Monday, August 13, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (4)

4. Artie Shaw * St. James Infirmary * 1941

In November of 1941, Artie Shaw went into the studio with his Orchestra and featured vocalist/trumpeter 'Hot Lips' Page on what amounts to a tone poem of the old standard "St James Infirmary." Using both sides of a 78 disc, the song stretches over six minutes, unusual for the recordings of the day (Benny Goodman's 'Sing Sing Sing' and 'Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen' were similar exceptions to the one side rule).

On this recording, the tune begins in G minor, rather than the more traditional F minor, enabling Shaw to utilize the full range of the clarinet to dramatic effect.

Shaw plays three major solos on the tune. The first comes as the primary exposition of the song, reaching up to Double C emphatically, for musical rather than virtuosic reasons. The second 'solo' is behind Page's vocal, and one of the very finest background solos of the era. The third comes in Part II of the tune, on the 'flipside', where Shaw screams a blues of perfect economy and intensity, hammering the altissimo of the clarinet with a repeated figure to Double C--yet once again the result is soulful rather than showy.

If all else had been lost, and this was the only recording we possessed of Artie Shaw, we would be forced to conclude from it alone that he was one of the finest clarinetists to record, one of the most soulful blues musicians of the 20th century, and one of the greatest background soloists of any era. Talk about essential...

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