Thursday, August 23, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (7)

7. Artie Shaw * August 19, 1939 * Live at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Roof, Boston

As one who came up primarily as a jazz clarinetist before college, it always bothered me to hear the occasional live classical clarinet performance, where the soloist might come out of the orchestra to play tight, terrified music, a quarter tone or more sharp, sounding like a different player in every register, only to have the whole thing hailed as a classic interpretation. Back when I was young and foolish enough to point out the above concerns to colleagues, there would come the inevitable laundry list of excuses: the soloist wasn't used to the concert hall, perhaps their reeds weren't very good for both soloing and part playing, the conductor might have told them to play a certain way against their better judgement, and most importantly of all: you just can't judge a live performance by the same standards you might an air-brushed studio recording! 

These excuses are reminiscent of an old story well known in orchestral circles: There was once a famous piano soloist, listening to the studio playback with the conductor. The edits had all been made, so the work sounded perfect. "Don't you wish you could play like that?" the conductor quipped.

The excuses are potentially true, of course, but I'd grown up listening to big band soloists who made their daily living by live solo performance. These orchestra leaders regularly performed over the airwaves, often in new venues. They were not only in charge of their own playing but the band as well (hiring, firing, rehearsing, repertoire choosing, etc), and on top of it they had to improvise their solos! No one in the audience cared if their reed wasn't perfect, or if they'd never played the room before that night. And night in, night out, masters like Shaw and Goodman managed to not only equal, but exceed the artistry of their studio recordings.

We're lucky these live sets were recorded: had they occurred even ten or twenty years earlier, we'd have no documentation of their brilliance. One such performance is of Artie Shaw at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, almost exactly 73 years ago. Available now on Hindsight records' "Artie Shaw: King of the Clarinet", the set represented is a brilliant example of the night in, night out work these players did.

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