Friday, May 24, 2013

CD Review: Artie Shaw and His Orchestra * Hollywood Palladium * 1941

It's been said of Lord Byron's Don Juan, "No matter where you are in it, you've already read the best part." Most jazz careers read similarly, and because of this, Artie Shaw's is an anomaly--no matter where you jump into his discography, so long as you're not listening to the very last recording sessions, there's usually something even better ahead. This is far more rare than it might initially seem. The idea of a constantly developing and evolving jazz artist is really more myth than fact. Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, for instance, never developed beyond styles that were fully formed by the 1920s, and Benny Goodman, when he tried, learned very quickly that to stray from his late-30s bread and butter was a bad idea. The list of artists who resist the trend of solidifying one basic style and re-asserting it in various guises is exceedingly short, and debatable.

Shaw is one who stands out. Up until 1954 he seemed to actually embody the myth of the continuously developing jazz musician. It's difficult to say which of his ensembles were the finest. For its day, the 1939 band might have been the best. Then again, the 1949 band, while largely ignored by fans and critics alike, can be argued for, in a musical sense. After the orchestras, there are the chamber groups, especially the last Gramercy 5. Few would assert, as most readily do regarding Goodman's 1937 band, that Shaw ever had a single ensemble or era that served as the epitome of his art. Yet even with all of this in mind, the orchestra of 1940, assembled by Shaw after his self-imposed Mexican exile, stands out in critical and popular memory. This is the group which recorded "Frenesi"--a tune Artie had heard in cantinas south of the border--and "Stardust", giving the latter a solo so impressive that this group has been known as the "Stardust Band" ever since.

The subject of this review features this band, as reproduced on a CD issued in 1997 by HEP records, also available as a download, entitled: Artie Shaw and His Orchestra: Hollywood Palladium 1941. The title is a bit misleading, suggesting a single gig or series of gigs at the Palladium. As the liner notes detail, though, most of the dates represented on the disc are from 1940, and were broadcast from NBC's Hollywood studio. This technicality doesn't really matter--the content is exceptional, and give us some of the best live renditions currently available for tunes like "Frenesi." Three live performances of it are here, all of them well performed by an expanded orchestra (including strings), with contrasting improvised solos by Shaw.

An abbreviated version of his "Concerto for Clarinet" is also presented, from an August 1940 broadcast. This version is particularly interesting for the comparison it suggests between the Concerto and Shaw's December 1938 performance of "The Blues" with Paul Whiteman at Carnegie Hall. In this live performance, as in the Whiteman concert performance, the klezmer roots of the piece are highlighted, setting it apart from both the movie and studio versions recorded months later. We'll never know how wide the stylistic scope of the Concerto's improvised sections--Shaw used it as a closing number for a tremendous number of gigs that went unrecorded. But this early version suggests the improvised sections had considerable flexibility and stylistic diversity--making the propensity of contemporary classical players to rigidly stick to the studio solo transcription all the more disappointing (along with the Mickey Mouse swing, prim conservatory tone, and pinched altissimo we're usually tortured with during such performances).

This disc is loaded with great and rare performances. Shaw's arrangement of "Sweet Sue (Just You)", his original composition "Prelude in C Sharp", and a live version of "Blues in the Night" featuring the vocal and trumpet of Oran 'Hot Lips' Page are highlights. Others are Shaw's brilliant solo on "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" and an extended chorus on a live version of "Dr. Livingstone, I Presume" while restating, almost identically, the klezmer-tinged coda from the studio version.

The audio quality is often less than perfect--it can give a "bubble" sound similar to that of old tape, and the fuzz is noticeable in spots. But the chance to hear the Shaw band in top form, with real gig situations impacting the performance, is great. One example: members of the crowd were rowdy enough to knock 'Lips' Page off the lyric to Blues in the Night at the Palladium gig on January 22, 1941. It's priceless to hear him sing:

Now, the rain is falling,
Hear the train are calling hoo-wee!
(my mama done told me)

....he-yeeeah der roomin' foolin'
....haaaallin' dullin' fooling hoo-wee!
(my mama done told me)

The band and Page soldier on perfectly, and the crowd eats it up.

As with so many others, Shaw was to disband this group almost as quickly as he'd assembled it; this time to enlist in the U.S. Navy, where he would serve in the South Pacific during World War II. Like the live recordings of the 1939 band from the Cafe Rouge, then, this disc is a document of a particular high point in Shaw's career as an orchestra leader, with some significant historical recordings that help us better understand his musical mind.

Three Good Reeds.

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