Tuesday, February 19, 2013

CD Review: Benny Goodman * Air Play

In 1986, with little fanfare, the Doctor Jazz label put out a double LP containing remasters of Benny Goodman air checks under the title of Air PlayDespite the unfortunate choice of putting an elderly Benny on the cover, these were actually live performances of the 1936, 1937, and 1938 Goodman band, quartet, trio, and even a rare duo between Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson. The original acetates had been given to Goodman by Thomas Ciano of Long Island, transferred by D.R. Connor, and represent some of the finest examples of Goodman's band from its most important period.

The catalogue of live Goodman is fairly vast, and there are better known collections out there, including the famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert, multiple volumes of the Camel Caravan, and the "Complete" Madhattan Room Broadcasts. But even with those essential recordings in mind, if I was to recommend only one album of live Goodman material, it would be Air Play.

Though this double LP set was eventually released in 1989 on a single CD, and therefore is considerably shorter than the other live sets mentioned above, these arguably represent the finest live performances we have of Goodman. Each different band is presented in top form. Leading off with 1937 checks, it's Harry James's leadership of the trumpet section that leaps out of the speakers at us. The young James's presence is so stunning, and the trumpet section of Ziggy Elman and Chris Griffin so tightly pulled along in his irresistible tide of sound, that we can understand why Duke Ellington called this trio the "wonder of the age", and why Cootie Williams made it a professional goal to one day play in the Goodman band. For me, this is the hardest swinging, best sounding trumpet section ever assembled.

Matching that intensity and swagger is Goodman's clarinet. Too often, it was suggested by jealous, hardly disinterested parties that Goodman was a mere technician. These recordings refute such an accusation more eloquently than any others. Few moments in clarinet history thrill me quite the way Benny's statement of the theme on an uptempo "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" from January 19, 1937. His tone is absolutely commanding: solid, flexible, muscular; his swing is a perfection of paradox--loosely firm, sweetly punching, relaxed tension--the limber, balanced boxer of jazz clarinet. It's a very short moment, but any clarinetist wanting to understand the essence of Goodman's musical style needs to attempt this solo with the same commanding presence. They will soon find that the Goodman mystique and style ultimately have very little to do with flashiness. Musical and tonal depth are the true sorces of Goodman's interpretive sense.

One of the acetates was from a shortwave broadcast from New York to the BBC. According to the notes, Gene Krupa had the flu and couldn't make the gig. Because of this, we're treated to a Goodman/Wilson duo for "Body & Soul"-- arguably the finest performance of a tune that they "owned" anyway, followed immediately by "Dinah" with Lionel Hampton added on vibes. Benny was known for making his winds rehearse at times without rhythm section--he would insist that each section be able to swing on their own. This, in part, accounts for the unique drive of the Goodman band. In the duo and trio, we hear how this sort of swing was present in each of the members, independently of drum support.

There are as many gems here as tracks--including a solo performance by Jess Stacy of Bix Beiderbecke's "In a Mist", a definitive version of "You Go To My Head" with Martha Tilton taking the vocal, and (for me at least) the definitive quartet version of "Stompin' at the Savoy". The inner voicings of Lionel Hampton's soloing on "Stompin" are the most eloquent of the many I've heard, and the acetate transfer is uniquely excellent. The most famous version of this, from the Carnegie Hall concert, sounds overwrought and tense in comparison.

On "You're Blasé", the trio is yet another unique configuration, with Lionel Hampton taking over on drums. This charming little tune was never recorded in the studio by Goodman's "classic" quartet or trio.

Bud Freeman, whose tenure with Goodman was so fleeting, was even present on several tracks, demonstrating particularly on "Bumble Bee Stomp" why he is such a seminal figure in the development of the tenor saxophone.

The liner notes by Leonard Feather are a refreshing example of jazz criticism from a better age. Instead of ideological vagaries, so common to jazz criticism these days, Feather engages the music itself, commenting intelligently about certain aspects of the arrangements, and the forms of tunes. Moreover, as a historian, he deftly places Goodman in proper context when he writes:

Swing music, in fact, was a phenomenon that had been around for years; all that was needed to bring it into focus was an individual in whom (and around whom) all its essential characteristics could coalesce, in such a manner that its appeal would cut across barriers and result in mass popularity both for the artist and for the idiom he represented.
It was not surprising that Benny Goodman was that individual. He was the first genuine virtuoso jazz orchestra leader ever to front an ensemble of this quality. Duke Ellington's genius was expressed more through his orchestra than at the piano; Louis Armstrong, incomparable as a soloist, never had a band worthy of him and was busy trying to get his sax section to emulate the sound of Guy Lombardo.   

Finally, one of the more hauntingly beautiful moments in air check history occurs with Goodman's sign off number, Gordon Jenkins' "Goodbye", when two announcers close the evening's broadcast--one in Japanese and one in English, as the broadcast was transmitted not only to the United States, but Tokyo for the many jazz fans in Japan. This peace-filled moment of cultural exchange is made more poignant with what we 21st century listeners know: that many of those listening and dancing to this music would be plunged into a terrible conflict only two years later, undoubtedly claiming lives from those ranks. The great era of American musical romanticism ushered in by the Goodman band would be almost as short lived as the war itself, the consequences of which made, in many ways, the type of music making Goodman and his colleagues made on these air checks impossible shortly thereafter.

This irreplaceable album receives The Jazz Clarinet's rating of Five Good Reeds, for containing definitive versions of important songs, important soloing, historical significance, and a rare brilliant bit of historical analysis in the liner notes themselves.

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