Saturday, March 8, 2014

CD Review: "Chicago Rhythm-Apex Blues" * The Recordings of Jimmie Noone 1923-1943 * JSP926

Perhaps no virtuoso has been more obscured over the decades since his death than the great Jimmie Noone (1895-1944), whose achievement as a jazz clarinetist is unique and in many ways unparalleled. As a player of the Albert system clarinet, his technique was unmatched--none of the 'second generation' New Orleans clarinetists could complete with his executive skills. Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds, Leon Roppolo--all of these men were important and foundational to the history of jazz--but none of them could match Noone's mastery, which went beyond the realm of jazz men from that era, surpassing many classically trained 'virtuosi' in the process. It wasn't until a younger crew of jazz clarinetists--Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Buster Bailey--all undoubtedly influenced by Noone, would play in such a way that might even admit comparison to this master's chops.

Like Goodman and Bailey, Noone studied clarinet technique with Franz Schoepp in Chicago. Yet unlike those younger players, he was already an established professional. It is a mark of his seriousness and humility that he would take the highly unusual step (in that day) of bothering with lessons. From the recordings we have of Noone, it's obvious he could have matched up with any clarinetist of his day without them. Some deeper musical reason must have compelled him to press forward and master the instrument further, and because of this he catapulted the art of jazz clarinet.

Noone's facility over the the 'breaks' of the instrument remains one of the marvels of his playing. He was so fleet and flawless that the most difficult of his figurations can sound simple and straightforward, when in fact they are nearly impossible for lesser players to accomplish. I've often wondered if this hasn't hindered appreciation--had he made his passages sound more strained, his virtuosity might be paradoxically praised (this has certainly been true of other, lesser 'virtuosos', whose playing has pulled the wool over the ears of more than one critic). Ultimately, this isn't important, though--what is important is finally recognizing how much we have to gain from a proper look in this master's playing career, and that's what this remarkable box set of CDs put out by JSP Records affords us.

The first disc begins with Noone's earliest recordings as a sideman in little remembered groups such as Ollie Powers' Harmony Syncopators and Cook's Dreamland Orchestra, though quickly enough the set is distinguished by recordings from Noone's seminal Apex Club Orchestra, which twenty years later was compared to Thelonious Monk's early groups at Minton's--"That band at Minton's made an era of it's own," wrote critic Paul Bacon, "much as Jimmy Noone's did at the Apex Club." [The Record Changer, Nov. 1949]. This group's recordings are extremely important to the history of jazz, as they form an impressive body of work by a band leading clarinetist--demonstrating the strength of the instrument as a lead voice, and breaking with the already traditional New Orleans lineup of cornet dominated melody lines. For the next decade and a half at least, the clarinet was to prove the equal or superior of the trumpet/cornet as a lead instrument--from the Apex Club through the Casa Loma Orchestra to the zenith represented by the Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw Orchestras, the sound of jazz clarinet was to lead the way to the mass popularity of jazz in American culture. It is significant that, if Goodman and Shaw presided over the era in which jazz was America's popular music, Noone's revolutionary approach with the Apex Club Orchestra provided the initial proof that it could be done.

This box is dominated by great Apex Club sides, which fill roughly two and half discs of the set. Over the course of those cuts, a significant portion of the jazz clarinet canon was established, with Noone laying down the first important interpretations of such tunes as "I Know That You Know", "Sweet Sue", Four or Five Times", "Sweet Lorraine", "She's Funny That Way", "I Can't Give You Anything But Love", "After You've Gone", "Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gave to Me", "Am I Blue", and "Ain't Misbehavin'." Anyone familiar with the work of Benny Goodman, Edmond Hall, Pete Fountain and countless lesser known players can immediately tell how influential Noone's choices were. Speaking personally, as a gigging jazz clarinetist in Cleveland, it is a rare week indeed when I don't play at least one or two of these tunes on a job. Audiences still love them, and they are perfectly suited to our instrument. Over 80 years later, Noone's leadership and soloing at the Apex Club on the South Side of Chicago echoes wherever clarinet is swung.

Having said this, the Apex Club recordings are generally well known to fans of early jazz, and have been available in other collections long before now. More rare, and extremely gratifying are the recordings collected on the last disc, especially the live date of the Jimmie Noone Quartet recorded at Chicago's Yes Yes Club on July 17, 1941. Seven tracks of unsurpassed brilliance await anyone who listens, including essential versions of "A Porter's Love Song", "Body and Soul", "Lady Be Good", "Memories of You" and "Honeysuckle Rose." So many of these tunes had been given unbeatable performances by Benny Goodman that it can seem daunting for a clarinetist to attempt them differently. Noone, of all the clarinetist contemporary with Goodman, was perhaps the only one who could take on the very same tunes and reveal equally compelling, yet entirely different interpretations.

Jimmie Noone's rich chalumeau, which never sacrificed intonation for depth, his clarion and altissimo registers which were never overblown or distorted, while still retaining extreme levels of subtlety and power, was unmatched in his day. He paved the way for Goodman and Shaw, especially, whose music was to unite, for one brief era, jazz with mainstream popularity. This four disc set finally does justice to his work.

Five good reeds.







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