After his stints as a sideman in the 1930s, there are very few recordings of Artie Shaw playing with any ensembles other than his own. Most intriguing of them all, perhaps, are the radio transcriptions he recorded with Count Basie on September 25, 1945.
Drawing firm conclusions about Artie's playing from these recordings is virtually impossible: they were made during a particularly chaotic period of Shaw's life. His break up with Elizabeth Kern was in the news, and he was involved in psychoanalysis while trying to recover from a Navy experience that left him shell shocked and functionally deaf in one ear. Vladimir Simosko describes Artie's playing at the time as good but "unusually hyper." Shaw himself referred to another Basie session on September 30th as "raucous"[Simosko, pg 105].
There is very little reason to suggest why Shaw was even recording with Basie at this point. Simosko cites Chris Sheridan's Count Basie: A Bio-Discography (Westport Conn: Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 216-18), indicating a theory that when Lester Young and Jo Jones were drafted, Shaw took Lester's place, transferring solo tenor duties to the clarinet. If this is true, the plan was short lived, and strange anyhow--Shaw was not known for having a sideman's personality, and seemed at least self-aware enough to have not wasted much of anyone's time along those lines.
As to the hyper and raucous qualities of these rare cuts, I'm going to suggest something different, and unrelated to extra-musical matters. It has mostly to do with the band in question, and the usual bands we're used to hearing Artie Shaw front.
If asked to describe any of the various Basie bands throughout the Count's long tenure as a top bandleader, among the first words any astute listener would blurt out would be "rhythm section", "swing", and "tenor players." Names like "Lester Young", "Herschel Evans", "Jo Jones" would come up. If pressed beyond this first line of knee jerk wisdom, particularly hip listeners might add "Buck Clayton", "Thad Jones", "Lockjaw" or "Neal Hefti." All of these are important names, and cover a vaste swath of Basie's career. When asked to compare his bands with Shaw's or Goodman's, however, most critics resort to nebulous comments, hemming and hawing around the topic of swing and technique...as though Basie had more of one and less of the other. Even as late as the 1960s, critics were suggesting that the Harry James Band's Neal Hefti recordings were less swinging but more technical than Basie's earlier Hefti recordings, on which they were modeled. Sad to say, but much of this talk is little more than charlatanism. All of these bands could swing, and Basie's band almost always featured virtuoso players.
The fact, rarely if ever mentioned, is that Basie's bands always featured a lower center of gravity than Shaw's, Goodman's, or James's. All three of the latter musicians were soprano voice players--clarinet and trumpet--and when it came time to emphasize their solo art, they built bands that focused everyone's attention to the treble. Benny's bands were always deliberately top heavy with trumpet talent. His best sax section from the 1930s featured a brilliant lead alto part-player in Hymie Schertzer, but he was famous for keeping tenor players on artistic lock-down. His trombone section was little more than an orchestrational necessity.
Shaw's band followed a similar template: the great trumpet soloists are the first to come to mind, followed by an alto-driven reed section, often stacked with Artie's clarinet as the lead voice in the arrangements. The trombone section was there largely to fill out the charts.
Basie's band, by contrast, was low in center of gravity--everything focused around the bottom groove. Just as Benny's band could boast a history of lead trumpet players second to none, so Basie's tenor men defined and redefined the instrument. His rhythm section was deep and mellow, propelling from the bottom, and his trombone sections were rich, booming, remarkably loud, and important to leading the band's musical direction. Soloists needed to match the sheer broadness of the sound, and generally did this from the middle of their range, not from extremes. The difficulty of being a clarinet soloist within this orchestrational concept is apparent from both Jimmy Hamilton's stint with the band, and Lester Young's clarinet soloing. For Shaw it would also present a challenge.
Shaw's style was built from the the altissimo down--in general, the lower he got, the softer his volume. In his own groups he used this to great advantage. He arranged a large proportion of his own charts, and made sure the clarinet voice came through perfectly. When he put together his Gramercy 5, he introduced the harpsichord to jazz--a treble-bright jangle instrument that never threatened to cover his breathy, romantic chalumeau. And when they went into the recording studio, it was Shaw's voice that remained the focal point of balance.
All of this is flipped on its head for the Basie session. Suddenly Shaw is soloing over a band with a very low center of gravity on "Lady Be Good". Is Artie any more frantic or hyper here than in his own "Traffic Jam"? Not at all. But our aural focus is different: it's on that rich, deep Basie band, so Artie sounds more shrill in comparison. Likewise on "Bird Calls", where Shaw plays with the Count and his rhythm section: neither side has adjusted to the other, and the clarinetist just can't relax into the music normally.
That the attempt was made shows the sympathy these two great band leaders had for each others' work. That the recordings exist is a gift to those of us who would better understand the realities of ensemble orchestration, the dynamics and breadth of jazz style, and the demands of certain approaches to the music.
These cuts are available on The Uncollected Basie: 1944. I'm giving them The Jazz Clarinet's rating of One Good Reed, for historical importance. They would only appeal, ultimately, to completists, but give us a rare glimpse into collaboration between two jazz giants.