Friday, June 22, 2012

Ten Essential Jazz Clarinet Recordings (2)


2. Benny Goodman * The Complete Small Combinations Volumes 1 & 2 (1935-37)


Though I've presented these recordings as second on my essential list, they could easily be first. In terms of historical significance, they are easily the most important, as they document one of the most revolutionary ensembles in this history of American music: the interracial group which combined the talents of Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, and Lionel Hampton.

Major league baseball rightly makes an annual big deal out of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in our National Passtime, but little is made these days of the earlier, musical color barrier broken by jazz groups--the nationally prominent Goodman Quartet in particular. I think part of the reason it's not talked about can be traced to Benny's own attitude about race: he just didn't care. If you were a great musician who spoke blues and walked swing, he wanted to play with you. As a Jew in a deeply anti-semitic era, Goodman had faced discrimination himself, and if you read between the lines in some of the more prominent jazz histories out there, I'm sorry to say that such sentiments have not entirely been eradicated from our cultural landscape. I don't know if he ever spoke on the subject, but this experience undoubtedly forced a choice in Goodman on some level: would he retaliate in kind, and be defensive? Or would he move above and beyond the hate?

We can all be glad he chose the latter.

These recordings, beginning with the first session with Teddy Wilson, are a watershed moment in the history of jazz. I firmly believe that they set a new bar for instrumental performance, with Benny's relaxed virtuosity surpassing the windplayers of the previous generation (including Louis Armstrong and the great Sidney Bechet, who will make his own appearance on this list soon). Just as enduring are the ballads and blues from these sessions. Can anyone else have recorded "Body and Soul" so simply and purely, relying almost exclusively on tonal inflection and that gently rocking swing Benny was so known for?


This was, in many ways, the foundational group for much of the greatest clarinet jazz--including Artie Shaw's last Gramercy 5. The basic timbres of clarinet, vibraphone, piano, and brushes has proven to be remarkably flexible and deep--it's almost a kind of String Quartet for the jazz world in its balance.

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