Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Bill Smith with the Dave Brubeck Quartet * The Riddle * Columbia (CL 1454) * 1960

Side A

Hey, Ho, Nobody at Home
The Twig
Blue Ground

Side B

Swingin' Round
Quiet Mood
The Riddle
Yet We Shall Be Merry

Bill Smith, clarinet
Dave Brubeck, piano
Gene Wright, bass
Joe Morello, drums

What constitutes successful long form jazz? The answer might mean anything from a suite of tunes related by extra-musical titles, to a highly integrated work that stretches for an hour or more, with interdependent thematic, harmonic, and metric schemes. Over the course of jazz history, the elusive concept of a self-consistent long form has proven an irresistible challenge, enticing musicians as varied as Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Eddie Sauter, Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, and many others. The results have sometimes been hailed as masterpieces, other times derided as hubris.

Initially the Big Bands took the decisive lead in producing meaningful long form jazz. Jimmy Mundy's 1937 arrangement of "Sing Sing Sing" for the Benny Goodman Band still stands as a model of success. In it, whether deliberately or not, Mundy gave solutions for two great quandaries: how to integrate solos into the form in a meaningful sense beyond mere variations, while hinting as to the type of thematic material needed to sustain the form.  Thematically, Mundy used two highly motivic tunes--interpolating "Christopher Columbus" into the original, to expand and sustain interest, while the solos functioned dynamically within the form.

The shift to more motivic melodic material was to become important, proving pivotal in allowing smaller groups to take the lead. Rather than sprawling melodies, demanding intricate pre-written arrangements to be expanded well, such as Ralph Burns's Summer Sequence (recorded by Woody Herman), small groups could create loosely understood head arrangements, using highly flexible motives as the building blocks for longer, integrated "movements." The beginnings of this are seen in Sonny Rollins's Freedom Suite. John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, which can be heard as a fusion of Dave Brubeck's "Calcutta Blues" with the Freedom Suite, showed further possibilities for this motivic style. Miles Davis's In a Silent Way shifted the emphasis again, demonstrating how groove itself could play a larger formal role. Two decades later found Wynton Marsalis experimenting with the suite style of Duke Ellington, refining and expanding it until In This House, On This Morning, which, while a septet piece, is symphonic in scope, with all thematic materials related to the opening. All of these ideas, modified through various developments in the jazz and classical avant garde, combined in Pat Metheny's The Way Up.

The current of history isn't a straight line, however--no brief timeline or "history of heroes" can adequately outline the true means by which an art as complex and multifaceted as jazz is developed. Sometimes there are highly significant advances made which are overlooked for decades. Bill Smith's The Riddle, the first of three studio albums devoted to his tunes, recorded in rapid succession with Dave Brubeck, represents just such a moment.

Bill Smith has lead a double life, musically, since the outset of his career. Straddling, with exceptional success, the worlds of classical and jazz music, he has substantially contributed to both artforms without gimmickry. His investigations of clarinet multiphonics in the 1950s, for example, have proven a permanent addition to our knowledge of the instrument, while his jazz has provided not just a path forward for clarinetists, but of formal compositional significance to all jazz musicians regardless of instrument.1960's The Riddle is exceptional in this regard.

Smith's goals with the album were clear from the outset:

My main interest in the album was to make 3/4s of an hour of well integrated jazz, unified by relating each tune to the English folk song, "Heigh, Ho, Anybody Home." [sic] In some of the tunes, the relationship is quite apparent as in "Hey, ho, Nobody at Home" or "Blue Ground, Swingin' 'Round" where it is used in the bass or where it is treated as a round. The relationship to the original in the others is more subtle (like a cousin whose only family resemblance is the eyes or a dimple or some other detail). "The Twig" is an out-growth of the last two measures of the original. "Offshoot" uses the tune in major considerably altered and expanded. "Quiet Mood" takes the second two-measure segment of the original and uses it as a point of departure. "The Riddle" [title tune] contains the original melodic shape but is played in shorted note values, while in "Yet We Shall Be Merry," the main tones of the original are lengthened and combined with a new thematic idea. [From the original album liner notes.]
The Riddle is poetically unique in both an aural and verbal sense. Aurally speaking, the original folk song "Hey Ho Nobody's Home" is usually sung as a round, with a melody bearing strong resemblance (call it a distant cousin) to the opening of "Sing Sing Sing". Whether Smith intended to highlight this connection to Benny (his boyhood hero), enjoyed it coincidentally, or couldn't have cared less is perhaps an added riddle. For me, this melodic similarity serves the overall aural poetic of jazz clarinet history, tying Smith to Goodman subtly. 
The lyrics to the original folk song, only partially referenced through the title of the last track--"Yet We Shall Be Merry"-- are poetically linked to the project as well:
Hey, Ho, Nobody at home,  
Meat nor drink nor money have I none,  
Yet we shall be merry, very merry,  
Hey, Ho, Nobody at home!

The lyric is a paradoxical knot, suggesting joy in either poverty or a bit of musical thievery, or both. This poetic is applied musically by Smith, taking this sparse communal round and making it the basis for a jazz album of original compositions.

Taken as a whole, Smith has given a blueprint for extended form jazz. The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (also known for pinching folk songs) quietly revolutionized the symphony in a similar manner. Taking his cue from modal English folk song and fantasia, he developed a symphonic style that eschewed the obvious development of sonata form, in favor of a new style wherein thematic cells were used in different ways, blossoming throughout works in expanding, original manner (the best example, perhaps, being his Pastoral Symphony of 1922). By 1959, when the individual tunes for The Riddle were being written, modal jazz was in vogue, yet successful long form usage of it was still to come. Just as Vaughan Williams's accomplishment has been often overlooked for it's subtlety, so has Smith's.

In the liner notes, Dave Brubeck added some thoughts:

The idea of unity in an LP should intrigue jazzmen, and Bill has given us one solution to the problem by relating all the themes. This is the first riddle of the album: to discover the thematic relationship of each of the tunes. The second riddle is to detect which parts of the music are written, and which are improvised. Almost everyone who has heard this album (including Joe [Morello] and Gene [Wright], our own rhythm section) has had difficulty separating the composed from the improvised sections. I take this as a real compliment, because good jazz composition sounds as though it were really improvised and good improvisation should sound as though it was as well thought out as a composition.
Since The Riddle, thematic integration has become common and essential elements in long form jazz--Trane, Miles, Wynton, and Pat's albums all bear witness to this--but few have matched the unity, and continuously fresh feeling still evident in this album from 1960. There remains much to be said about Smith's unique and important mastery of the clarinet, along with his jazz application of that mastery. Those will certainly be discussed more fully in future reviews.

For the present, though it's ridiculous to rate anything this great, this album obviously gets The Jazz Clarinet's top rating of Five Good Reeds. The most frustrating riddle left is why this album hasn't been reissued, and why jazz history has neglected it for so long. Whatever the irrelevant answers to that quandary, those of us who have finally stumbled upon it will undoubtedly say "Yet We Shall Be Merry"!

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.


Friday, May 24, 2013

CD Review: Artie Shaw and His Orchestra * Hollywood Palladium * 1941

It's been said of Lord Byron's Don Juan, "No matter where you are in it, you've already read the best part." Most jazz careers read similarly, and because of this, Artie Shaw's is an anomaly--no matter where you jump into his discography, so long as you're not listening to the very last recording sessions, there's usually something even better ahead. This is far more rare than it might initially seem. The idea of a constantly developing and evolving jazz artist is really more myth than fact. Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, for instance, never developed beyond styles that were fully formed by the 1920s, and Benny Goodman, when he tried, learned very quickly that to stray from his late-30s bread and butter was a bad idea. The list of artists who resist the trend of solidifying one basic style and re-asserting it in various guises is exceedingly short, and debatable.

Shaw is one who stands out. Up until 1954 he seemed to actually embody the myth of the continuously developing jazz musician. It's difficult to say which of his ensembles were the finest. For its day, the 1939 band might have been the best. Then again, the 1949 band, while largely ignored by fans and critics alike, can be argued for, in a musical sense. After the orchestras, there are the chamber groups, especially the last Gramercy 5. Few would assert, as most readily do regarding Goodman's 1937 band, that Shaw ever had a single ensemble or era that served as the epitome of his art. Yet even with all of this in mind, the orchestra of 1940, assembled by Shaw after his self-imposed Mexican exile, stands out in critical and popular memory. This is the group which recorded "Frenesi"--a tune Artie had heard in cantinas south of the border--and "Stardust", giving the latter a solo so impressive that this group has been known as the "Stardust Band" ever since.

The subject of this review features this band, as reproduced on a CD issued in 1997 by HEP records, also available as a download, entitled: Artie Shaw and His Orchestra: Hollywood Palladium 1941. The title is a bit misleading, suggesting a single gig or series of gigs at the Palladium. As the liner notes detail, though, most of the dates represented on the disc are from 1940, and were broadcast from NBC's Hollywood studio. This technicality doesn't really matter--the content is exceptional, and give us some of the best live renditions currently available for tunes like "Frenesi." Three live performances of it are here, all of them well performed by an expanded orchestra (including strings), with contrasting improvised solos by Shaw.

An abbreviated version of his "Concerto for Clarinet" is also presented, from an August 1940 broadcast. This version is particularly interesting for the comparison it suggests between the Concerto and Shaw's December 1938 performance of "The Blues" with Paul Whiteman at Carnegie Hall. In this live performance, as in the Whiteman concert performance, the klezmer roots of the piece are highlighted, setting it apart from both the movie and studio versions recorded months later. We'll never know how wide the stylistic scope of the Concerto's improvised sections--Shaw used it as a closing number for a tremendous number of gigs that went unrecorded. But this early version suggests the improvised sections had considerable flexibility and stylistic diversity--making the propensity of contemporary classical players to rigidly stick to the studio solo transcription all the more disappointing (along with the Mickey Mouse swing, prim conservatory tone, and pinched altissimo we're usually tortured with during such performances).

This disc is loaded with great and rare performances. Shaw's arrangement of "Sweet Sue (Just You)", his original composition "Prelude in C Sharp", and a live version of "Blues in the Night" featuring the vocal and trumpet of Oran 'Hot Lips' Page are highlights. Others are Shaw's brilliant solo on "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" and an extended chorus on a live version of "Dr. Livingstone, I Presume" while restating, almost identically, the klezmer-tinged coda from the studio version.

The audio quality is often less than perfect--it can give a "bubble" sound similar to that of old tape, and the fuzz is noticeable in spots. But the chance to hear the Shaw band in top form, with real gig situations impacting the performance, is great. One example: members of the crowd were rowdy enough to knock 'Lips' Page off the lyric to Blues in the Night at the Palladium gig on January 22, 1941. It's priceless to hear him sing:

Now, the rain is falling,
Hear the train are calling hoo-wee!
(my mama done told me)

....he-yeeeah der roomin' foolin'
....haaaallin' dullin' fooling hoo-wee!
(my mama done told me)

The band and Page soldier on perfectly, and the crowd eats it up.

As with so many others, Shaw was to disband this group almost as quickly as he'd assembled it; this time to enlist in the U.S. Navy, where he would serve in the South Pacific during World War II. Like the live recordings of the 1939 band from the Cafe Rouge, then, this disc is a document of a particular high point in Shaw's career as an orchestra leader, with some significant historical recordings that help us better understand his musical mind.

Three Good Reeds.

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.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

CD Review: Artie Shaw & His Gramercy 5 * The Complete Commercially Released Recordings * Jasmine Records * 2008

In September of 1940, Artie Shaw decided it was time to go the way of other bandleaders by adding a "band within a band" to his shows. Tommy Dorsey had done this as early as 1935 with his impishly named "Clambake Seven", as had Bob Crosby with his "Bobcats"--the group most responsible for presenting Irving Fazola to the world beyond New Orleans. These bands were designed to preserve and promote the older style of New Orleans polyphonic improvisation. Throughout the Swing Era different approaches to ensemble jazz had developed, most notably written arrangements and a different type of aural tradition known as "head charts"--motivic arrangements communally developed by bands such as the Fletcher Henderson and Basie bands, often left unnotated.

Benny Goodman had joined the trend for small groups in 1935, though in a more forward looking way, hiring Teddy Wilson to form a trio with himself and Gene Krupa. The group was expanded to a quartet with the addition of Lionel Hampton in 1936, producing music that was no longer a direct representation of New Orleans or Chicago, but something altogether different. One more major expansion of the group took place with the additions of Charlie Christian and various other players; the Goodman Sextet becoming Benny's small ensemble of choice from 1939 through the mid 1950s.

Considering all of these, which had gained considerable success over the years, Shaw's entry into the small group fray was quite late. When he finally entered, it was with a unique twist: this would be the group to pursue his old ideas concerning "chamber jazz"; ideas which had met with only sporadic success. In an era that prized "hot and loud" music, Shaw had never been at home. His ideal was cooler, more introspective, less bombastic. While the first cuts by his new group would feature some distinctly "hot" numbers, it would ultimately be remembered for it's reflective romanticism.

The first version of the band was comprised of Artie's clarinet along with Billy Butterfield on trumpet, Al Hendrickson on guitar, Jud DeNaut on bass, Nick Fatool on drums, and the novelty for which the first Gramercy 5 will always be know, Johnny Guarnieri on harpsichord.

 The first recording session of the Gramercy 5 took place on September 3, 1940, and was emblematic for the group's direction. There were two Shaw originals: "Special Delivery Stomp", derived from his earlier big band chart "Man from Mars", and a blues, "Summit Ridge Drive", named for Artie's Hollywood address at the time. Then there were two 'standards': "Keepin' Myself for You" and "Cross Your Heart."

"Summit Ridge Drive" became a major hit, selling over a million copies while taking advantage of the new craze for jukeboxes, and establishing credibility for the new band.

The next session took place three months later, on December 5, 1940. Once again there were two Shaw originals and two standards. "Dr. Livingstone, I Presume" was to contain Shaw's most explicit klezmer reference as a composer, while his sarcastic "When the Quail Come Back to San Quentin" paradoxically provided a canvas for many of his more baroque and inspired solo musings in future years. The standards recorded that day were to become almost synonymous with the group: "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" (a miniature gem of aural poetics) and "My Blue Heaven", the solo of which contains one of Shaw's earliest veiled references to Stravinsky's Petrushka, a piece he would return to more than once.  

The group continued to develop past its initial line-up, with each reiteration adding a layer or two of depth and innovation. Reassembled in 1945, Roy Eldridge was featured on trumpet, Dodo Marmarosa on piano instead of harpsichord, and Barney Kessel on guitar. This was the group that laid down a succession of Shaw's most biting original tunes--"The Sad Sack" (short for "sad sack of shit"--a term used to describe worthless soldiers in WWII), "The Grabtown Grapple" (which predated Charlie Parker's similarly named "Scrapple from the Apple"), "Scuttlebutt" (Artie's ode to arguments), "The Gentle Grifter" and "Mysterioso" among them. Sometimes brooding, always intense, these tunes brought a satirical edge to small group jazz similar to Mahler's moments of symphonic sarcasm or Shostakovich's bitter parodies. This continued throughout the '40s, with Shaw adding tunes like "Crumbum" and "Nothin' From Nothin'" to the catalogue.

Also like Mahler, while capable of being artistically critical and biting, Shaw was very rarely pessimistic in an ultimate sense. Over the course of his career he recorded many songs of disappointment and even bitterness, but only one ("Gloomy Sunday") strikes as despairing, self-pitying, and hopeless. A more typically Shavian message comes at the end of 1950's Gramercy 5 recording of "There Must Be Something Better Than Love"--the end of which dismisses the title sentiment with the final rhetorical questions:

But if there's something better than love who's got it?
Who wants it?
Do you?

Often emotionally confrontational, Shaw's love tunes from this period were certainly not facile.

The last group to be known as the Gramercy 5 was an entirely reconstituted group, both in sound and personnel. With Hank Jones on piano and Joe Roland on vibes, especially, the group took on a truly pellucid, ruminative, and romantic quality that has rarely if ever been matched, and was finally to realize Shaw's vision of clear, deep, chamber jazz. This is the group that laid down the now famous "Last Recordings" and "Final Sessions" of Artie Shaw, which were kept unreleased for several decades. They were the summit of Shaw's achievement and as complete a look at his career's importance as we were ever to get--a last will and testament before, like Prospero, he "broke his staff and drowned his book."

Immediately apparent to Shaw enthusiasts is the difference in tone from these recordings. Gone is so much of the bitterness, the biting sarcasm, and the frustration-laced wailings of so many of Shaw's earlier recordings. Peace, so difficult to convey in music, gentleness, and warmth are dominant in new ways in this music--it exudes a pure, fresh romanticism seemingly untainted by darker elements often associated with the term. After these sessions, Shaw packed up his clarinet and never recorded again.

This 5-disc set from Jasmine Records, entitled "Six Star Treats" is perhaps the most essential box of jazz clarinet recordings available. Not only does it bring together, for the first time, all of the studio recordings of the various groups to work under the Gramercy 5 name, but it provides alternate takes and many live performances, including some tunes the group never recorded in the studio.

Towards the end of disc one, for instance, there are clips from a Bing Crosby broadcast featuring the Gramercy 5 performing Gershwin's "I Was Doing Alright" and Rodgers & Hart's "You Took Advantage of Me", both of which are given masterful interpretation and neither of which was recorded in studio. There are also some rare alternate, shorter takes released as singles of the last Gramercy 5. "Besame Mucho", "Tenderly", and "Stop and Go Mambo" are each presented in this alternate form, giving a rare and brief glimpse into the "head arrangement" process that Shaw had used throughout the life of the ensemble.

The transfers of these recordings are consistently good, though collectors will also want to own other versions. The RCA Victor "Complete" disc (which is nowhere near complete, but contains only the studio recordings from 1940-45)  has exceptionally good sound, and the original issues of the "Last Recordings" have not only good sound quality, but important interview liner notes with Shaw.

But as it stands, this 5-disc set is the very best out there for Artie Shaw and His Gramercy 5. It is the most comprehensive box of Shaw's most important recordings. It couldn't be more essential. Five Good Reeds indeed.

Monday, May 20, 2013

CD Review: Artie Shaw 10-Disc Box * "Begin the Beguine" * Membran * 2005

This 10-disc set issued by Membran is probably the most affordable and comprehensive survey of Artie Shaw's studio recordings from 1936 through 1945. While a considerable number of sessions from the late 1930s are missing (all the studio recordings made by "Artie Shaw & His Rhythm Makers" are absent), this box collects nearly all the groups recorded as Artie Shaw & His Orchestra and Artie Shaw & His Gramercy 5 made through 1945.

The packaging and presentation are minimal: ten cardboard sleeves inhabit a wallet-style glossy box. Shaw's dates are given, correctly, on the side and back of the box as 1910-2004, while on the front cover they are listed as 1909-2004. Two out of three ain't bad, especially considering the amount of great music inside. The cardboard sleeves give the names of tunes and durations only--no historical data at all. For those who care to do a little research, though, this set is very admirably laid out in precise chronological order, beginning with the June 11, 1936 session which produced "The Japanese Sandman" and ending nearly a decade later with the 1945 sessions that produced "September Song", "Little Jazz" featuring Roy Eldridge, Eddie Sauter's masterful arrangement of "Summertime" and others. In between are more than 200 of arguably the most consistently polished and inspired studio recordings made by a Big Band. Some bands matched Shaw's output for energy (Basie's band was unbeatable in that regard, in studio or out), and others matched his precision (Goodman's comes immediately to mind), but Shaw seems to have innately understood the need to capture as close to definitive versions as possible on record. He was later haunted by this, as fans would demand exact reproductions of studio recordings on the bandstand, an annoyance that he found artistically stifling. But the verve and clarity of the studio recordings remain deeply satisfying in ways that others, such as the Goodman band's studio recordings from the 1930s, rarely matched.

Compilation albums of "greatest hits" are good for beginners, but those who would truly understand the work of a great artist need to experience their works in context. Just as it helps to have a roughly chronological exposition of Shakespeare's plays, so it helps to hear Shaw's works in order. To realize that "Begin the Beguine" doesn't exist in a vacuum, but was recorded at a single session in New York on July 24, 1938 which also included "Indian Love Call", "Comin' On", "Back Bay Shuffle", "Any Old Time", and "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me" helps us understand not only the brilliance of the session, but why Artie might have been both surprised and frustrated at the frenzy surrounding the obscure Cole Porter tune that was to dominate his gigs from then on. Three of the tunes recorded at that session were his own songs ("Comin' On", "Back Bay Shuffle", and "Any Old Time", the one recording we have of Billie Holiday with Shaw's band). Because of this, it's doubtful he expected the obscure Porter number to be the focal point.

Beyond this, there are numbers found here that reveal Shaw's scope, depth, and subtlety not available on the average compilation disc, which are usually assembled on the basis of sales and immediate popularity. Among the gems any real Shaw fan will want to hear are MacDowell's "A Deserted Farm", Ellington's "Pyramid", Shaw's own "Prelude in C Major", and the incomparable "Dusk (Evensong)" by Paul Jordan. Many of these suggest a direction that jazz and American popular music never took--a jazz orchestral concept that might have made the distinctions between "sweet", "latin", "third stream" and other styles obsolete, had Shaw wanted or been able to continue them farther. In many ways, several of these sides represent not only a precursor to the work of Gil Evans, but an artistic concept with untold scope. The eclecticism is unpretentious, deriving from a deeper interaction with musical sources--never as a gimmick with one "style" grafted onto another. Unlike many lesser artists, Shaw was never a pasticheur: his inspirations weren't manipulated, but fused together, emerging as a unified whole.

This set of recordings is essential for any jazz clarinetist--they are as foundational to our art as Beethoven's symphonies were to later orchestral composers. To hear how Shaw developed clarinet approach and language from his relatively early efforts carving out double C's for "Blue Skies" on May 18, 1937, to his three brilliant solos for "Blues in the Night" on September 2, 1941, to his modal wailings on multiple versions of "Nightmare" and the subtle statements of melodic fragments on  "A Deserted Farm"--so simple, yet so charged with tonal shadings and meaning--the serious jazz clarinetist cannot afford to ignore any of these. This set is probably the best and most economical way to obtain all of them.

Could the transfers be better? Sure. Would it be nice to have a booklet with some dates and personnel? Absolutely. My recommendation is for the serious listener to purchase Vladimir Simosko's definitive Artie Shaw: A Musical Biography and Discography to accompany this and other sets.

This box receives The Jazz Clarinet's top rating of Five Good Reeds, not because there aren't less comprehensive sets with more desirable amenities, but because the transfers are strong, the content essential, and the presentation of tunes in chronological order.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Mouthpiece Review: "Circle BG" The Benny Goodman Signature Model by Selmer (c. 1955)

Benny Goodman Model Mouthpiece by Selmer (c.1955)

The newest addition to The Jazz Clarinet's ever expanding mouthpiece museum is a vintage Benny Goodman Model by Selmer. This piece was a particular treat for me to test drive, as my main horn is a 1955 Selmer Centered Tone, and the BG Signature (or "Circle BG" as it is also known) was undoubtedly intended to match such a clarinet.

There are various internet anecdotes regarding Benny's mouthpieces, some of them purportedly first hand accounts of testing those housed at Yale. As of this writing, I have neither seen nor played those, but the usual story is that they are rather non-descript, very open pieces that play with extremely soft reeds (Vandoren 1.5 is usually mentioned). There are many difficulties with such accounts--or with any mouthpiece reviews, for that matter, including this one. The individual playing the equipment is a profound and decisive factor concerning the 'proper' reed setup, for instance. But when faced with stories of Benny's equipment, many other questions arise, not least of which being when Benny played the mouthpiece in question. Was it the height of his jazz career from 1935-45? Was it during his switch to a double-lip embouchure under the influence of Reginald Kell in the 1950s? Or was it from his long retirement, when he divided his time between concerto performances and reunion shows? Age, repertoire, and venues all have their potential influence.

[Update as of 3/25/14: I recently read another report about Benny's mouthpieces, albeit another internet anecdote suggesting that the late Ralph Morgan measured Benny's facing and found it medium-close. Based on my own experience, I tend to agree with this].  

Beyond these historical questions, the subject of this review wasn't from Benny's equipment bag, but a mouthpiece marketed by Selmer for the general public. As such it was probably not played by Goodman, but designed to give the average clarinetist a mouthpiece that might replicate, in some sense, the Goodman sound.

One of my goals for The Jazz Clarinet is to begin measuring all of the gear presented here and to update these reviews. But even without exact measurements, some unique properties of this piece are obvious on sight. This is now the longest facing of any French mouthpiece in my collection. It's even longer than many of the German pieces I own; closest to a 1951 Fritz Wurlitzer and the newer Vandoren Deutsche models. Also, like the German pieces, the facing is quite close--considerably closer than a Selmer C85 105, and the bore is considerably wider.

Playing it, I got a real jump and boom. This thing is a real bazooka; probably the loudest piece I own. Despite my penchant for medium close mouthpieces, the facing of this was a bit constraining for me, and if I ever intended to use it regularly, I'd have to have it opened up. The altissimo was by far the nicest of the registers, followed by the clarion. Both of these yielded a balanced, round, full sound without the annoying buzz that many clarinet mouthpieces give when pushed. The lower I got, though, the thinner the sound, with the chalumeau being the most challenging. Glissandi, articulation and overall flexibility were very good, considering the facing, but once again it would have to be altered to suit my needs.

I found that taking less mouthpiece in the mouth was helpful, but less comfortable for me personally. In retrospect, this might have been part of the design. I once knew student of Gino Cioffi who insisted on playing with only the very tip of the mouthpiece, and blowing through the horn like a pea-shooter. This was never an approach I liked, but the era in which these mouthpieces were made was also the golden age of Selmer in Cioffi's Boston Symphony section. Perhaps this mouthpiece was designed with that sort of classical pedagogy in mind.  

Overall, this is a fascinating mouthpiece, with real potential for jazz.

[Update 3/25/14: I had this mouthpiece refaced by Bradford Behn several moths ago, and it has become my number one mouthpiece for gigs--without a 'classical' embouchure.] 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Ben Goldberg's list on A Blog Supreme

Last week, NPR's A Blog Supreme published an informative write up by current jazz clarinet man-in-the-trenches Ben Goldberg, entitled 'A Strict Taskmaster': 5 Ways To Play The Jazz Clarinet.'

Ben is one of the voices substantially contributing to the current jazz clarinet renaissance, and his write up, while brief, is both shrewd and wide ranging. Of particular importance is his suggestion that the jazz clarinet is a relatively untapped jazz resource; that "we are still at the beginning of working out its many wonderful possibilities."

I encourage reader of The Jazz Clarinet to check out his post here. There are some great and often overlooked recordings on his list which might certainly function as both an inspiration and a catalyst to others interested in jazz clarinet.

Personally, the inclusion of Sidney Bechet's "Blue Horizon" was gratifying. I have long argued that the clarinet is unsurpassed as a blues instrument, and Goldberg's inclusion of this seminal recording lends further depth to our historical understanding of the instrument's expressive capabilities.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Benny Goodman * Let's Dance Broadcasts * 1935

Somewhere in the history of jazz, there was a major shift that is nearly impossible to pinpoint, and so far as I can tell, few historians have been concerned to notice or discuss. The shift is this: between classic 1920s jazz and the mid-1930s, bands went from a very hot style, focusing on smaller metrical units, expressed in a generally extroverted manner, to a broader rhythmic approach, filled with greater use of phrasing dynamics and sense of shape. Instead of going from syncopated beat to syncopated beat, players began understanding and expressing longer flowing phrases, with syncopation playing a part in larger units of musical thought, rather than being self-contained destinations. This wasn't limited to solos--in fact, the major shift I'm talking about occurred when entire bands began to feel and implement these broader patterns. Phrases could be built, sequences shaped, and sections could be moved either in tandem or against one another deliberately--not merely boiling soloists shouting over a hot rhythm section.

Some historians have given a tremendous, even mythic, amount of credit to Bix Beiderbecke in the creation of a cooler, more "objectified" style, but the specific aspect of playing I'm outlining here never made it into Bix's ensembles. There are hints of it in Joe Haymes's recordings as early as 1932, but the first performances I hear of a full expression of the new, more nuanced approach to jazz phrasing are Benny Goodman's 1935 "Let's Dance" Broadcasts. Significantly, both the Haymes band of the early '30s and Goodman's new orchestra shared a lead trumpet player: Pee Wee Erwin.

The importance of Goodman's lead trumpet is a recurring theme on The Jazz Clarinet, including names like Bunny Berigan, Harry James, Ziggy Elman, and Cootie Williams. But before all of them was Pee Wee Erwin. Erwin didn't go on to establish his name as a fire breathing trumpet monster: for some reason he never attained the fame of his successors. But while still a teenager his recordings with Joe Haymes evince a uniquely mature musician--a trumpeter of confident, round, golden and unforced sound. The manner in which he could throw off phrases--shaping them dynamically without losing either their drive or their relaxed character--might well have set the template for every Goodman section thereafter. That he was already playing this way with Haymes suggests it was something he brought to the band, as opposed to having been influenced by Goodman.

A lead trumpet player can't change the rhythmic concept of an entire orchestra, though. Proof of this is found in countless Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke recordings, where the rhythm sections seem unable to comprehend the advances of their soloists. Goodman's 1935 band, however, had a drummer with an unprecedented talent for form. Gene Krupa's drumming, far from the caricature he is often remembered as, was uniquely capable of subtle grooves, emphases, and mood shifts. Unlike many of his era, Krupa was actually a highly intellectual musician; a deep thinker regarding form. All of these traits show in the 1935 recordings. The interplay between Erwin, Krupa, and the former violinist turned saxophonist, Hymie Schertzer, leading their respective sections, was probably unprecedented for independence of feel, subtlty, and nuance.

This band was Goodman's concept, and however many charts he might have bought from Fletcher Henderson or others, no band had sounded like it before--it demonstrated that American jazz could remain true to itself while becoming as nuanced-- in its own way --as European concert music. Other orchestras, including Paul Whiteman and Casa Loma, had success in sweet music and occasional jazz, but Goodman's was an uncompromising jazz band. It's of little surprise then, that Goodman's band became the first to play an all jazz concert at Carnegie Hall only three years after his Let's Dance engagement. While only 25 years old, Goodman was already a fully formed soloist, with his distinctive tonal depth and uniquely commanding presence, so rarely ever achieved on a clarinet.

These broadcasts were responsible for creating a large West Coast audience for Goodman (because of the timezone difference, they came on the air earlier out west, giving the band a prime time audience). The 1935 Goodman band is widely credited for starting the craze that made the "Swing Era", coincidentally the only era of our history when jazz was also the nation's popular music. The generation that came of age during that era has sometimes been called "The Greatest Generation"-- seemingly unique in its capacity for self-sacrifice, giving, large families in the midst of modernism, community building, and civil rights leadership. While music can't be credited as the source these things, who is to say that this intelligent, creative, emotionally honest and healthy music didn't play a significant cultural part?

Whatever the unique combination of cause and effect, Benny Goodman's unique ensemble was at the heart of the era, and the 1935 Let's Dance Broadcasts arguably the most important of them all. We are fortunate that some excellent transfers still exists of them.       

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Lady Be Good * Bird Calls * Artie Shaw with Count Basie * September 25, 1945

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 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.