distance!

Thankfully you’d never know it from the sound. If you are listening for it maybe the rhythm section sounds a bit subdued… but really no complaints. They should have gotten to the studio earlier if this is the level of play they can pull off in a pinch.

Absent the violin that frequently accompanies them live the album is more swing and less gypsy than their typical show. The selection of classics leans heavily on Basie and Moten, with other swing standards like “Flying Home” and “Christopher Columbus”, and required Gypsy Jazz numbers like “Blue Drag”. The tempo is relaxed and mostly slow, the better to coordinate your dancing with friends on Zoom. I’m sure the virtual Madison Invasion was one to remember.