Wednesday, May 22, 2013

CD Review: Benny Goodman * The Complete RCA Victor Small Group Recordings

The Benny Goodman Quartet of the late 1930's is no stranger to The Jazz Clarinet. The importance of the group socially, and the uncanny sense, from the start, that these musicians had been born to play together, has been discussed and will no doubt serve as important recurring thematic material for many posts to come. The influence of the group, the reunion and tribute gigs that it has inspired, and the silver screen depiction of its now mythic beginnings can obscure the retrospectively surprising fact that the Quartet itself, comprised of Goodman, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, and Lionel Hampton, was only together for a total of nine recording sessions beginning on August 21, 1936, and concluding on December 29, 1937. Twenty-six tunes (not counting alternate versions) are its entire studio legacy. In one of the truly blessed coincidences that does not often grace the history of recorded jazz, they were all made by RCA Victor,  and can be heard on what is arguably, along with Artie Shaw's Gramercy 5 Sessions, the most important set of jazz clarinet recordings ever made. Even more fortunate for those of us wanting a complete picture of this ensemble, much more than the Quartet is captured on this three disc box: from the first sessions Benny did with Teddy Wilson in 1935, to the dissolution of the group in 1939, the entire journey is captured.

A fortuitous meeting between Goodman and Wilson at a party hosted by Red Norvo resulted in a recording date the next morning, July 13, 1935, which yielded "Body & Soul", "After You've Gone", "Who?" and "Someday, Sweetheart" (Collier, pp 138-39). The uptempo numbers were impressive in their day, demonstrating what Gunther Schuller identified as Goodman's "unprecedented virtuosity as a jazz clarinetist" ( Schuller, p.11). "After You've Gone", especially, was to be revived and recorded repeatedly by Goodman, becoming a showpiece for his trademark arpeggio-driven style. But the more important contributions to the session were the slower numbers. "Body & Soul" was to become a calling card for Goodman and Wilson: the sincerity and lack of pretentiousness with which they continuously delivered this tune belies the network of subtle techniques employed by both men. It is impossible to think of two other musicians delivering a convincing imitation of this performance, though countless players have tried. "Someday, Sweetheart" is generally overlooked, but a perfect example of what Schuller astutely pointed out when he identified Goodman as the first major "cool" player in jazz history (p.11).

The cool aspect of Goodman's style is often obscured by his technical dominance, but remains the key to understanding his enduring appeal and permanent value to jazz history. The ballads recorded by the Small Groups have rarely been equalled. Ultimately, we can't answer this most basic of questions: What is the mysterious quality that enabled Goodman to play "Moonglow", "Body & Soul", "Where or When", "The Man I Love", and "More Than You Know", almost entirely without embellishment, yet with inimitable depth and emotion? The answer to this riddle can't be found in the notes of a transcription, nor in melodic or harmonic analysis. Like Miles Davis two decades later, Goodman had a musical presence, a true sound, that enabled him to play even a single note with great meaning and emphasis. Of all aspects of Goodman's playing, this is to me the most important, and it is this quality which, in my opinion, sets him apart from all others.

Personally speaking, this aspect of Goodman's playing has been with me for as long as I have played the clarinet. As a boy, I began by transcribing Goodman ballads--years before I'd ever seen a Rose Etude or the Klose book, I was playing "Moonglow" and "Memories of You." At age thirteen I even played "Memories of You" over WNEW, accompanied by Steve Allen on piano (it didn't dawn on me until years later how unique an experience it would be--playing Benny's part with the man who had also played Benny). Since then, I've studied many other musicians' ballad styles, and remain especially drawn to Artie Shaw, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. While all of those musicians, and many others, are rightfully considered masters of the ballad form, none of them, in my estimation, are as difficult to copy as Benny Goodman. And no recordings of Benny are more important than these sides by Victor.

Beyond the ballads and the up tempo numbers, there is a third category represented here that Benny deserves to be remembered for: the Blues. Thanks to Lionel Hampton, we are treated with three absolutely essential blues cuts: "Vibraphone Blues", "The Blues in Your Flat" and "The Blues in My Flat." On these Benny gives a clinic--he is alternately biting, mellow, brooding, supportive, assertive, immense, piercing, and conciliatory. He resists the temptation for technical display, opting for pure, unpretentious soul, and leaves the listener paradoxically satisfied and wanting more, simultaneously.

Finally, these discs contain an important moment of klezmer/swing fusion with a double-sided release of "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen", complete with Martha Tilton vocal and Ziggy Elman trumpet solo. Like Shaw's last Gramercy 5 sessions, the full scope of Goodman's jazz genius is on display on this set. Originally remastered and released on CD in 1997, these are now available for download. The CDs are getting scarce, which is a shame, considering the exceptionally good liner notes by Loren Schoenberg, who gives historical background for each of the recording sessions.

Benny Goodman: The Complete RCA Victor Small Group Recordings receives The Jazz Clarinet's highest rating of Five Good Reeds, only because a hundred reeds would clutter the page.



Collier, James Lincoln. Benny Goodman and the Swing Era. Oxford University Press, 1989.
Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era. Oxford University Press, 1989.


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