Sunday, August 19, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (5)

5. Woody Herman & The Herd * Live at Carnegie Hall * 1946

Woody Herman was neither the virtuoso nor the perfectionist-taskmaster of his two rivals, Shaw and Goodman, but his band was one of the most musically adventurous and emotionally effective of the Big Band Era.

Known for his uncanny ability to hone arrangements in rehearsal, Woody Herman ran a hard swinging, lyrical, tight ensemble, unafraid to cross unusual musical boundaries. Carnegie Hall has been featured prominently on this list already, with both Goodman and Shaw. It was only natural that arguably the most exciting band of the 1940s would also make a run at that legendary venue.  

This concert features many remarkable moments. A number of the charts were to become favorites, performed for decades by Herman's successive Herds, including 'Blowin' Up a Storm' and 'Hallelujah'. But the highlights of this concert are the extremely adventurous inclusion of Ralph Burns' landmark Summer Sequence (a piece I firmly believe every American Conservatory student should be required to study) and the World Premiere of Igor Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto.

Bridging the classical and jazz worlds has been a major preoccupation for many jazz clarinetists, and there is little wonder why: our instrument had a major solo repertoire prior to the jazz era, and an abundance of virtuosi of both styles. Artie Shaw had worked toward a "chamber jazz" concept beginning at least as early as 1936, and Benny Goodman's efforts in both realms are well known. Indeed, Goodman's recording of the Ebony Concerto has sometimes obscured the fact the Herman Herd was both the inspiration for and first performer of the work.

This musical bridge building will become even more important as we consider clarinetists closer to our own day, but the Woody Herman Carnegie Hall Concert marked a huge leap forward on the quest for such unity. It also highlights the state of the Big Band in the very important year of 1946, which has been cited as the end of the Big Band Era. As George Simon wrote in The Big Bands: December, 1946, almost a dozen years after Benny Goodman had blown the first signs of life into the big band bubble, that bubble burst with a concerted bang. Inside just a few weeks, eight of the nation's top bandleaders called it quits---some temporarily, some permanently: Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown, Jack Teagarden, Benny Carter, and Ina Ray Hutton.

The German Romantic Period had lasted nearly a century, but America's was crammed into a dozen years. With the disbanding of the Herman Herd, High Summer for American music was indeed over, and the country moved into colder modernism. This juncture didn't end the contributions of clarinetists to the genre, nor of many bands from doing some of their best work (Duke Ellington's work in the '50s and '60s comes to mind), but the high point was past, and Americans would never again support the Big Bands or our unique style of romanticism with the same enthusiasm.

The recording available to us is, unfortunately, incomplete. Only the third movement of the Stravinsky remains, and only ten minutes of the Summer Sequence, but it is nevertheless an important document. Stravinsky had coached the Herd himself, and it shows: there is a 'rightness' to the articulations, especially in the brass, unlike most other recordings of the work.

There is also the landmark 1946 studio recording of Woody Herman & the Herd performing Ebony Concerto, with the composer conducting. It lacks the live feel and resonance of Carnegie Hall, and Woody's clarinet playing is nowhere near Benny's later recording, but it is nevertheless an important document.


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