Saturday, February 4, 2017

CD Review: The Artistry of Artie Shaw * Hep Records CD 78 * 2004

I can't say how many times I ignored this CD when seeing it in the rack at Half Price Books, walking distance from my house in Cleveland. The cover is bland: it just looked like another budget priced compilation of dubious transfer quality. For some reason though, this afternoon it finally occurred to me not to judge this disc by its cover, and I checked the titles. I was shocked to find the entirety of Modern Music for Clarinet -- the (mostly) classical album Shaw had recorded for Columbia in March of 1949. Prior to this, I'd only heard the rare LP version, which can be very difficult and expensive to obtain.

Modern Music for Clarinet is an interesting album in many ways. It gives us a rare glimpse into Artie's classical aspirations, and what sort of repertoire interested him. Poulenc, Ravel, Gould, Kabalevsky, Milhaud, Shostakovich, Shulman, Gershwin, Porter, and Debussy all make their appearances. But even the most devoted of Shaw fans, if they've got a working knowledge of this repertoire, can't help but admit Shaw sounds a little out of his element on the record. His phrasing can be pretty stiff and tentative, his intonation rougher than usual in spots, and he even has a difficult time finding the tonal nuance to match the musical content of several pieces. This is unlike the Shaw we all know from jazz recordings, where he had layer upon layer of timbral ideas, and it really speaks to the difference between the two disciplines of jazz and classical playing. A helpful contrast is Reginald Kell's "Quiet Music" of light contemporary classics, which were recorded around the same time. Unlike Shaw, Kell is in his comfort zone, and phrases boldly, with surety of style. Another comparison, from decades later, can be heard when Columbia recycled the arrangement of Ravel's Piece En Forme de Habanera for a 1986 album featuring a young Branford Marsalis on soprano saxophone. That album--Romances for Saxophone -- remains one of my favorite of its kind, and on it Marsalis is clearly more at ease with Ravel's lines and style.  

Having said that, one of the most interesting tracks on the album, for me, is a chamber orchestra version of Gershwin's "The Man I Love." Artie's solo here seems a bit self consciously angular and modern, perhaps an attempt to match the modernist theme of the album overall, but I find it intriguing and compelling -- a rare instance of Shaw reaching for something outside of his usual romantic lyricism on a recording. For those of us intrigued with Shaw's musical mind, these pieces, and moments, are invaluable.  

The rest of the CD (both before and after the numbers from Modern Music for Clarinet) is  dedicated some of the more rare recordings by Shaw's last Gramercy 5s, though I'm pretty sure all of these have also been released on Jasmine's box set of the complete Gramercy 5 recordings. 

The transfers themselves, done by John R.T. Davies, Hans Eekhoff, and Bill O'Donnell are very crisp, with little if any added reverb or extraneous sound. Unfortunately, they tend to sound a little shrill, too, and Shaw's clarinet distorts at times in ways that my old LP of Modern Music for Clarinet doesn't. Audiophiles and collectors will probably want to hunt down one of those rare LPs, but for those who have never heard Artie's classical musings before, this CD fills a real, interesting gap. This is highly recommended for anyone seeking to understand the breadth of Shaw's musical interests.


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