The Best of Ambrose and His Orchestra/Ambrose and his Orchestra: Hits of 1931 (Music for Pleasure/EMI)
There is unintended irony in Brian Rust's sleevenotes for The Best of Ambrose, a collection of tunes by the British swing band of that name; he states: "Perhaps those vintage years are best summed up by the title of the first track: 'Free and Easy'. This was the impudent "theme-song" from a long-forgotten movie of the same name..." I think it's fair to say that "long-forgotten" could apply quite accurately to Bert Ambrose himself, along with a whole raft of British dance bands from the thirties and forties who are only remembered by cultural historians, the elderly, and the occasional individuals who, for whatever reason, collect such records. Although there are a fair few CDs available by him, I'd be surprised if anyone other than specialists sought them out, and I had never heard of him before discovering these two records in a secondhand shop in Waterford which, for some bizarre reason, stocks a startling amount of LPs by little-known British and American jazz artists (Jack Hylton! Geraldo! Orville Knapp! Waring's Pennsylvanians!). Of course, I couldn't resist, and have been slowly purchasing every obscure LP in the shop (I often wonder if anyone else buys them; I must ask the owner sometime, but as I see the same ones every time I pop in, I'd think I'm alone in my enthusiasm).
Now at this point I feel it's fair to point out that these British dance bands do not represent some kind of lost artistic treasure-trove, a kind of swing-band Renaissance that was unjustly tossed into the dustbin of musical history upon the arrival of rock and roll. Like most of his contemporaries, Ambrose wasn't some kind of UK Duke Ellington, or even a Benny Goodman. He was purely an entertainer; professional, easy-going, and tuneful. As Brian Rust points out: "No-one would suggest seriously that the "pop songs" in this album are of great depth; that is not and was not their function. They were meant to give pleasure to the ordinary people for as long as those people chose to listen." Sam Browne, the vocalist on most of the tracks, "sang unaffectedly to the listener, with clear diction and no prunes-and-prisms." I'm not precisely sure what he means by that, but it's a marvellous phrase nonetheless!
There is something quite charming and unpretentious about this music which makes it hard to dislike. It helps, of course, that the tunes are quite strong, the musicianship is impeccable, and the sound still has traces of the energy of the twenties, something which tended to be ironed out by a lot of performers as the thirties continued, leaving the music a little too smooth and respectable, closer to the nursing home than to the speak-easy. Not that Ambrose was ever disreputable; after all, this was a bandleader who received a personal request from the Prince of Wales to return to performing in London when he'd gone to New York, so he wasn't exactly a bad boy. The song lyrics might strike the contemporary listener as insufferably naive and romantic, but the fact that the lyrics were innocent doesn't mean the listeners were, and I'd prefer such gauche innocence (within reason: some of these songs can very rapidly cross the line into simpering, mushy drivel) to a lot of the coarse, lazy cynicism that's popular today (and which is equally shallow and naive, in my opinion). Of course, I'd prefer emotional intensity and inspiration to either any day, and in general it's Bessie Smith or Louis Armstrong that'll find their way onto my turntable faster than Ambrose, but the sheer sunny optimism and charm of this music means that, after a hard day's night of assaulting my eardrums with Hideous Rackets, I might pop on a bit of Ambrose just for a contrast (and my partner loves them; she says they always cheer her up, something I can easily understand). And seeing as most of these recordings were recorded during the Great Depression (there's even a song called 'I'm an Unemployed Sweetheart'!), it should strike a chord now as the Irish economy collapses into dust. So get an Ambrose record and face the recession the way your grandparents did (i.e. dancing!). There's more information on Bert Ambrose here, and the following is the man and his band in action (it might not be his finest tune and doesn't feature Sam Browne, but it's fairly representative of his style and I couldn't resist the title):