Tuesday, May 28, 2013

CD Review: Benny Goodman 10-Disc Box * "I Had To Do It" * Membran

There are many box sets of Benny Goodman's recordings from the 1930s, and nearly all of them are worthwhile. The 3-Disc Complete RCA Victor Small Groups recordings, reviewed here last week, are among the essentials for any jazz clarinet enthusiast, as are many sets of live recordings which give us the chance to hear the band and small groups at their absolute best. Few offer anything approaching the scope of this box, though, with its 200 studio recordings of the Benny Goodman Orchestra dating from as early as 1934, through its years of peak popularity and artistry in 1935-38, to the first three recording sessions of 1939.

Like the 10-Disc set of Artie Shaw also offered by Membran, this box is admirably comprehensive for the era it covers, and with only one or two very minor and irrelevant slips, sets the recordings in clear chronological order. Also like the Shaw set, the presentation is minimal: 10 cardboard sleeves in a glossy cardboard wallet, without anything but titles listed.

This said, the selection of materials seems uniquely thoughtful and cognizant of history. As Connor & Hicks point out in B.G. on the Record: a Bio-Discography of Benny Goodman (Arlington House, 1978), there is a tendency to think of the April 4, 1945 recording session for Victor as the start of Benny's recording career, so linked is it to the Let's Dance program and the beginning of the Swing Era. Overlooked are the eight years of recordings made by Benny prior to the Victor recordings. This, say Connor & Hicks, is a shame, elaborating thus:

[If] the authors may suggest a general guidepost to excellence in pre-1935 Goodman recordings, it is this: Pay attention to those on which Benny and Jack Teagarden both play. There was a musical rapport, a physiochemical reaction almost, between those two, a philosopher's stone that often turned banal dross into musical gold. [p.135]

Whoever compiled this set for Membran seems to have taken this suggestion to heart. There are no less than 28 titles predating the Victor recording session here, focusing on the dates featuring Jack Teagarden. Equally thoughtful is the completion of the set, which runs all the way through Harry James's tenure as lead trumpet for the Goodman band. The last eight tracks on CD 10 seem to be there simply to include "And the Angels Sing" and to provide contrast as the band, and Goodman's zenith, came to a close.

The transfers are of generally excellent quality, and there are few sets out there to challenge them. Those who prefer brighter quality and alternate takes of the 1935-36 band will want to own RCA's 3-Disc reissue entitled "The Birth of Swing." Some inner parts are more audible on this RCA set, but to my ear the sound gets distortedly bright--almost like an attempt at "updating" to the sound quality of Capitol's BG in Hi-Fi of the 1950s. By contrast, these Membran transfers are more subdued, which can lead to "sax section mumbling", but the overall tone quality of the band sounds better to my ear--especially Goodman's clarinet.

A tremendous amount of material that is rarely or never issued on "best of" discs is here. Some highlights, for me, were to finally hear some neglected Martha Tilton numbers--a vocalist who, if she didn't exhibit the genius of an Ella Fitzgerald or Helen Forrest, had a charm and character to her sound that was as inimitable as Goodman's own. Many of these cuts demonstrate what a perfect fit she was for this orchestra at its height. There is a sincerity and lightness to her approach that balanced the band and arrangements perfectly. Rather than judging her by an imposed history of jazz singers, her art is best appreciated in the context of the band itself. When we consider the blending of personalities and sounds--Goodman, Harry James, Ziggy Elman, and Jess Stacy--Martha Tilton's sound was as big a part of the band as any of the instrumental soloists--and her concept arguably fit the band better than any vocalist before of afterwards.

The Goodman band was never as creative as Duke Ellington's or Artie Shaw's, and despite his commanding place in Swing histories--largely due to the Let's Dance Broadcast success, the Carnegie Hall concert, and his brilliance as a soloist--it can be surprising to learn that Goodman didn't score as many top hits as several other bands did. The Fletcher Henderson and Jimmy Mundy charts are usually exceptionally clear and straight forward; vehicles for the rhythm section propelled by Gene Krupa, the trumpet section, and Benny's clarinet to gain prominence--but many aren't particularly exciting in an innovative sense. The studio recordings are clear and always well executed, with a precision that was virtually matchless--but they are not generally the finest versions the band produced. Goodman's ultimate achievement was in live performance. His bands from 1937-38, in particular, seemed to feed off crowds like no other, and were the epitome of the era's hardest swinging "killer-diller" style ensembles. For that to be a success demanded charts, rehearsals, and talent such as Goodman insisted on and achieved. The studio recordings, contrasted to live sets, can seem subdued and less than spectacular.

Because of this, I toyed with the idea of giving this box a rating of Four Good Reeds, just shy of The Jazz Clarinet's top rating. But then I thought "Get a hold of yourself, man! This is nearly all of the Benny Goodman band's studio recordings from 1934-1939!" Five Reeds it is, then, for the comprehensive nature of the set, the transfers, and the affordable price. Only one caveat remains: there are even better performances available of many numbers--the live recordings from the era are perhaps even more essential.


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