Monday, May 20, 2013

CD Review: Artie Shaw 10-Disc Box * "Begin the Beguine" * Membran * 2005

This 10-disc set issued by Membran is probably the most affordable and comprehensive survey of Artie Shaw's studio recordings from 1936 through 1945. While a considerable number of sessions from the late 1930s are missing (all the studio recordings made by "Artie Shaw & His Rhythm Makers" are absent), this box collects nearly all the groups recorded as Artie Shaw & His Orchestra and Artie Shaw & His Gramercy 5 made through 1945.

The packaging and presentation are minimal: ten cardboard sleeves inhabit a wallet-style glossy box. Shaw's dates are given, correctly, on the side and back of the box as 1910-2004, while on the front cover they are listed as 1909-2004. Two out of three ain't bad, especially considering the amount of great music inside. The cardboard sleeves give the names of tunes and durations only--no historical data at all. For those who care to do a little research, though, this set is very admirably laid out in precise chronological order, beginning with the June 11, 1936 session which produced "The Japanese Sandman" and ending nearly a decade later with the 1945 sessions that produced "September Song", "Little Jazz" featuring Roy Eldridge, Eddie Sauter's masterful arrangement of "Summertime" and others. In between are more than 200 of arguably the most consistently polished and inspired studio recordings made by a Big Band. Some bands matched Shaw's output for energy (Basie's band was unbeatable in that regard, in studio or out), and others matched his precision (Goodman's comes immediately to mind), but Shaw seems to have innately understood the need to capture as close to definitive versions as possible on record. He was later haunted by this, as fans would demand exact reproductions of studio recordings on the bandstand, an annoyance that he found artistically stifling. But the verve and clarity of the studio recordings remain deeply satisfying in ways that others, such as the Goodman band's studio recordings from the 1930s, rarely matched.

Compilation albums of "greatest hits" are good for beginners, but those who would truly understand the work of a great artist need to experience their works in context. Just as it helps to have a roughly chronological exposition of Shakespeare's plays, so it helps to hear Shaw's works in order. To realize that "Begin the Beguine" doesn't exist in a vacuum, but was recorded at a single session in New York on July 24, 1938 which also included "Indian Love Call", "Comin' On", "Back Bay Shuffle", "Any Old Time", and "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me" helps us understand not only the brilliance of the session, but why Artie might have been both surprised and frustrated at the frenzy surrounding the obscure Cole Porter tune that was to dominate his gigs from then on. Three of the tunes recorded at that session were his own songs ("Comin' On", "Back Bay Shuffle", and "Any Old Time", the one recording we have of Billie Holiday with Shaw's band). Because of this, it's doubtful he expected the obscure Porter number to be the focal point.

Beyond this, there are numbers found here that reveal Shaw's scope, depth, and subtlety not available on the average compilation disc, which are usually assembled on the basis of sales and immediate popularity. Among the gems any real Shaw fan will want to hear are MacDowell's "A Deserted Farm", Ellington's "Pyramid", Shaw's own "Prelude in C Major", and the incomparable "Dusk (Evensong)" by Paul Jordan. Many of these suggest a direction that jazz and American popular music never took--a jazz orchestral concept that might have made the distinctions between "sweet", "latin", "third stream" and other styles obsolete, had Shaw wanted or been able to continue them farther. In many ways, several of these sides represent not only a precursor to the work of Gil Evans, but an artistic concept with untold scope. The eclecticism is unpretentious, deriving from a deeper interaction with musical sources--never as a gimmick with one "style" grafted onto another. Unlike many lesser artists, Shaw was never a pasticheur: his inspirations weren't manipulated, but fused together, emerging as a unified whole.

This set of recordings is essential for any jazz clarinetist--they are as foundational to our art as Beethoven's symphonies were to later orchestral composers. To hear how Shaw developed clarinet approach and language from his relatively early efforts carving out double C's for "Blue Skies" on May 18, 1937, to his three brilliant solos for "Blues in the Night" on September 2, 1941, to his modal wailings on multiple versions of "Nightmare" and the subtle statements of melodic fragments on  "A Deserted Farm"--so simple, yet so charged with tonal shadings and meaning--the serious jazz clarinetist cannot afford to ignore any of these. This set is probably the best and most economical way to obtain all of them.

Could the transfers be better? Sure. Would it be nice to have a booklet with some dates and personnel? Absolutely. My recommendation is for the serious listener to purchase Vladimir Simosko's definitive Artie Shaw: A Musical Biography and Discography to accompany this and other sets.

This box receives The Jazz Clarinet's top rating of Five Good Reeds, not because there aren't less comprehensive sets with more desirable amenities, but because the transfers are strong, the content essential, and the presentation of tunes in chronological order.

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